CHICAGO — The Conference of Bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) gathered virtually Oct. 1-2. This is the first time the conference has held a meeting online. The conference, an advisory body of the ELCA, comprises 65 synod bishops, the presiding bishop and the secretary.
"Our Conference of Bishops meetings are important times for synod bishops to connect with each other, our churchwide staff, seminary leaders and others ― not just for the work we do but for building relationships across this church," said the Rev. Tracie Bartholomew, bishop of the ELCA New Jersey Synod and chair of the conference. "This online meeting format allowed us to gather, grounded in Scripture, to attend to several important topics, and even provided some time for relationship-building. But I am eager for the day when we can gather in person."
In her report to the conference, ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth A. Eaton spoke of learnings across the ELCA during the COVID-19 pandemic. "We found out that our people are resilient and creative … that our buildings might have been closed but our ministries never were closed."
Eaton emphasized the generosity witnessed throughout the church, as evidenced by the COVID-19 appeal, which raised $1.6 million to support ELCA ministries best positioned to help those in need during the pandemic. In addition, 200 congregations raised more than $313,000, including $100,000 granted through ELCA World Hunger Daily Bread Matching Grants.
The presiding bishop also updated the conference on the development of the Future Church design. Eaton said the new structure is intended to activate a shared purpose across the ecology of the ELCA to "invite more people into the way of Jesus and discover community, justice and love. St. Paul said, ‘How will they know if they have not heard? How will they hear if someone has not been sent?’ This is a commission, a mission that Jesus has given to us." The ELCA Church Council will vote on the Future Church design at its November 2020 meeting.
Eaton also spoke of the call, following the murder of George Floyd in May, for a reckoning in the long history of racism in this church and this country.
"We have taken a look at the work we have already done in this church," said Eaton. "We have developed a framework for us to build on as we do this work across the church. But now it’s really time for us to engage in this hard, hard work. This work has to be sustainable. How do we work together? How do we do this in a way that is thoughtful and sustainable and makes an actual difference?"
To date this work has included "Repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery," "Strategy Toward Authentic Diversity," "Condemnation of White Supremacy and Racist Rhetoric" and "Declaration of the ELCA to People of African Descent," which calls for the study of reparations. In 2019, the ELCA Church Council passed a resolution that calls on the ELCA to engage in anti-racism and racial justice work and to strive for economic justice, including study of reparations.
Judith Roberts, director for ELCA Racial Justice Ministries, told the conference there is a conversation taking place among the African-descent community that is focused on engagement and education about reparations.
"There is the need for common language and understanding about reparations, and this needs to happen in partnership with the African-descent communities," Roberts said. "Those most impacted need to speak to the historical racial injustices as opposed to listening to the individuals that propose actions that throw money at inequities but don’t address the historical and institutional inequities that are much more systemic."
In key business, the conference approved the implementation of a revised first-call process for rostered ministry. The new plan was created to be more flexible and to respond better to the changing dynamics of the church.
"The assignment process that we have had for the first 30 years of the ELCA served us well for a long time, but in recent years it’s become evident that we needed an upgrade," said the Rev. James Hazelwood, bishop of the ELCA New England Synod and chair of the task force that developed the revision.
One benefit of the new plan is being able to create a more streamlined, localized process that encourages synods to take responsibility for their own candidates.
"This first-call process attempts to reach a balance between three factors: the missional needs of the whole church, the hopes of candidates and the shifting landscape of a changing church and society," said Hazelwood. "We are still hoping candidates will view their call as a call to the whole church and be willing to serve where the Spirit directs them."
The task force will regularly evaluate the new process. Information about the new first-call process is available here. In addition, a series of informational video conversations with candidates, bishops and other staff will soon be made available.
In other business, the conference:
- Engaged in a conversation, led by the Committee on Appeals, about drafted updates to the church’s Definitions and Guidelines for Discipline. The document describes the grounds by which officers, rostered ministers, candidates for rostered ministry, congregations and members of congregations may be subject to discipline according to the practice of this church.
- Voted to recommend to the ELCA Church Council an edit clarifying language in the candidacy manual regarding the application of Definitions and Guidelines for Discipline to those in candidacy.
- Elected the Rev. Deborah Hutterer, bishop of the ELCA Grand Canyon Synod, to the executive committee of the Conference of Bishops.
- Received an update on the synod diversity goals, a multicultural mission strategy to help assess each synod’s progress toward increasing ethnic and racial diversity in its congregations.
- Received a report on the Strategy for Authentic Ethnic and Racial Diversity and Equitable Inclusivity, which included next steps for the Authentic Diversity advisory team.
- Received an update from the Rev. Ann Svennungsen, bishop of the ELCA Minneapolis Area Synod, on the racial justice work being carried out by the Minneapolis Area Synod, the Saint Paul Area Synod and ecumenical partners in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death.
- Received written reports from the secretary and treasurer and updates from the conference’s various committees.
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About the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America:
The ELCA is one of the largest Christian denominations in the United States, with nearly 3.3 million members in more than 8,900 worshiping communities across the 50 states and in the Caribbean region. Known as the church of "God’s work. Our hands.," the ELCA emphasizes the saving grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ, unity among Christians and service in the world. The ELCA’s roots are in the writings of the German church reformer Martin Luther.
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