We all struggle with forward motion, part 2

If you missed it, Mike and I are answering the six big questions from Called Forward Together in Christ. As a reminder, those six big questions are:

  1. What is distinctive about our identity as a Lutheran church?
  2. What kind of church do we believe God is calling us to become?
  3. How do we become an inclusive, diverse church that is inspiring and relevant in different communities?
  4. What is God calling us to do in a world that is facing unprecedented levels of poverty, conflict and violence, inter-religious tension and massive displacement of people.
  5. What do we expect from our church leaders? And how do we recruit, invest in and support them to lead this church into the future?
  6. Will our current structures serve the church well into the future? How can we maintain strong local participation and ownership and, at the same time, achieve a connection to ELCA as one church?

Last Time I answered questions one through three. You can check out those answers here. Today we look at questions four through six.

4. What is god calling us to do in a world that is facing unprecedented levels of poverty, conflict and violence, inter-religious tension and massive displacement of people? 

For good or ill, dear readers, I am a historian. This means that I suffer from the dreaded disease that causes me to constantly say “yes, but…” In this case, I want to say “yes there is a lot of poverty, conflict, violence, religious tension and displacement of people, but is it really unprecedented?” Ancient Rome used to destroy whole countries.

But, I get the point. What is our call in a suffering world? This is such a huge question that I can’t even pretend to have the arrogance to come up with a complete answer. I also do not think we can end all those things. Simply put, Jesus’ return will end poverty, conflict, violence, inter-religious tension, and etc…

So what are we left with? Many of my readers will know that Walter Brueggemann has made a huge impact on my theology. One of Brueggemann’s major points throughout all his works is that the people of God are called to proclaim and live out God’s alternative to the way the world works. I think this is what God is calling us to do. Be a church that constantly calls people to see what God has done instead of what the world wants us to do.

In some ways, the ELCA does this already. A common example is that ELCA disaster relief is consistently talked about as the “first ones there and the last ones to leave.” This is example of hosting God’s alternative; an example of being faithful and loving in a world that is frequently neither.

However, we are by no means perfect. As a church our own religious tensions over human sexuality, racism, and poverty need a lot of work. We are a denomination that continues to be dominated by middle class white America. We have our own failures at hosting and living out God’s alternative.

5. What do we expect from our church leaders? And how do we recruit, invest in and support them to lead this church into the future?

For clarification purposes I am assuming that “church leaders” does just mean “ordained pastors”

So in this order I expect our church leaders to

A. Be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ – We are not a business. We are not a corporation. We are not even the Rotary Club. I do not expect leaders to necessarily be able to create a tech startup or be engineers. I do expect leaders to be faithful to the one who has saved them. I do expect that faith to make leaders view whatever it is that they are leading as a calling and not just a job (fellow pastors this goes especially for you). I do expect our leaders to follow Jesus.

B. Actually lead – I expect our leaders to actually have vision and speak that vision.

C. Be able to survive and thrive at what ever it is they are leading – I have a rule at my church: no burnout. If what you are doing is causing you to burnout then we need to rethink what is happening.

The rest of the question is almost too large to be dealt with in one blog post. I do, however, have a few basic principles.

First, we need to brace for the reality that seminary might no longer be the ONLY effective method of training leaders. If we look at history, while there have always been divinity schools, the actual formal process of seminary that we have today is rather knew. Many pastors and leaders in the church were raised up simply because that person was called to that position. St. Ambrose is the extreme example of this as he went from unbaptized to awesome bishop in under a month. I highly value the years I spent getting my M.Div degree, but I also recognize that centuries of the church have gone on perfectly well without any leader having an M.Div.

Second, we need to be clearer about what leadership roles we actually have. Diaconal ministers ? Pastors? Deaconness? Lay leaders? AIM? I tend to think that part of our issue with leadership is a confusion about the basic nature of our various leadership positions.

6. Will our current structures serve the church well into the future? How can we maintain strong local participation and ownership and, at the same time, achieve a connection to ELCA as one church?

Simple answer: No. Our structures will not serve the church well into the future.

Our structure is a result of a series of compromises between churches that had different polities when they formed. Compromises are not bad and in general the results worked as well as could be expected. However, our structures demanded one very clear thing to work: complete middle class support. For our system to work we need the complete financial support of the middle class.

So now we have a problem because as a church we no longer have that complete middle class support and financially speaking the middle class doesn’t have nearly as much money as it used to. So we have seen synod budgets continue to contract. We need a different system that doesn’t demand our regional bodies receive $800,000 every year in order to work properly

Another problem with our system is that our regional bodies are neither so large and powerful that they can benefit from economies of scale, but neither are they so small and nimble that they can be adaptive and agile. For example, the Southeastern synod of the ELCA is comprised of 4 states (Tennessee, Louisiana, Alabama, and Georgia). To use the language from the second half of the question, how is anyone supposed to feel local participation, ownership, or connection to a body that is that large. Also, in our system the real authority rests with the congregation. So basically what we have opted to have is a system where we have a large institution with little power.

I’ll be honest, I have very little invested in matters of how the church is structured. The Roman Catholic church has a system where the the diocese has a great amount of power. The Congregationalists have a system where the larger body has no formal authority. I don’t think either is theologically wrong. Our problem in the ELCA is that we have created a system with a larger structure (synods, regions, and national church) that has very little actual authority. Basically, I just want us to stop sitting on the fence post of church polity and decide. Are we Catholics or are we Congregationalists?

Part of this problem is that “local” is becoming a real driver for people. The local food movement is just one example of a wider cultural shift that seeks to emphasize local over and against large world-spanning institutions. Most of our synod offices are not local institutions. [1]

The question ends this way: “how can we achieve a connection to ELCA as one church?” The simple truth of the matter is that we don’t to achieve anything in that arena. We already are one church. Martin Luther and the Lutheran confessions constantly say that the true unity of the church is dependent on nothing other than the right proclamation of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments. Perhaps that is where we need to start.

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So there you have it. Here are my answers to the questions, what do think? What are you answers? If you want to keep reading on this subject you can check out what Mike has written in his own part 1 and part 2 (we eagerly await part 3). Also, check out what the ELCA has to say about it at elca.org/future.

 

 

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. I actually think the solution to this issue is to create more bishops and synods. Make synods smaller, and make a bishop be bishop of a truly local area. Taking time to explain that here though would make this another 3000 word blog post. I’ll explain it to you privately if you want.

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