FWE Integration in a Small Congregation: An Interview with Mary Lou Erlacher

In October 2016, Made to Flourish’s Amy Sherman interviewed Mary Lou Erlacher of Cornerstone Church in Marion, Iowa. Cornerstone Church is a 15-year-old congregation in the Evangelical Free Church denomination. Predominantly white, the church includes many seniors, empty-nesters, and a growing number of younger families and couples. Membership is around 55 and about 100 people attend on any particular Sunday. In 2015, Pastor Matt Proctor and lay leader Mary Lou Erlacher participated in the national “Vocation Infusion Learning Community” (the precursor to the Made to Flourish city Learning Communities). Fourteen church teams from around the nation met in three face-to-face retreats to learn about the biblical foundations underlying faith, work and economics; how to address and overcome barriers in the church culture to infusing an emphasis on FWE into the congregation’s DNA; and how to engage the church more vibrantly as an economic contributor to city flourishing. As members of the “VILC,” Matt and Mary Lou composed a “Vocation Infusion Plan” to implement with leaders back at their congregation.  Cornerstone’s is a story of “the little church that could.” It has quickly and effectively launched a variety of initiatives to equip congregants to understand how faith can shape and energize their work lives.

ALS (Amy Sherman): Mary Lou, what were the biggest “aha” moments for you during the Vocation Infusion Learning Community?

MLE (Mary Lou Erlacher):  The really big one for me was learning about the Grand Biblical narrative of creation, fall, redemption and restoration. That presentation just peeled the scales off my eyes! For a long time, and I don’t think the Evangelical Free Church is alone in this, the focus was mainly on Christ’s atonement, which is obviously fundamental but there’s more. The story is not just about getting people fire insurance for when they die. It’s about the whole thing: why we’re here, why we do what we do, how we do what we do, and the whole idea of co-laboring with God. So really that big idea is at the heart of our faith and work ministry here at Cornerstone.

Participation in the VILC gave us an action plan on which to work. We’d come back from the retreats and update our elders on what we were learning and what we were thinking about doing. In this way, the leadership was up to date on everything we were contemplating trying out at the church.

ALS: What were some of the initial steps that you took at Cornerstone after the VILC concluded?

MLE: The first main thing was that Pastor Matt preached an 11-week sermon series in Fall 2015 called “Contributing to God’s Kingdom.” It was a topical series with some sermons based on Old Testament texts like Genesis 1 and Exodus 19 as well as some sermons based on passages in Luke and in the epistles.

ALS: How was that received? What sort of buzz did you hear around those messages?

MLE: It was received really well. Following it we did a little 5-question survey. We had probably about 75 adults on average during those Sundays and I heard from about 20 of them. One question asked people whether they thought their faith was relevant to their work (just over 70% said they strongly agreed with that). The others asked about whether people wanted to know more about what the Bible says on work and whether they feel like their work makes a positive contribution to society. It was encouraging to see that most people did have the sense that their work was making a contribution and that many were still hungry to learn more. Overall, I think people still had some questions following the series. About 60 percent in the survey said they are still figuring out how to apply their faith practically in their work.

ALS: What came next?

MLE: Well, what came next was sort of out of sequence, I think. But we had a modest Church Implementation Grant from the Kern Family Foundation for the 2016 calendar year and so we felt we needed to get moving on some of the ideas that we’d written about in that. Our most complex idea was for a 10-month discipleship and leadership class/program that was modeled, in-part, on the Surge School in Phoenix, which we’d heard about through the VILC. We call this our Blessed to Be a Blessing (BLESS) program and it involves a monthly group study. We’ve used the ReFrame materials from Regent College and a number of additional readings that we selected and put together into a syllabus.

ALS: What did you mean when you said the BLESS program was out of sequence?

MLE: I look at the faith and work ministry as having a 101, 201, and 301 level. And so ideally you’d start with 101 level activities and BLESS really is more like 301.

ALS: In addition to going through the ReFrame video curriculum together, what do you do in the BLESS group?

MLE: Everyone in the group—there are 10 of us—had already read Tom Nelson’s book, Work Matters, so we had that as a common starting point. We’ve also read parts of You Can Change by Tim Chester, a couple of white papers like Greg Thompson’s “The Church in Our Time” and the chapter, “Something Worse, Something Better” out of What is the Mission of the Church by DeYoung and Gilbert. We are currently reading a wonderful book by an outstanding woman in the F&W arena, Amy Sherman’s Kingdom CallingWe have great, in-depth discussions on these things. On the Strengthfinder’s test, I’m a “learner.” So being in this group is right in my favorite place. We’re all just learning together and going deeper. Eight of us will be traveling together in a couple weeks (as a part of the grant) to the Faith@Work Summit in Dallas and I think that’s going to energize us further. There is something about being a part of a national or regional discussion that broadens the vison of a local endeavor.  Down the road, my aspiration is that these BLESS groups will consider how to help provide leadership in our congregation for what we can do, even though we’re a small church, to meet some kind of need in the community. Pastor Matt and I have met with the mayor as well as some business leaders in the surrounding area, trying to learn about community needs and where there might be a gap that we could fill as a church or as individuals or groups as the LORD leads.

ALS: Has there been any push back by any congregants regarding the foundational ideas in the FWE movement?

MLE: Not really push-back, no. We have a really strong elder team, consisting of men who think well and carefully. One elder, who is an engineer, has been wrestling some with the notion of the restoration of all things. He’s thought that the bible teaches that everything is going to burn up in the end. So when his wife decided to join the BLESS group, he did, too, in order to hear more of these concepts that are new to him.

ALS: You sent me an email listing some of the other activities of the Faith & Work Ministry at Cornerstone. Let’s talk about some of those.

MLE: Sure. I’d hoped that maybe around spring and summer 2016 we could get some book groups off the ground—I see those as a 101 type activities. But we had four different families in the church who were planning weddings, and with graduations and the fact that we don’t do small groups in the summer, there just wasn’t a big sign up. We have been doing monthly vocational interviews with individuals from the congregation during Sunday morning worship. We call this TTT—“This Time Tomorrow”—following Mark Green’s language. [Eds. Note: Mark Green heads the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.]

ALS: Have you tried to have a variety of people from the flock giving those testimonies? Like not just full time workers but also stay-at-home parents or retirees whose work now is in their volunteering?

MLE: Absolutely, we’ve done all that. One Sunday we brought up a retired couple who have gone back to work part-time. He’s a school bus driver and she is the bus attendant. It was great hearing how they saw that as a ministry. Around Mother’s Day we interviewed a stay-at-home mom and also a mom who works outside of the home as well as inside. Recently we heard from a young couple in the church: she works in a medical office and he’s in IT.

ALS: And you mentioned something in your email to me something that I just loved: that you also had a teenager from the church do one of these vocational interviews.

MLE: Yes. That all came about because Pastor Matt’s 6-year-old son said to me one day, “How come we never hear from any kids during TTT?” And I realized he was on to something! So we invited a teenager named Anna and she talked about an internship she’d done with the Civil Rights Commission.  She said that the experience gave her a “better understanding of the issues some people face who do not have all the advantages others have.” In September we had two elementary school students come up and talk about their work at school and at home. We talked about the Tom Nelson’s idea of “the audience of One” and doing their work for God.

ALS: That is so great.

MLE: Yes, it was special. I’d asked for one of the children to consider doing it and called her mother to discuss it, mom said her daughter knew right away what she was talking about when she said “TTT.”  It’s something that’s becoming part of the rhythm in the church’s life and people have been really positive about it.

ALS: Do you feel like you have encountered any special challenges in “vocation infusion” as a smaller church?

MLE: Well, when we didn’t have a lot of people sign up for the summer book groups. I had to realize that if you have four families busy with weddings, in a small church that’s actually a fairly large percentage of your people! And, other non-family church members were helping them with wedding preparation. Our church meets in a warehouse that we are remodeling (Warehouse of Worship!) and so some effort needed to be put into decorating it to be pretty for the couples getting married.

And of course finances may be a challenge in a small church. We were fortunate to have the Kern Foundation grant, Cornerstone also put up some of its own matching funds, but that grant definitely helped us to get things launched.

But I’d say that smaller churches also have an advantage. Because we’re small, people know each other. There was a lot of trust that the leadership had in Matt and me, so when we would come back from the VILC retreats excited about the possibilities there was openness. It wasn’t a blind trust, however. They wanted to hear the theology behind this and be confident that a new faith and work ministry wouldn’t be just some “flavor of the month.” They trusted and respected us and when they heard how this is woven into the big narrative of the Bible they were eager to see the church move forward.

ALS: What are your plans for the Faith and Work Ministry going forward?

MLE: I am going to continue on in my position as coordinator, but in a volunteer capacity, next year. I don’t think we will run the BLESS program again until fall 2017-2018. Next year we’re going to follow more of a 101, 201 sequencing. In December-January, instead of our regular small groups, we’re going to offer a 101 group that will go through the For the Life of the World series. [Eds. Note: FLOW was the brain child of Dr. Stephen Grabill, one of the early leaders of the VILC initiative.] Then the 201 level group will go through the S.H.A.P.E. curriculum that Erik Rees did when he was at Saddleback Church. This is a short study that helps people identify their gifts and experiences and passions. Once you have a vision that your work matters to God and that we co-labor with Him for flourishing, it’s good to have a strong understanding of just what your natural and spiritual abilities are and how God might want to use the experiences you’ve had and the passions and heart that He has put in you.

I’m also hoping that down the road we might partner with other churches in doing another mini-conference here in Iowa. We did one back in 2014 with Tom Nelson (under a Kern Family Foundation Knowledge Building grant) and that led to a lot of small groups in area churches, including Cornerstone, going through Work Matters. That laid a great foundation for all this work we’ve been doing since the VILC. I had a chance this summer to attend a conference in Breckenridge, CO that the Denver Institute for Faith and Work hosted and there I met other church leaders who are also on this mission. Some of them felt like offering mini-conferences was one of their most effective strategies.

ALS: We are really starting to see a national faith and work movement now in the Church, aren’t we?

MLE:  Yes, and it is so encouraging. I really love being around these like-minded people. Many ministries, such as the Surge School, have been so generous with their advice and their materials. It’s great to be part of this national community where we are learning from one another and encouraging each other.

ALS: If you had to sum up, what would say the impact of Cornerstone’s Faith & Work Ministry has been so far?

MLE: People are understanding the ideas better. We’re starting to have some common language, such as the phrase “the now and not yet” of the Kingdom. I’m seeing changes in people’s lives, for example, among our BLESS members is a woman who runs her own small fiber arts business. And she’s been growing in learning to communicate with others about the “why” of her work, and why and how she treats her employees and customers and uses locally-sourced or fair trade and environmentally friendly materials. Another woman from the church works at Home Depot. She’s generally on the returns desk and it can be hard. Sometimes she knows that people are bringing things into the store for a refund, but they stole them in the first place! She said that used to really make her mad. Now she says she is trying to see these people more through the eyes of Christ, wondering what circumstances have made them so desperate as to feel they need to do this. She says she can often spot them right when they come in the store because they don’t look like they’re comfortable with what they are about to do. She says she right away says a prayer for them. And even though she usually can’t give them money back because they don’t have a receipt or don’t meet the criteria, no one has become angry with her.

I don’t think I can say that the faith and work ministry has really “rocked anyone’s world” yet. Except, maybe, mine! But we are seeing changes. There’s good interest. This has become an embedded ministry of Cornerstone Church. And we’re planting a lot of seeds!


Topics: Congregational Interviews, The Congregation
Church: Cornerstone Church

About the Author

Amy L. Sherman is a Senior Fellow at the Sagamore Institute and author of Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good (IVP).