ELCA Assembly 2011: A Good Read
A national church convention always draws a certain amount of attention, and leaves a record that will help future historians gauge the state of that church at a given point in time. Participants (called voting members in the ELCA) and on-the-scene observers typically offer an immediate assessment and share their impressions of the spirit and significance of such a gathering. Held August 15-19 at the Marriott World Center outside Orlando, Florida (a huge hotel complex in the “suburbs” just outside Disney World), the 2011 Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America was described in response to my informal polling by phrases such as: a festival of unity, a church moving on (from the contentious debates over sexuality that have dominated recent biennial assemblies), mostly sunny (see an article by my friend Eric Shafer in the Reading Eagle Times), taking a breather, cautiously hopeful, signaling dramatic change, boring, and an assembly in search of a destination.
As a non-voting “other member” present for much of the Florida gathering (while not out visiting Seminary supporters and the heads of two Florida-based foundations), I conclude that, while not a blockbuster or best seller by assembly standards, it was a solid “good read,” with multiple chapters that will have lasting impact. It was an assembly in which our church body focused inward a good deal, spending hour upon hour “in the weeds” on such relatively minor matters as how often to meet in the future (after the next already-scheduled assembly in 2013, the ELCA will meet only once every three years), how many members to elect to its governing council, and other administrative matters emanating from a task force and process called LIFT (“Living Into the Future Together.”)
Another protracted debate surrounding the budget kept those in my sideline section of the assembly hall at rapt attention. Those of us seated in the area reserved for seminary faculty advisors and presidents held our breath as proposed budget changes that would have reduced seminary financial support were debated. While they failed by wide margins, these moves pitted seminaries against other worthy ministries, like those on college campuses. The budget contests reflect, of course, the realities of a church struggling to regain its momentum following the departure of more than 500 congregations that have “disaffiliated” after the church decided two years ago to open its clergy ranks to gay and lesbian persons living in committed lifelong same-sex relationships. Alongside the lingering sadness over this loss of congregations and members was a spirit of hopefulness, lifted up by Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson in his opening sermon. While smaller by a few hundred thousand members than a decade ago, the ELCA feels more cohesive and ready to live into the identity envisioned by its founders who began designing this “new Lutheran church” in the early 1980’s. Cited by the presiding bishop as among the signs of hope that encourage him are the lively ministries of rostered leaders prepared by the church’s seminaries.
Turning outward to engage challenges that surround us in the 21st century, the assembly adopted a solid statement on genetics by an overwhelming margin. Following an impassioned presentation by its director, former bishop Andrea DeGroot Nesdahl, the ELCA Malaria Campaign’s resounding “yes” vote committed the church to raise $15 million for work with partner churches in countries where the dreaded disease’s eradication is a realistic goal. Also adopted were important advocacy resolutions on immigration (expressing support for the “Dream Act” and other compassionate responses to undocumented persons), suicide prevention, anti-bullying efforts and other important current matters. By means of a resolution proffered by Gettysburg Seminarian Chris Suehr, the ELCA also went on record as being eager for dialogue with the North American Lutheran Church, one of the splinter groups formed by congregations that have departed the ELCA. Reflecting our stance of greater openness to adherents of other religions, this ELCA assembly warmly welcomed and received a greeting from a leader of the Islamic faith. Also noteworthy was a decision to discontinue receiving a formal “greeting” from an official of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. In recent years such awkward moments afforded a platform for LC-MS representatives to denounce ELCA decisions on sexuality and question our fidelity to the gospel.
The gifts and commitments of a number of our Gettysburg Seminary-related leaders were recognized by an assembly that elected them to significant posts for the years ahead. Seminary board members Stephen Herr and Linda Chinnea were elected to the Church Council and Nominating Committee respectively. Faculty and staff members Marty Stevens and Julie Stecker will serve on the ELCA Pensions and Augsburg/Fortress boards during the coming years as the former adapts to national health care and the latter navigates the continuing dramatic changes in the world of publishing and media. Appointed by the Church Council, Robin Steinke’s service as one of four ELCA members of the Lutheran World Federation’s governing council places our dean alongside the presiding bishop and two others who represent our church in the global communion’s leadership cadre. Congratulations to these colleagues, whose presence in key church leadership circles will ensure that our school and theological education are well-represented.
There is much to celebrate in the “good read” authored by the 2011 ELCA Churchwide Assembly. The emerging new chapters in our church’s ongoing mission saga is being written by a highly democratic body growing in diversity; especially noteworthy down in Florida were the number of young people popping up at microphones to offer their insights and inspiration. Worship was spirited. The Gospel was proclaimed and Holy Communion celebrated daily. The Church moves along.
Posted: 8/23/2011 8:19:47 AM
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