ELCA bishops look at theological education, Mission Support

10/9/2015 12:00:00 AM

            CHICAGO (ELCA) – Lifting up a number of topics that will help move forward the mission and ministry of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), an Oct. 1-6 meeting here of the ELCA Conference of Bishops was framed by a commitment to engage the more than 3.7 million-member church in deep conversations about Mission Support, theological education and more.

            The conference is an advisory body of the ELCA that includes 65 synod bishops, the presiding bishop and secretary. It gathers at least twice a year for worship and study, sharing and to conduct business. The Rev. Jessica R. Crist, bishop of the ELCA Montana Synod, serves as conference chair.
            Acknowledging that the denomination is at a "kairos" moment in regards to theological education, the bishops considered three draft recommendations outlined in a report from the ELCA Theological Education Advisory Council (TEAC) – authorized by the ELCA Church Council to address in a holistic way issues on theological education, leadership development, candidacy, call and rostered leaders.
            "There is a sense of urgency" in this work, said the Rev. Elizabeth A. Eaton, ELCA presiding bishop.
            A reason for the ELCA to engage in this work is to offer the world "a theological language of hope, grace, inclusion, reconciliation and compassion" and to reinvigorate this church in its teaching ministries, specifically calling for a more integrated understanding of theological education "for all God's people."
            The three draft recommendations cited in TEAC's report are to:
+ create and sustain a network of theological education that "serves the mission of the gospel";
+ link vocational discernment and theological education for specific target audiences in and beyond the church, particularly on those whose leadership will strengthen the "missional future" of the ELCA; and
+ ensure the mission vibrancy and financial stability of the ELCA seminaries as they serve "their crucial roles in our theological education network."
            In its discussion of these, the conference focused on the third recommendation and its four proposed actions – particularly the first action called 3A – which asks ELCA seminaries in the next three years to form a common theological education enterprise that has planning structures and decision-making authority to enable the sharing of faculty resources; organize a common recruitment and application process; generate a common research agenda; and enable operational efficiencies that free up resources needed for expanded work and new experiments in theological education.
            With the aid of an external consultant, TEAC and seminary leaders imagined five possible models for organizing and moving forward the ELCA seminary network. The bishops considered the models and drafted a statement that reflects their preferences. The statement will be shared with the ELCA Church Council, which is expected to review the TEAC report with the draft recommendations later this fall and take action in spring 2016.
            "While the Conference of Bishops resolution focuses on the third of the recommendations of TEAC, all the recommendations are important," said the Rev. Jon V. Anderson, bishop of the ELCA Southwestern Minnesota Synod.
            Anderson, chair of the conference's theological and ethical concerns committee, participated in the drafting of the statement. The statement expresses an appreciation of the TEAC report and an acknowledgement of "the courage of the leadership of our eight seminaries engaging" in conversations. "We remain sensitive to the disruptive and necessary change these proposed changes will bring."
            The conference's statement also affirms its desire for the work to move forward. It rejected the model that would keep the status quo, names the support of the conference for recommendation 3A, and it expresses support of the conference for two of the five models which would move toward the greatest collaboration and common work, said Anderson.
            The conference "strongly advocates the necessary reform that best serves the current and future mission of Christ's church for the sake of the world…. In moving toward a more centralized model for the sake of better stewardship, we call for innovation, responsiveness, accessibility and flexibility. We pledge ourselves to this work with our partners at our seminaries."

Mission Support
            The conference also received a draft of a comprehensive strategy on Mission Support – the portion of financial offerings from ELCA congregations shared with the church's 65 synods and the churchwide organization. The comprehensive draft strategy calls for ELCA members, congregations and synods to become more deeply engaged in growing stewardship and Mission Support sharing. It identifies current stewardship and Mission Support systems within the ELCA churchwide organization and five strategic Mission Support initiatives for 2016-2018.
            "In some ways, we're looking at the definition of Mission Support," said the Rev. Margaret G. Payne, director for ELCA Mission Support. "What is Mission Support? What does it mean? We're turning a really big corner in understanding how we are church together," she said, adding that at the heart of things is rebuilding relationships with trust and accountability.
            The draft strategy is designed to encourage conversations about Mission Support among "our congregations," said the Rev. Mark E. Narum, bishop of the ELCA Western North Dakota Synod. "There is a call for each of us to establish a group of people in our territories to talk about, what is our goal? What are we going to do in developing a clear Mission Support plan?" He added that the "whole idea of what's behind (the draft strategy) is getting to stewardship as a faith practice."
            This past spring, the ELCA Church Council acted on a series of proposals designed to examine and explore new opportunities to fund the mission of this church. The recommendations were part of a report from the ELCA Mission Support Think Tank – appointed in 2013 by Eaton to address this church's financial resources, particularly the decline in Mission Support.
            Reflecting on the council's actions and the work of the Mission Support Think Tank, Eaton said that she hopes for "significant buy in" from the churchwide organization, the Conference of Bishops and the Church Council but that "this process is not just us talking together." "This will be a conversation across this church, and that we would all fervently pray that somehow we would find a way – God find a way – to determine where this church is going," she said.
            The conference also considered efforts that are underway for determining the future directions and priorities of the ELCA. The conference received a paper outlining preliminary ideas on a process for determining future directions and priorities.
            In other business, the conference:
+ elected its executive committee. The Rev. William O. Gafkjen, bishop of the ELCA Indiana Kentucky Synod, was elected chair of the ELCA Conference of Bishops and the Rev. Tracie L. Bartholomew, bishop of the ELCA New Jersey Synod, vice chair. The Rev. R. Guy Erwin, bishop of the ELCA Southwest California Synod; the Rev. Shelley R. Wickstrom, bishop of the ELCA Alaska Synod; and the Rev. Michael L. Burk, bishop of the ELCA Southeastern Iowa Synod, were also elected to serve on the executive committee.

+ received and expressed gratitude for "Declaration on the Way: Church, Ministry and Eucharist"– a document that explores the consensus achieved between Lutherans and Catholics over the past 50 years of dialogues, both international and regional on the topics of church, ministry and Eucharist. The conference also affirmed the Declaration's 32 Statements of Agreement on these topics, and it requested that the ELCA Church Council accept the statements of agreement and forward the entire document to the 2016 ELCA Churchwide Assembly.

+ continued offering perspectives about the formation of a single ELCA roster. The ELCA's study and dialogue about the work and ministry of its lay rosters began in 2007, which led to the ELCA Church Council appointing a Word and Service Task Force to continue overseeing this process. A discernment team was also appointed to give particular attention to the "entrance rite" for the roster and to offer a recommendation about this rite for consideration by the 2019 ELCA Churchwide Assembly. The task force is recommending consecration as the entrance rite for this new roster until the Entrance Rite Discernment Group makes a final recommendation for an appropriate rite, and it is proposing the title of "deacon" to new ELCA members on the roster. The ELCA Church Council will be receiving the recommendation for the formation of a single ELCA roster this fall.

+ received an introduction to possible constitutional changes from ELCA Secretary Wm Chris Boerger. Possible changes include chapters regarding the "nature of the church," mission funding, commitment to becoming more ethnically and racially diverse, multi-point parishes and pastors and more.

+ received the new ELCA candidacy manual. Two years in the making, the manual is the result of a collaborative review process that included consultations and review of comments and recommendations from bishops, synod candidacy committee, seminary presidents and others.

+ noted its statement on gun violence, available at http://download.ELCA.org/ELCA Resource Repository/COB_Pastoral_Letter_On_Violence.pdf.

+ received reports from the presiding bishop, vice president, secretary and treasurer. In her report, the Rev. Linda O. Norman, ELCA treasurer, said the ELCA churchwide organization's total operating revenue and support is $38.8 million for the seven-month period ending Aug, 31 – $1  million higher than expenses of $37.8 million. Net revenue over expenses is favorable to the period budget by $4.8 million, and $0.9 million more than the seven months ending Aug. 31, 2014. Mission Support income for the seven months was $25.7 million, 99 percent of budget, but unfavorable to the prior year by $0.6 million.
            Boerger noted that the membership of the ELCA is 3,765,403 million, a decline of 2.53 percent from the previous year.

+ received reports from the director of Mission Support, executive for ELCA synodical relations and executive for worship. In his report, the Rev. Kevin L. Strickland, executive for worship, shared a draft report of "Table and Font: Who is Welcome" intended for the ELCA Church Council. "There's considerable diversity in worship practices" among ELCA congregations, he told the conference.

+ received an update on the new proposed social message on gender-based violence, which is now in a two-part format – the message and foundation documentation. The proposed message will be prepared for the ELCA Church Council's consideration this fall.

+ held a conversation on race and racism, Eucharist presiding, and AMMPARO (Accompanying Migrant Minors with Protection, Advocacy, Representation and Opportunity).

+ received updates about campus ministry, Book of Faith, Portico Benefit Services, Mission Builders, ELCA Ministry to Same Gender Couple and their Families, and the ELCA comprehensive campaign called  Always Being Made New: The Campaign for the ELCA. The campaign has received $62.2 million in revenue and commitments to date, which is 31.4 percent of the goal of $198 million by Jan. 31, 2019.
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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 more than 3.7 million members in more than 9,300 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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