By Melissa Ramirez Cooper, Associate director, ELCA Publications and Public Relations
The Conference of Bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) is discerning the denomination’s future directions and priorities in a new process known as “Called Forward Together in Christ.”
The conference is an advisory body of the ELCA that includes 65 synod bishops, the presiding bishop and secretary. It met here March 3-8 for worship and study and to continue its conversation on a variety of church matters, such as theological education, pastoral care and more. The Rev. William O. Gafkjen, bishop of the ELCA Indiana-Kentucky Synod, is conference chair.
ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth A. Eaton is leading “Called Forward Together in Christ,” endorsed by the ELCA Church Council and in collaboration with the Conference of Bishops. The process is designed to invite the more than 3.7 million-member ELCA into discernment about the church’s future. From this process, a statement will be prepared that articulates future directions and priorities that the council, which serves as the ELCA’s board of directors, will consider at its November 2016 meeting. The goal is to launch the statement in 2017 as part of the ELCA’s observance of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.
“The Conference of Bishops dedicated a full day to ‘Called Forward Together in Christ,’ the process we are using to invite the entire church into a conversation about our mission and priorities. The bishops were very engaged. I am hopeful about this process and grateful for the partnership with the conference,” said Eaton.
“We will be assessing where we are as God’s people and working to understand what God has in store for us. We are going to do a lot of listening – to God and to one another,” she said.
In its conversation the conference explored what is distinctive about the ELCA’s identity as a Lutheran church, how the church can become inclusive and diverse in a way that is inspiring and relevant in various communities, and it discussed critical ministries of the church in response to domestic and international events and more. The conference also considered how the invitation to conversation will be rolled out across the church.
Members of ELCA are also in conversation about the future of theological education. In the fall, the Church Council appointed a working group to receive feedback and create possible implementing strategies for a set of recommendations featured in a report from the Theological Education Advisory Council (TEAC) – authorized by the council to address in a holistic way issues on theological education, leadership development, candidacy, call and rostered leaders.
The conference met with presidents from the church’s eight seminaries March 5 to exchange insights about the partnership between seminaries and the ELCA’s 65 synods.
“This church places a high priority on theological education and formation for all of God’s people, especially for those who are called to some form of public ministry,” said Gafkjen in anticipation of group conversations between the conference and presidents.
When the conference met this past fall it responded to TEAC’s report with a statement that highlighted “the concern that significant changes in the ways we engage theological education are necessary if we are to maintain our commitment to broad-based and contextually appropriate theological education and formation for a new day,” Gafkjen said.
In her formal report to the conference, Eaton noted some recent movement and change in the church’s theological education system, especially among ELCA seminaries.
“This is one of the many reasons that it’s important for us to sit together as seminary leaders and bishops to speak with candor, to speak the truth in love, if you will, so that the whole body of the ELCA may be built up for its vital engagement in God’s mission of healing, hope, and reconciliation in the world,” said Gafkjen, adding that the hope for the conversation with seminary presidents was “to cultivate regular, transparent and mutual communications between synodical and seminary leaders as we move, together, into God’s unfolding future.”
The Rev. James R. Nieman, president of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, offered remarks prior to the conversations. From experience, he noted seven features for “healthy” partnerships between synods and seminary: financial support, bishop contact, selection of seminary board members, ministry networking, student recruitment, candidacy process and scholarly resources.
“There’s no one synod where all these exist in equal measure, and likewise we haven’t lived into this mutual relation as much as we truly want and need to,” said Nieman. “Yet the issue is really about support in the fullest sense, speaking well of one another in the Eighth Commandment sense, and seeing our common stake in theological education.”
Bound conscious, new realities
The conference received a final update about the “Ministry to and with Same Gender Couples and Their Families” working group from the Rev. Mary S. Froiland, bishop of the ELCA South-Central Synod of Wisconsin, and the Rev. S. John Roth, bishop of the ELCA Central/Southern Illinoi Synod. Both served on the working group. This past fall, the ELCA Church Council received a report with recommendations from the working group and referred the recommendations to the churchwide organization for implementation.
In their update, Froiland and Roth noted a recommendation about this church’s responsibility of providing pastoral care and that “providing for” could mean referral as an acceptable means. They also noted the preface to another recommendation that offered insight into some of the working group’s “quandaries” about whether or how to provide liturgical resources for same gender couples and their families – liturgy that can be used in marriage service.
The update prompted the conference to have a separate conversation about the church’s desire to move forward together as one church, as ELCA members differ in their convictions on matters related to human sexuality and “new realities,” such as the legalization of same-sex marriage in the United States.
The Rev. Kurt F. Kusserow, bishop of the ELCA Southwestern Pennsylvania Synod, told the conference that while “we want to be one church together … we don’t know how to get there.” The understanding of “bound conscience” served as “our first attempt at how we can get there” but the way it has been used and understood by the church since actions of the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly may not allow the way, he said.
That assembly adopted proposals to change ELCA ministry policies. One change created the possibility for Lutherans in same-sex relationships to serve as ordained ministers.
“Bound conscience worked to some degree. It got us through that task, to some degree. But now we still have an open question about how we are going to talk about marriage, complicated by the forward moving of the nation,” said the Rev. R. Guy Erwin, bishop of the ELCA Southwest California Synod.
The Ministry to and with Same Gender Couples and Their Families working group report offered several recommendations on equipping this church in its ministry to same gender families.
From its conversation, Gafkjen noted that the conference will also “put some thoughts together” for how this church can move forward.
In other business, the ELCA Conference of Bishops:
- affirmed the importance of continuing theological education for rostered leaders lifted up in the TEAC report, and it affirmed the expectation that every rostered leader engage in “a minimum of 50 contact hours per year of intentional continuing education.”
- received an update on ELCA Mission Support “experiments” among five synods. Mission Support is the financial offering from congregations shared with synods and the churchwide organization. An emphasis of the experiments is how to find efficiencies and effectiveness in increasing local accountability and Mission Support.
- learned about some changes and next steps in disability coverage from Portico Benefit Services.
- engaged in conversation about the church’s inter-religious calling and commitments.
- received an update on Always Being Made New: The Campaign for the ELCA. To date the campaign has received $76 million in cash gifts, $4 million in multi-year commitments, and $17 million in planned gifts. Combining cash gifts and multi-year commitments for a total of $80 million, the ELCA is 40.4 percent of the way toward the church’s $198 million goal by 2019.
- received reports from the ELCA vice president, treasurer and secretary and updates from the Conference of Bishops’ various committees.
Information about the Ministry to and with Same Gender Couples and Their Families working group’s report is available at http://download.elca.org/ELCA%20Resource%20Repository/M2SGF_Final_ENABLED.pdf.