ELCA Presiding Bishop Says Church is 'Always Being Made New'
CHICAGO (ELCA) -- As the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) prepares to celebrate its 25th anniversary in 2013 under the theme "Always being made new," ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark S. Hanson said the theme embodies far more than the anniversary in his report to the ELCA Conference of Bishops, which met October 4-9, 2012.
The ELCA Conference of Bishops is an advisory body of this church that includes 65 synod bishops, the presiding bishop and secretary. The Rev. Jessica R. Crist, bishop of the ELCA Montana Synod, chairs the conference.
In his report, Hanson said the theme reflects how the 4.2 million-member church is a church deeply rooted in Scripture. "If we lose our deep rootedness in Scripture, in the Lutheran Confessions, in the church and in Christ, we will lose confidence in the Holy Spirit. We will lose faith," he said.
In his visits to ELCA congregations this fall, the presiding bishop said he has met many members who continue to "witness their faith in Jesus Christ." As the ELCA embarks on its anniversary, Hanson said he will continue giving recognition and appreciation to the countless numbers of ELCA members who continue to "share the love of Jesus" with others and "who care about the future of this church."
"We also have the opportunity and responsibility to ask, what does it mean to be deeply rooted in Christ and always being made new as we live in communities of increasing religious pluralism?" Hanson said. "With the recent increase in anti-Muslim incidents, the deadly shooting at the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., and demonstrations and violence in the Middle East, we all need to be asking, what is a faithful, Lutheran evangelical witness in such a context? How in such a context are we going to give account of the hope that is within us?"
Hanson told the conference that he is "convinced that the primary antidote to fear and the increasing acts of violence, hatred and turning our backs to our neighbors is our resolve (that) each one of us, every ELCA congregation, whenever possible, be engaged and sustained in conversation with people of other religions."
Such dialogue, said the presiding bishop, "begins with each attentively listening to the faith and the witness of the other." Sharing "our deep rootedness and our respective religious communities is only the beginning," he said. "We need to ask, how will this new relationship free us and engage one another to build a community of trust, hospitality, hope and justice? How shall we lead together as a people and as a church of evangelical leaders that is deeply rooted and always being made new?"
ELCA congregations are committed to being in a process of "renewal and that begins with worship," and to planting new congregations "in all kinds of new ways and new contexts," said Hanson, adding that the ELCA has 343 ministries now under development, with 30 percent of them among new immigrants, those who live in poverty, those who are homeless and others in rural areas and suburbs.
The conference also received a report from David Swartling, ELCA secretary, who announced that he would not seek another term as secretary at the 2013 ELCA Churchwide Assembly. In an earlier communication sent to the Conference of Bishops, Hanson indicated his willingness to be available for another term.
In a written statement Swartling said, "Service as an officer of this church and the opportunities to work with Presiding Bishop Hanson, the ELCA Church Council and the Conference of Bishops, and dedicated colleagues in the churchwide organization—especially the staff in the Office of the Secretary—have been enormously rewarding experiences and ones that I always will cherish and recall with satisfaction and fondness."
The Rev. Linda Norman, ELCA treasurer, told the conference that the ELCA churchwide organization had an income in excess of expense of $3.2 million in current operating funds for the seven-month period ending Aug. 31, 2012, a favorable variance of $0.4 million from August 2011 and favorable to the period budget by $6.1 million.
Financial contributions from congregations for the work of synods and the churchwide organization in the form of Mission Support for the first seven months in 2012 was $27.3 million, a decrease of $0.4 million or 1.3 percent from the previous year. Calling Mission Support the "lifeblood" of churchwide ministries, Norman said Mission Support income was favorable to the revised budget by $0.3 million or 0.1 percent. "This performance to budget is positive indication that the churchwide organization can anticipate fully funding the commitments in the spending plan."
The annual Mission Support budget for 2012 is $48.8 million. Mission Support increased in 27 of the ELCA's 65 synods, an improvement from the 19 in the 2011 seven-month level.
The Rev. Duane Pederson, bishop of the ELCA Northwest Synod of Wisconsin, led discussions among synod bishops on a proposal for ELCA Mission Support. The proposal recommended changes in the process of consultation and decision-making when setting synod Mission Support goals and also proposed making available to synods an optional system for providing banking, accounting and reporting on Mission Support and designated revenue through the Mission Investment Fund.
Pederson asked the conference to consider how the proposal would affect this church's "core stewardship values." Developed by a task force at the request of the ELCA Church Council in response to an action of the 2011 ELCA Churchwide Assembly, the proposal was an outcome of the task force's charge to offer a pattern or a set of patterns that would allow synods to receive and share financial resources to support the whole ministry of this church, and to include recommendations for renewed, sustainable financial support for the mission and ministries of the ELCA (including funding for theological education). Recommendations for growing financial support were part of the written report of the task force to the conference.
Although the advice of the conference was to not move ahead with the recommendations, Pederson said, "It's been fruitful work inasmuch as for the first time how we receive and distribute mission funding in this church has been talked about by the entire Conference of Bishops. That is helpful, and the (discussion) has provided clarity where some commitments and values lay in the way we support the mission financially and how, at this point, there isn't a clear path forward." Pederson noted that the result of the decision to not make changes would be that "we continue with the 55-45 percent (churchwide organization and synodical sharing) framework of mission funding."
In other business, the conference:
+ Received written reports on the progress of an ELCA social message on mental illness, a social statement on criminal justice, and a social statement on justice for women. It also received a report from an ELCA task force charged with addressing how this church approaches social concerns. From the task force, the conference considered two recommendations: to initiate a process of formal exploration of a particular social concern before a decision is made about the most appropriate way(s) of addressing that concern; and, if this exploratory process results in a recommendation to respond to a social concern, the task force recommends that a draft "not proceed to the state of developing a proposed social statement" without the approval of 25 of the 65 ELCA synods. This vote is to authorize the continuation of the process, not a vote for or against the content of the draft. The conference endorsed the first and declined the second task force recommendation.
+ Requested that the Church Council establish a task force charged with reviewing this church's governance document to address how the ELCA can "affirm and strengthen its self-understanding" as a member of The Lutheran World Federation. A report and recommendations are expected to be presented to the conference and council in time for possible consideration at the 2016 ELCA Churchwide Assembly.
+ Received "Patterns of Synodical Life that Effectively Support Congregational Missional Vitality," a paper written by Dr. Kenn Inskeep, which includes a possible action plan surrounding mission vitality strategies for congregations, synods and the church as a whole.
The Rev. Jessica Crist, bishop of the ELCA Montana Synod and chair of the conference, said the conference welcomed five new synod bishops. "That was a real joy and reminder that we continue to evolve and change as a church and as a conference," she said.
"At our meeting we dealt with many large, heavy and important topics, and we are, like the rest of the church, all over the map in terms of our approach of the topics, our response to the topics and what we're going to do about them," said Crist. "But throughout we were able to maintain good, civil conversation. I think among the very helpful conversations were the ones on the mission funding task force, the issue of lay presidency and the implications in terms of our governing process, ecumenical relationships, and how things have changed since we've first addressed these way back 10 to 15 years ago. The landscape has changed quite a bit."
Crist added that the conference also met with ELCA seminary presidents for "thoughtful discussions about how we might do candidacy more effectively for the future."
Bishop Denis Madden, chair of the ecumenical committee, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, delivered a greeting to the ELCA Conference of Bishops. He said there are many opportunities for Lutherans and Catholics to engage one another and offered some "pastoral suggestions." He affirmed the current round of dialogues between Lutherans and Catholics, which are focused on the ministry of teachings. The dialogues "are very important and need to continue" although there will be "challenging contemporary issues that face us, but we can handle it together." In anticipation of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation to be acknowledged in 2017, Madden said, "Should we not do something together (that) points the way for future unity?"
Madden thanked those at the conference for their hospitality and said, "It was wonderful to be with you. There is more that unites us than what divides us."
Madden received a standing ovation from the conference and, in a follow-up letter to Madden, Hanson expressed his appreciation and gave thanks "for the historic nature" of the dialogues between the ELCA and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, noting the significance of these dialogues for the future.