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March 17, 2009

Presiding bishop comments on economy, task force documents


Noting that 2009 is "a difficult year," Mark S. Hanson, the presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, reported March 7 to the ELCA Conference of Bishops, focusing on the effects of the economic downturn on the ELCA, as well as two documents released Feb. 19 by the Task Force for ELCA Studies on Sexuality.

The ELCA Conference of Bishops is an advisory body of the church, consisting of bishops who lead the 65 synods of the ELCA, plus the ELCA presiding bishop and ELCA secretary. The conference met here March 5-10.

Bishops representing the nine regions of the ELCA reported that income is generally flat or down in most synods. Hanson confirmed that the ELCA churchwide organization has already reduced its operating budget by $1.5 million for 2009, and has begun work on another significant reduction, all of which will be reported to the ELCA Church Council, which meets March 27-29 in Chicago.

Hanson said he is aware that synod councils "are struggling to share the burden" when expenses must be reduced. "How do we distribute the results of that across the whole ELCA, so that all suffer and wear the burdens of the other?" he asked the conference. The 21-year-old ELCA is built on the concept of "interdependence," Hanson said.

Decision-making should be based on four characteristics, Hanson said: transparency; mutual responsibility for the consequences of decisions; sustainability and viability of ministries; and the "perception of disparities" and proportionality between synods and the churchwide organization. He also called for "a commitment to a shared, common branding and the use of the (ELCA) emblem."

Hanson said he was "grateful" for conversations on "Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust," a proposed ELCA social statement, and a "Report and Recommendation on Ministry Policies," addressing possible changes to ELCA ministry policies. That report recommends changes to ministry policies that could make it possible for people in committed same-gender relationships to serve as ELCA associates in ministry, deaconesses, diaconal ministers and ordained ministers. Recommendations for each document will be considered by the ELCA Churchwide Assembly Aug. 17-23 in Minneapolis.

"I think the challenge now in the coming months is: How to hold these important conversations in a way that does not take on a partisanship ... the polarization and the rhetoric of our so-often divided society?" Hanson said. He said he hoped discussions will show how Lutherans engage in important ministry decisions without causing division.

ELCA members tend to talk only with people who share the same perspectives, Hanson said. He asked the synod bishops to "broker relationships" and encourage congregations to engage one another.

"This is a time to call this church to prayer," the presiding bishop said. He suggested the possibility of 50 days of prayer leading up to the assembly, focusing on Scripture readings for the churchwide assembly.

"I have great confidence in the Spirit, the wisdom of assemblies. I think in the midst of adversity we do our best evangelical, imaginative, missional work," Hanson said.

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