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December 7, 2009

Dec. 6 Town Hall: ELCA Presiding Bishop takes questions from live audience & online viewers

At a Dec. 6 "Town Hall Forum" in Chicago, ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark S. Hanson answered 19 questions posed by a live audience and members watching online; questions that ranged from mission and evangelism to the actions of the 2009 Churchwide Assembly.

ELCA Vice-President Carlos Peña introduced Hanson and posed the questions from viewers during the hour-long forum. Before the event, Hanson had said he hoped the forum would speak directly to members about priorities for the 4.6 million-member ELCA, look to the future and share stories about mission. He also promised to host similar forums in the days to come.

Online, there were 2,205 unique viewers, with top viewership in Minnesota, Illinois and Florida, as well as some viewers in foreign countries, reported ELCA Communication Services, which managed the forum along with ELCA Information Technology staff and others.  

The forum was held as some congregations are considering leaving the ELCA or withholding finances as a response to actions of the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly. That assembly directed changes to ministry policies, creating the possibility for people in publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships to serve as clergy and professional lay workers.

Hanson asked members to continue to discuss the assembly's actions and include those with differing opinions in their conversations; respect other points of view; and remain united as the ELCA. He also addressed congregations that are redirecting or withholding funds to register disagreement with the assembly's actions. "Let me tell you when that line is cut, mission and ministry is diminished throughout the world and throughout this church," he told the forum audience.

Hanson said the ELCA is a church where all people "can teach and preach" with the integrity of their convictions on sexuality matters. The ELCA is also welcoming people who "are coming to faith or being renewed in their faith" because of the assembly's actions, Hanson said. "We can be faithful Lutheran Christians and live with that tension in the same church body. Wouldn't it be wonderful if that became our witness?" he said.

The concept of "bound conscience" remains a question for many, Hanson said, adding that there should be an "open" conversation about it. "We live under the authority of Scripture," but members must keep asking each other "What does that mean?" he said.

Hanson also commented on other topics:

  • Leadership: He urged leaders to focus on the complete picture of the ELCA through "a wide-angle lens" versus focusing on human sexuality issues. ELCA leaders and members need to encourage each other in their ministries, Hanson said.
  • Mission: Every synod should convene leaders to study how "vibrant ministries can happen in congregations," he said. Directors of evangelical mission are being placed in synods to help congregations grow as centers for mission, he said.
  • Anti-racism education and racial justice: Hanson said two full-time churchwide positions will be combined into one. That doesn't diminish the churchwide organization's commitment in this area, he said. He invited the audience to advise him on the new job description. Hanson also said that the churchwide organization is building groups to oversee churchwide anti-racism work, and to work with synods and congregations.
  • Multicultural and ethnic-specific ministries: Hanson reported that 13 new congregations will be planted in 2010 in multicultural, ethnic-specific communities throughout the ELCA. The ELCA Mission Investment Fund provided grant funds to make this possible, he said. Hanson also said the ELCA cannot use multicultural, ethnic-specific communities as "pawns" in a struggle over sexuality. He said the ELCA "needs to sustain these vibrant ministries."
  • ELCA restructuring: A task force has been appointed to study church structures and relationships throughout the ELCA, and changes that have taken place since the church was formed in 1988. Hanson said he was less concerned about structure than he is about mission. "We're in that study now. I can guarantee you that it will not be a top-down decision. It will be a conversation to which we invite the church."
  • Ecumenical and global relationships: The presiding bishop said that since the churchwide assembly, the ELCA has been working specifically to tend relationships with other churches in the United States and globally.
  • Hanson said he hopes that in the next eight years, the ELCA can train 1,000 evangelists to help the church grow, informed by global companion churches. He also urged congregations to study the ELCA's social statements alongside real-life social challenges, such as health care.

Click here to watch a video of the "Town Hall Forum" on the ELCA Web site.

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