ELCA presiding bishop offers four emphases in understanding church

3/10/2014 12:00:00 AM

            ITASCA, Ill. (ELCA) -- The Rev. Elizabeth A. Eaton, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), introduced four emphases that she has invited leaders to consider in their work as an understanding of this church.
            During her Feb. 28 report to the ELCA Conference of Bishops, an advisory body of the church that includes 65 synod bishops, the presiding bishop and secretary, Eaton defined these understandings: "We are church, we are Lutheran, we are church together, and we are church for the sake of the world."
            As she expounded on each of the four emphases, Eaton said that at the center "of our life together is worship, and at the center of our worship is the crucified and risen Christ. We are in the faith formation business; not to get more members, not to get more market share, but to know Christ and Christ crucified."
            Eaton shared that it is critical for the Conference, the Church Council (the ELCA's board of directors) and others to "understand ourselves as communities of spiritual discernment. It is not just about strategic plans," she said, "but have we been quiet enough to listen to the Holy Spirit? How can we regain the patience and tending to what the Spirit has said to us?
            "We need to be engaged as individuals and as models to the church in the spiritual disciplines (of) prayer, silence, worship, giving, service and Scripture study," she said.
            In her report to the Conference, which met here Feb. 26-March 4, Eaton also highlighted some significant conversations and new endeavors happening across this church, such as the Feb. 1 launch of Always Being Made New: The Campaign for the ELCA. The five-year effort is the first comprehensive campaign for the ELCA, and "the invitation has been sent out to the church," she said.
            The presiding bishop noted the work of the ELCA Ecclesiology of a Global Church Task Force in her written report. Assembled this past fall, the task force is exploring the ELCA's "relationship as part of the communion of churches that is The Lutheran World Federation," Eaton wrote. "How do we understand ourselves to be part of the 'one, holy, catholic and apostolic church'?" The federation is a global communion of 142 churches representing more than 70 million Christians in 79 countries. The ELCA is the communion's only member church from the United States.
            Eaton noted the work of the ELCA Theological Education Advisory Council, which is "studying all the ways we can be effective as a church in helping all the baptized to be theologically grounded," and she also noted the "Declaration on the Way" as a "significant contribution to the United States and international Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogues. The intent is to find areas of significant agreement between our two churches and have that ready by the observance of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation" in 2017.
            "There is tremendous and creative ministry going on across this church," Eaton told the synod bishops, expressing "the joy of being with several of you in your synods. It is heartening and humbling to see how hard you and your people work."
            Shortly after her report, the ELCA Conference of Bishops engaged in conversations with representatives of the Lutheran World Federation.
            "We met in closed sessions with (general secretary of the federation) Martin Junge and members of the Lutheran World Federation Council, sharing perspectives on complex and valuable relationships," said the Rev. Jessica R. Crist, bishop of the ELCA Montana Synod and chair of the conference.
            The visit with the ELCA "is the first in a series of three following a decision by the (federation's) council in June 2013," according to a March 4 communique issued by the federation. The council asked the communion's office, based in Geneva, to offer an accompaniment process to the three member churches "affected by a rupture of relations over the issues of family, marriage and sexuality."
            "Our unity in Christ is a precious gift. It is precisely this gift of unity that makes it possible for members of the communion to have deep and even difficult conversations," said Eaton. "The ELCA Conference of Bishops holds the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus, the Church of Sweden and the Lutheran World Federation Communion Office in prayer during this accompaniment process."
            "As a global communion of churches, we believe it is healthy and normal to respectfully engage with each other in discussing complex issues," said Junge. "In the LWF we are grateful for being able to uphold the values of being a communion in a time characterized by fragmentation, withdrawal and communication breakdown. The accompaniment visits are an expression of these values in the LWF."
            According to the communique, accompaniment visits have been scheduled with the Ethiopian Church Mekane Yesus and the Church of Sweden in the coming months.
            In other business, the bishops received a report from the Theological Education Advisory Council authorized by the ELCA Church Council to address, in a holistic way, issues on theological education, leadership development, candidacy, call and rostered leaders.
            The Rev. Herman R. Yoos III, bishop of the ELCA South Carolina Synod, told the conference that the Church Council approved three working committees with the following objectives: to study the financial stability for both leaders and institutions, cultivate vocation and lay theological education, and identify emerging and continuing adaptive educational practices.
            On the topic of financial sustainability, the Rev. James E. Hazelwood, bishop of the ELCA New England Synod, said that "the current model of how we prepare future leaders is not sustainable." He said that in 1991, slightly less than half of ELCA seminary graduates carried an average debt of $9,000. Today, 20 percent of all seminary graduates have at least $70,000 in debt and as a result, many view their first call as directly related to getting out of debt.
            In a discussion on the future of theological education, the Rev. William O. Gafkjen, bishop of the ELCA Indiana-Kentucky Synod, said, "When we're thinking about theological education, it is for the sake of the world, for the hope and healing of the world. A question I ask is, what does the theology of the cross have to do with this conversation? We have to ask that question and all of its aspects as a lens to these conversations."
            A final report and recommendations from the advisory council to the ELCA Church Council is slated for 2015.
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About the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America:
The ELCA is one of the largest Christian denominations in the United States, with about 4 million members in nearly 10,000 congregations across the 50 states and in the Caribbean region. Known as the church of "God's work. Our hands," the ELCA emphasizes the saving grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ, unity among Christians and service in the world. The ELCA's roots are in the writings of the German church reformer, Martin Luther.

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