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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 28, 2010

Lutherans in Chile report significant earthquake damage


Earthquake damage is said to be extensive in Santiago and Concepcion following the Feb. 27 severe earthquake in central Chile, according to Karen Anderson of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Global Mission staff in Santiago.

The Feb. 27 earthquake measured 8.8 on the Richter scale. The Chilean government has reported at least 147 deaths in all of the country. A tsunami warning was issued for the entire Pacific basin as a result of the earthquake, including Hawaii and U.S. territories such as Guam and American Samoa.

According to news reports in Chile, the earthquake damaged 1.5 million homes, 500,000 "very seriously," Anderson wrote in an e-mail to the ELCA News Service . Phone service was not available.

"Many homes, especially in older parts of Santiago, were destroyed," she wrote. The international airport there suffered "major damage" and is closed, Anderson wrote.

"We are all still waiting to hear news from Concepcion. There is very little communication with people in Concepcion -- the IELCH (Iglesia Evangelica Luterana en Chile or Evangelical Lutheran Church in Chile) has congregations there," Anderson wrote. The IELCH is a member of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF).

Anderson also works with another ELCA partner organization, Educacion Popular en Salud (Popular Education in Health Foundation or EPES), which promotes quality and fairness in health care for the poor, and works to establish and train community health groups.

She said most EPES staff is accounted for in Santiago. "EPES has a center in Concepcion. We have not been able to communicate with anyone on our staff in Concepcion — led by Dr. Lautaro Lopez — or any of the health promoters. We are hoping and praying they are okay. The damage reported on the news is devastating — entire buildings collapsed, the old bridge completely collapsed, and so on. The images are very sad and frightening," Anderson wrote.

She wrote she had spoken with Gloria Rojas, IELCH president. Rojas has been in contact with most of the other pastors of the IELCH and reported that it appeared no one has suffered personal injuries.

The weekend is the last of the summer in Chile, Anderson wrote. "At this point, the authorities are recommending that people stay close to home. EPES will be meeting with health promoters as soon as possible to see what we need to do to help people in the communities we work in," she added.

There was some structural damage to Lutheran church buildings in Santiago, Chile's capital, according to Martin Junge, LWF general secretary-elect. Junge, a Chilean, reported that communication with congregations in Concepcion has been "extremely difficult," and it has not been possible to reach some Lutheran pastors in the area by telephone.

On behalf of the LWF, Junge expressed solidarity with companions in Chile. The LWF alerted the Action by Churches Together (ACT) Alliance to evaluate the needs of people in the coming days. At the moment, however, it is difficult to assess what those needs may be, reported Junge. The ACT Alliance is made up of churches and related agencies working together in disaster response and development. It is based in Geneva with the LWF. The ELCA is a member of the LWF.

More information will be shared as channels of communication are restored, said Rojas.

In a Feb. 27 pastoral letter Rojas wrote that the members of IELCH have lifted in prayer the families of those that have perished in the earthquake. "Receive love, comfort and strength in this time of difficulty, understanding the full conviction that we are not alone in this journey. God is with us," she wrote.

Financial contributions to support earthquake relief efforts in Chile can be made 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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