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ELCA Bishops Discuss a Distinctive Lutheran Witness in the World

ITASCA, Ill (ELCA) -- Recognizing the rapidly changing landscape of religion, society and the world the Rev. Mark S. Hanson, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), said the ELCA is in a "kairos" moment and that members can make a compelling "Lutheran witness in our culture today."

At the ELCA Conference of Bishops meeting here Feb. 28-March 5, Hanson framed his report around questions ELCA members and congregations are frequently asking. "Often the question is," Hanson said, "Where is God leading this church?"

The ELCA Conference of Bishops is an advisory body of the 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 the context of what narrative ELCA members are considering about the future of this church, the presiding bishop said he has reflected on the scripture readings for recent Sundays. "They help us keep our conversation about the future in the context of the story of God's faithfulness to God's promises in the past," said Hanson.

"Before God's chosen people entered the promise land, they were instructed to make a thank-offering and recite the story of God's deliverance from bondage in Egypt," he said.

"On the Mount of Transfiguration, the disciples saw in the presence of Moses and Elijah the stories of the wilderness wandering, the gift of the law, and God's prophetic word of judgment and hope. Then they were given a glimpse of the resurrected Christ, transfigured before them. Being embraced by God's faithfulness in the past and God's future promise, they were ready to follow Jesus in his ministry," said Hanson.

He asked the conference, "How do we keep ministry in the context of the narrative of God's faithfulness to God's promises? There are so many competing narratives." In sharing that the ELCA is a "book of faith" church, the presiding bishop talked about the ELCA's "rich resources and gifted teachers of scripture."

The frustration often heard, said Hanson, is that "it is a challenge to engage people to study the scriptures so that they will shape our images of the church we believe that God is calling us to become.

"I hope that we struggle together as a church as much with the question how do we keep this narrative alive, accessible and invitational as we do with more specific questions regarding the future of congregations, synods, the churchwide organization and the whole ELCA," he said.

Hanson told the conference that a newspaper reporter recently asked him what is distinctive about being Lutheran -- also a question Hanson asks when visiting with ELCA congregations. "The most frequent response is 'grace.' With (Martin) Luther, we confess that we stand before God only on account of Christ. This is our witness -- Christ is present for you in the means of grace, word and water, bread and wine."

Hanson also talked about his February visit to First Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation in San Diego, "a congregation whose ministry is centered on the Lord's Table from which people are sent to feed the hungry and engage in ministry with people who are homeless.

"We have a marvelous moment to be a church known for its radical hospitality," he said. "The urgent question for us is who is not at the table. How do we extend the invitation to all? When we are fed at Christ's table, we are sent to work so that all will have daily bread."

The presiding bishop said the question about where is God leading this church is also answered "every day in the lives of 4 million people who live out God's baptismal calling in families, friendships, work and school, as citizens and members of congregations. It is answered in the 10,000 congregations engaged through scripture, listening to their communities and joining with neighboring congregations. The spirit is stirring this church with imagination and passion for God's mission."

As he concluded his report to the conference, Hanson invited synod bishops to consider the kind of leaders needed in the church. "How do we form leaders for a very radically different church, a church that is increasingly (less hierarchical) and connected and not mediated by institutions but a church that is firmly planted?" In small-group conversations, the synod bishops talked about creating future leaders who are prepared for change.

"We need to be careful that we are not just another generic, American, Protestant denomination, that we're not part of a revivalist, Calvinist movement and Protestant majority. It is possible to have a genuine voice that is not subsumed or assimilated by the overwhelming American voice," said the Rev. Elizabeth A. Eaton, bishop of the ELCA Northeastern Ohio Synod.

The changing landscape in leadership development

As part of its overall attention to the future of the ELCA, the conference discussed the church's changing landscape in leadership development, theological education, candidacy, call and rosters. The conference received from the ELCA Office of the Presiding Bishop a report with recommendations that is scheduled for presentation to the Church Council at its April meeting in Chicago.

While the overall goal is to form the kind of leaders needed to "serve the gospel and God's mission in the future," Hanson said, beneath that is how the church will identify leaders and form them along the way. The need to address that in a "holistic manner" has become pressing as other conversations about candidacy and the ELCA's clergy and professional lay rosters continue, and as the ELCA's eight seminaries address funding challenges and the development of new patterns of providing theological education in effective, sustainable ways.

"As we look to the preparation of future leaders for the church, bishops are deeply concerned about theological education," said Crist in an interview.

"As the needs of the church are changing, so are the circumstances of our eight ELCA seminaries. With several seminaries in leadership transition and all reconsidering their curriculum and standards, we are at a critical moment. For the first time, bishops serving on the boards of all the ELCA seminaries met together to share information on the strengths and challenges facing the seminaries today. The bishops also heard a proposal that will be considered by the Church Council to form a task force to find ways to move forward cooperatively, so that we can continue to produce leaders for the church of the future," she said.

In anticipation of the conference's discussion on theological education, the Rev. Jon V. Anderson, bishop of the ELCA Southwestern Minnesota Synod, said about 20 synod bishops who serve on ELCA seminary boards gathered March 1 to share some joys, concerns and developments. From that meeting, five primary observations surfaced - seminaries are under stress; the seminary accreditation process has changed; there is a need to interpret to the ELCA's nearly 10,000 congregations what is happening in seminaries and in the process of leadership formation; the current seminary students are an amazing gift - the group is touched by the young leaders God is calling; and, there are partnerships and alliances forming, particularly among some ELCA colleges and universities and seminaries.

The bishops agreed that discussion on the future of the ELCA's theological education will depend on collaboration with all stakeholders and that focus should be placed on the entire system instead of on individual seminaries.

"We value the vision for collaboration around experiments rather than everyone doing their own thing. We also see this as the framing that the church is looking at theological formation rather than just seminaries," said the Rev. Wayne N. Miller, bishop of the ELCA Metropolitan Chicago Synod.

The synod bishops also discussed a draft of the proposed social statement on criminal justice. "In conversation, bishops identified numerous groups with whom they intended to share the statement, once approved by the Church Council. They include: congregations supporting prison congregations, a church-run deli that trains former prisoners in food preparation, groups of inmates, law enforcement people," said Crist.

In other business the conference:

+ Continued their conversation about the possibility of moving toward
one, unified ELCA roster of Word and Service. According to the Rev.
William O. Gafkjen, bishop of the ELCA Indiana-Kentucky Synod, there has
been "a lot of affirmation" for the possibility but noted three areas of
concern: the understanding of the word "diaconal" in service ministry;
the impact of a roster on word and service and the ministry of all
Christians; and the pastoral concern over the transition to a new roster.
The church's task force charged with working on a single roster is
expected to bring a final proposal to the ELCA Church Council before the
2016 ELCA Churchwide Assembly.

+ Recommended a process of "formal exploration" of a particular social
concern, authorized by the Church Council, before a decision is made
about the most appropriate way of addressing a social concern. According
to the Rev. William C. Boerger, bishop of the ELCA Northwest Washington
Synod, the rationale for the proposed change is that it provides a spirit
of communal discernment on social concerns; strengthens awareness that
the ELCA responds to social concerns in multiple ways; shifts the focus
of authority for starting a study process by having the exploratory group
make recommendations to the council; allows for social messages to be
developed in response to future issues and does not privilege social
statements as the most important way the church addresses a social

+ Received a report from David Swartling, ELCA secretary, who updated the
conference on preparations for the 2013 ELCA Churchwide Assembly to be
held in Pittsburgh, Aug. 12-17. To date, 61 percent of the 952 voting
members of the assembly are lay members, and about 40 percent of clergy
are women. Of the total number of voting members, 13 percent are people
of color or whose primary language is other than English, and 17 percent
of voting members are 30 or younger. The process for selecting alternate
voting members was reviewed. This spring, 25 synod bishop elections will
be held with at least 10 new synod bishops.

+ Received an update from Portico Health Benefits on the transition to
the new ELCA Health Plan due to the U.S. Healthcare Reform Act, which
goes into effect in 2014. Representatives from Portico plan to attend
nearly all 65 synod assemblies during spring and summer for transition
and roll-out of the new plans.

+ Heard a report from the Rev. Linda Norman, ELCA treasurer, who shared
that the ELCA churchwide organization had income in excess of expense of
$5.3 million in current operating funds for the 2012 fiscal year, a
favorable variance of $1 million from 2011. Income from congregations
shared with synods and the churchwide organization in the form of Mission
Support for the 2012 fiscal year decreased to $49.9 million, a decrease
of $0.6 million or 1.1 percent but was favorable to the budget by $1.1
million or 2.3 percent. In a good sign, Norman said that there is some
returning stabilization for Mission Support. For the third consecutive
year, there has been growth in the number of synods reporting increases
in Mission Support, she said. In 2012, 35 of the 65 synods remitted
Mission Support in excess of the previous year. Consequently, the rates
of decline in the rolling 12-month total of Mission Support have
continued to lessen in the past three years. In other income, ELCA World
Hunger received $18.6 million and $4.2 was given for the ELCA Malaria
Campaign in 2012. The goal of the campaign is to raise $15 million by

+ Received a proposal for "God's work. Our hands Sunday" for celebrating
the ELCA's 25th anniversary in 2013. The proposal suggests a single day
to invite congregations to engage in service activities in their

+ Received an updated proposal for a five-year, 25th anniversary
fundraising campaign.

+ Discussed what contributions synods make to the wider church and what
synods need from the church. The Rev. Richard Graham, bishop of the ELCA
Metropolitan Washington D.C., Synod, invited the conference to engage in
small-group discussions. The context for this conversation is part of a
continuance of the "Living into the Future Together: Renewing the Ecology
of the ELCA."