The following text by the Rev. Lowell G. Almen provides an overview of his 20 years of service as the first secretary of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America:
‘For Everything . . . a Season’
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” Yes, “for everything . . . a season.” That is what we read in the book of Ecclesiastes. That is what we know from the unfolding experiences of life.
God is full of gracious surprises. As I reflect on the unfolding of the years, I recognize now the surprises that have been a part of my life—surprises throughout the seasons of the past 40 years in my service as an ordained minister of Word and Sacrament.
When I was ordained on June 11, 1967, little could I have imagined what the call of the church would have in store for me. That day was the start of a journey—a journey of many seasons, a journey of a grand unfolding of unexpected responsibilities.
From earliest childhood, I had a sense of the continuity of the Church throughout the centuries. My parents and the pastor of our congregation helped nurture that awareness in me, an awareness of God’s faithfulness from age to age.
The invitation comes to each generation—the invitation and even the obligation to be faithful in our time. Indeed, “for everything . . . a season . . . , and a time for every matter under heaven.”
Continuity in Faithful Witness
My gratitude for the continuity of faithful witness has grown deeper with each passing year, and my joy in recognizing the unity of the church throughout the ages has been felt by me in profound ways.
So—for this, my tenth and concluding report to the Churchwide Assembly as secretary of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America—I stood [for the video presentation] in front of the oldest unaltered Lutheran church building in North America, namely Augustus Lutheran Church in Trappe, Pa., a community located a few miles northwest of Philadelphia.
Some look upon that place as a type of shrine, a shrine to faithful witness spanning many generations. The structure originally was built in 1743. It was constructed during the first year that the Rev. Henry Melchior Muhlenberg served as pastor.
He arrived in Philadelphia in November 1742. He had been sent from Germany to serve that congregation and others. He was one of those early giants in the unfolding history of Lutherans in North America. Often, he is called the patriarch of North American Lutheranism.
To me, Pastor Muhlenberg is a model in many ways for all who lead and serve in the Church. Indeed, he is truly a reminder:
• of faithful witness to Scripture; Unexpected Settings and Situations
• of untiring commitment to the well-being of the Church;
• of deep understanding of the original context and contemporary application of the Lutheran Confessions;
• of genuine pastoral care for members;
• of facing tough challenges and disappointing obstacles, always with an eye on the wider picture of God’s mercy.
The nature of my service as a Lutheran pastor has been very, very different from that of Pastor Muhlenberg. Yet the model he provided of a profound understanding of the Church and a deep awareness of the duties of a Lutheran pastor have helped shape my work in unexpected settings and situations. The Church has asked of me many things. And I recognize what a treasured privilege I have had to serve the Church in the name of Christ and for the sake of the Gospel.
Following ordination, I undertook my responsibilities as pastor of what then was known as St. Peter’s Lutheran Church. The congregation was located in Dresser, Wis.
There was a coincidence in that call. The congregation through which I was baptized into Christ’s Church was named St. Peter Lutheran Church. It was located two miles from the farm where I grew up, about 10 miles northwest of Park River, N. D.
A quarter century after my baptism in northeastern North Dakota through the congregation named St. Peter, I was installed as pastor of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in northwestern Wisconsin. Presiding for the installation was the Rev. Dr. Theodore Ohlrogge, then president of the Northern Wisconsin District of The American Lutheran Church. The service took place on a summer Sunday in 1967.
One of the characteristics of that congregation was a strong commitment to benevolence support for the wider church. Long before I began to serve there, the congregation had committed itself to 20 percent of the offerings being devoted to benevolence or what we now call mission support.
Leaders of the congregation asked, “Why do we exist?” They replied, “We exist not just for ourselves. We exist to support the work of the Gospel through the wider church.” And the members—albeit fewer in number than 300—were serious in that commitment.
At the same time, they graciously helped form a young seminary graduate as a new pastor. They did so in salutary, life-shaping ways.
When I was called to a new setting of ministry, I remember what the president of St. Peter’s Congregation said at a farewell luncheon. He said, “When you came as pastor, we did not have a very high awareness of baptism. You have taught us the meaning of baptism for each day of our lives.”
I became associate campus pastor and director for communications at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn. In that setting, I had the privilege of working with students, especially in the worship life of the community. I also learned a great deal about administration from the Rev. Dr. Joseph L. Knutson, the college president at the time. Dr. Knutson taught me the importance of principle-centered leadership. He did so by wholesome example and clear decision-making.
While serving on the campus, I also provided pastoral assistance at Trinity Lutheran Church in Moorhead.Plans for Greater Lutheran unity
Yet another surprise awaited me. The church asked me in 1974 to become managing editor and then editor in 1979 of The Lutheran Standard
. That was the official publication of The American Lutheran Church, one of the three predecessor church bodies of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
In my role as editor, I attended most of the meetings of the Committee on Lutheran Unity. That committee proposed the formation of the Commission for a New Lutheran Church in 1982. I was present at all ten sessions of that 70-member commission. Through the efforts of the commission, otherwise known as the CNLC, the plans were shaped for the formation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
As part of the CNLC process, I served on the five-member work group that proposed names for the “new church.” As a member of that work group, I wrote the rationale for use of “Evangelical Lutheran Church” in the name.
Little did I realize—while sitting in those CNLC meetings, and later the meetings of the Transition Team—that I was undergoing crucial education for the next surprise. That next surprise was my election on May 2, 1987, as the first secretary of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Throughout all those meetings in the 1980s, I gained extensive knowledge of the anticipated work of the ELCA. I also came to know well the design for this church’s organization and operation. That knowledge was enormously helpful to me in so many ways in my duties as secretary, including constitutional interpretation and principled leadership for conscientious guidance in our life together.Another Dimension of Pastoral Ministry
I quickly discovered that serving as secretary represented yet another dimension of pastoral ministry. I was called as a pastor to serve this church in particular ways for the sake of witness to the Gospel and care for the unity to which Christ calls us. Yes, I recognized anew that “for everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.”
On any given day in my office at the Lutheran Center in Chicago, I have walked from roster-and-policy concerns to preparing official constitutional interpretations to drafting a variety of documents to various legal matters to risk management on insurance issues to assembly planning to archival preservation to records-management practices for the churchwide units to administration and personnel management to handling substantial correspondence to preparing a sermon for a congregation’s 250th anniversary to presiding in chapel for Communion to hosting a visiting church leader to the exercise of ecumenical diplomacy and then on to whatever surprise is around the next corner—and all that within the space of a few hours. In other words, as secretary, I have had to adapt quickly to whatever matter was at hand.
A significant part of my service as secretary also has occurred beyond the walls of an office in Chicago.
To have been a part of this chapter of U.S. Lutheran history has been an unbounded blessing. I have had a first-row seat for many of the major events for the ELCA and its predecessor churches in the final quarter of the twentieth century and the early years of this century. In several instances, I have experienced more than a front-row seat. I have been on the platform, both figuratively and at times actually, in contributing to the shaping of those significant developments.
I complete my service as secretary with only a few regrets.
These I now confess:
I regret that I have not been able to testify more eloquently to the grand vision of our life together in this church as imagined and expressed within the governing documents of the ELCA. As members of the ELCA, we have a lively, vigorous pattern of church life—one that understands that congregations, synods, and churchwide ministries have particular responsibilities but are to function interdependently. Together, we are to serve in partnership for the sake of God’s mission in the world.
I regret that some leaders and members throughout this church have not celebrated fully or undertaken enthusiastically the interdependence and shared ministry to which God calls us. We are called to the practice of genuine interdependence through our work together in each congregation, in all the synods, and throughout the wider church. The failure to engage fully together in the life of this church has hobbled pursuit of the mission God sets before us in our time.Vivid and Vital Polity
We have a vivid and vital polity in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America—a polity that reminds us, in its practice, of our unity in Christ and in this church. This is the vision for how we are to live and serve together. We see it in our church’s constitution in provision 8.11.:
This church shall seek to function as people of God through congregations, synods, and the churchwide organization, all of which shall be interdependent. Each part, while fully the church, recognizes that it is not the whole church and therefore lives in a partnership relationship with the others.
Each part, fully church, but not the whole church. Each part interdependent, not independent. Each part, living in relationship with others. Each part a vital, mission-focused, active expression working together in this portion of the body of Christ that we know as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.Filled with Gratitude
As I now look back on the two decades of my service as the first secretary of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, I do find my heart filled with gratitude—gratitude for having been able to serve this church as secretary. I am deeply grateful in so many ways.
I suspect that if I were to devote every day from this moment forward in expressions of thanks to my wife, Sally, and our children, Paul and Cassandra, my words of gratitude still would not measure up to the unbounded love that they have given me so generously. They have done so throughout my service as a pastor and servant of the Church. They have done so without complaint. They have done so with compassion and kindness. They have been supportive, especially in those lonely times of tough decisions as I sought to fulfill faithfully my responsibilities. I have known of their love, but I suspect that I have not acknowledged as fully as I should have throughout the years how much that love has meant to me. I am so grateful to them.Congregation and Synodical Events
I treasure the recollection of having visited several hundred vital congregations—congregations engaged fully in local ministry as well as the wider endeavors of this church. I have found that the healthiest congregations are those committed both to local ministry and the efforts of the wider church.
I am grateful for the occasions when I have participated in various synodical events, including assemblies and convocations. There I have witnessed the strength and vitality of leadership and service shown by synodical bishops, other officers, various staff members, and Synod Councils, as well as individuals throughout the synods.
Many synodical assemblies reflect special highlights for me. For instance, in several of them throughout the years, I have had the privilege of participating in the ordination of new pastors to serve the Church now and in the future. Those ordinations are memorable moments of thanksgiving and anticipation. In some sense, each year we experience a gradual “changing of the guard,” so to speak, among our pastors. With the unfolding of the seasons, I have come to realize that my signature is now on the ordination certificates of 45 percent of the active roster of ordained ministers of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
I am mindful that I have served with scores of conscientious and wise leaders on the Church Council of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Their commitment to the care of this church I have seen demonstrated in manifold ways. In addition, I have witnessed the high quality and deep commitment of members of churchwide boards, committees, task forces, and work groups who contribute generously to the life of this church.
I recall the outstanding servants of the Church who have served as members of the Conference of Bishops. Their care for this church and the whole Church is a story of faithfulness and dedication. I remember them, past and present, with thanksgiving to God.
I give thanks for the opportunity to have been a part of a dedicated and creative cadre of leaders and staff serving in our churchwide ministries. I recall with gratitude the three presiding bishops with whom I have served as an officer, the three treasurers, and the four vice presidents. I remember the scores of executive directors and staff of the various churchwide units. All of these are marvelous and dedicated individuals who have served you and others so well for the sake of our shared endeavors in the name of Christ.
I hold precious the fact that I have been surrounded in the Office of the Secretary by individuals of untiring commitment, high integrity, and abiding care for the well-being of this whole church.
There are numerous recollections that I could cite—recollections that hold special meaning for me. I highlight only a few:
I rejoice in having been able to see ecumenical developments in this time that were first outlined for me by the late Dr. Kent S. Knutson. He did so when I was a senior seminarian in 1966–67. What he taught in terms of ecumenical directions seemed visionary at the time. Yet I have experienced the embracing of those directions. I have seen the unfolding of ecumenical possibilities in a variety of ways in the life of this church and others. Dr. Knutson did not live long enough to see many of his grand hopes bear fruit. But I have, and I am grateful.Major Ecumenical Developments
I take satisfaction in having served as the first chair of the Lutheran-Reformed Coordinating Committee. That committee was appointed for the implementation of the Lutheran-Reformed relationship of full communion. Out of that work emerged the procedures for the orderly exchange of ordained ministers of Word and Sacrament—a process of good order that provides both for accountability on the part of clergy in such situations and protection of the participating churches. Those procedures served also as the pattern for the later relationships of full communion embraced by this church.
Following adoption in 1997 of the Lutheran-Reformed agreement, history was made again in 1999. That transpired with the adoption of the full-communion relationship between the ELCA and the Moravian Church and also between the ELCA and The Episcopal Church. Subsequently, I was present in 2000 at The Episcopal Church’s gathering when the relationship with the ELCA was embraced and celebrated.
I have seen the significance of those agreements unfold. Even as we must continue to learn how to bear one another’s burdens in our congregations and throughout the ELCA, now we are reminded of the call to bear one another’s burdens in ongoing, profound relationships between church bodies in full communion.
I recall my joy when I was appointed to serve as a member for Round X of the U.S. Lutheran-Roman Catholic Dialogue. That round produced the 2004 statement, The Church as Koinonia of Salvation: Its Structures and Ministries. I believe that report will prove to be an historic document ecumenically for years to come. Now I am serving as co-chair of Round XI on the topic, “The Hope of Eternal Life.” With Popes and Patriarchs
Ecumenical experience has had international dimensions for me as well. I marvel at having met popes and patriarchs. I represented this church five times in meetings with Pope John Paul II. From those meetings, I recall especially a conversation in February 1994. He talked with me about the importance of evangelism—evangelism not only for those who have never heard the Gospel but also for those who have grown indifferent to their engagement in the life of the Church.
I have met Pope Benedict XVI twice, once in his previous role as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and then in March 2006 in his current role. I especially recall his crucial efforts to receive officially the very historic Lutheran-Roman Catholic Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.
Then, in Istanbul, it was no small moment in March 2006 when His All Holiness, Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew, entered the audience room where the ELCA ecumenical delegation was waiting. I was delighted to be there again, but I was moved even more deeply when Bartholomew exclaimed upon seeing me, “Oh, my old friend.”
I have had opportunity to visit with and come to know a host of presiding bishops, church presidents, stated clerks, general secretaries, and other church leaders throughout the world. I have been deeply moved by their dedication to faithful service. I also have been mindful of the turbulent waters through which they have had to navigate from time to time. I know of the cost to them of such struggles. They, with many others, bear on their hearts the scars of leadership guided by genuine principles. Yet they do so without complaint.Reminder of Church’s Grand Scope
I treasure the privilege of having known several general secretaries of the Lutheran World Federation and the World Council of Churches as well as the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Any visit to the ecumenical center in Geneva, Switzerland, offers a thrilling reminder of the grand scope of the Church in our time. I especially recall the privilege, as a representative of this church, of participating in the Eighth Assembly of the Lutheran World Federation in 1990 and also the Eighth Assembly of the World Council of Churches in 1998.
I remember the tremendously moving moment on March 21, 1990, when the Republic of Namibia was born. As the ELCA’s representative for that nation’s independence celebration, I witnessed the South African flag being lowered on one pole at 12:18 a.m. and the Namibian flag being raised on another pole at 12:24 a.m. That signaled a new birth of freedom for our Lutheran sisters and brothers, as well as all others, in that land.
I was sitting that night with Bishop Kleopas Dumeni of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Namibia. He said, “Never did I expect to live to see this day.” He and many members of his family had paid a high price of suffering and sorrow on the journey to freedom.
That evening in Windhoek, Namibia, I remembered an earlier conversation with Bishop Dumeni. That previous conversation took place in my office in Chicago shortly before my installation on October 10, 1987, as the ELCA’s first secretary. Bishop Dumeni said he hoped the ELCA, as such a big church, would not forget his church and others throughout the world. Remember us in our struggle, he said. And the ELCA did remember.
I recall being a part of an ecumenical delegation to mark the 1700th anniversary of Christianity in Armenia. In the settings we visited and the events we observed, I found myself pondering again and again all those centuries of faithful witness. I also realized the price, even unto death, that some paid for the sake of the faith during the era of Soviet domination.Seen with Tear-Filled Eyes
I find myself with tear-filled eyes as I think of the places in many lands where I have seen firsthand the work of Lutherans and others in relief and development. I think especially of the children I have seen in camps in Somalia and Ethiopia. Those children were given a chance for life because of the dedication of relief workers—workers sponsored by this church through the Lutheran World Federation and Lutheran World Relief.
I have witnessed the joy of families being reunited and given a new chance for life through the endeavors of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.
And I am mindful of and grateful for the marvelous ministries carried out through Lutheran Social Service agencies and the other social ministry organizations that are part of Lutheran Services in America.
I treasure the special privilege of having become acquainted with the work of the pastors who serve as Lutheran military chaplains. They represent an outstanding group of courageous and faithful ministers of Word and Sacrament. They serve in challenging and, at times, very dangerous settings. Viewed from a military perspective as a high-ranking officer of this church, I have been able to express this church’s gratitude to chaplains collectively in conferences and personally on various posts and bases in this country and abroad. I give thanks to God for their dedication and integrity in supberb pastoral ministry—a ministry that is rendered by them with firm commitment to faithful witness and with compassionate care of those whom they are called to serve.
I have worked hard in trying to keep as many doors and windows open as possible between the ELCA and The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (LCMS). The task has not been easy, and at times the prospects have seemed discouraging. Yet I remain convinced that, for the sake of clear Lutheran witness in this land, these two church bodies need to work together in as many ways as possible both now and in the years to come.Mindful of Mingled Histories
As we look to the future, we can be mindful of this—that woven together into the ELCA are threads from the various histories of Lutherans in North America. We also have within the ELCA the diverse cultures of this country, including cultures formed by immigration patterns, shaped by historical experiences, and influenced by regional differences. This variety is a dynamic strength within our life together—and also a potential source of tension. We dare not make absolute this variety. We must guard against regional parochialism looming destructively large in local thinking and divisive practice. The wider vision of God’s mission that was demonstrated throughout the generations by our forebears is needed by us now and in the future.
Yes, “for everything . . . a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” Many seasons have passed since Henry Melchior Muhlenberg stood in the pulpit and preached in Augustus Lutheran Church two and a half centuries ago. Yet his abiding concern for the faithful witness of the Church remains with us.
We are at a grand moment. We mark this year the 20th anniversary of the constituting of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. In so doing, we can be mindful that, with the formation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, God answered the prayers of generations of Lutherans in North America from Pastor Muhlenberg forward—untiring prayers, persistent prayers for a time of greater Lutheran unity, unity not for its own sake but unity for the sake of effective witness to the Gospel in the world, now and in the years to come.
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.”
To God alone the glory. Soli Deo Gloria!