Sunday, April 11, 2010

Impressions of the ELCA Church Council Meeting This Weekend: Part 1

By way of background, I am the representative elected from The Episcopal Church's Executive Council to serve as an ecumenical partner to the Church Council of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). My role is to listen, learn, share and report so that both churches can benefit from this leadership exchange between our two churches' leadership boards. The first ELCA Church Council meeting I attended was in November, 2009, and my blog post from that meeting can be found here.
Sign in the afternoon shadows in the 11th floor "Welcome Center"

Saturday, April 10th, was day two of the three-and-half day ELCA Church Council meeting at The Lutheran Center near O'Hare Airport, Chicago. I have ten pages of hand-scrawled notes on a yellow pad and two pages of typewritten notes, from which to choose impressions and ideas to share. I know that for this meeting, I will be writing more than one blog post, because a lot of what has been discussed and accomplished is noteworthy and should be shared widely. I will defer writing about Saturday's approval of the Candidacy Manual, because more actions are to come on Sunday. The Candidacy Manual is one step among several that move the ELCA's Social Statement on Human Sexuality adopted at the 2009 General Assembly from theological statement to praxis by way of the establishment of guidelines for how the church will proceed.


I want to begin by reporting on a Bible Study on day two led by the Rev. Andrea DeGroot-Nesdahl, former bishop of North Dakota, which was perhaps the single best Bible Study in which I have ever participated. 

Rev. DeGroot-Nesdahl identified three themes based on Scripture passages, which resonated with the preceding reports and discussions on LIFT (Living Into the Future Together, Renewing the Ecology of the ELCA Task Force) and Mission Funding and with the Presiding Bishop's report. After she read (most of) each Scripture passage and gave a brief exegesis, followed by several slides taken during her recent mission trip to Zimbabwe and Malawi, she also asked three questions, which we were invited to discuss in pairs and triads. They included the following:

    New Life, Acts 9:1-22
  • What New Life are you holding? (personally)
  • What New Life are we holding? (church)
  • What new life is evident in our world? (global)
This passage of Acts relates the story of Saul's "Come to Jesus moment" when he was blind even though his eyes were open and when the scales fell from his eyes, and he was transformed into the New Life of chief evangelist of the Messiah and first century church planter.

Rev. DeGroot-Nesdahl visited a hospital in Zimbabwe, which had been without electricity for two weeks. Her slides showed mothers with newborns: "The perfection of new life in the eyes of one who helped to create it. New life - so tender, so fragile - needing to be nurtured and tended." Rev. DeGroot-Nesdahl's words harkened back to Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson's remarks at the start of the first plenary session, when he asked, "Who are we, the ELCA?" and continued, "We are a people of new birth, of living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ." The Easter theme of resurrection and new life, in this, the first week of Easter, has been a recurring refrain throughout this Church Council meeting.

    Share the Good News, Romans 10:14-17
  • Who brings the Gospel to life for you?
  • Who brings the Gospel to life in the faith community?
  • Through whom is God bringing the Gospel to the world?
This passage raises the question of "If not me, then whom, Lord?" which contains its own answer. It's a question that believers ask when they fear the good, but hard, work of proclaiming the Good News of God in Christ Jesus, which we promise to do in our Baptismal Covenant. For Episcopalians, the Baptismal Covenant is the core of our worship, worship that shapes what we believe (Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi), and we renew that covenant each time we worship and pray in a baptism or confirmation service.

Rev. DeGroot-Nesdahl showed slides of a Jeep convoy stuck in the mud during heavy rains in Zimbabwe and the muddy feet and shoes of those who left the vehicles behind to walk to the next village. She asked the question "Who's in the vehicle with you?" in reference to the accompaniment model of doing global mission, where you let those whom you are serving take the lead because you are listening - to the community and to the Spirit. 

We in The Episcopal Church are presently very conscious of this model of serving the people in Haiti, because Episcopal Relief & Development is deferring to the Diocese of Haiti's Bishop Jean Zache Duracin and his people's telling us what their needs and their timetable for rebuilding are. Sometimes our impatience with waiting to "get something done" is not about the actual pace and progress of the work before us. Instead, our impatience is an expression of our anxieties born out of our egos: "We know how to do this!" and "What will they think of us because we aren't doing anything?"

On one of the slides a sign on the road in Zimbabwe said, "There are no shortcuts to anywhere worth going." That sign and the model of accompaniment, or what I call "companioning," based on my personal experience working with refugees and immigrants, remind me of a term Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori of The Episcopal Church uses, "Radical Vulnerability." To be radically vulnerable, to accompany or companion as opposed to merely giving dollars and going on in-out-and-over mission trips, engages all of who we are in relationship with all of who our neighbors are in their human dignity, desires, independence and hope.

    Community in Christ, Luke 24:28-35
  • How do you experience community in Christ?
  • How is Christian community evident in the Church?
  • How is God at work in the world?
Rev. DeGroot-Nesdahl says this passage is about "Holy heartburn," where the hearts of the disciples were burning while the resurrected Jesus was talking to them on the road, opening the Word to them. In her words, there is an "urgent need to be together" as the disciples gathered in Jerusalem to share their stories of encountering the risen Christ. 

I, too, have experienced that intense yearning to be with my own church family. I travel a great deal because of my church leadership roles and the fact that my husband lives in Washington state, where he worked until his recent retirement, and I live in our permanent home in Colorado with my mother, and thus, am not at my parish church very often. One Sunday, after a long absence, I found myself jumping up at the 8:00 AM service, right after the Psalm, because I remembered I was supposed to be at another church leading the Adult Christian Ed forum. I got there in time, led the class, and rushed back to my home parish in time for communion and the rest of the service. I was truly yearning, had an urgent need, to be together with my community in Christ. 

Rev. DeGroot-Nesdahl also showed a slide of a little girl sitting amidst other children, tightly grasping what appeared to be a mango in her hands. You could see the determination on her face. She wasn't letting go of that mango for anything. It was an image that brought to mind for Rev. DeGroot-Nesdahl the question that I was just asking in my previous blog post, "What sustains us?" Presiding Bishop Hanson points us in the direction of Christian unity, "We [the ELCA] are defined by our relatedness as opposed to what separates us." In The Episcopal Church our Catechism says that our mission is to reconcile ourselves to God and to each other. As Christians, it's all about relationship and connectedness, to God and to each other.
Church Council meets in its own space on the 11th floor, 
which houses the Offices of the Presiding Bishop and the Secretary.


Dwelling in the Word is the two-minute witness related to scripture that is offered throughout the Church Council meetings by different invited speakers from those in attendance. The structure is part storytelling from one's own experience and family background and part placing oneself into a biblical context. From my observation, Dwelling in the Word appears to be for the purpose of deepening our spiritual connection to one another.

At The Episcopal Church's 2009 General Convention we were introduced to Public Narrative, to which the Dwelling in the Word witness bears some resemblance to parts one and two. Public Narrative was introduced to General Convention deputies for the purpose of providing a common model for not only telling our stories, but moving us to action as a mission-shaped church. Public Narrative comprises three parts: The Story of Me, The Story of Us, and The Story of Now. The Story of Me is about a specific something in my life that motivates me to do the ministry that I am passionate about. The Story of Us is how my ministry plays out in community. The Story of Now includes a call to action based on the ministry about which I am passionate. An entire Public Narrative lasts five or six minutes.

At the current time, the ELCA Church Council is also engaging one-on-one stewardship conversations, especially around legacy (planned) giving, in the face of downward trends in Mission Funding. I am wondering if the addition of a call to action component to the Dwelling in the Word witness might not enhance individual stewardship and evangelism efforts.

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