This article, abridged from the book Congregation and Community, by Nancy Tatom Ammerman et al., gives the anatomy of a church “resurrection.” Down to thirty-five voting members in 1982, Good Shepherd Lutheran in Oak Park, Illinois, now flourishes with a congregation of 300. How was this change accomplished? In Trust follows up on Ammerman’s snapshot, taken in 1992, by interviewing Pastor Jack Finney, chief architect of the change. His view of the journey offers a different perspective. What resources did Finney bring to the task? Where is the church now? How did it get there? What insights does Finney’s story provide for seminary education?

The numbered notes amplify the Ammerman article with information supplied by Finney.

Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Oak Park, Illinois, is a resource-rich congregation, but that was not always the case. In 1981 fewer than fifty members were available to consider whether they should keep the doors open. That vote to stay open, however, was a turning point in the congregation’s history. In 1984, when the denominational office realized that the congregation was serious about wanting to stay alive and to grow, it sent Jack Finney to become its pastor, designated Good Shepherd a “mission redevelopment congregation,” and provided modest financial support for the next five years.

Current members of Good Shepherd are mostly well-paid professionals. Levels of giving are steadily on the rise. Still, more than half the “giving units” contributed less than fifty dollars a month in 1991. While the members seem very well off, their obligations are high as well. This congregation feels grateful to comfortably support its staff and program and give consistently to various benevolent causes. After years of growth, the budget is reaching a plateau.

Almost three-quarters of the members live within a ten-minute drive from the church, as they did in earlier decades. In 1992 renovations made the building more hospitable to the current and potential constituency of Good Shepherd.

The human resources the church has accumulated are impressive. Over half the members have some education beyond college. When the congregation needs to do strategic planning or provide services, when it wants to make a difference on a community issue, it has the skills and connections of its members on which to draw.

Jack Finney, pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church.

Photograph by
Steve Gadomsky

What resources enabled Good Shepherd to make the transition from its old identity to the new? One has to begin with the thirty-five or so people who voted to keep the place open. Their determination, their ability to convince the denomination to support them, and finally their willingness to become a part of the new Good Shepherd have made the change possible.

The single most critical resource, however, the one that has made the difference between the old Good Shepherd and the new, is its pastor. The money the denomination contributed in the early days made a difference, but it was nowhere near as important as the denomination’s vote of confidence in connecting the church with Jack Finney. It is not that Finney did all the work—although in the early days he did a great deal. It is that he had the skills to identify the congregation’s potential constituency and both the energy and determination to seek out and convince that constituency that Good Shepherd could be a spiritual home for them and their children.

Finney has an uncanny ability to make connections—to see a need and imagine who and what could meet that need. In this case, he discerned the most prevalent spiritual needs in this affluent, progressive suburb, and he worked with his recruits to create a church that would meet those needs. He is also well connected with the denomination and with training and consultation resources on which he can call for advice and new ideas. When asked about the strengths of the church, people in the congregation still point to his ability to create a network of care, to lead them in making decisions, and to preach in a way that meets their needs.

Structures of Authority
A striking thing about Good Shepherd is the way they do what they do. This is a very participatory place. When the idea of renovating the building was broached, it went through nearly a year of discussion and modification before the final plans were made. During that time, small groups talked face-to-face about what they most wanted in a renovated facility and what they most wanted to save. They talked about finances and argued over budget. The committee in charge listened and modified its proposals accordingly. Only as near consensus emerged was a final decision made. 

How Good Shepherd Lutheran Church's Budget Grew

1984 Spending 
1998 Spending

Part of the pastor’s ability to make connections and meet needs rests in his ability to listen—and to help others listen. He is aided in this process by the social-class position of his parishioners, whose education and professional experience have amply prepared them for talking, deliberating, planning, visioning, and otherwise arriving at participatory decisions.

The congregation also participates in the initiation of business. Not every new idea comes from the pastor. Finney notes that Good Shepherd practices the priesthood of all believers, and encourages involvement by taking members’ suggestions seriously.

Effective communication further encourages involvement. Each Sunday’s announcement period is a lively exchange of information. A variety of lay people make their way to the lectern to remind others of upcoming events, work that needs to be done, causes that need their support. They can also write something for the newsletter. Communication also happens in the dashing about after Sunday services and in the computerlike memory (his metaphor) of Jack Finney. Now that the congregation has grown, that task has become more formidable. Both its size and its entrepreneurial quality mean multiple projects, myriad committees, and a batch of good ideas percolating at any given time. Each interest group is likely to work largely in isolation from others in the church, pursuing the project or cause that has captured its passion.

Prospective members meet with Pastor Finney and two councilmembers.

Photograph by
Steve Gadomsky

The one formal place for these diverse interests to come together is the church council. It is composed of thirteen people, including chairs of nine standing committees, and meets once a month to discuss plans, give reports, air new ideas. The elected president of the congregation presides, and the pastor reports like everyone else. Council members and committee chairs are elected by the membership each year. While there is a nominating committee (and the pastor certainly makes suggestions), it is also possible for members to volunteer to serve in various capacities as their skills and interests allow.

While the congregation’s internal structure is highly participatory, its external ties lie with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, a denomination created by merger in 1988 whose actual power over the congregation’s affairs is relatively slight. About 60 percent of the congregation grew up Lutheran, while the rest have switched from some other denomination (a percentage close to the national average). Most of the switchers come from other mainline traditions, rather than from evangelical, Pentecostal, or non-Protestant groups. With a strong contingent of lifelong Lutherans and a group of members who work for the denomination, there is a clear Lutheran presence here. When the congregation needs a pastor, the denomination helps make the connection and must ultimately approve the placement. In the case of Good Shepherd, that consultation and ratification proved quite benevolent. In day-to-day affairs, the denomination is as present as the congregation chooses to make it. At Good Shepherd, there are frequent phone calls, requests, and suggestions. The denomination is seen by the pastor (and most of the congregation) as a resource more than as a hindrance.

The culture of the Good Shepherd congregation is heavily influenced by the concerns of its new baby-boomer members. While many have spent time in their young adulthood away from religious participation, they see life as a spiritual journey of which this congregation is now a part. 

Mother’s Day sermon: children, like plants, need nurturing care.

Photograph by
Steve Gadomsky

When we asked Good Shepherd members what gives them this sense of spiritual connection, they mentioned Sunday morning and the small groups the church sponsors. Most say they like the liturgy, but also the variety from Sunday to Sunday. The “alternative liturgy” notebooks offer a change from the routine, balancing tradition and innovation. Many also enjoy the good music and fine congregational singing. One member said that Pastor Finney has “somehow fostered a sense of intimacy in the church.” That intimacy is especially apparent in his sermons. They often strike deeply resonant chords for these seekers. The pastor takes them along on his journey, talks about things that bring him great pain or joy, shares his struggles and doubts along with the things about which he is sure. He creates a sense of intimacy with his hearers, and in that intimate space they all sense that they encounter God.

Intimate spaces are also created in the covenant groups the congregation fosters, groups of eight to twelve persons who gather—usually weekly—in someone’s home for conversation about issues that concern them. The groups set their own agendas and design their own ways of operating. Leadership usually rotates. Those in the group make a “covenant” with each other about their commitment to participation, and the level of sharing is often quite deep. Other small groups that meet on a more informal basis, with less commitment and permanence than the covenant groups, offer a similar opportunity for support and spiritual exploration. At any given time, nearly a dozen such groups may be operating. The spiritual advice given in these groups has far-reaching implications for the very “public” lives of the members in the economy and in the larger community.

Some of what makes these small groups work spills over even into the business of the church. Jack Finney never begins a meeting without asking people to “check in.” Members routinely share with each other the significant events of their days and weeks before addressing the business of a committee or council meeting. Human connection, caring for one another, is central to what makes Good Shepherd thrive.

Maintaining those bonds takes a little more intentionality these days. For the first few years of the congregation’s rebirth, the excitement and intimacy were sustained in part by the common mission of reestablishing the congregation and in part by the relative smallness of the group. Now there are too many people for the pastor to remain such a central figure.4

Few of the new members came because they were invited by a friend or because extended family members already belonged. Instead, they looked in the Yellow Pages, saw the signs in the neighborhood, called to find out about services, and simply visited to see if they would like it. Finney estimates that the church hosts more than 300 visitors each year. If a person visits twice, they get an invitation to a brunch at Finney’s home and from there an invitation to explore church membership. Once people have made the step in Good Shepherd’s direction, they are welcomed warmly and systematically urged toward membership.

The community they join is not only a place of worship and a place for intimate fellowship, but a place that tries to make a difference in the world. It aims toward spending at least a tithe of its budget on causes outside the congregation. It provides financial support for a variety of ministries, from health and hunger to justice and ecology, in Chicago and beyond, through the denomination and through independent agencies.

Congregation member Janie Swenson assists Pastor Finney.

Photograph by
Steve Gadomsky

The renovation project highlighted much of what has changed at Good Shepherd, much of what has stayed the same, and the tension between the two. Nowhere was that more visible than in disagreements about what to do with the founders’ cross, which has the names of the founding members engraved on flames covering the arms of the cross. Younger members, who had no particular attachment to it, were willing to see it disappear in the renovation of the altar area. Older members saw this attitude as a repudiation of them and of the church’s past. When the remodeled altar area was complete, the cross was still there—more prominent than before. While this congregation may have been “reborn,” a symbol of its old identity remains visible.

Good Shepherd has now successfully reconnected with the changed community, reestablishing the reciprocal relationship between community and congregation and building a participatory style and sense of community that fit the folk who today call Oak Park home. A spiritual home for people already very involved in work and community betterment, Good Shepherd enables them to put their lives in perspective and share their journeys with others who care.

Sunday Morning at Good Shepherd Lutheran 

Founded around the turn of the century, Good Shepherd has always been in its present location, on a large corner lot in a quiet residential neighborhood in south Oak Park. Long-term members speak of family-like attachments to people in the congregation reaching back over a lifetime; they note how hard it is to separate their memories of Good Shepherd from the fabric of their everyday lives of working, making friends, and raising a family.

Not many long-term members remain, however. The community’s changes in the 1960s and 1970s took a toll on Good Shepherd, and it lost about half its members to white flight.

The key to surviving, according to Pastor Jack Finney, who came to the church in 1984, is to put down roots in the local community. Census data showed that the most common household type in south Oak Park was the two-parent couple with children. Nationally, this type of family was returning to the Church in droves, looking for spiritual nurture for the adults and a Christian education for the children. Jack Finney advertised, and he went out visiting.1 People started to come in. One spring there were six people in the choir, and in the fall there were twenty-five.

Today, on a typical Sunday, 185 people come to Good Shepherd, out of just under 400 baptized members.2Most of the congregation is white, although one may see four or five African American adults and nine or ten African American or Hispanic children. There are many young children in the congregation, but few teenagers. From September to May, people begin to arrive around nine o’clock for children’s classes and the Adult Forum. A little before 10:30 the classes break up, and people go into the sanctuary for the service.

The format of the Sunday service varies. The Lutheran Book of Worship is used quite frequently, but red binders contain alternative forms of the liturgy. These are usually more informal, with contemporary (gender-inclusive) language and folk melodies. After the opening prayers and scripture, there is a children’s lesson, called a mini-meditation. The pastor tries to include the children in some activity—often without great cooperation, but always with good humor.

The sermon lasts perhaps ten minutes. The pastor stands front and center, often on the floor in front of the altar rail, not in the pulpit. Sometimes he focuses on a social issue, but more often he speaks of the dilemmas of personal life and relationships, with an emphasis on healing and hope. He is not particularly demonstrative, but most of his sermons radiate an intensity to which people respond quite positively.

During one of the hymns, ushers pass down the aisle and collect the “Yes” sheets that have been placed in the bulletins. On them people record their attendance, sign up for an upcoming event or activity, and write prayer requests. During the Prayers of the People the liturgist and pastor pray for these requests, providing an immediacy of communication about the congregation’s needs.

In what is becoming a Lutheran tradition, there is also communion every Sunday, followed by a hymn and closing announcements. Then the pastor strides out, saying, “Go in peace, serve the Lord,” and the congregation replies, “Thanks be to God.” For at least fifteen minutes after the service people are chasing each other down, making connections and plans for the coming week’s activities. Most will not return to the church building until the next Sunday.

Jack Finney calls Good Shepherd a resurrection congregation, and the members agree. Starting from the vote to stay open, the congregation has grown 300 percent since 1984. It is also a qualitatively different congregation than before the vote. The current mission statement defines the congregation’s core purposes in five paragraphs: openness to all people, dynamic corporate worship, ministry to the poor, spiritual nurture of members, member commitment of time and money. The church has developed a letterhead slogan that encapsulates its mission: “Embracing the diversity of God’s creation and celebrating our oneness in Christ.”

While growth and change have not been totally without tension between old and new members, the community has successfully weathered the generational transfer of leadership and the change in the culture of the congregation, largely by relying on a very open decision-making process. It also helped that many of the people most opposed to change left earlier on. Undertaking a $500,000 building renovation3 in 1992 signaled an end to Good Shepherd’s “resurrection” process and the beginning of a new stage of established prosperity.

—Penny Edgell Becker, in Congregation and Community,
by Nancy Tatom Ammerman et al.

Following the Path of Devotion 
by Diane D. Amussen

The Reverend Jack Finney is a man who dreams dreams. He listens to them, shares them, and, like the biblical Josephs, is guided by them.

Slightly more than three years ago, Finney was considering taking a two-year home-study course at the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation in Washington, D.C. At the same time a church member’s husband, who came to church once a year on Maundy Thursday, was dying of leukemia. Finney told the man he would be “willing to journey with him.” Finney’s offer was accepted. When the man died, his wife told Finney she wanted him to do the funeral service at Good Shepherd—and include all the people who had journeyed with her husband—besides Finney, a psychologist, a yogi priest, and a shaman. How was he to put it together? That night he dreamed about a downtown Chicago Presbyterian church that was in fact being renovated, and saw that its courtyard was being dug up. On waking, he realized that the wife had spent all her time in church and that the husband had spent his in the garden, but the two had to be together. His funeral sermon included the dream, his interpretation of the need to put both “garden” and church together. He also announced that, with two days to go, he was sending in his application to Shalem. “The wind of the Spirit caught me up,” he said.

The period since 1984, when Finney became Good Shepherd’s pastor, has been one of growth and change for him and the parish. Led by the Spirit, he said, they are on a spiritual journey together. “Once I got on this journey,” he added, “it’s been so rich, it’s turned my life inside out.”

Phases of Change
Finney divides the time since he arrived into “chapters” of about five years each, all of which are continuous and overlap slightly with each other. The first chapter was the period of rebuilding; the second, the time of moving from pastor-centered to program-centered leadership; the third placed an emphasis on health, healing, and wholeness that then expanded and deepened into the present “spirituality” phase.

Changes such as these happen in other churches, but the same pastor rarely stays. Ministers who turn churches around, as Finney did, usually specialize, staying for five years and then moving on to the next church. Conventional wisdom may even dictate their leaving. “It’s about letting go,” Finney explained, “and that’s a spiritual issue—not having to be in charge, which is the patriarchal way.” His own style is more “feminine,” he added, and our culture needs this balance.

“Everything we do in this church,” Finney noted, “is organic, an unfolding, so when something new comes, it’s ‘Oh yeah, that’s not so new.’ It’s a deepening.”

When he sensed the call to health and healing, he wondered if he should move on. At a workshop he met the head of chaplaincy at Rush Presbyterian Hospital, Larry Burton, and told him what he wanted to do. Burton’s response was, “You can do that at your own church. You can be a pioneer.”

The last sentence hooked Finney. He and the congregation developed a series of “health breaks,” with special healing services and speakers on health, nutrition, massage, and other subjects. At the end of each talk, the group would adjourn to the sanctuary, where massage chairs had been set up. Every person had a head and neck massage in the sanctuary before they left. This use of the sanctuary, Finney said, was a symbol of healing the split between the body and spirit that the church has done so much to cause. Gradually the talks tapered off, as most of the interested members of the congregation had attended. The healing services were integrated into the Sunday liturgy on a quarterly basis.

Meanwhile Finney’s emphasis on spirituality began to evolve out of the healing ministry. He had created a “health cabinet,” shepherds to the sick, who provided any services needed, and this freed him to be “just the pastor,” with responsibility for meeting spiritual needs only.

Life-Changing Courses
Finney has been on an intentional journey for twenty-three years. It began ten years into his ministry. He had become the pastor of a church with 1,500 members. In our culture, the bigger the church, the more successful the pastor is considered, and this was important to him. But if this was so good, why was he always tired? In this large blue-collar church, he did all the leadership and administrative tasks. Finally, at a three-day workshop with Midwest Career Center, he learned why he was in the wrong place: his inclinations were really creative and relational rather than administrative. The leader recommended a congregation of 300 members.

Burned out and disillusioned after a year, he attended a week-long conference sponsored by the Institute for Advanced Pastoral Studies (now the Ecumenical Theological Seminary) in Detroit on being a senior pastor. He was surprised to learn that half the time was to be spent on the pastor’s self-care and spiritual life. This spiritual component, introduced by Jack Biersdorf, whose focus is on how prayer shapes ministry, was a major turning point in Finney’s ministry. Through it he found his path and his twenty-three year journey began. Here he learned that God still speaks through dreams, something he had been taught happened only in the biblical era. After this he began writing down his dreams and working with them.

“At the Senior Pastor Conference and in all that has followed, I began intentionally on the path of devotion—another way of knowing. In retrospect,” he added, “I realize that at the seminary I missed the dance between the theological and traditional and the student’s personal experience and journey of God. It’s about experience. People want to experience God, not just know about God.” What are future pastors to make of people who are exploring this spiritual life? he wondered. Usually they offer some kind of “theological truism,” but it’s important to learn to dialogue. “We have failed those people who have to turn to the East and New Age for spirituality,” he noted. “That has to be recovered—it’s in the tradition.”

Seminaries can’t do everything, he continued. But there was no course on prayer at his seminary, Lutheran School of Theology at Maywood (now part of Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago), where he received his Bachelor of Divinity degree. “Seminary courses were not so much about being a minister as about doing ministry. Students need to be opened to what it means to live by grace, not works, to discern one’s gifts and cultivate the interior life. The senior pastor conference began a deepening of my being as a pastor. I began discovering my true Self, living more by grace, letting go, inner authority, discernment, self-care. My hope is that there is room in a seminary to honor people who are on the path of knowledge as well as the path of devotion, that there is a balance between human doing and human being.”

Called to Spirituality
Several years ago people began to come to Finney for spiritual direction. At the Shalem Institute, that’s considered a sign that God is calling you. Today about twelve are under his guidance.

Before Finney went to his first Shalem seminar (there were two such gatherings; the rest of the work was done at home), everyone advised him that a spiritual ministry such as the one he envisioned could not be done within a traditional church framework. In his absence the parish council was polled. Its members said he would leave (metaphorically) if they let him set up a “Center for Spiritual Growth”—and he would leave (literally) if they didn’t.

Finney learned what the council thought when he returned, “very centered,” from Shalem. Once again he had a dream. In it an older woman had just purchased a restaurant in an old brownstone. She managed to run the restaurant successfully by serving just one dish each night—there was no menu. The dream told Finney that it was all one—the primary mission of the parish was to be a center to deepen the faith of the church members as well as those who had given up on organized religion.

The ministry and the church are flourishing, filled with excitement. The ministry is run out of Finney’s prayer life. He continues to test his insights within the parish and to practice the spiritual discipline of letting go.

“My idea of reincarnation is to live all these lives in this lifetime,” he said. “You can die and be reborn a number of times.” His life at Good Shepherd Lutheran is the best example.

Milestones in Jack Finney’s Journey

1965 —Ordination and first call.

1975—Senior Pastor Conference, Institute for Advanced Pastoral Studies (now Ecumenical Theological Seminary), Detroit.

1976—Christian Laity of Chicago: Workshop with Morton Kelsey.

1976-82—Courses at the Institute for Advanced Pastoral Studies: Marriage Enrichment; Dreams—Listening to God; Wholistic Health and Healing; Deepening Prayer.

1976-83—Courses at Cenacle Retreat House: Progoff Journal, Enneagram, Focusing, Christian Zen, Body Prayer.

1978—Creation Centered Spirituality—Matthew Fox.

1980-82—Alban Institute: Myers-Briggs Type Indicator Training; Clergy Self-Care.

1984—Yokefellow Institute, Lyle Schaller: Leadership and Ministry (activating the passive church).

1985-86—Fuller Seminary, National Conference for Small Group Ministry: Breaking the 200 Barrier (Church Growth).

1990—Alban Institute: Sizing of Congregations.

1991—Plowshares Institute: India and Social Change.

1992—National Mind-Body Medicine Conference, Hilton Head, NC.

Ecumenical Theological Seminary: Healing Prayer Workshop.

1993—Center for Development in Ministry, Mundelein, IL: John Shea, Spirituality and Storytelling.

Cenacle Retreat House: Ignatian Exercises in Daily Life.

1995-97—Shalem Institute: Spiritual Guidance Program.

1996—International Christian-Buddhist Conference.

1997—Phil Porter and Cynthia Winton-Henry: Interplay Training (movement, story, song, and silence).

1997-98—Jung Institute, Evanston, IL: The Spiritual Function of the Psyche. INFP: The Typological Counterculture.

1 Finney's father was in advertising, and Finney recognized the task as a matter of marketing. He was the chief evangelist and he had no committee. He just did it, taking articles to the newspaper, creating the Yellow Pages ad, having 5000 refrigerator magnets made up with a picture of the church and his phone number. He would send these to anyone who came to church for the first time, reminding them to feel free to call. Some people call it gimmicky, but God doesn't care what we use to further God's work.

2 Finney used to visualize eighty people in the pews. He had a party when they hit 100; another at 150. The congregation now has 450 baptized members.

3 The final $600,000 cost will be repaid by the end of June 1998.

4 One day Finney found he wasn't able to do everything he needed to do; he had neglected home and hospital visits that he usually made. That's when, remembering an Alban Institute workshop on sizing, he realized the church needed to move to a program-centered ministry. He needed to empower the laity to do some of the things he had done and to let go of them himself. The Alban Institute conducted a weekend workshop that was held at the church for the Congregation Council. The change meant changes in the council as well, with Finney becoming just another member rather than the president.

With the support of the council leadership, Finney wrote a letter to the congregation, explaining the need for the change in his role and giving members a time and opportunity to grieve over it. The important things, he says, were that he named the problem to begin with and that people knew what would happen.

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