Monday, April 19, 2010

Recent ELCA Church Council Meeting: Part 2

A lot of life and some much needed sleep intervened in the past week between the Part 1 post and Part 2 now. I decided that when I started nodding off at the computer, it probably meant that I needed to sleep, and that for once, I'd listen to my body. The surprising - to me, because I'm a slow learner about certain topics - thing was that I also got a much needed attitude adjustment along with the extra sleep.

I had been a bit down in the dumps about life in general, feeling less optimistic than I usually do, maybe even feeling a bit pessimistic. Getting enough sleep two days in a row turned my attitude around, and I started to see possibilities again. I will pray that this learning will take hold, and if it doesn't, then I will pray that I will rediscover this lesson again . . . and again. Hard heads need some extra persistent schooling in the school of hard knocks.


(Look for Report of Particular Actions of the Church Council, which will be posted on the ELCA Web site here at a later date.)

Five major actions were taken by the Church Council at its April, 2010, meeting to address some of the fifteen implementing resolutions passed at the Churchwide Assembly held in August, 2009. The implementing resolutions can be found at the end of the Human Sexuality Social Statement. The five actions were:
  1. Revision of "Definitions and Guidelines for Discipline"
  2. Revision of "Vision and Expectations"
  3. Revision of the Candidacy Manual
  4. Revisions to the ELCA Pension and Other Benefits Program
  5. Rite for Reception onto the Roster of Ordained Ministers
The first plenary session was on the morning of day two (Saturday) of the meeting, at which time an overview of Revisions to Ministry Policies was given. Voting on the first three actions above took place at the fourth plenary session close to the end of day one. The final two actions above were voted upon in the two morning plenary sessions of day three (Sunday). 

In each plenary sessions, time was allotted to a Dwelling in the Word witness, and there was one Bible Study led by the Rev. Andrea DeGroot-Nesdahl, which I blogged about here. Prayer was offered prior to each vote on a substantive matter. Discussion was invited prior to each vote, after the motion had been made and seconded. 

The planning and conversations that preceded the presentation of the five action items were so well conceived and received that the resolutions passed without significant debate or verbalized dissent. It was interesting to observe that discussion tended to be the asking of clarifying questions primarily, although Pastor Kathryn Tiede asked a number of pointed questions that expanded the dialogue. Committee meetings had been held on day one of the meeting, and the conversations in those meetings were much livelier and more robust.

The church leaders in their oral reports acknowledged the difficulty of the conversations and the fact that the ELCA is not of one mind about the Human Sexuality Social Statement and its implications. Nothing was glossed over. Respect for the diversity of thought in the church and in the Council chambers was evident in every person who spoke from the podium or at a microphone at the Council tables and in the room. The liaison bishops were frequently invited to add their perspective and to share conversations from the Conference of Bishops. Mr. Carlos Pena, Vice President, commented in his report, "The bishops model conversations in the midst of disagreement," exhibiting "calm voices and words of wisdom."

It was significant and moving to the assembled when Pastor Keith Hunsinger, who had abstained from at least one of the votes above, shared at the end of the four day meeting that his abstention rather than a "No" vote was made out of respect for the work that had been done by the Churchwide Assembly, the Council and the ELCA, even though he didn't agree with the actions taken last August. Many Council members thanked Pastor Hunsinger publicly and privately for his comments. It was another reminder that the ELCA is not of one mind, but as a church has adopted policy that it is enacting.

Here are some remarks from some of the church leaders who gave reports that I found particularly relevant, and some of my reflections on their remarks:

    Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson: 
  • "We, the ELCA, are a people of new birth and living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ." The theme of Easter was repeatedly voiced throughout this meeting by all leaders.
  • Regarding unity: "We are defined by our relatedness as opposed to what separates us," and "Every time a congregation votes to leave this church or a leader leaves us, we are diminished. Such actions must cause all of us to ask if this is what it means to be the stewards of reconciliation in Christ's unity? A reminder: the eighth commandment - speak well of them - we are commanded to uplift the church, not to tear it down . . . . ELCA is committed to planting the church, not uprooting it." Not only was the conversation civil throughout the meeting, but I never detected any whining on anyone's part. I sensed a real spirit of coming together and pulling together to do the mission of the church.
  • On evangelism: "We are everyday evangelists - each of us. Congregations are re-rooting the church in their communities, listening and responding to the Spirit's command to re-root the church, the evangelical, inclusive church . . . for the life of the world and not for the preservation of our denomination." I really like the explicitness of this statement, that the church does not exist to preserve itself.
  • On world mission: "Over $9 million has been raised for Haiti in a depressed economy with every dollar going to relief and development. It is with ecumenical partners that we engage in world mission. 'Accompaniment' is the key word for world mission. An example is a grant from Lutheran World Mission going to Basil Church in Malaysia for its work in developing a growing mission for Chinese immigrants in Madagascar. Mission means joining with others." Accompaniment is what I have called "companioning," which I have blogged about here and believe is essential when partnering with those who have fewer resources and less capacity.
  • On speaking with world leaders: During a visitation with Pope Benedict, Bishop Hanson told the primate that he is praying for him and all the victims of sexual abuse, because "concentric circles of abuse encircle all of us." In brief remarks prior to the beginning of the National Prayer Breakfast, Bishop Hanson indicated to President Obama his hope for a just and lasting peace in Israel and Palestine. To me, it is a matter of good stewardship as well as good leadership to utilize the access opportunities to key world leaders to communicate the important messages of the church personally. Kudos to Bishop Hanson!
  • On new starts: "We are a descendants of immigrants and slaves, become a church of new immigrants," and "23 of 41 new starts are for immigrants." Bishop Hanson sat next to Secretary Janet Napolitano of Homeland Security at the National Prayer Breakfast and told her that the ELCA will be there for the long haul for immigration reform and signed a letter urging immigration reform with a path to citizenship, because we must protect family unity.
    During the Overview of Revisions to Ministry Policies:
  • This is the first time since 1993 that the appeals guidelines regarding discipline have been revisited.
  • The motif in Vision and Expectations is one of trustworthiness in Holy Living.
  • In the Candidacy Manual, the language used has moved away from Bound Conscience to guidelines terminology.
  • There is an emphasis on the spiritual well-being of the individual. Reference was made by the speakers to the Wholeness Wheel. From the Web site, "The wheel reminds us that being truly healthy and whole is about being in balance and intentionally nurturing all aspects of health surrounded and supported by spiritual health." I, for one, need to pay some attention to the Wholeness Wheel and learn from the teaching around it.

    The Treasurer's Report by Ms. Christina Jackson-Skelton :
  • The key goal in monitoring the church's financial status is to avoid operating deficits. Because receipt of income from synods is subject to time lags, it is difficult to project income accurately. Thus, caution in spending is required. The operating budget is based on estimated income and not on the prior year's actual results. There is a need for maintaining adequate operating reserves to assist cash flow.
  • Mission support has decreased $9.16 million from November, 2009, to the present, and the budget in November was already anticipating and accounting for that decrease. Actual dollars decreased even while some percentages of mission support from synods increased. (In other words, percentages of decreased amounts received by synods yield decreased dollars to the churchwide budget.) Of the 65 synods, 19 decreased their percentage giving, 30 remained at the same level as the prior year, and 16 increased. Working with the Office of the Bishop, a contingency plan is being developed in the event of further decreases in mission support.
  • Here are some interesting and somewhat shocking statistics: in 1965, 13% of total congregational giving went to support the national church; in 2008, that figure was 2.9%; in 2009, the percentage was slightly under 6%; and the present percentage just fell below 5% support to churchwide and synods. 
  • A renewed emphasis on one-on-one stewardship conversations is underway at the Church Council and synod levels. During the Council meeting, at lunch breaks, a number of Council members were engaged in these one-on-one stewardship conversations. 
  • I had previously observed that the collection taken at the Holy Eucharist in November totaled an impressive amount, and once again, at this meeting's Eucharist, almost $5,000 was collected for two different mission activities. Asking is of paramount importance. Asking one-on-one is highly effective, because the story of the church's need for support and how that support translates into mission can be told with a personal touch. I belong to The Episcopal Church, but feel compelled to support the ELCA also as an ecumenical partner who is present at their meetings and hears their story. 
  • Legacy (planned) giving is being introduced programmatically through a new campaign known as the Kalos Legacy Society. There will be opportunities for synods and congregations to create their own legacy societies to honor church members who remember the church and its institutions in their wills and at death.
  • Ms. Jackson-Skelton quoted Pastor Craig Settlage, Director for Mission Support: "As the ELCA, we do mission together through our financial gifts." In The Episcopal Church, we say that "Everything I do and everything I say with everything I am and everything I have, is stewardship, after I say, 'I believe.'" We are looking at stewardship not only of resources (time, talent and treasure), but also stewardship of mission - how we as Imago Dei are created for mission, to proclaim the Good News of God in Christ.
  • The Budget Summary document acknowledges explicitly the sadness of financial hardships upon individuals and congregations and the resulting funding changes.
    Racial Justice Process Observation:
  • The Racial Justice Process Observation team elected to streamline the form used by all attendees at the Council meeting and to have the oral report made only at the end of the three day business meeting followed by the half-day mini-retreat.
  • Of significance during the meeting was the first-time ever invitation of a guest, Ms. Amalia Vagts, Executive Director of Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries (ELM), to address the assembled in response to a question concerning the Rite for Reception onto the Roster of Ordained Ministers. She was brief, eloquent and to the point in responding. ELM had a team of observers at the entire meeting to listen and to network. You can learn more about the ELM's alternative roster of ordained pastors at their Web site. The Rite was passed by the Council without any discussion of the fact that alternative ordination means ordination outside the apostolic succession, which for Episcopalians, is certainly an issue, but one that might be worked out with "conditional ordination" by an Episcopal bishop.
  • On day four (Monday) the Process Observation Team invited me to join the team, and I eagerly agreed since I serve The Episcopal Church as both an Anti-Racism Trainer as well as on our Executive Council's Racial Justice Training team. I am honored to be asked and hope to learn from the ELCA team and to share ideas from The Episcopal Church's approach to racial justice and anti-racism training through our Seeing the Face of God in Each Other and other programs.
  • Bishop Mark Hanson suggested at the end of the mini-retreat on day four that he still believes it's important to do Process Observation at the end of each day. His remarks were triggered by the fact that I had raised a point during the mini-retreat presentation that was a teaching moment. The retreat leader, Pastor Stephen Bouman, Executive Director of Evangelical Outreach and Congregational Mission, had presented a beautifully developed metaphor for the communion table, namely, the kitchen table. I pointed out that for me, growing up in an immigrant family, the kitchen table was non-existent in the sense that he was inviting us to reflect upon it, and that metaphor caused me to get stuck at that point in the discussion. Then when Pastor Bouman next introduced a Bible passage that talked about calling all the men, I got waylaid further by my feminist consciousness on top of my immigrant consciousness. Pastor Bouman was gracious and skilled in hearing my point and in incorporating the teaching for the benefit of all present.
Dear Reader, that's all for this post. I want to post at least one more time on this Church Council meeting and write about Renewing the Ecology of the ELCA: LIFT - Living into the Future Together, Presiding Bishop Susan Johnson of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada's remarks, and perhaps one or two other topics. I am very grateful to the leaders of the ELCA for their gracious hospitality to me as the representative from The Episcopal Church. I am learning a great deal from attending the Church Council meetings, and I hope that the ELCA will soon appoint a representative to our Executive Council meetings to continue and expand our ecumenical dialogue. 

I won't be back online to post again until probably the next weekend. I'm going to the Diocese of Colorado's Standing Committee's annual retreat on Monday to Wednesday and then traveling to Washington state on Thursday to visit my husband, who lives and recently retired there. Goodnight! although Good morning! might be more accurate.

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.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

What sustains us

Times have been tough lately for a number of my friends. There have been hospitalizations for ailments that remain undiagnosed even after a lengthy stay and discharge, falling off the wagons of weight loss, illegal drug dependency and cigarette smoking, and breast cancer and melanomas. How do any of us remain sane, good to our partners and consistent about showing up at work and school in the face of these challenges?

A lovely, lovable young woman is stepping through the mental health system right now, internalizing all the pain she sees around her while trying to emerge from the psychotropic drugs that numb her ability to experience the joy of sunshine, fragrant flowers and beautiful music. She's hanging on to a string of Tibetan prayer flags, fragile and ephemeral, like the thin paper they're made of, and a book of quotes about peaceful living.

I send her prayers, continuously in each waking moment and in all the sleeping ones, too. Prayers, effusive as my love for her. Prayers, elusive as the peace I wish for her. We are connected by thoughts that flash in and out of observation, existing in a quantum world, unseeable by the naked eye. What sustains her is her knowledge that my love for her is constant, unwavering even when unseen, traversing distances that span half a continent and silences that span weeks.

Today I read an article and watched a video of another young woman, Sarah Kruzan, now 29, who was seduced from a life of inner city poverty into a life of street prostitution at age 13 and killed her oppressor, her pimp, at age 16. She was tried, convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment without parole plus four years. Watching her gentle demeanor and listening to her thoughtful, remorseful words, I could not help but wonder, what sustains Sarah, what gives Sarah the hope to keep on living?

Yesterday Herb and I had a flare up, an argument of sorts that wasn't really an argument. This happens rarely in our relationship, which is generally full of accommodation and adaptability. We had reached the end of our figurative ropes in dealing with the stuff of our lives: his kidney disease, the endless fixing up of a house that refuses to be fixed up completely, my hyperactive schedule, his living across a time zone and multiple states, etc., etc., etc. What sustains us?

What sustains anyone? I have some guesses about this. I think we must have hope that there are possibilities in the future that will be different than what exists in the present, and I think that we must have love that we believe is constant, unwavering and dependable.

We suffer many losses in the progression of our lives - the loss of innocence, possessions, love, loved ones, pride, ambition . . . but the greatest loss is the loss of hope. Without hope that something different than what is, awaits us around the corner of our tomorrows, what is left to motivate us to go on?

For those of us who believe in Christ Jesus, we theologize that our hope is in the Lord, a gift of hope that is not of our own imagining or making. We are linked to something bigger than ourselves, more than just a promised eternity, to something that overtakes and overwhelms whatever dreams or fantasies that we can imagine or think of.

For nonbelievers and for each other, I think that we have a responsibility as inextricably interdependent human beings not to take away anyone's hope even if we cannot proactively offer hope. As an Episcopalian, I pray in church with the rest of the congregation, "Let not the hope of the poor be taken away." The poor refers to the poor in spirit as well as the poor in economic terms. This is a prayer that speaks volumes to my heart. It hurts my heart to know there are Sarah Kruzan's in the world whose hope has been taken away by our criminal justice system.

The ideal of a constant, unwavering, dependable love reminds me of a key tenet of what I have come to call my "theology of the outsider," which is "always showing up." It fits into the words from the film, "Galaxy Quest," spoken by the aliens, "Never give up, never give in."

I am reminded of a news story I read probably four decades ago about an Israeli mother who, instead of dashing off the burning bus after a bomb exploded, turned around and rushed into the back of the bus to embrace her young children who were unable to escape. That, to me, is a prime example of a constant, unwavering, dependable love. "You can count on me to the end of your days." That is something that could sustain any of us.