By Candice Hill Buchbinder, ELCA News

Meeting under the theme “To Claim and Test Our Heritage,” the Conference of Bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) engaged in discussions around two key priorities for this church: congregational vitality and leadership. The conference, which met here March 1-6, is an advisory body of the ELCA that includes 65 synod bishops, the presiding bishop and the secretary.

In her report to the conference, ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth A. Eaton stressed the importance of upholding the foundation of the Lutheran church. Eaton addressed this through the lens of the four main emphases that provide the framework for the work happening across this church: We are church; we are Lutheran; we are church together; we are church for the sake of the world.

“When we say we’re church, we say, therefore, our foundation is Christ and we gather around word and sacrament,” Eaton said. “That’s foundational. We want people to go to church, be faithful in the use of the means of grace and pray without ceasing. We need to get back to basics.”

Speaking to the second emphasis, “we are Lutheran,” Eaton underscored the Lutheran understanding that “in the suffering and death of Jesus, through grace and faith, we live in the promise of the resurrection.”

Eaton also asserted that the sacraments “are an important part of our life together. When we talk about baptism, it’s not just the event that happens for the newly baptized but (Martin) Luther’s rich understanding of baptism that informs and supports every part of our life,” she said. “Do we talk about that in our congregations?”

Recalling the words of St. Paul, Eaton reflected on the third emphasis, “So, we who are many are one body in Christ, and individually, we are members one of another.” “In baptism, we are incorporated into the body of Christ,” she said. “How do we help our people understand that they are part of something greater than themselves?”

Eaton connected the fourth emphasis to congregational vitality: “We’re church for the sake of the world. How many of our congregations are just trying to hold on to their little patch of territory? And that’s intentionally part of the congregational vitality piece – that we’re connected to God, we’re connected in our congregations, but we’re also connected with our communities.” Eaton emphasized this is what the church does “because we are church first rooted in word and sacrament.”

In closing, Eaton told the conference she is willing to serve another six-year term as presiding bishop. “If God and the church will have me, I’m willing to stand for election again,” she said.

Election for an ELCA presiding bishop will be one of the key actions at the 2019 ELCA Churchwide Assembly, Aug. 5-10 in Milwaukee. Eaton was elected to her first term as presiding bishop at the 2013 Churchwide Assembly.

The conference also received an update on the congregation vitality project. The project was created to deepen the ELCA’s understanding of congregational vitality – what it means, how vital the ELCA is now, how vitality can be cultivated and how the ELCA can foster cultivation. Key findings identified in the report include: The most vital congregations can be any size or shape; vitality is not directly connected to numeric growth nor is it related to congregation location; more vital does not mean more sustainable.

“The conversations around congregational vitality led us to affirm a foundational description of vitality that is both focused enough to point a way forward around core commitments and broad enough to empower contextual engagement for the sake of the gospel,” said the Rev. William O. Gafkjen, bishop of the ELCA Indiana-Kentucky Synod and chair of the conference

In response to a continuing resolution passed by the 2016 Churchwide Assembly, the conference spent time discussing increasing the diversity in ELCA congregations. The continuing resolution states in part: “This church commits itself to ethnic and racial diversity. Each expression of this church shall annually asses its ethnic and racial diversity when compared to the demographic data of its community or territory.” During the session, the bishops were asked to identify priorities in their synod and the ways in which increased diversity can be addressed. The conference will assess their efforts and progress during its October 2018 meeting.

“Our recent meeting was also framed by commitment to and relationships with young people,” said Gafkjen. “We began our meeting in worship and fellowship with the ELCA’s Youth Core Leadership Team, a dozen high school students from around the church who are both growing in their leadership skills and leading the church in a variety of ways.”

In further affirmation of this commitment, the conference approved a statement in support of young people as they seek to address gun violence and school safety.

The conference also engaged with ELCA seminary presidents, focusing on the ELCA’s priority to identify and encourage leaders in the church.

“The significant time we spent with seminary leaders as part of our two-year commitment to work together in addressing the leadership needs of the church led us to form a number of small working groups to address various aspects of leadership from discernment and recruitment to equipping, forming, deploying and supporting leaders of all sorts,” said Gafkjen.

In other business, the ELCA Conference of Bishops:

  • received an update on Always Being Made New: The Campaign for the ELCA. As of Jan. 31, the campaign has received $144 million in cash and commitments to campaign priorities and an additional $30 million in planned gifts. This amount represents 73 percent of the $198 million Jan. 31, 2019, goal. Included in the campaign focus for 2018 is the ELCA World Hunger’s Global Farm Challenge during the ELCA Youth Gathering in Houston June 27-July 1. In his report, the Rev. Ron Glusenkamp, director for the campaign, announced that Rick Steves has made a $100,000 commitment toward a match for the challenge;
  • received a draft of the policy statement on inter-religious relations. The policy statement will be considered by the 2019 Churchwide Assembly;
  • received a report from the director of Mission Support. Mission Support is the financial offering from congregations shared with synods and the churchwide organization;
  • received an update on the ELCA Youth Gathering; and
  • received reports from the ELCA vice president, treasurer and secretary and updates from the Conference of Bishops’ various committees.

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