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The Lake Where You Live: Pastor Bill

October 25, 2019 by Ted Rulseh

A complaint I hear often from lake association leaders is that when they talk at meetings they are preaching to the choir.

The people there to discuss lake stewardship and protection are already committed; it’s the non-members or non-participants who need to hear the word. For association membership as a share of lake property owners, I hear figures like 30%, 50%, 70%. So, how to reach those absentees? A lesson from a Lutheran church I know is instructive.

When I lived in Hartland, Wisc., the denomination then known as the Lutheran Church of America sent a young man, let’s call him Pastor Bill, to start a church in that area. When he arrived he had no members and no place of worship. His job was to build a congregation.

How did he do it? With certain forms of publicity, yes: newspapers, radio, that’s about all there was in those times before the internet and social media. So mostly, Pastor Bill went door, to door, to door, to door, to door, meeting with individual families or small groups and getting it done through the force of his personality.

He came to our house, unfortunately for him on an evening when I was running on about two hours of sleep in the past 48 hours, after an especially busy few days at work. Still I remember him as kind, not pushy, but engaging, interesting. He made a compelling case for joining his church, even though at the time the small congregation was meeting in rented spaces.

We didn’t join because by the time he got to us we lived on the very fringe of what he envisioned as the church’s area. But did Pastor Bill manage to establish a church? Indeed he did, by sheer persistence. After a few years he had not just a large following but a brand new building. Thirty-some years later, that church still stands, and as best I know the congregation thrives.

Pastor Bill eventually left the ministry and went into industrial sales where, I’ll bet, he was an all-star performer.

The lesson for lake associations is clear. To build membership toward 100% of owners, and to get more members activated and engaged, there’s only one way. Emails, mailers, Facebook posts and newsletters are fine as far as they go. But for making real connections, nothing can beat in-person, one-on-one conversations. 

That means finding, within the association’s active member population, a few Pastor Bills. Take the property owner list, divvy it up. Then get to work, door, to kitchen table, to lakefront deck, to pontoon boat and campfire ring.

Hard work? Definitely. Time-consuming? For sure. But really, what other choice is there? Our lakes are under stress. The best people to address those threats, and encourage local and state governments to address them, are the owners of lake property, full-time or seasonal. If Pastor Bill could create a church out of nothing, surely lake associations can attain full participation, built on the member base they already have. It’s something to think on.

Ted Rulseh resides on Birch Lake in Harshaw and is an advocate for lake protection and improvement. His Lakeland Times and Northwoods River News columns are the basis for a book, “A Lakeside Companion,” published by The University of Wisconsin Press. Ted may be reached at [email protected]

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