Mel Lawrenz Minister-at-Large, Elmbrook Church, Brookfield, WI
By Ronald E. Keener
Mel Lawrenz is leaving the active pastorate of a congregation and taking up the “pastorate” — creative director to be more precise — of a multi-dimensional media ministry called The Brook Network. “After 30 years of being a pastor at Elmbrook Church, the past 10 as senior pastor, I am enthused to be moving into a new role in which I will be seeking to help resource church leaders here in the U.S. and internationally with many of the things we have learned over the years.”
Lawrenz, 54, says: “We must leverage the incredible tools of mass communication in our hands now. But we must do so creatively, and with the needs and experience of the end-user front and center.
“We need to know what our audiences really need. We have chosen to bundle together video and audio of sermons, interviews, and written sources in a media center called The Brook Network,” he says.
What needs do you feel there are in ministry and outreach that The Brook Network will fill?
I have watched for 30 years how networking has grown to be one of the most powerful ways for leaders to get the ideas, the inspiration, and the encouragement they need. Every executive leader needs to be well-networked! We are connecting church leaders with Elmbrook events and resources, and church leaders with each other through The Brook Network. We are sponsoring small-scale and large-scale events and, most important, being a catalyst for church leaders to connect with each other for enduring influence.
Has there been a unique ministry at Elmbrook that Stu Briscoe and then you have fulfilled? Is there a somewhat unique nature or focus in ministry that Elmbrook is noted for?
Stuart brought a truly global perspective to Elmbrook and that has grown exponentially over the years with members of the church connecting with international concerns, people, and going to the far corners of the earth. I tell our congregation: When your world gets larger, your heart gets larger.
You’ve cited how the ministry to the disabled was begun. Share how that was started by laity and the distinct approach the church takes to start-up ministries and outreach. In what ways is the congregation entrepreneurial?
Our philosophy is that some of the very best ideas for ministry come from the grass roots. God doesn’t inspire action just from the top down. And when a group of people are moved to reach out and start a new ministry because they are heart and soul committed to it, that ministry has a great chance of flourishing. And if it doesn’t, that’s fine too.
We believe in experimenting, taking risks and giving things a try. We also do not take the line that the ministry has to be narrowly focused on just a few things. I as a leader do not need to be in control of everything that happens in the church (and it is often pride that makes us think so). Let other people be the visionaries, the pioneers and take credit where credit is due.
How has innovation been a driving dynamic of Elmbrook’s ministry?
A commitment to spiritual growth is the best motive for innovation — more so than organizational development. In other words, it is better to do new and fresh things because there is inspiration and a dynamic reponsiveness to new opportunities that open up.
You’ve written and spoken about church leadership as “engagement.” What do you mean by engagement as the way church leaders lead?
Engagement must be the stance of churches in the 21st century, I believe. To engage is to dynamically bring together divine resources with human need. Church leaders like to talk about the right things, but oftentimes get stuck at the level of talking. When you engage the clutch of your car, the power of the engine combines with the inertia of the car and you take off down the road. Too often in the church we grind our gears, rev our engines and stay right where we are.
In your book Whole Church you talk about four different kinds of engagement?
I tell our people once a year that each person must have an answer to four questions: First, are you engaged with God (in a life of worship and devotion); Second, are you engaged with God’s people (in vital fellowship through a small group or other means); Third, are you engaged with your community (any kind of service in the community where you live); and Fourth, are you engaged with the world (in becoming a globally-aware and mission-active believer).
Here is what I see. When true engagement happens at all those levels, there is an enormous cumulative effect. Mission is part of worship, fellowship groups become community active, etc. And there is this tremendous benefit: Engagement helps hold a church together. There are a hundred ways our churches become fragmented, because all of us as human beings are fragmented. It is the energy of engagement that keeps us looking beyond ourselves and keeps us unified.
The business community has been using “engagement” as a model in recent years. How similar is your idea?
I learned that while I was writing Whole Church and I found it quite interesting. Business leaders need to get things done, not just talk about getting things done. When they bring resources in direct contact with need, then business engagement happens, and there are results. The difference in the church is that the resources we have (truth, mercy, compassion, relationship, purpose) rises to the level of a divine mission, not just making the bottom line look good.
Can you give a practical example of engagement for the church executive?
Effective communication is enormously important in church leadership; taking the time to really engage with people for major issues, using all means of communication (verbal, print, the Internet) in innovative ways does more than merely impart information. Good communication connects people with people. It is all about the shared life. All effective church executives are excellent communicators.
And effective leaders take their best time and energy to craft their communication well. The subtitle of Whole Church is “Leading from Fragmentation to Engagement.” What does the church leader need to know about the dynamics of fragmentation?
First and foremost: expect it. All churches are fragmented because human nature is fragmented.
Successful leaders respond to fragmentation by bringing as much consistency and cohesiveness as they can. Leaders who understand life and human nature know that we need to continually look for experiences that pull a church together — because there are a hundred ways they can be pulled apart.
What do you mean by cohesive experiences that pull a church together?
The worship of a church should be a continual pulling together (in Spirit and in truth). Great communication always pulls people together. Celebration events are rallying points; and even responses to tragedy that are heartfelt and deep can remind a church of what is at their core.
What holds church leaders together?
Shared values—not just a list on paper, but the core of who you really are as a church. Shared mind—at Elmbrook we have always placed a high value on study together. Shared ministry accomplishments—keep the focus on what God is doing, not what you personally are accomplishing.
What are the major lessons you’ve learned as a church leader over the past 30 years?
Many! Here are a few. (1) Trust is the highest currency of effective leadership. (2) Churches can be and must be ready to respond in an instant to unforseen opportunities, unexpected tragedies and innovative ideas that may come from anywhere. (3) Ministry is a marathon, not a sprint. (4) No matter the size of church, people want to respond to their leaders as real people. (5) We as leaders should focus on faithfulness before effectiveness. We will not be effective if not faithful, and if we are faithful to divine ideals, the fruit will come.
Have you involved yourself in the politics of the city or state, or taken stands on poverty or social needs within the community? How does the church at large respond to these issues?
We never comment on holders of political office or on specific pending legislation. We do speak to the ethical and moral issues of the day as those issues come up in the course of biblical preaching and occasionally in special events designed to address major issues.
What else is on your mind as you make this transition into new ministry?
All of us as church leaders need to have our ambition tempered by humility. Personal kingdom-builders are setting themselves up for a fall. When we oversee really great churches with flourishing ministries it is always because God has been at work and gets the credit.
Church executives have the opportunity to run one of the best kinds of organizations in the world, but their joy will grow more and more if their egos get out of the way. And one very important thing: we must not compare ourselves to others. All church leaders hear a steady drumbeat in the background: Be better than the other guy, be bigger than the church next door, make a name for yourself. That drumbeat is relentless. And if we give in, we become builders of the Tower of Babel, rather than builders of the Temple.