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ELCA Conference of Bishops recommends unifying lay rosters, considers other business

3/12/2015 3:00:00 PM

            ITASCA, Ill. (ELCA) – The Conference of Bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) gathered here March 5-10 to continue their conversation and consideration on this church's proposals to form one unified roster of Word and Service. The conference also considered an array of topics ranging from theological education to mission support, from immigration reform to the means of grace, from the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017 to Always Being Made New: The Campaign for the ELCA and more.

            The conference is an advisory body of the ELCA that includes 65 synod bishops, the presiding bishop and secretary. It gathers at least twice a year for worship and study, sharing and to conduct business. The Rev. Jessica R. Crist, bishop of the ELCA Montana Synod, is conference chair.
            The Conference of Bishops continued its conversation, offering perspectives about the formation of a single ELCA roster. The ELCA's study and dialogue about the work and ministry of its lay rosters began in 2007, which lead to the ELCA Church Council appointing a Word and Service Task Force to continue overseeing this process. A discernment team was also appointed to give particular attention to the "entrance rite" for the roster and to offer a recommendation about this rite for consideration by the 2016 ELCA Churchwide Assembly.
            After a series of conversations, the Conference of Bishops recommended that the ELCA Church Council move forward on unifying the three lay rosters – associates in ministry, deaconesses and diaconal ministers – but delay consideration of the entrance rite "and related issues." Currently, associates in ministry are commissioned; deaconesses and diaconal ministers are consecrated. A decision will need to be made about the appropriate entrance rite for the unified roster. In its recommendation, the conference expressed its "deep gratitude" to the ELCA Word and Service Task Force and to the Entrance Rite Discernment Group.
            "On one level, the move from three lay rosters to one roster of Word and Service appears simple. It actually is quite complex," said the Rev. William O. Gafkjen in an interview. Gafkjen is bishop of the ELCA Indiana-Kentucky Synod and a member of the Word and Service Task Force and chair of the Entrance Rite Discernment Group.
            "This change connects with deeply held, often differing, convictions about orders and offices of ministry, the vocation of all the baptized to serve in the world today, and the most helpful ways to honor, celebrate and exercise the gifts of all who serve in public ministry," Gafkjen said.
            "Ecumenical, global Lutheran and multicultural relationships and realities are also part of the complexity. The rite by which people are entered onto a roster of public ministers connects with these and other concerns. The recommendation of the Conference of Bishops is intended to both keep us moving forward in more clearly defining and honoring ministries of Word and Service in 2016 and move together into the emerging future through ample and appropriate time and process for engaging as many people as possible across this church in deep discernment around theological, confessional and mission-focused concerns," he said.
            "We are church together," said ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth A. Eaton in her report to the conference. Referencing her recent ecumenical pilgrimage to London, Geneva and Rome, she said the trip "made it absolutely clear to me that the ELCA is part of the church that spans the globe and the centuries. It's not just about us. It's not just about now. When we consider issues like the ecclesiology of a global church, the entrance rite for the Word and Service roster, ministry to and with same-gender families, or discuss 'The Use of the Means of Grace,' it is never, nor can it ever be, a conversation we have just among ourselves."
            In her report to the conference, Eaton highlighted the observance of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation – under the theme "Freed and Renewed in Christ" – as "another component in strengthening our Lutheran identity." The theme will be the same for the 2016 ELCA Churchwide Assembly.
            "Lutherans show up – as the ELCA and as The Lutheran World Federation. Together, with our companions in Central America, we are working with unaccompanied minors and the conditions in their countries of origin that force these children to flee," Eaton said in her written report. "Through the LWF, we work with refugees and internally displaced people in Syria, Cameroon, South Sudan, Central African Republic, Kenya, Jordan, Ukraine, Iraq and many other places. We have made significant progress in controlling malaria and treating Ebola. We are developing a social statement on the social issue of 'Women and Justice' and a proposed social message on gender-based violence. We will begin the process of developing a vision statement on inter-religious relations.
            "All of this good and hard, sometimes dangerous, work is work that we are able to do because we are church abiding in Christ, God's beloved people gathered around word and sacraments," wrote Eaton.
            The Conference of Bishops received reports from the ELCA secretary, treasurer and others, along with updates on various ministries of this church:
+ Secretary Wm Chris Boerger addressed matters related to the 2016 Churchwide Assembly, such as the election of churchwide officers.

+ Treasurer Linda Norman reported that the ELCA churchwide organization had total operating revenue and support of $71.5 million for the 12-month period ending Jan. 31, 2015 – $1.1 million greater than expenses of $70.3 million. Net revenue over expenses is favorable to the period budget by $1.1 million, but $1.8 million less than the 12 months ending Jan. 31, 2014. Norman said Always Being Made New: The Campaign for the ELCA has raised $48.2 million in revenue and commitments. This amount represents 24.4 percent of the total five-year goal of $198 million by Jan. 31, 2019.

+ Received an update and discussed the work of the ELCA Mission Support Think Tank. "The Mission Support Think Tank, appointed by Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton to address in new ways the decline in mission support in our church body, presented a third draft of the report which will be presented to the Church Council at its April meeting," said the Rev. H. Julian Gordy, bishop of the ELCA Southeastern Synod, Atlanta.
            "The report discusses challenges and opportunities in this church's financial support of its mission and makes several recommendations to the Church Council, including some experiments that might be undertaken. The Think Tank is collecting and incorporating responses to the report from the conference and from churchwide staff," he said.
            "Our report stresses that mission support is chiefly about God's mission of blessing and redeeming the whole creation in Jesus Christ. We are trying to re-imagine all of the ways we garner, steward and invest the financial resources that God's people share for the sake of God's mission," said Gordy.

+ Received a report and discussed the work of the ELCA Theological Education Advisory Council. The advisory council's work continues, "looking at the whole range of theological education across the ELCA," said the Rev. James Hazelwood, bishop of the ELCA New England Synod, Worcester, Mass. "This includes, but is not limited to, seminary education. As an example, we are exploring ways to expand resources for lay education, in particular lay evangelists," he said.
            The advisory council "has also explored ways to make continuing education something that is more available for our rostered leaders. We believe that in a changing world, it is essential to have our rostered leaders be lifelong learners," said Hazelwood.
            "A highlight of the Conference of Bishops was our Saturday afternoon sessions in which bishops proposed and led interest groups on subjects ranging from mobility and call process to immigration, from the ecclesiology of the global church, to funding the mission of the church," said Crist. "In addition, bishops engaged in advocacy across the church,​ met in 'ready benches' relating to specific areas in which the ELCA has an interest and does advocacy," said Crist.
            In other business, the Conference of Bishops:
+ Moved to encourage the continued development of the Declaration on the Way (to unity) between Lutherans and Roman Catholics and affirmed to the ELCA Church Council the final report of the Ecclesiology of the Global Church Task Force, which is exploring how the ELCA can affirm its self-understanding as part of The Lutheran World Federation – a global communion of 144 member churches representing more than 72 million Christians. The ELCA is the communion's only member church from the United States.
+ Learned more about the ELCA's active response efforts to the increasing number of unaccompanied children and families entering the United States, primarily from Central America. The Rev. Michael W. Rinehart, bishop of the ELCA Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod, Houston, led a conversation about "A Lutheran Welcome." He told the conference that there are more than 200 million migrants worldwide – people who are moving from one place to another – and half of them are Christian. "The United States is where many want to come," he said. "How are we, as Christian people, welcoming them?" The Rev. Stephen P. Bouman, executive director, ELCA Congregational and Synodical Mission, and the Rev. Rafael Malpica Padilla, executive director, ELCA Global Mission, held a special conversation about their journeys to parts of the United States and Central America to learn more about the local and global situation surrounding the "push" factors of migration from Central America to the United States and the treatment of migrants that are in transit.
+ Received an update and discussed the work of the Ministry to and with Same Gender Couples and their Families Working Group. According to the Rev. Mary S. Froiland, bishop of the ELCA South-Central Synod of Wisconsin, Madison, Wis., "This group is working hard together. It may be one of the few places in our denomination where intentional conversation navigating a variety of convictions is taking place."
+ Had discussions about the draft of the proposed Message on Gender Based Violence. The ELCA Church Council authorized a social message on gender-based violence as a means to encourage learning and moral discourse. The current timeline, revised from an original timeline, calls for a social message to be considered by the Church Council in April 2015.
+ Received an update and discussed this church's conversation about The Use of the Means of Grace based on the study guide, "Table and Font: Who is Welcome?"
+ Considered requests and made decisions related to the ELCA roster of ordained ministers.
+ Received an update on the ELCA Youth Gathering taking place in Detroit, July 15-19, 2015. More than 27,000 have registered.
+ Received a report from ELCA Vice President Carlos Pena. In his written report, Pena noted that the ELCA Malaria Campaign has raised more than $13.5 million. "This campaign is about changing communities and saving lives," said Pena. "What a blessing it is to be a part of such a generous church that can make such a difference in people's lives."
+ Received reports from the Rev. Walter S. May, assistant to the presiding bishop, executive for ELCA Synodical Relations; the Rev. Eric Wester, assistant to the presiding bishop and director for ELCA Federal Chaplaincies; the Rev. Jeffry D. Thiemann, president and CEO, Portico Benefit Services; and Marcia Johnson, program director, ELCA Synodical Services, who spoke  on the ELCA mobility call process.
+ Heard reflections on recent pilgrimages to the Middle East and Europe. ELCA Presiding Bishop Eaton led both journeys.
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About the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America:
The ELCA is one of the largest Christian denominations in the United States, with more than 3.8 million members in nearly 10,000 congregations across the 50 states and in the Caribbean region. Known as the church of "God's work. Our hands," the ELCA emphasizes the saving grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ, unity among Christians and service in the world. The ELCA's roots are in the writings of the German church reformer, Martin Luther.

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