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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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March 11, 2011

ELCA begins response to Pacific earthquake, tsunami


The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is responding to a massive earthquake and tsunami March 11 that caused considerable loss of life and property in Japan. The earthquake was centered near the city of Sendai, a city in north-central Japan with a population of 1 million.

According to media reports, hundreds of people have died and hundreds more are missing. Tsunami waves as high as seven feet struck Hawaii, but there were no reports of significant damage there.

The ELCA has 22 missionaries serving in Japan, working in partnership with the Japan Evangelical Lutheran Church. Many of the ELCA's missionaries in Japan have communicated that they are safe, said Y. Franklin Ishida, ELCA program director for Asia-Pacific Continental Desk.

Ishida, who is attending a conference in Malaysia, said in an e-mail he was seated next to Sumiyuki Watanabe, president of the Japan Evangelical Lutheran Church, when news of the earthquake and tsunami reached them. He said Watanabe's "first concern was for Sendai Lutheran Church," but there was no immediate communication because of power and cell phone outages in the area.

According to Ishida, the ELCA has missionaries serving at a Christian seminary in Tokyo, and pastors serving a Lutheran congregation in Tokyo. ELCA missionaries serve on the southern island of Kyushu, providing chaplaincy and parish services, as well as teaching at Kyushu Lutheran College.

The Japan Evangelical Lutheran Church operates schools and other programs that provide English language instruction as part of the church's ministry. There are 10 ELCA missionaries serving in the local church's "J3" program, to teach English and to serve in local congregations, Ishida said. "J3" references the program's three-year commitment.

He said five of the J3s were in Tokyo when the earthquake and tsunami struck.
"Within the first hour we heard requests for prayer from our partner churches. If you'd like to stand with them through your financial support, I would encourage you to give through ELCA Disaster Response. Gifts designated to the Pacific Earthquake and Tsunami fund will be used entirely — 100 percent — in response to this disaster," said Daniel Rift, director for the ELCA World Hunger and Disaster Appeal.

To give:

Financial gifts for the Pacific Earthquake and Tsunami can be contributed through the ELCA website. Credit card gifts may be contributed by calling 1-800-638-3522. Gifts designated for the Pacific Earthquake and Tasunami can also be sent to: ELCA Disaster Response, 39330 Treasury Center, Chicago, IL 60694-9300. Gifts may also be sent to ELCA Disaster Response where the need is greatest, enabling the ELCA to respond where help is needed most around the world and close to home.

Information about the Japan Evangelical Lutheran Church is at  on the ELCA website. 

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December 6, 2010

ELCA chaplain to bless national tree

Darrell D. Morton, assistant for federal chaplaincy ministries to the presiding bishop of the ELCA, will present the invocation at the 87th National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony, Thursday, Dec. 9, in Washington.

This year’s tree lighting ceremony takes place at 5 p.m. EST on the Ellipse, between the National Mall and the White House. According to the National Christmas Tree website, the event will be broadcast on PBS-TV across the country. It will be rebroadcast in certain cities later in the month, and the event will be available online.
    
The National Christmas Tree is a project of the National Park Foundation, the charitable arm of the National Park Service. President Calvin Coolidge turned on the lights for the first National Christmas Tree in 1923.
    
“I got an e-mail from the National Park Foundation asking me if I would do it,” Morton said, adding that Bishop James “Jay” Magness, suffragan for federal chaplains, The Episcopal Church, recommended him.
    
Morton, a retired military chaplain and U.S. Air Force colonel, said he has presented the invocation at similar events in the past, but nothing on this scale. President Obama and his family are expected to attend, along with an estimated 17,000 people, Morton said. Musical performances are also part of the program.
    
Morton said his prayer will ask for God’s guidance and wisdom in caring for those who are hungry, homeless or living in poverty, as well as petitions for military personnel who are serving overseas and can’t be home for Christmas. Organizers have asked him to keep his prayer to one minute or less, he said.
    
With ELCA synod bishops and congregations, Morton helps support about 70 ELCA active duty military chaplains, including five military chaplains now serving in Afghanistan and Iraq. He and others also support 130 ELCA military chaplains with reserve and National Guard forces, and about 60 chaplains who serve in federal prisons or Veterans Administration facilities.
    
Morton’s appointment is especially significant because of the Lutheran connection with the Christmas tree tradition. According to legend, Martin Luther, whose writings helped spark the Protestant Reformation, is among those credited with the tradition of decorating trees to celebrate Christmas. Luther’s role in Christmas tree decorating dates back to about 1500, when he was said to have been struck by the beauty of a small group of evergreens as he walked through snow-covered woods one Christmas Eve.

“Their branches, dusted with snow, shimmered in the moonlight. When he got home, he set up a little fir tree indoors so he could share this story with his children. He decorated it with candles, which he lighted in honor of Christ’s birth,” according to the Christmas Tree Farm website.

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August 10, 2010

ELCA: 4.5 million members, $2.6 billion in offerings in 2009


The ELCA reported a baptized membership of 4,543,037 in 10,348 congregations in 2009. The ELCA Office of the Secretary and ELCA Research and Evaluation extract these numbers from analysis of membership and income data in parochial reports submitted by ELCA congregations each year.

ELCA Secretary David D. Swartling said in a report that data indicate a 2009 decline of 90,850 members and 48 congregations-slightly more than membership declines in the preceding two years.

Total receipts for ELCA congregations exceeded $2.6 billion in 2009, down 2.94 percent from 2008, according to the report. However, reported total assets of ELCA congregations actually grew in 2009 by 1.2 percent to $20.9 billion, the report said. Funds held in endowments and memorials also increased to almost $1.2 billion in 2009. Average giving per baptized member grew 2.8 percent in 2009 to $492, the ELCA secretary reported.

Swartling said that 2009 was a turbulent year nationally and internationally, and that "the ELCA certainly had its share of turmoil."

Despite the challenges, "ELCA members have continued to be remarkably steadfast in their giving, and many ELCA congregations remain surprisingly healthy from an economic perspective," Swartling said. "We must not forget that by the world's standards we remain a wealthy church that must continue to look for innovative ways to translate that wealth into effective ministry through this whole church to God's world."

The secretary's report said the average number of people in worship in ELCA congregations declined slightly from the previous year. A total of 1,289,967 people or 28.39 percent of baptized ELCA members attended weekly worship in 2009. That number was 1,330,709 (28.71 percent of baptized members) in 2008, the report said.

For the first time parochial reports asked congregations to provide information about the number of people participating in the congregation's ministry, not simply members, Swartling said. "Our hope is that we will be able to develop more meaningful data in the future based on participation," the ELCA secretary said. "It also will allow us to link congregations more effectively to take advantage of particular strengths in their ministries."

In this new category congregations reported 2,527,941 people participating in congregational activities. More than 35 percent of ELCA congregations reported African American/Black participation and 32 percent reported Latino participation.

The number of congregations reporting more than 5 percent multicultural membership has also risen, the report said. "Many ELCA congregations continue to be proactive in their efforts to be intentionally inclusive," Swartling added.

Click here to view a summary of annual membership data.

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August 5, 2010

ELCA gives $100,000 for Pakistan flood relief

Through the ELCA International Disaster Response, ELCA members committed $100,000 to help partners respond to widespread flooding in Pakistan.

Those partners— a U.S.-based ecumenical agency named Church World Service, will provide emergency assistance to some 70,000 people, food assistance to about 35,000 people, emergency shelter supplies for 17,500 people, and mobile health access for 17,500 people, said Megan Bradfield, associate director, International Disaster Response, ELCA Global Mission.

As many as 1,500 people have died in the Pakistan floods — caused by the seasonal monsoon — and at least 1.5 million people were displaced by severe flooding in provinces including Balochistan, Punjab, Azad Jammu and Kashmir, Kyber Paktunkwa and Sindh. The monsoon normally affects Pakistan between June and September. Pakistan's military deployed 30,000 troops, rescuing nearly 21,000 people. Rescue workers are struggling to save more than 27,000 people still trapped by water.

The most pressing humanitarian needs are food and safe drinking water, said a spokesperson for Pakistan's National Disaster Management Authority. Survivors face serious challenges given the loss of housing, crops and livestock, Bradfield said. Additionally, more than 100 bridges were destroyed and more than 3,700 houses were swept away, Church World Service reported.

Bradfield said initial efforts by Church World Service include  providing food and shelter kits; conducting assessments in affected areas and identifying beneficiaries; and providing emergency health assistance through a mobile health unit.

Rafael Malpica Padilla, executive director for ELCA Global Mission, said that thanks to "the ELCA's commitment to strong ecumenical partnerships ... we are pre-positioned to respond with CWS to those affected in Pakistan." The ELCA's efforts with CWS are "an expression of the global ACT (Action by Churches Together) Alliance," he added.

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June 29, 2010

ELCA Seeks Dismissal of Claims in Pension Plan Suit

The ELCA churchwide organization filed a motion in U.S. District Court in Minnesota June 28, seeking dismissal of all claims against it in a lawsuit filed following termination of a defined benefit compensation retirement plan by Augsburg Fortress Publishers (AFP).

On April 21 former employees of the Minneapolis-based publisher who were covered by the terminated pension plan filed a class action lawsuit in the U.S. District Court of Minnesota. Named as defendants were Augsburg Fortress; its president and chief executive officer, chief financial officer and vice president of human resources and organizational development; the ELCA; and current and former members of the publisher's board of trustees. About 500 people were affected by the termination of the plan.

The lawsuit seeks to recover losses allegedly suffered by the plaintiffs because of what they claim were "breaches of duty" with regard to the termination of the defined benefit pension plan. The suit also asks the federal district court to declare that the terminated pension plan is not a church plan, but a defined benefit plan regulated by the 1974 Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA).

Augsburg Fortress, a separately incorporated entity apart from the ELCA churchwide organization, maintained and continues to maintain its own retirement benefits for its staff. At the time the lawsuit was filed, the ELCA churchwide organization asserted that "it had no role in the creation, management, funding or termination of the Augsburg Fortress pension plan." It also denied all legal claims made against it by the plaintiffs.

The plaintiffs assert that the ELCA is liable for the Augsburg Plan's losses under ERISA or, alternatively, state law, states the ELCA's dismissal motion. The ELCA churchwide organization denied this. The ELCA churchwide organization noted that it is named in three counts regarding ERISA. One count seeks a declaration that the terminated pension plan is an ERISA Plan (Count I); another claims the ELCA had a duty to monitor the plan under ERISA rules (Count V); a third claims the ELCA had a co-fiduciary duty under ERISA (Count VI).

"All ERISA counts must be dismissed because the Plan is a 'church plan,' not an ERISA plan," the ELCA  motion stated. "Even if the Plan is deemed an ERISA plan, Plaintiffs' allegations that the ELCA is an appointing fiduciary fail to state a claim as a matter of law, requiring dismissal of Counts V and VI as to the ELCA."

Augsburg Fortress Publishers similarly filed a motion on Monday seeking to dismiss the counts based on ERISA but did not address other claims in the lawsuit.

The ELCA churchwide organization motion also said the plaintiffs claim that Augsburg Fortress is an "alter ego of ELCA" which should render the ELCA liable for breach of contract (Count X), or for failure to keep the promises made to the publisher's employees concerning their pension (Count XI) or under the Minnesota Consumer Fraud Act (Count XII).

"The allegations that AFP is an alter ego of the ELCA are neither legally sufficient nor plausible. The Minnesota Consumer Fraud Act allegations also fail to state a claim under the terms of the statute," the ELCA's motion stated. "Accordingly, the ELCA requests dismissal of all claims asserted against it."

In 2005 Augsburg Fortress' board of trustees froze the organization's defined benefit plan, and began offering a 403b defined contribution plan to employees. The costly defined benefit plan "has been underfunded for about nine years," Beth A. Lewis, Augsburg Fortress president and chief executive officer, said at the time the defined benefit plan was terminated on Dec. 31, 2009.

Lewis said when that plan was terminated most participants in the defined benefit plan would receive a lump sum payment. The trustees provided for a "more equitable allocation of plan assets among plan participants," she wrote in a letter to plan participants. Without the amendment, more than half of the plan participants would have received nothing at all, Lewis wrote.

"If we had done nothing, the plan would have run out of money in approximately five years and left about 60 percent of those in the plan with no retirement benefits," Lewis said. "We didn't think that was equitable or fair."
Distributions were made to plan participants in March, Lewis said. Lewis denied all claims of wrongdoing against Augsburg Fortress in the lawsuit.

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June 9, 2010

Lutheran Disaster Response provides grant for Ohio tornadoes


Lutheran Disaster Response will provide a $5,000 emergency grant to the Northwestern Ohio Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America for initial response to tornadoes that struck in three counties near Toledo June 5-6.

Lutheran Disaster Response is a collaborative ministry of the ELCA and The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency reported seven confirmed fatalities, with two serious injuries, said Michael Nevergall, assistant director, ELCA Domestic Disaster Response. FEMA also reported 300 homes and commercial buildings suffered minor or major damage in the storms, he said.

Nevergall said Calvary Lutheran Church, Northwood, Ohio, will serve as a collection point for bottled water, light food items and a central location for volunteers working in the area. Calvary is the closest ELCA congregation to the disaster area, he said, which includes Wood, Fulton and Ottawa counties.

Mary Woodward, LDR's local coordinator, said two powerful tornadoes struck communities around Toledo, she said. One tornado had winds of up to 175 miles per hour, the Associated Press reported. Woodward is with Lutheran Social Services of Central Ohio, Columbus, and is president of Ohio Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster.

"Since Sunday evening we've been able to provide spiritual and emotional care for families in Lake Township," she said. In addition, she said Ronald M. Matthews, Friendship Lutheran Church, Amelia, Ohio, provided spiritual and emotional care training for pastors and trained volunteers working with people in the area affected by the storms.

LDR is organizing a community prayer service June 9 at Calvary Lutheran Church , and is assisting in organizing a community-wide prayer service at Lake High School, Millbury, Ohio, Woodward said.

"We're providing trained volunteers to help with debris removal and to help with preliminary efforts to assist families without insurance to rebuild," she said.

To give: Financial gifts may be sent via the Lutheran Disaster Response website.

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June 5, 2010

Synod bishop concerned after Minnesota congregation's close second vote

The bishop of the Southwestern Minnesota Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Jon V. Anderson, said he is "concerned" about the members of Christ the King Lutheran Church, Hutchinson, Minn., following the congregation's "very close second vote" May 23 to end its affiliation with the ELCA.

Anderson made the comment in a June 3 e-mail message to the synod. Christ the King Lutheran Church has about 2,500 baptized members. The congregation was told after votes were counted that 232 votes of 348 ballots cast — exactly two-thirds as required by the congregation's constitution — favored the resolution to terminate affiliation with the ELCA, Anderson said in his message.

Two days after the vote, "it was revealed to me that there was an additional ballot that had not been reported in Sunday's (May 23) results," Anderson wrote. "How this single ballot is counted could change the outcome of Sunday's decision to disaffiliate. The congregation's leadership is working to resolve this matter."

According to a statement posted on Christ the King's Web site, the congregation council reported that one person marked a ballot "but neither on the YES or NO line provided on the ballot."

"Since it wasn't clear to the counters, it was decided that this ballot should not be counted in any way, leaving a total of 348 votes," the statement said.

The ELCA Model Constitution for Congregations and the congregation's own constitution require that "a two-thirds majority of the voting members present" must be achieved on a vote to terminate affiliation. Congregations are required to take two such votes, and there must be a 90-day consultation period with the synod bishop between votes.

On May 26 the congregation council reviewed all ballots, including the ballot in question. It declared the intent of the voter who submitted the questionable ballot to be a "yes," the council statement said. The council vote was 10 in favor with three abstentions, Jon Lindekugel, pastor of Christ the King, told the ELCA News Service.

The congregation council ruled that 349 voting members were present, and that 233 members voted yes, 112 voted no and 4 abstained, a 66.76 percent majority. Had the vote failed to achieve two-thirds, the process to leave the ELCA would have ended and would have to be restarted, if members still wanted to leave.

The congregation president and pastors presented a certified copy of the resolution and voting results on May 27 to Anderson. Anderson said he and a synod staff member met May 27 with Lindekugel and the congregation's president, Peter Royer.

Anderson wrote that he did not take a position on the ballot in question but did receive a copy of the resolution and the council's ruling.

"That does not mean I endorse their decision concerning this ballot," Anderson wrote. "As I understand our polity and policy in this situation, my opinion about the ballot and the process is not determinative. This matter will need to be resolved within the congregation in accordance with their constitution," Anderson's statement said.

Anderson also offered to "assist as requested and to support all of the members of the congregation as I am able."

Lindekugel explained that over a period of many years, members of Christ the King felt "a distance between themselves and the leadership of the ELCA," and that actions of the ELCA Churchwide Assembly in recent years had "widened the gap."

The human sexuality actions of the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly were the last straw, Lindekugel explained. The resolution the congregation voted on May 23 included a number of concerns about the ELCA, not just human sexuality, he said.

Lindekugel said only one person has raised questions about the outcome of the second vote, since news of the questionable ballot became known. He said he is not certain how many people are needed to challenge such a vote formally and if so, how long the congregation must wait for such a challenge.

"Bishop Jon (Anderson) has been really helpful to try to look for alternative ways this could be solved," Lindekugel said. He also said if the process must be restarted the congregation will do it.

Lindekugel said the council did not make its decision to avoid restarting the process to leave. "The council acted, I think, in good faith and assuming some responsibility as elected leaders, they made the decision that the intent of the vote was yes," he said. The council will meet next week and consider what, if anything, it needs to do, he added.

Read the Christ the King Lutheran Church congregation council statement at the congregation's website. 

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June 2, 2010

Presiding bishop responds to Gaza ship convoy incident


Expressing regret for the deaths and injuries that resulted when Israeli military forces intercepted a ship convoy seeking to deliver humanitarian goods to Gaza, Mark S. Hanson, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, called for "a full, international and independent investigation into the matter," in a June 1 public statement.

At least 10 people died after the ships were intercepted in international waters May 31. The ships were carrying humanitarian goods to Gaza from Cyprus. The mission was also intended to draw attention to the Israeli blockade of Gaza, and a number of activists were said to be on the ships. Video images showed Israeli soldiers rappelling from helicopters onto the ships, and showed the soldiers and passengers fighting.

Israel has restricted the flow of goods in and out of Gaza since Hamas gained control in 2007, primarily to control the smuggling of weapons. It said it had warned for days that it would not allow the ships to reach Gaza. Israel also said its troops opened fire in self-defense.

The United Nations Security Council expressed regret at the loss of life and injuries resulting from the Israeli military operation. It also "condemned those acts which had killed at least 10 civilians and wounded many more," according to a Security Council statement.

Speaking on behalf of the ELCA and the Lutheran World Federation, which he serves as president, Hanson expressed "my deep sadness" regarding the operation. He noted the ELCA and the LWF are engaged in the Middle East and are committed to Lutheran Christians and all people living in the region.

"We deeply regret the deaths and injuries that resulted when Israeli forces intercepted the boats," Hanson wrote. "Our thoughts and prayers are with the wounded and the families of those killed or otherwise harmed during this incident. We note that this tragic incident occurred on the first day of the World Council of Churches' World Week for Peace in Palestine and Israel."

The incident raises many questions that must be answered, Hanson said in his statement. "We therefore call for a full, international and independent investigation into this matter," the presiding bishop's statement said.

"While we condemn all violence in the resolution of political disputes, this incident raises a number of questions related to the just use of force. It is not clear that, in this incident, all alternatives were explored prior to the use of military force. One tenet of the just use of force is proportionality, a principle I raised during my meeting with the chief rabbis of the State of Israel during Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli incursion into Gaza which lasted from December 2008 to January 2009. This incident provides an example of how proportionality is an ongoing concern related to Israeli military action against civilians, both Palestinians and internationals," Hanson wrote.

Hanson's statement said the attempt to deliver humanitarian materials to Gaza via the ship convoy calls attention to the ongoing blockade of Gaza and the consequences for the 1.5 million people living there. The presiding bishop said Israel's blockade "must be fully lifted, in accordance with U.N. Security Council Resolution 1860."

Though some aid does get to the people of Gaza, Hanson wrote that the economy, particularly the agricultural and fishing sectors, has been devastated. Basic goods such as seeds and seedlings, plastic piping, irrigation supplies, fishing nets, engine spare parts, veterinary drugs and cement are restricted, he wrote.

Hanson also wrote that the World Health Organization has documented the serious deterioration in Gaza's health system.

"This tragic event demonstrates the urgency of achieving a just peace. One role of religious leaders, including the churches, is to strengthen those voices working for peace, rather than yielding to the clamor of extremism, as we seek a just peace beneficial for all persons in the region," Hanson wrote.

"We urge that this incident not interrupt the proximity talks now being conducted through the Obama administration. Instead, we expect that this incident will intensify on all sides the commitment to serious negotiations that will lead to a just resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," the ELCA presiding bishop's statement concluded.

In addition, Olav Fykse Tveit, a Norwegian Lutheran theologian and general secretary of the World Council of Churches, Geneva, called the events that occurred May 31 "deplorable."

"We condemn the assault and killing of innocent people who were attempting to deliver humanitarian assistance to the people of Gaza, who have been under a crippling Israeli blockade since 2007. We further condemn the flagrant violation of international law by Israel in attacking and boarding a humanitarian convoy in international waters. We pray for all those who are affected by the attack, especially the bereaved families," Tveit's statement said.

Statements:

Read Mark S. Hanson's statement at the ELCA website.

Read Olav Fykse Tveit's statement at the World Council of Churches website.

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May 5, 2010

ELCA, Tanzanian, Ethiopian church heads to meet privately on sexuality

ELCA presiding bishop Mark S. Hanson said he will have a private meeting in Chicago May 10 with Wakseyoum Idosa, president of the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus to discuss concerns about 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly actions related to human sexuality.

Hanson also said he will meet May 18 with Alex Malasusa, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania (ELCT) May 18. Malasusa will be in Chicago for a companion synod consultation with ELCA Global Mission staff.

In April, leaders of the two African churches expressed deep concern over decisions of the 2009 assembly and, separately, concern over decisions of the Church of Sweden, on sexuality matters. The two African churches focused their public comments on opposition to same-gender marriages.

The Church of Sweden, the ELCT, the EECMY and the ELCA are the four largest churches in the Lutheran World Federation, (LWF), a global communion of churches.

Hanson said he expects to have “honest and open conversations” with both leaders, and added that it is his practice to communicate directly with leaders in companion churches. Hanson said he will share with both leaders “the ELCA’s shared commitment with partner churches to be engaged in God’s mission for the sake of the world.”

Since the churchwide assembly, ELCA Global Mission staff has communicated with companion churches “our intent to continue to be respectful of local policies and practices in the assignment of mission personnel and the development of shared ministries,” said Rafael Malpica Padilla, executive director, ELCA Global Mission.
Speaking at the Africa LWF Pre-assembly and Church Leadership Consultation in March in Nigeria, Malpica Padilla said the ELCA is “deeply grateful” for the companionship of the African churches.

“For many decades our churches have walked together, sharing their gifts and talents for the proclamation of the gospel of salvation and hope in Jesus Christ. This companionship in the gospel has strengthened the bonds of sisterhood and brotherhood between our peoples,” Malpica Padilla said, adding that the relationships are “historical and deeply rooted.”

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April 26, 2010

ELCA churchwide organization responds to pension lawsuit

The churchwide organization of ELCA said April 23 that it is "deeply concerned" for the well-being of participants affected by the termination of a defined benefit compensation retirement plan of Augsburg Fortress Publishers, Minneapolis.

On April 21 former employees of the publisher who were covered by the terminated pension plan filed a class action lawsuit in the U.S. District Court of Minnesota. The churchwide organization's statement, issued to the ELCA News Service, said, "The entire ELCA, including the leadership of the churchwide organization, understands the far-reaching implications of this matter, and is deeply concerned for the well-being of the plan participants and continues to hold them in prayer."

"In the midst of this complex, difficult and painful situation we are also mindful of the need to respect both the obligations and the limitations in the legal agreements so that we can be responsible to all of our commitments and relationships as an interdependent church," the statement said.

Augsburg Fortress is separately incorporated entity apart from the ELCA churchwide organization. The publisher has maintained and continues to maintain its own retirement benefits for its staff. The ELCA churchwide organization had no role in the creation, management, funding or termination of the Augsburg Fortress pension plan, according to an April 22 report in the Wall Street Journal.

Plantiffs in the lawsuit are Judith Thorkelson, Karen Walhof, Gayle Aldrich and Jean K. Stanley, all participants in the terminated plan. The suit also included "all others similarly situated" as plaintiffs. Approximately 500 people were affected by the termination of the pension plan.

Named as defendants were Augsburg Fortress; Beth Lewis, president and chief executive officer; John Rahja, chief financial officer; and Sandra Middendorf, vice president of human resources and organizational development; the ELCA; and current and former members of the publisher's board of trustees.

The class action lawsuit seeks to recover losses allegedly suffered by the plantiffs because of what they claim are "breaches of duty" with regard to the termination of the defined benefit pension plan, according to the lawsuit.

The suit also asks the federal district court to declare that the terminated pension plan is not a church plan, but a defined benefit plan regulated by the 1974 Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA).

"We deeply regret any hardship that the termination of our defined benefit retirement plan has caused, but the complaint brought against Augsburg Fortress and other defendants in this matter is wholly without merit," said Lewis, in a statement in response to the suit. "We deny all claims of wrongdoing alleged in the complaint and will seek its dismissal."

"The complaint filed against Augsburg Fortress misrepresents the care with which the plan was administered and the communications that occurred with plan participants," Lewis added.

ELCA Secretary David D. Swartling denied all legal claims made by the plaintiffs against the ELCA.

In 2005 the Augsburg Fortress board of trustees took action to freeze the defined benefit plan, and began offering a 403b defined contribution plan to its employees. The costly defined benefit plan "has been underfunded for about nine years," Lewis said at the time the defined benefit plan was terminated on Dec. 31, 2009.

When that plan was terminated, Lewis said most participants in the defined benefit plan would receive a lump sum payment. Lewis said the trustees provided for a "more equitable allocation of plan assets among plan participants," she wrote in a letter to plan participants. Without the amendment, more than half of the plan participants would have received nothing at all, Lewis wrote.

"We wanted to make certain that we had the most equitable distribution of assets possible," she told the ELCA News Service. "If we had done nothing, the plan would have run out of money in approximately five years and left about 60 percent of those in the plan with no retirement benefits. We didn't think that was equitable or fair."
Distributions were made to plan participants in March, Lewis said.

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April 12, 2010

ELCA Church Council adopts significant revisions to ministry policies


The Church Council of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America adopted a series of historic and sweeping revisions to ministry policy documents April 10, the result of months of extensive writing, comment and review by hundreds of leaders and members following the 2009 Churchwide Assembly.

The Church Council is the ELCA's board of directors and serves as the interim legislative authority of the church between churchwide assemblies. The council met in Chicago April 9-12. The next churchwide assembly is in Orlando, Fla., in August 2011.

The changes were called for by the 2009 Churchwide Assembly, which directed that policy documents be revised to make it possible for eligible Lutherans in committed, publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous same-gender relationships to serve as ELCA clergy and professional lay leaders. The assembly directed that revised policies recognize the convictions of those who believe the ELCA should not allow such service. The assembly also adopted a social statement on human sexuality.

The council adopted revisions to two documents that spell out the church's behavioral expectations of ELCA professional leaders — "Vision and Expectations: Ordained Ministers in the ELCA" and "Vision and Expectations: Associates in Ministry, Deaconesses and Diaconal Ministers in the ELCA." The council also adopted revisions to a document that specifies grounds for discipline of professional leaders, "Definitions and Guidelines for Discipline," and it adopted revisions to the "ELCA Candidacy Manual," used by regional committees to help guide candidates seeking to become professional leaders in the ELCA.

Council members asked few questions and commented briefly on each proposed document before approving them. Only minor editorial changes were proposed and adopted by the council. Each revised document was adopted overwhelmingly.

Keith A. Hunsinger, council member, Oak Harbor, Ohio, who said he does not agree with the sexuality decisions made in August 2009, announced April 11 that he had abstained on each vote on the documents. He explained that he didn't believe that the first drafts of the documents released last fall embodied the full range of decisions made at the 2009 assembly. "My conscience won't allow me to vote for any of these documents, but as a member of the board of directors, I can't vote against the will of the churchwide assembly," he told the ELCA News Service.

However, Hunsinger told the council that the final forms of each document reflected "the breadth and depth" of the decisions, including the fact that "we agreed to live under a big tent," and that multiple voices would be heard. "Because those documents now said that, I feel my ideas and I are still welcome in the ELCA," he said.

The revised policies are effective immediately, said David D. Swartling, ELCA secretary. Final revised text of each document will be posted to the ELCA Web site by the end of April, he said.

Following council approval of the policies, Mark S. Hanson, ELCA presiding bishop, expressed his appreciation to many, including the council and the Conference of Bishops for leading the revision process over the past few months. He also thanked Stanley N. Olson, executive director, ELCA Vocation and Education, the lead staff person working with church leaders and various constituencies through the revision process.

Olson thanked many others who have worked for changes in ministry policies through more than two decades of effort. "This is the work of many — hundreds, thousands of people who have reflected, thought and prayed. We are still a church that is tense over this, but we are Easter people, and I think we have done an Easter thing today," he told the council.

Prior to voting, Donald Main, Lancaster, Pa., chair of the ELCA Committee on Appeals, which led the effort to revise Definitions and Guidelines for Discipline, told the council that the document had not been revised since 1993. New sections address matters such as integrity, and substance abuse and addiction, he said.

The Committee on Appeals also "considered each and every word, constantly testing different language so as to be clear and concise as possible, and remain faithful to our charge and to the social statement and ministry policies recommended and adopted by our assembly," Main added.

The two Vision and Expectations documents and the Candidacy Manual are "tools in the service of God's mission through the ELCA, primarily to assist us in that work of calling forth and supporting faithful, wise and courageous leaders," Olson said. The Vision and Expectations documents were most recently revised in the early 1990s, and the Candidacy Manual was revised in the past few years, he said.

"We have not attempted to spell out every possible situation and to give definitive direction for every possible situation," he told the council. "There are broad principles in these documents, and there are guidelines with some details." Olson added the documents call for the ELCA to trust established processes and its leaders who have responsibility for oversight and decision-making.

"Our next step is to orient our staff and the candidacy committees," Olson said. A memo summarizing key policy revisions will be sent this week to help guide synod bishops, staff working with candidates for professional leadership, candidacy committee chairs, seminary presidents and selected staff, and applicants and candidates.

Olson added that the ELCA Vocation and Education program unit, the ELCA Office of the Secretary and others are responsible for monitoring the new policies, and suggesting further revisions and guidelines if necessary.

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April 9, 2010

Valparaiso University Pastor Darlene Grega dies

Darlene E. Grega, an ELCA pastor serving at Valparaiso (Ind.) University was a "beloved member" of the Valparaiso family, said the university's president, Mark A. Heckler, in an April 7 message announcing her death.

The Porter (Ind.) County Coroner ruled Grega's death as a suicide, the Merrillville (Ind.) Post-Tribune reported April 9.

She was a first for chapel staff 

Grega, 55, joined the staff of the university's Chapel of the Resurrection in August 2008. She was the first ELCA pastor called to serve on the chapel staff of Valparaiso University , an independent Lutheran higher education institution. She served on a staff that included two Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod pastors, Joseph R. Cunningham and James A. Wetzstein.

"We mourn the loss of someone who cared deeply for the members of this community. Our sympathy and prayers are with Pastor Grega's son, Nathan, her extended family, and her many friends here at Valpo and beyond," Heckler wrote in his announcement to the university community.

University faculty, staff and students paid tribute to Grega at an April 7 evening prayer service, an April 8 morning prayer service, and will continue evening prayer services in Grega's memory through April 16, according to a Valparaiso spokesperson. A funeral or memorial service for Grega has not yet been announced.

"Pastor Grega has been a friend to many, and generously served our campus community since joining our chapel staff less than two years ago," Heckler wrote. "In particular she provided significant counsel and support to women on our campus and built relationships with our international students to help them feel welcomed here."

"We just lost a very fine colleague and are so saddened," Cunningham said in an interview with the ELCA News Service.

Grega presided at the April 4 Easter celebration at the chapel, a first for an ELCA pastor. "She had a great presence and was overjoyed. She did great, and we all commended her. That's why this is so shocking," Cunningham said.

Cunningham said Grega extended hospitality and care to many in the university community, including international students, women and Alliance, a community of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students.
"My last image of her is the joy of the post-Easter celebration, and seeing her smile," he said. "As a professional, my last memory of her is her deep care and concern for others. It's just such a tremendous loss."

Grega's bishop, James R. Stuck, ELCA Indiana-Kentucky Synod, Indianapoliis, expressed shock and sadness. "Her presence was very much appreciated by a lot of people," he said. "For her, it was a very rich ministry, and she would express that quite often. She provided a door for a lot of people in the community. It was a good and vibrant ministry for her."

Stuck recalled that Heckler's predecessor, Alan F. Harre, led an effort to raise funds for an endowment for an ELCA pastor to serve on the Chapel of the Resurrection staff. Stuck said he fully expects the university will continue to have an ELCA pastor on the chapel staff in the future.

She welcomed people on the margins

On behalf of the ELCA, ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark S. Hanson extended condolences and sympathy for Grega's death to Heckler and the university community. "Darlene's call to serve as the first ELCA pastor on the staff of the Chapel of the Resurrection has been the occasion for renewing and deepening our relationships with the University and its extended family of alumni and friends," Hanson wrote in an April 9 letter. "We have rejoiced in the strength of her service as university pastor with students, faculty and staff -- a ministry marked by her distinctive gifts of warm hospitality, gregarious compassion for the suffering and tenderhearted, and tenacious advocacy for those who have often been kept at the margins of Christian community and public life.

"Although the news of her death comes as a deep shock and disappointment, we entrust her to the mercy of God shown in Jesus Christ and share with you our hope in the promise of Christ's Resurrection," Hanson wrote.

Grega was born in Cleveland and graduated from Valparaiso University and the Lutheran Deaconess Program housed on campus. She earned a master of arts degree in theology from Duke University, Durham, N.C.; a master of arts degree in counseling from the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks; and a master of divinity degree from Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minn.

Grega brought more than 25 years of experience in higher education to Valparaiso. She was director of international students at St. Cloud (Minn.) State University and director of the international center at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, Va. She also had nine years' experience in campus ministry at colleges and universities in North Carolina, Minnesota and Texas.

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March 16, 2010

Synod council denies Florida congregation's request to leave ELCA


The synod council of the Florida-Bahamas Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America declined a request from a Fort Pierce, Fla., congregation to terminate its membership in the denomination after the congregation successfully completed two votes to leave as required by the ELCA Constitution.

The decision was a rare instance in which required synod council approval was denied. David D. Swartling, ELCA secretary, said he was not aware of another instance in which a congregation's request to terminate its relationship with the ELCA since the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly had been denied.

St. Peter Lutheran Church, Fort Pierce, was founded in the former Lutheran Church in America (LCA). The ELCA Constitution, section 9.62, states that congregations established by the LCA must "receive synodical approval" before terminating their ELCA memberships.

St. Peter's decision to leave resulted from its disagreement with actions of the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly. That assembly approved proposals that would create the possibility for Lutherans in committed, publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous same-gender relationships to serve as ELCA clergy and professional lay leaders. It also adopted a social statement on human sexuality.

The synod council made the decision during its Feb. 27-28 meeting, and the congregation was informed in writing last week, said Edward R. Benoway, bishop, Florida-Bahamas Synod, Tampa. "The synod council prayed about this decision, and for missional reasons, we felt we could not approve this," he said. Benoway told the ELCA News Service that there's no other ELCA congregation in Fort Pierce.

St. Peter's current annual report lists 105 baptized members, with an average worship attendance of 46 people. Members voted 20-0 to leave the ELCA.

"This is the first (former) LCA congregation in the synod that has voted to terminate its relationship with the ELCA. Fort Pierce is an important mission field for us, and we want to maintain our witness to this community. We want to move forward with the people," Benoway said, adding "it will be a challenge." Benoway said he called to inform the congregation's pastor, Theodore C. Rice, of the synod council's decision. He also said the pastor and he agreed to meet to discuss the situation.

"We had a lot of discussion, and we prayed a lot," said Cheryl G. Stuart, Tallahassee, synod vice president and synod council chair. "We took a fair amount of time on this one."

The council discussed St. Peter's request, what it means for the synod council to have authority to grant such a request and the church's mission in that area of the synod, Stuart said. The council's decision was unanimous, she said.

"The council tends to be mission-focused," Stuart said. "It was really about mission for us in the area."

Stuart said the council and synod staff don't have specific plans yet for next steps with the St. Peter congregation, "but we are committed to trying to walk with them and rebuild the relationship."

Rice told the ELCA News Service that the synod council's action had put the congregation into a "dual relationship" with both the ELCA and Lutheran Congregations for Mission in Christ (LCMC), a church body which the congregation joined. He said the congregation didn't want a relationship with both — just LCMC.

Rice said he doesn't believe there's any way the congregation can work with the synod. "How are they going to work with us? We completely disagree with them," he said.

"There's nothing we can do. They don't want to let us off the rolls. We joined LCMC, and that's where we'll do our ministry," he said.

The Metropolitan New York Synod Council has acted on three requests from congregations to terminate their relationships with the synod and the ELCA, but its approach was different. The congregations are Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, New Rochelle; Advent Lutheran Church, Elmont; and St. James Lutheran Church, Stewart Manor. In each case, the synod council adopted a resolution "respectfully" requesting each to "remain in the fellowship of the Metropolitan New York Synod," according to the synod's records.

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March 3, 2010

ELCA Board of Pensions trustees begin process for benefit plan changes


Trustees of the Board of Pensions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America have taken steps to extend various plan benefits to eligible partners in same-gender relationships.

At their Feb. 26-28 meeting in Minneapolis, the trustees adopted recommended amendments to the Board's medical and dental, retirement, survivor and disability benefits plans, plus its flexible spending plan that allows members to set aside pre-tax dollars to pay for eligible health care and dependent care expenses throughout the year.

The trustees' action is subject to review by the Conference of Bishops, which meets in Itasca, Ill., March 5-9, as well as review and possible approval by the Church Council which meets here April 9-12.

The action resulted from decisions made at the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly. That assembly adopted a series of proposals which created the possibility for Lutherans in committed, lifelong, monogamous and publicly accountable same-gender relationships to serve as ELCA clergy and professional lay leaders.

The assembly also adopted a social statement on human sexuality. One of the statement's 15 implementing resolutions (#7) called for "the ELCA to amend the eligibility provisions of the ELCA Pension and Other Benefits Program, consistent with the policies of this church."

The Church Council is expected to consider a series of revisions to churchwide candidacy, ministry and discipline policies, consistent with the assembly decisions, and may adopt the revised policies when it meets in Chicago next month.

"We are committed to doing what has been mandated by the churchwide assembly," said Robert D. Berg, assistant to the president for church relations, ELCA Board of Pensions, Minneapolis.

The trustees acted as a result of a commitment on the part of the Board of Pensions to enroll eligible same-gender partners within one month of the Church Council's possible approval of new ELCA policies, Berg said.

He explained that the board wanted to be ready to implement plan changes soon after the council acts. The trustees do not have a regularly scheduled meeting again until August, he said. Berg also said that if the council amends policy proposals, the trustees are prepared to meet by teleconference to finalize Board of Pensions plan changes.

"The Board of Pensions has committed to being able to enroll eligible same-gender partners within 30 days of Church Council approval of the church's policies," wrote Robert H. Rydland, the Board's vice president and general counsel, in a Feb. 10 memo to the trustees. "Our guiding principle as we implement resolution #7 is to treat an eligible same-gender partner the same as we treat a spouse to the extent possible under each plan, and as permitted by federal law."

In addition to the proposed plan changes, the trustees reviewed proposed affidavits that would be used by the Board of Pensions to provide evidence of a same-gender partnership and evidence of the dissolution of such a partnership, for the purposes of benefit eligibility.

In his memo, Rydland wrote that because only a few states recognize "same-gender marriage," the Board of Pensions believes it is important to have affidavits on file.

"The affidavits contain important information for the member and partner regarding possible tax consequences of the benefits provided and the legal implications of signing the affidavit," he wrote. "These affidavits are not part of a plan and therefore can be revised as necessary without Church Council or Board approval."

"I thought the meeting went very well in the sense that we presented them (trustees) with the necessary information," Berg said. "There were some questions and some discussion. I think there was full understanding of their role and responsibilities as trustees."

Read the proposed Board of Pensions plan changes and other related documents at the ELCA Web site.

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February 27, 2010

ELCA initiates response to massive earthquake in Chile


A massive earthquake, with a magnitude of 8.8 on the Richter scale, struck central Chile in the early morning hours Feb. 27, killing at least 122 people. The earthquake is the biggest to hit Chile in 50 years.

As a result of the earthquake, a tsunami warning was issued Feb. 27 for the entire Pacific basin, including all of the Hawaiian islands.

Staff of the churchwide organization of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has contacted companions in Chile. They are working to assess the situation and plan a response, said Megan Bradfield, associate director, International Development and Disaster Response, ELCA Global Mission.

ELCA churchwide staff has also connected with people in Peru, where the church is supporting those who are being evacuated due to the tsunami warning, said Daniel Rift, director of the ELCA World Hunger Appeal in a blog entry.

ELCA International Disaster Response will be working with two historical companions in Chile, Bradfield said. They are the Iglesia Evangelica Luterana en Chile (Evangelical Lutheran Church in Chile), a member of the Lutheran World Federation, and Educacion Popular en Salud (Popular Education in Health Foundation), Bradfield said.

The church has approximately 3,000 members served by nine pastors in 10 congregations and 5 points of mission — two in Santiago, two in Concepción and one in Coquimbo, she said. The health foundation works to promote quality and fairness in health care for the poor, and works to establish and train community health groups, Bradfield said. Over the past 20 years, it "has grown from a small, emergency-response team to a leader of systematic community mobilizations to improve health services and awareness," she said.

Chile is vulnerable to earthquakes. It is situated on the Pacific "Rim of Fire," on the edge of the Pacific and South American tectonic plates.

Chile suffered the biggest earthquake of the 20th century when a 9.5 magnitude quake struck the city of Valdivia in 1960, killing 1,655 people.

Financial contributions to support earthquake relief efforts in Chile can be made at the ELCA Web site.

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February 24, 2010

German Lutheran bishop to resign after alleged drunk-driving offense


A German Lutheran bishop, elected in October to lead the 24-million Protestant members of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), said she is resigning days after she was apprehended for an alleged drunk-driving offense.

Bishop Margot Kaessmann said she will immediately give up her posts as a bishop and as head of the EKD, but will continue as a pastor, according to Ecumenical News International (ENI).

Kaessmann, chairperson of the EKD, the umbrella organization of Germany's Protestants, was stopped by police while driving Feb. 20 in Hannover, Germany, the news release said. She allegedly ran a red traffic light, and her blood alcohol level was three times over the legal limit, ENI reported.

"Last Saturday, I made a big mistake," the BBC reported Kaessmann as telling reporters Feb. 24. "I hereby resign from all my church responsibilities."

The EKD had reported earlier Feb. 24 that all 14 members of its leadership council voiced their confidence in Kaessmann during a conference call.

Kaessmann, 51, was the first woman to become the highest representative of German Protestants when she was elected last year. The German church leader, a mother of four children, became the youngest-ever chairperson of the EKD council. She was elected to succeed Bishop Wolfgang Huber, 67, who retired at the end of 2009.

The EKD is the umbrella organization for 22 regional Lutheran, United and Reformed churches. It accounts for most of the country's Protestant Christians.

Kaessmann had been bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Hannover since 1999.

Ecumenical News International contributed to this report.

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February 19, 2010

Churchwide organization responds to Lutheran CORE announcement


The churchwide organization of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America said it "will continue to respond to those congregations with questions or concerns" related to the actions of the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly, adding it is "committed to ongoing conversation" with those congregations.

The comments were part of a Feb. 18 statement from the ELCA churchwide organization following an announcement from the Lutheran Coalition for Renewal (CORE). CORE announced its proposal for "the reconfiguration of Lutheranism in North America," in a Feb. 18 news release.

"The ELCA is a church focused on a vibrant Christ-centered mission and ministry," the ELCA churchwide organization's statement said. "It carries out its mission through the daily vocations of its 4.6 million members, the ministries of its 10,239 congregations, through response to disasters such as the earthquake in Haiti, and through deep commitments to global and ecumenical partners throughout the world."

"As the ELCA carries out the directives of the 2009 Churchwide Assembly, we continue to encourage congregations, synods and the churchwide organization to remain in conversation about these matters," the statement said. The churchwide organization statement said it regretted the decisions "of a few congregations" to leave the ELCA.

Lutheran CORE's proposal calls for the continuation of the organization as "a community of confessing Lutherans" and for the formation of a new Lutheran church body, the North American Lutheran Church (NALC).

CORE's Sept. 25-26, 2009 convocation in Fishers, Ind., asked that a proposal for the "reconfiguration of North American Lutheranism" be prepared and brought to CORE's 2010 Convocation Aug. 26-27 in Columbus, Ohio, CORE's news release said.

"The proposal released Feb. 18 is a response to that request. It was released now so that Lutheran CORE members can provide input to aid in drafting the proposals that will be considered by the 2010 Convocation," the CORE release said.

CORE
's announcement is a response to the decisions of the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly. The assembly created the possibility for Lutherans in committed, lifelong, monogamous and publicly accountable same-gender relationships to serve as ELCA clergy and professional lay leaders. It also adopted a social statement on human sexuality.

The 2010 ELCA Yearbook reports that there are 10,239 congregations in the ELCA. As of Feb. 4 the ELCA Office of the Secretary reported that 220 congregations had taken initial votes to terminate their relationship with the ELCA. Sixty-four of those congregations failed to achieve the required two-thirds vote to continue in the process. Through Feb. 4, 28 congregations had taken a second vote. The Office of the Secretary confirmed that seven congregations have officially left the ELCA.

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February 11, 2010

ELCA delegation, Pope Benedict XVI meet, exchange greetings


Continuing dialogue between Lutherans and Catholics was a common theme expressed in an exchange of messages here between a delegation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and Pope Benedict XVI. Speaking for the Lutherans, the Rev. Mark S. Hanson, ELCA presiding bishop and president of the Lutheran World Federation, called such dialogues "a sign of hope and commitment," while the pope emphasized hope for the continuing Lutheran-Catholic dialogue.

The world church leaders spoke to each other in a brief, formal private meeting Feb. 10, following Pope Benedict XVI's regular weekly audience.

"The current international LWF-Catholic dialogue focusing on the theme 'Baptism and Growth in Communion' and the very rich U.S. Catholic-Lutheran dialogue now focusing on 'The Hope of Eternal Life' are very important for our relationship and for our hope for unity in Christ," Hanson said.

Hanson is leading an official ELCA delegation of clergy and lay leaders on a "2010 Ecumenical Journey" to visit leaders of three of the world's largest churches — Anglican, Eastern Orthodox and Catholic. The Lutherans will conclude their meetings with LWF leaders and other global church partners in Geneva next week.

"Our ecumenical journey that is now bringing us to you is a sign that we bear witness to John's prayer -- that we might be one, as the Father and the Son are one, so that all might believe," Hanson said to Pope Benedict XVI.

Hanson noted that last month, the pope welcomed representatives of the Church of Finland for their 25th annual visit during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Hanson said Lutherans "were deeply moved when you said to them it is your prayer that our efforts at understanding and reconciliation would blossom into perfect, visible unity in Christ Jesus."

The Lutheran leader said last year's celebrations of the 10th anniversary of the signing of The Joint Declaration of the Doctrine of Justification by the LWF and The Vatican were "another sign of commitment and hope." Hanson said he was pleased by comments made at one celebration in Chicago by Catholic Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta, in which Gregory stated deeper dialogue is needed between Lutherans and Catholics.

Lutherans and Catholics "have great challenges before us as we address concerns in the areas of ethics, morality, theology — and we pray for the Spirit's guidance in our biblical and theological conversations as we grow in faith and life," Hanson said.

Hanson said he hoped Lutherans and Catholics might make "a united witness to the world" as the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation approaches in 2017. He added that Lutherans join Catholics in praying for Middle East peace and greater interfaith understanding.

In his response, Pope Benedict XVI said he hoped "the continuing Lutheran-Catholic dialogue both in the United States of America and at the international level will help to build upon the agreements reached so far."

He said it is important to build on the results of the dialogues started in the 1960s. "To build on what has been achieved together since that time, a spiritual ecumenism should be grounded in ardent prayer and in conversion to Christ, the source of grace and truth," Pope Benedict XVI said.

"May the Lord help us to treasure what has been accomplished so far, to guard it with care, and to foster its development," the pope said to Hanson and the delegation.

Quoting his predecessor John Paul II, who in 1985, received a similar Lutheran delegation, the pope said, "Let us rejoice that an encounter such as this can take place. Let us resolve to be open to the Lord so that He can use this meeting for His purposes, to bring about the unity that He desires. Thank you for the efforts you are making for full unity in faith and charity."

Hanson presented Pope Benedict XVI with a "Savior of the World" cross made by Sally Stewart, a Johnstown, Pa., artist, which contains woods from throughout the world. Hanson also presented the pope an expanded written message, available on the ELCA Web site.

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January 29, 2010

Body of ELCA seminary student, Ben Larson, recovered in Haiti

The body of Benjamin Judd Larson, an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America seminary student who died in the Haiti earthquake, was recovered Jan. 28. Larson, who was teaching theology to Lutherans in Haiti at the time of the disaster, was buried when the building he was in collapsed.

Larson's body was located Jan. 27 inside the destroyed St. Joseph Home for Boys in Port-au-Prince by a local work crew that went to the site to find him. The crew worked to remove multiple layers of concrete so they could recover his body, said Ben's wife, Renee Splichal Larson, in a telephone interview with the ELCA News Service.

"It's a relief that they have found Ben," she said. "It's a huge gift that people (took) the time to get Ben's body out so we can grieve and bury him."

Renee, Ben and a cousin, Jonathan Larson, were all inside the St. Joseph Home for Boys at the time of the earthquake. Renee and Jonathan were trapped in the building for a short time, but managed to escape. They reported that Ben, who was near them on the same floor, was buried as the building collapsed. Renee said she heard Ben singing a hymn from under the rubble, but the singing soon stopped.

Renee and Jonathan returned to the United States a few days later after their unsuccessful attempts to rescue or locate Ben at the building site. Both Renee and Jonathan are senior students at Wartburg Seminary, Dubuque, Iowa, as was Ben. Wartburg is one of eight ELCA seminaries.

Renee said she is "comforted" to know that her husband probably died shortly after the singing stopped, though she admits to feeling a different kind of grief now.

Since news of what happened to Ben was first reported, Renee said she and the Larson family have learned of special services and prayers for Ben "from all over the world." Renee said she "feels" all of those prayers.

"I feel I'm being carried by the prayers of the people," she said. "I've learned a lot through this experience — the one very solid thing is the power of the Body of the Christ, and the people who comprise it. We have all felt encompassed by people's love and care."

Among the many messages sent to the Larson family was an extraordinary message from the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus, one of the world's fastest-growing Lutheran churches, Renee said. The church's president is a friend of the Larson family, she said. "They wrote this beautiful letter. There were pages and pages with it, signed by leaders of that church," she said.

Despite her own grief, Renee said she is aware that many people are finding connections to Haiti "through Ben and through us," she said. "The people of Haiti need our prayers and support, and so do we."

Larson's body was taken to the U.S. Embassy in Haiti, said the Rev. Rafael Malpica Padilla, executive director, ELCA Global Mission. From there the U.S. military is expected to return Ben Larson's remains to Dover (Del.) Air Force base, perhaps as early as Jan. 29, he said.

Louis Dorvilier, director for international disaster response, ELCA Global Mission, arranged for a local crew to go to the St. Joseph Home for Boys to locate and recover Ben Larson's body. Dorvilier arrived in Haiti last week to join a response and planning team from the Lutheran World Federation Department for World Service and the Action by Churches Together (ACT) Alliance.

Renee said she is grateful for the ELCA and its leaders on the family's behalf in Haiti. "If we did not have the church, Ben would not be coming home," she said.

The family held a memorial service for Ben Larson Jan. 22 at Luther College, Decorah, Iowa, where Ben earned a bachelor's degree. The college is one of 27 ELCA colleges and universities.

This weekend, a celebration had been planned in Haiti for the 25th anniversary of the founding of the St. Joseph Home for Boys. That event has been postponed. Instead, friends and supporters of the home will gather Jan. 31 for a prayer service at Hayes Barton United Methodist Church, Raleigh, N.C. Renee and Jonathan have been invited, but are unsure if they will be able to attend, she said.

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January 20, 2010

ELCA members, congregations contribute more than $1.2 million for Haiti

Individuals and congregations of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America have contributed more than $1.2 million to fund relief efforts of ELCA partner organizations working on the ground in Haiti, said Rafael Malpica Padilla, executive director, ELCA Global Mission, in a Jan. 19 conference call.

Malpica Padilla said the figure includes gifts sent to the ELCA through the Web and those contributed by callers using credit cards. Checks that have been sent to the ELCA are not yet included in the total, he said.

"We anticipate we are close to $2 million," he said.

Funds sent to the ELCA are being channeled through three partner organizations for earthquake relief in Haiti, said Malpica Padilla. Recipients include:

• The Lutheran World Federation, Geneva, working through Action by Churches Together to provide shelter for people left homeless by the earthquake

Lutheran World Relief, Baltimore, providing material aid such as hygiene kits and materials to be used to care for babies

Church World Service, New York, for construction of temporary water systems and distribution of water purification materials

Financial contributions to support relief efforts in Haiti can be made online or by calling 800-638-3522.

The ELCA announced Jan. 19 it will provide $25,000 to Lutheran Services Florida Inc. (LSF), Tampa, to be used primarily for direct assistance to Haitians coming into the United States as a result of the earthquake, said Kevin A. Massey, director, Lutheran Disaster Response and ELCA Domestic Disaster Response.

LSF is working with the Florida Department of Children and Families to assist Haitians being airlifted to Miami and Orlando, said Sam Sipes, LSF president and chief executive officer. He estimated that 25,000 to 30,000 Haitians will be arriving in the United States through Florida in the next 10 days.

"A number of the people coming in don't speak English; they speak Creole," Sipes explained. "We've been providing interpreter services with several hundred staff and volunteers. We're also providing emergency assistance to individuals to help them meet personal needs."

Most are Americans or Haitians with a family connection in the United States, he said.

LSF expects to play a significant role in planning for the potential arrival in Florida of other evacuees from Haiti, including orphans, Sipes said. With other agencies, LSF is also preparing to help process Haitians already in the United States who will be granted temporary protective status by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, he said.

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