Church Profile: St. Michael Lutheran Church

This is part of a series of transcribed interviews between members of the staff of Christ Church Lutheran and Senior Pastors throughout the LCMS.

Interview with Pastor Reed Lessing

Please describe your church and the community it serves.

Our mission statement is to “connect people to Jesus” and we serve in southwest Fort Wayne, IN. We have about 1,700 baptized members and about 700 who attend worship on any given weekend. Our church has other pastors on our staff, a Music Director, a Youth Director, an Executive Director, a Communicative Director and a couple of secretaries.

We also have a Pre-K through 8 school with Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Fort Wayne that has over 400 children — with half of them at our campus, the other half at Emmanuel’s campus. We also help run Concordia Lutheran High School, which has about 700 children, and about 60 of our teenagers are part of Concordia.

What is your church known for? What is working well? Do you have a signature ministry?

About six years ago, we went through a comprehensive self-study and we found that we had — at least — two pretty well-known strengths. One is our music ministry because we have a wide variety of bands, orchestras and choirs, and our Music Director has been here for about 19 years.

We’re also known for teaching and preaching God’s Word in more of an expository, in-depth way of presenting the Bible that also puts it in ways people understand and can apply to their Christian lives.

What are your church’s highest values?

I would say three things: mission, Bible study and generosity.

Since St. Michael’s began in 1953, most of its history has been very missional. Our second pastor is called Missional Pastor, not just a traditional Associate Pastor position. He is tasked with our mission philosophy, which is Acts 1:8: to be My witnesses in Jerusalem (our immediate neighborhood), and in all Judea (the Fort Wayne area), Samaria (the U.S.), and to the ends of the earth. We have mission partners in all four of those areas.

We recently wrapped up the Red Letter Challenge with a Go & Serve Saturday, where about 200 people raked leaves and fixed things in the neighborhood. The next day, about 250 members came to a community trick-or-treat event with free candy and Christian literature.

Mission is a big deal and we also emphasize the study of God’s Word. We have 35 small groups that meet regularly — mostly in people’s homes.

The church is generous. We have ended the last six years with our financial picture in the black, so we’ve been able to extend that generosity to district missions in the Indiana District and other mission partners — especially the Lutheran Liberian Children’s Network. We’ve been heavily involved with that because the director, who is a Liberian, lives in Fort Wayne.

How do you reach people in the margins of society and culture?

We have a Community Charity Outreach Ministry that is staffed by three of our members. Together, they work about 30 hours a week with people on the margins and in our neighborhood.

We are partnered with Broadway Christian Church, which is in downtown Fort Wayne, to find best practices on how to help these people financially, emotionally, relationally, spiritually. So, it has been very eye-opening to share an intern with Broadway Christian and find out what they are doing with their contacts and also share what we can do with our contacts.

What goals and plans do you have for your church?

In addition to continuing to preach the Gospel, administration of sacraments, etc., I’ll talk about where we are headed.

We paid off our debt of nearly $2 million about a year-and-a-half ago, so we’re now in a position to add on to our facilities — specifically our early childhood facility because we see a lot of potential there in terms of ministry, outreach, and also being a feeder for our day school. We are looking at forming a Building Committee in about 10 months and then doing another capital campaign in the area of about $3 million. This would allow us to not only add onto our early childhood ministry, but also do a few other things that are in our church plans.

If money, space, and people were not obstacles, what goals and plans would you have?

It would be to fill people up with the Gospel and the truth of God’s Word and release them to live out very alive, dynamic, enthusiastic Christian lives wherever God puts them.

Speak about worship and sermons:
Was there any particular sermon or series that connected with your church?

The Red Letter Challenge has been pretty good. Like most churches, we customized it some and were able to give out 615 books to people who wanted them.

I’m teaching a doctorate ministry class for Concordia in St. Louis on preaching and teaching biblical principles in financial management. So that has been near and dear to me. Every year in November, we do a three-week sermon series on biblical, financial stewardship and I think that has made a difference. So it has not been just one series, but ongoing preaching and teaching.

We usually have about 150 people in my adult Bible class who get a more in-depth look at what the sermon series is all about. This may be tangential to the question, but it is about how we are addressing financial generosity.

What does Bible study look like at your church? How is it structured? What topics do you study?

We have 35 Small Groups and about half of them will do what I ask them to do, the other half are sort of “Lone Rangers.” A couple of times a year I will ask the Small Groups to plug into the sermon series and Bible class (like the Red Letter Challenge).

There are also two or three Sunday School classes in addition to mine. As I said, my Bible study is very much tied into what I’m preaching on and I conduct this in-between the services.

What do you offer for small groups?

How do you address marriage & family? Any special programs geared towards those topics?

We are part of the Family Friendly Partners Network, which is something that Ben Freduenburg does out of Concordia Ann Arbor. It certainly got us thinking more about marriage and family, and integrating that with our youth ministry. So, in that sense, it was positive, and we completed that about two years ago.

Other than that, we take a pretty basic LCMS approach.

How does your church minister to youth?

What adjustments or changes would you make in your church?

If I could snap my fingers and change something, I would move us into a new season. I’m sure that I’m not unique at all in this regard, but in my first three or four years here we probably hovered around 515 people in worship, and then the numbers grew over time, so we’re now at about 700.

However, in the last two or three years we’ve plateaued with that and Sunday School attendance. I think we’re in a malaise, so that’s why I am hoping the spiritual emphasis on the capital campaign and building will help launch us into a new season.

What is the best idea you have heard about lately that you would like to try?

One is the Red Letter Challenge, but now we’ve done that.

I probably need to be exposed to more good ideas and that’s why I’ll come to Best Practices in February. We really do get some very concrete, good ideas from Best Practices. For example, we started an after-school St. Michael Academy that is in its third year. We have 16 students who are part of the Academy with about six or seven instructors.

Another area we are working on is church governance — not to get too hybrid policy-based governance, but at least something beyond the boilerplate LCMS church governance. So, I’ve heard about that and we’re about a year away from enacting all of that.

How can we pray for your ministry?

In terms of what I just indicated, we need a new season. I’ve been the pastor here for the last six-and-a-half years, and we’ve accomplished a list of what we wanted to accomplish, or are at least moving in that direction, so now what? I’ve talked about expansion, but it must go a lot deeper than that — a spiritual renewal, revival for the pastors and everybody.

Tell us about yourself.

I’ve been a Missouri Synod pastor for about 20 years and a professor for 14 years. I’m married with three children and one granddaughter. I love to run, bike and stay active – and I love being a Missouri Synod pastor.

How do you spend your week? What are the biggest things in your schedule? Where do you spend 20% of your efforts to get 80% of your results (Pareto principle)?

It would be on the sermon — no doubt about it.

What do you wish you knew earlier in ministry that you know now?

Emotional intelligence

What do you do well?

I think I can teach and preach the Bible. I, generally, have an empathetic heart for people and what their needs are or what they want to do. And I’m becoming g a better listener — I think that’s probably one of the most important skills that a pastor can have.

What books, blogs, or podcast do you find helpful?

I’m a little different in that I regularly teach Doctor of Ministry classes and I pick classes where I want to learn stuff for myself. I would say the book by Ben Witherington, Jesus and Money, has been very helpful. Ben Witherington is a pretty well-known New Testament scholar.

I’m writing a book for CPH on the book of Jeremiah called, How to Survive Disaster. So, I’ve been reading a lot of commentaries and practical books on Jeremiah lately.

What decisions are causing you the greatest stress right now?

I don’t have a lot of pastoral stress, nothing I would put under the category of stress.

What is on your bucket list for ministry?

Evangelism, evangelism, evangelism — converts for Jesus.

If you could change two things about your life/ministry what would they be?

I think the emotional intelligence would be one thing, and becoming a better listener would be important.

Who are your spiritual/leadership heroes?

Walter Brueggemann would be the best Old Testament scholar from our era. I have learned so much from him. He towers above everyone else in my life in terms of being sensitive and articulating the Old Testament. I’ve learned a lot from Max Lucado over the years — not only good sermon metaphors, but how to write and communicate a story in a very powerful way.

How can we pray for you?

I would say emotional intelligence and listening. If I can be better at both of those I would be happier, healthier, and more vibrant.

If you could say one thing to the people reading this, what words of encouragement would you have?

2 Timothy 4:2 — preach the word, be prepared in season and out of season.