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October 5, 2009

ELCA Presiding Bishop Comments on Assembly Responses, Finances


It's a "rocky time" in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) largely because of responses to decisions of the2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly and economic stresses, said the Rev. Mark S. Hanson, ELCA presiding bishop.
    
Hanson made his comments to the ELCA Conference of Bishops, an advisory body of the church.  The conference includes the ELCA's 65 synod bishops, the presiding bishop and secretary. The conference is meeting here Oct. 1-6.
    
Much of Hanson's report focused on the assembly's actions on human sexuality and varied responses to those actions throughout the ELCA. In August the churchwide assembly adopted a social statement on human sexuality. The assembly also adopted proposals to change ELCA ministry policies, including a change to make it possible for Lutherans in publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous same-gender relationships to
serve as ELCA associates in ministry, clergy, deaconesses and diaconal ministers.
    
Hanson noted that members who wanted the policy change wondered for years where they stood in the ELCA.  They remained faithful, stayed engaged in the church and generously supported its mission. Some
increased their giving, he said.
    
Hanson said there are ELCA members who disagree with the sexuality decisions and wonder if they will be able to find "a place to stand with integrity and safety."  They also want to preach and teach in accordance with their biblical convictions, and not be "demonized or stigmatized," he said. Such behavior has occurred "in all directions," Hanson said. He called for members to engage in "respectful, charitable, honest conversation."
    
In the midst of ongoing discussion, rejoicing and opposition, Hanson told the bishops, "I still remain convinced that we in the ELCA have a particularly unique moment to give an evangelical and missional witness
together to the world."
    
Hanson asked the bishops to share their wisdom with him in the coming months. "We need to name our expectations of each other as clearly as we can," he said.
    
The presiding bishop commented on other related topics:
• He called for support of ethnic-specific and multicultural congregations, and responded to some criticisms. "I want to be absolutely clear. Contrary to what some are saying or least implying, the churchwide organization is not now and will not use grants to congregations as a manipulative tool to silence criticism or to keep those congregations and their leaders in this church."  He also reported that 17 African Descent Lutheran leaders discussed with him their statement opposing the assembly's action to direct changes in ministry policies. The statement did not stop conversation but became a catalyst for deeper conversation, Hanson said.

• The Lutheran Coalition for Renewal (CORE) and some congregations have threatened to withhold or redirect mission support funds away from the ELCA. Hanson said such actions would adversely affect many ministries, such as planting and renewing congregations, grants and mission personnel assignments to global partner churches, and grants to Lutheran partners, agencies and institutions. Reductions would also affect the ELCA's capacity to be engaged in mission, he said.

•Because of current economic conditions and uncertainty about mission support funds, the churchwide organization is involved in contingency financial planning, as are many synods, Hanson said. For 2009 the
churchwide organization will continue a partial hiring freeze and underspend its current budget allocation by 5 percent "if necessary," he said.  Hanson also said churchwide leaders are developing "models for
reducing expenses in the 2010 budget." A revised spending plan for 2010 will be presented at next month's meeting of the ELCA Church Council, the church's board of directors, Hanson said.
   
Following his remarks, the bishops responded to Hanson's comments for more than one hour. Many said they are facing similar challenges in their synods and described how they are responding.
    
Also in the room when Hanson spoke were the presidents of the eight ELCA seminaries, meeting simultaneously with the bishops. The Rev. Mark R. Ramseth, president of Trinity Lutheran Seminary, Columbus, Ohio, asked the conference to remember ELCA seminarians preparing for ministry. Many are anxious about their futures yet have responded with "maturity," he said.  He reminded the bishops to call upon seminary faculties for assistance. "Know that we are standing with you in the work of this church," Ramseth said.

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