ELCA NEWS SERVICE
September 19, 2010
ELCA Presiding Bishop's Third Town Hall Covers Variety of Subjects
CHICAGO (ELCA) -- The presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) responded to a variety of questions in a live online "Town Hall Forum" Sept. 19, including topics such as evangelism, relationships with Muslims, human sexuality, signs of hope, mission funding, church unity, Middle East concerns and full communion relationships.
The forum, held here in the chapel of the Lutheran Center, was the third forum in the past year for the Rev. Mark S. Hanson. He responded to questions from a 43-member live audience and from online viewers. At least 1,169 players were launched by Web viewers, ELCA Communication Services reported.
The Rev. M. Wyvetta Bullock, executive for administration, ELCA Office of the Presiding Bishop, hosted the forum.
On-demand video and transcripts of the Town Hall Forum will be posted Sept. 22 at http://www.ELCA.org/townhall on the ELCA website.
The first question came from an online participant who asked the presiding bishop for suggestions on what Lutherans might do to take "more evangelical action" within their congregations and community.
Hanson said that the question points to "exactly the orientation that we have taken as a churchwide organization for the future of the ELCA. We have placed directors of evangelical mission on every synod staff. It is our vision that every congregation is growing as an evangelical center for mission."
"We have a tendency to be a bit reserved as Lutherans about naming the name of Jesus," he said. "Together as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, one of our themes is that we are called during our Baptism to be everyday evangelists in Word and deed, testifying through the good news of God's love in Christ for the whole creation. But that doesn't come naturally to us. We have to be bold."
A young member of the live audience shared that she is awaiting approval as a diaconal minister of the ELCA. She told Hanson that the church "does not know what to do" with the three lay ministry vocations -- diaconal ministers, deaconess and associates in ministries.
Saying that the lay rosters can be "confusing to people," Hanson said, "It is in living and serving the neighbor that the office of Word and Service, that the three lay ministries are called to lead and accompany."
In light of the church's attention to homosexuality, one participant asked why not let congregations make their own decisions about calling pastors. Hanson said that in many respects, "congregations have a great choice in the matter. Once the church sets policies regarding who can be ordained pastors and lay (ministers) of the church, it is still up to every congregation to discern what potential pastor should (be) called whose gifts match the gifts of the congregation, and who could bring an evangelical zeal and mission focus. In that sense, every congregation has great freedom in this church to call whoever is approved for call as they work with the synod bishop."
When asked what some of the greatest signs of hope have been in the past six months, Hanson cited that the ELCA has made a commitment to be a more racially diverse and pentecostal church.
A pastor in the audience asked how to keep "the zeal and focus on evangelism" at the center of mission, particularly in light of "many hot issues" in the church.
"It always is a tension between how much controversy can the church handle without being defined by the issues that tend to divide us rather than the gospel that unites us," Hanson replied. "I don't think hearing, believing and proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ means that we will be absent tension."
An online participant asked about what will happen to mission and funding. "We are about to reduce the budget of the churchwide organization significantly, and it's going to result in painful cuts in staff and grants," said Hanson. "What's tragic for me is that I bet every member of the ELCA wishes to be part of a church that's planting the church. An organism that doesn't regenerate itself dies," he said, adding that to regenerate takes imagination. "We are still committed to planting over 70 congregations next year" and "over 40 of them will be in multiethnic, multilingual and multicultural communities and communities where people live in deep poverty."
Another participant asked about the ELCA developing "evangelists" as in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania and other churches overseas. Hanson replied that one opportunity being considered in the church with synods and seminaries is creating "mission schools" -- not just learning the faith but how to live the faith as everyday evangelists.
An audience member asked Hanson what brings people together in the midst of division. Acknowledging that it has been a painful time for many congregations, Hanson said that the culture of many congregations is to "leave differences at the door." The "culture that we're in is so polarized around so many issues of personal morality that people bring that polarization and tension to the church," he said, adding that it is time to "take a breath and maybe engage … in acts of foot washing, public acts of healing and reflection. Words don't seem to do it anymore."
Human sexuality, Middle East peace, full communion topics addressed
In the town hall's second half, Hanson said he encouraged people to sit down with others who hold different points of view on human sexuality, ask questions and listen. Hanson said people with varying viewpoints should "start with the premise that you are both hearing God's Word."
On peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians, he said, "We are at a very critical moment. Pray that face-to-face dialogue will bring a two-state solution." He said this coming week is critical because of decisions that both sides must make regarding the possibility of continued building of Israeli settlements. Hanson also said Jerusalem must be a shared city.
On diversity in the ELCA, Hanson repeated his suggestion that white people must confront the realities of white privilege and not expect people from ethnic populations "to become like us." He said the church has "marvelous ethnic ministries, great diversity in ethnic leadership and great diversity in the (ELCA) churchwide organization."
One question concerned the ELCA's full communion relationships, in which it shares with each of six other U.S. Christian denominations: The Episcopal Church, Moravian Church, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Reformed Church in America, United Church of Christ and the United Methodist Church. Full communion allows for mutual exchange of pastors and sharing of resources at all levels of the churches. Hanson said coordinating committees that guide the relationships are being reconstituted with a focus on evangelism and mission. He said it is important for the churches to be strategic, pointing to conversations between ELCA seminaries and those of the full communion partners, as well as conversations about local mission between the churches.
When asked about reductions in annuity payments to retired ELCA clergy because of economic conditions, Hanson said it is difficult to differentiate that from the impact of the economy on people "who sit in our pews." As committed as the church is to help retired clergy, Hanson said "this is a very difficult time." He also declined to address a question about a terminated pension plan for Augsburg Fortress employees, since the matter is in litigation.
Regarding ELCA congregations that have taken votes to leave the denomination due to the 2009 Churchwide Assembly decisions on human sexuality, Hanson said, "Even after the sad decision of leaving the ELCA, we have to remember we are still sisters and brothers in the Body of Christ." He added that the ELCA and former ELCA members must then ask questions such as how they will speak of the other.
The presiding bishop warned that people should not "underestimate the tide of religious extremism (that) has to be countered." He said it is important for Lutherans to talk with Muslim and Jewish brothers and sisters and become "a collective force to turn the tide away from religious extremists." Hanson also said he has been engaged with Mulsim brothers and sisters in deep dialogue continuously in recent years.
In response to a final question about bringing the church to the outside world, Hanson said, "We have to plant the church where the people are" and not assume they will come to the church.
The presiding bishop's next online forum is planned for Sunday, Nov. 21.
For information contact:
John Brooks, Director (773) 380-2958 or firstname.lastname@example.org