A Culture of Serving: Immanuel, Macomb, MI

“There’s no magic bullet.”

Dr. Gary Pawlitz, Minister of Fellowship and Service at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Macomb, Michigan, doesn’t mince words when talking about how churches help their people serve. “No system is perfect. And what works in one place doesn’t work in another.”

Pawlitz, who goes by ‘Dr. Gary,’ has served this church for 18 years. His senior pastor, Rev. Michael Lutz, has been there 24 years. As Dr. Gary describes the church’s volunteerism system and practices, it’s clear that the church culture built over their long tenures plays a key role in where they are today.

“Mike came to Immanuel 7 years before I did,” Dr. Gary explains. “Mr. Ken Jakes came 4 years after Mike. They started some good things. When I came in to do assimilation, people were ready.”

Immanuel is a large church, with 4200 souls and about 1350 in weekly worship. Of the regular worshippers, Dr. Gary estimates about 70% are serving in some way.

New member classes establish the church culture. A 10-week class, taught by the pastors, covers Christian doctrine. Then all incoming members, even staff and those transferring from a fellow Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod congregation, attend “Living as Christ’s Disciple,” an 8-hour class that Dr. Gary teaches. (See participant materials.) Some of what he covers in this class:

  • The church’s goals and core virtues, “what we’re willing to die for”
  • Their five activities: worship, education, witnessing, fellowship and service
  • Small group Bible studies
  • Stewardship of time, talent and treasure
  • A spiritual gifts inventory and a brief personality inventory

“Tell me one thing you’d most like to be part of,” Dr. Gary asks the class participants. That one thing is then included when the individuals are introduced to the congregation on the day they’re received into membership.

These introductions build up the culture of serving among all the church’s members. Dr. Gary also names worship, sermon content, and announcements as other tools Pastor Mike uses to reinforce the culture.

More on Immanuel’s system:

Follow-up on new members:

  • New members are also asked, through a form, ‘what brought you to Immanuel’ and ‘how can we help you grow’
  • A quick ‘written interview‘ reveals other volunteer experience and things they enjoy doing
  • A one-page summary of this information is distributed.
  • All ministerial (program level) staff get them.
    • All staff, including support staff and day school teachers, and lay leaders get the list of the ‘one thing’ they chose and the other things they enjoy
  • Dr. Gary’s assistant Deby Kersey enters all the information in the membership database
  • “People are trusted to follow up,” Dr. Gary says. It didn’t always work in the beginning, he admits, but people grew into the responsibility.

Recruitment

“We put announcements in the bulletin, and sometimes we get a few responses that way” Dr. Gary explains. But, mostly, when they need volunteers, leaders give Dr. Gary information on what they’re looking for. Deby “plugs that info into the computer” and prints a list of people with related gifts, abilities, interests, or experience. The leader then calls them.

Other aspects of assimilation at Immanuel

  • They have a book with ministry job descriptions, and a ministry brochure that simply lists ministry opportunities, but most helpful is a smaller publication with a one or two sentence description of each ministry. New members receive a copy of it before they select their “one thing.”
  • Dr. Gary leads a mini-version of “Living as Christ’s Disciple” with the teenagers before they are confirmed.
  • In their church membership database (they use Logos Church Management software), they have information on the interests, experience, spiritual gifts, etc. for over 90% of their members. Most of their members have joined since they started gathering this information in new member classes. Over the years, opportunities were extended to existing members to share this data, too.
  • The culture also strongly emphasizes reaching out to those who don’t know Jesus Christ as Lord, and new Christians are a high percentage of their new members. This past July 13, 36 new members were received: 5 adults were baptized and confirmed; 9 other adults were also confirmed; 5 were received by declaration of faith, and 4 by transfer. Thirteen children were also part of the group. New members are received four times a year.

More from Dr. Gary

  • Don’t over-rely on computers. “We think our people are all computer literate. That’s a wrong assumption.” Also, “we better not lose the human touch.”
  • When teaching, “use stories to make your points. Stories get to the heart of it.”
  • When you start to change things, “work on one thing and get it down pat before moving on to the next thing.”
  • “Don’t forget risk management. It’s very important.”
  • If you want to involve more people in service in your church, work with your pastor. In an extreme case, “if your pastor is going to buck you, pack your bags and go somewhere else.”

Challenges remain. Their system does not work well for recording when someone comments that they are no longer interested in a particular area, so their name might still come up on a list of prospects for that area.

Dr. Gary only spends about a third of his time on assimilation/service; he also is responsible for small groups, adult education, and the planning of fellowship trips for seniors. When he retires at the end of 2008, he will continue to work part-time serving Immanuel’s seniors. He can be reached at gpawlitz@immlutheran.org.

Despite an unchanging emphasis on outreach and service, Dr. Gary emphasizes that Immanuel continues to adapt. “The culture of our society is changing, including people’s view of religion.” As the people coming into the church change, things in the church are going to change. “What worked ten years ago might not work today. Get over it. Move on.”

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