Guest Post- Reflections on the ELCA Churchwide Assembly

In my posts yesterday I hinted that there would be upcoming posts about recent changes in the ELCA (the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America). Today, I offer a guest post sharing some reflections from my brother Thomas who was a voting member at the ELCA’s Churchwide Assembly on behalf of the Southwestern Washington Synod.  Thomas is in the midst of graduate studies in social work and urban and regional planning, and studied economics, global studies, political science, and religion in undergrad.

Thomas recently reflected some on his experiences at the assembly, and with his permission I am sharing some of these here with you.  When I asked for his permission he wanted me to note that there was so much more that he could and perhaps should have included.  Please enjoy reading Thomas’ perspectives, and thank you Thomas for being willing to share them.

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God is doing wondrous things!

I have to be honest, prior to arriving in Pittsburgh I was a little apprehensive and nervous, not knowing what to expect.  To put it simply, this experience was truly a blessing!  I didn’t know what to expect, but I truly felt God speaking to me through his Spirit. I’m still discerning this mystery of what I was and am being told, but I was moved, and I wasn’t expecting that.

Thomas with Presiding Bishop, Bishop Hanson
Thomas with Presiding Bishop, Bishop Hanson

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).  Celebrating these 25 years through Christ, the theme chosen for the 2013 Churchwide Assembly (CWA) was “Always being made new.”  This theme celebrates what God is doing though us here at home and around the world.  In 2 Corinthians 5:17, Paul writes “So if anyone is in Christ,  there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”  God continues to make everything new through Christ who is God with us, Immanuel, so that we know that through God’s grace God reconciles us and all that is to himself.

With the Spirit flowing through us, we were called to elect a new presiding bishop of the ELCA.  Bishop Elizabeth Eaton of the Northeastern Ohio Synod will be the next pastor of the Church.  Post this election, media ran wild with news that “a woman had ousted Bishop Hanson”.  This is an inaccurate statement, truly belittling God’s Spirit and the love that each nominee has for one another.  At an ice cream social with other young adults and Bishops Mark Hanson and Elizabeth Eaton, Bishop Eaton told a story of how during a family crisis the first person to share their support and condolences was Bishop Hanson.  She spoke to the love she has for him, and that he is her pastor.  This was but one of countless stories shared by so many at the assembly of God working through Bishop Hanson during these past 12 years where he has been pastoring the ELCA.  The Spirit is now calling him to unknown and new ventures.

I cannot tell you how much Bishop Hanson means to me. Years ago I watched the National Geographic documentary “In God’s Name” and Bishop Hanson spoke to God suffering with us, calling us to serve each other.  These words he shared solidified a trust and hope in God’s radical love through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  These past 25 years have been filled with smooth and rough waters, and Bishop Hanson pastored us through many of them.  At the assembly he reminded each of us that we are all called by the Spirit, and asks us to ponder the question “What makes your heart sing?” while discerning what God is calling us to do.  Using a reference to popular culture, some youth started saying on media sites “#hansonisdumbledore”.  The wise, humble, loving, and active Professor Dumbledore of the Harry Potter series became a symbol of the pastoring that Bishop Hanson has shared with the world.  Thank you, God, for gifting us Bishop Hanson as a leader of the ELCA for so many years.  And thank you, for calling forward Bishop Eaton to lead us into the future.

Thomas with Presiding Bishop Elect, Bishop Eaton
Thomas with Presiding Bishop Elect, Bishop Eaton

Although the election of Bishop Eaton remained a highlight of the week, the CWA was filled with so many amazing and challenging discussions, speeches, votes, sermons, and even hymns.  What does it mean to be made new?  I am still learning.  But I do know that I felt God speaking to all of us, albeit differently, as we are all different parts of the body of Christ, still speaking and moving us all.  We as a Church adopted a statement on criminal justice; called Pastor Wm Chris Boerger, former Bishop of the Northwest WA Synod, as the new Secretary of the ELCA; discussed the importance of being a church which recognizes and lives out God with us, freeing us from sin to serve and love all God’s creation; continue to support the fights against and cures for HIV and malaria throughout the world; able to sing and dance to God’s mystery and love; and even ate ice cream with celebrities of the church.  And personally, I had a chance to learn about how my growing passions for community organizing and community development are very much alive through the local, national, and global Church.  God, you make all things new, and in ways that don’t make sense.  Thank you for the liberating mystery and calling of your love.

You are blessed.  God’s peace be with you.

Summer Links

First of all, I hope you are all having the chance to watch and follow some of the speeches and ceremonies going on today honoring, remembering, and continuing in the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, today, 50 years later. King’s vision and dream continues I believe today, because the vision and mission with which it is grounded and speaks of is just as relevant and important today as it was when the speech was first given.

Now, as I have been on sabbatical, I didn’t really blog over the past month.  This does not mean, however, that I was not reading, learning, and thinking.  From my reading and thinking, I came across quite a few links which you might enjoy.  A sampling of these I offer below.

Reflection, Vision, Vocation and Daily Life

To start with, given the amount of traveling, listening and reflecting I did during my sabbatical Pico Iyer’s Ted Talk “Where is home?” could not possibly be more relevant.  If you have not seen this video yet, please stop reading this blog and spend the next 14 minutes watching/listening to him.  You will thank me afterward.  I think I may have to give this Ted Talk a full blog post in the coming days, but until then, please do watch it!

The Harvard Business Review featured a helpful re-evaluation of how to be more productive by reallocating/reviewing one’s time at work and they spend that time.  Peter Drucker would greatly appreciate the amount of effort given in this take for the implications it has on knowledge workers.

In the midst of discernment, there can be change.  Some times these changes are small and under the surface.  Other times they are much more noticeable, like when one decides to make a career change.  How should you talk about these times?  HBR offered a helpful tip about the need to “tell the story, connect the dots, and focus on the value you bring to others.”

For those trying to figure out if its time to make a career change, the Huffington Post offered a rather humorous list of “21 Signs that it’s time to Leave Your Job.”

Leadership

One of those repeated questions in the leadership and management world is “what is the difference between leadership and management?”  Vineet Nayar unpacked this question with three potential differences.  What do you think?

In leading and managing, one of the toughest challenges can be in overcoming the challenges of resistance from fellow employees and staff.  Mark Goulston at HBR offers some insights he gained from an interview with Dr. Xavier Amador.

Back in early July, Jessica Lawrence wrote a blogpost that has stuck with me about “The Next Big Opportunity for Startups.”  Her conclusion is fantastic!  She writes, “startups can build companies in which every person they employ can flourish.  The world will get better when we build better organizations, not just when we build better products.”

Society and Social Responsibility

If you are in the private sector, or considering a private sector opportunity, there is great room for important social responsibility and social involvement.  One such area is in the potential for urban sustainability which John Macomber at Harvard explains.

Jen Boynton from HBR looks at “how the voice of the people is driving corporate social responsibility.” Anyone who likes to think about the idea of the common good, as well as the great room for growth that there is in the social responsibility fields should give this a read.

In July GOOD announced their “Global Neighborhood Challenge” winners.  I encourage you to read a little about them, and to be inspired.

The Church

There have been quite a number of changes in the church recently.  Expect to see a post or two about the leadership transition in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) forthcoming.  (If you have not heard, Rev. Mark Hanson, the presiding bishop of the ELCA will be finishing his time as presiding bishop in October, and Rev. Elizabeth Eaton will become presiding bishop of the ELCA on November 1st.)  One of the other more recent global church leaders whose time at the helm ended, was the Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams.  He was in the news recently for speaking at Edinburgh International Book Festival in Scotland.  Charlotte Higgins of The Guardian, offers an interesting read. I greatly appreciate Williams’ explanation and critique of the use of the concept of persecution.  Too many people in today’s church feel they are being ‘persecuted’ when they have no concept of what it really means to be persecuted.

For those of you with an interest in the areas of the missional church and worship, you might find Rob Moss‘ look at liturgy and its role thought provoking.

Economics 

While in college I double-majored in economics and religion.  If you did not know this, perhaps this helps explain a few things about my interests and the topics that are discussed in this blog?  Anyway, I read an interesting piece by Paul Krugman this week he titled, “The Real Trouble with Economics.”  If you have any interest in econ, I encourage you to read this (especially if you have any training in economics).  I am not saying I agree with it necessarily, but I found it thought provoking and compelling.  Perhaps you might as well?

Stewardship

One of my theological and social interests is stewardship.  I believe that stewardship is more than just giving some money in the offering plate at church.  I believe it embodies our whole beings as created unique and beautiful Children of God.  So to make a long story short, when I see ideas that offer helpful thoughts on how to live more sustainably (socially, financially, environmentally, etc.), as well as do good and help others with that which we have been entrusted I like to share them.  LSS offered a nice post last week about some things which can maximize your grocery savings, and I now offer this to you as some hopefully helpful and practical food for thought.

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I could probably add some more, but I think there is enough food for thought for one day here.  I hope you find some of these enjoyable. As always, let me know if there are other things which you would like me to highlight or explore.

Back from Sabbatical

This past month I have taken some time for myself.  I spent a month away from my job in a congregation to do some personal discernment and reflection.  I also took some time away from other things, like blogging.  I did so to clear my head and to simply “just be.”  I have to say that I learned a lot about myself, and remembered some things that I had forgotten.  For instance, I remember now how much I really love long road trips.  Quite simply, I love to travel! I love to experience other cultures and to see new sights.  Somewhere along the line in the last couple years, I had forgotten this.

I also seemed to recapture some of the fire and passion that I have somehow suppressed recently.  I comment on this because you may notice a slight change in tone on some future topics.  I am preaching this coming Sunday, and if the sermon turns out how I think it might, you might sense a little about what I am talking about here.  (I promise to post the sermon after Sunday on this blog as well).

Part of what I also confirmed about myself is that I really had become too fragmented.  I have been doing too many different things without enough energy, overlap and connection. I vow to change this, though I am not sure exactly what this means yet.

As this continual discovery process goes, I will blog about whatever insights I might have.  I trust that your summer has been one of renewal and rediscovery, as mine has been.  I look forward to continuing our conversations about leadership, management, non-profit/social sector topics, stewardship, the church, neighbor love, and everything in between.  If you have particular topics that you would love to see explored here on the blog, please let me know by leaving a comment or message.

Thanks for reading, and have a great day!

Provocative Thoughts on Social Sector Effectiveness

“The Way We Think about Charity is Dead Wrong”

Dan Pallotta recently gave a TED talk entitled, “The Way We Think about Charity is Dead Wrong.”  Until today I hadn’t had a chance to sit and watch it in its entirety and think deeply about its implications.  Obviously, he covers a lot of ground here in just over 18 minutes.  One of the biggest critiques that he has received for it is that his take is “too simplified.” I agree, he does simplify the situation. But anyone giving such a speech has to do this. So I am going to give him the benefit of the doubt on this one. Instead, I am going to focus on what reactions I have to his speech in this post.

1) Overhead of Non-Profits and the Social Sector

Dan is absolutely right that there is a great fear of overhead.  It’s a fear which can prevent innovation, simply because without a willingness to scale organizational efficiency and service, a nonprofit or social venture will never be able to serve to its fullest potential. At its best it will be able to serve a local community, but will never have a larger reach (at least not effectively).  If there is not a willingness to make an investment in skilled labor on the organizational side, there is no change that the organization will have the leaders, know-how, and willingness to really do as great work as possible.

I am not saying, however, that all overhead is good. This is certainly not the case.  If an organization permanently spends more than 20% on overhead, there is great room for concern if not rebuke.  But without being willing to invest in overhead, which is a fancy and usually derogatory term for labor and leadership in the social sector, there is little hope for sustained growth, effective service, and especially efficient service.

2) Pay and Compensation Comparison

People who work in the social sector will inherently be paid less than the for-profit sector.  However, they still need to be paid a healthy and fair living wage, otherwise how can people expect them to do the best job they can do in their roles? This same argument  can hold for ministry in a congregational setting as well. It is important to not take lightly that these are people’s jobs and vocations, and they rightfully deserve fair compensation and support.  His point about Stanford MBA’s is a bit extreme, but in reality its accurate in reflecting on the disparity between job types.  If a non-profit wants the same quality MBA at its helm, it is going to take either a deep commitment to its leadership (or ‘overhead’) in that form of an investment, or it will have to hope a successful for-profit CEO decides to come to the non-profit later in life as a last job where they have already earned more than enough and can afford to work for less, or they have to settle for someone who may not be at the same caliber of skills and attributes unless they find a socially minded person who doesn’t mind making less but has the same education and experiences.  Let me be clear based on my own experience and vocation, I am probably somewhere in the last category myself, but recognize that I can’t work for dirt cheap either. That education that I earned certainly cost something, and the loans that go along with it need to be paid.

3) The Potential For Cross-Sector Partnerships

I think what Dan is discussing hints at the need for cross-sector partnerships. No longer can the social good be served by just non-profits, or just treated as projects being funded by philanthropists.  Such thoughts and actions lead to the creation and cycles of poverty traps as money as seemingly thrown at problems and initiatives, and of projects which are done by outsiders without the support and leadership of the local communities and people actually being served and affected by them.   This is what I believe is the “do-gooder problem” if you can call it that.  People want to feel that they have done some good so they have given some money and want to see that actually have results, therefore, if they know that money may not go directly to a project but be used to pay for ‘overhead’ they are less apt to give to the project.

The problem is, like Dan points out, is that the work of the nonprofit in order to be successful, depends on the leaders and minds which are constituted as ‘overhead and personnel’ on the balance sheet, and on the investment needed to make such projects last and sustainable.  What good is it to give money for malaria nets for example, without investing in training people how to best use the nets and repair them?

What I see in this is the ability for creative partnerships.  Imagine if a successful for-profit, could help partner with related non-profits and foundations.  Imagine if they could share leadership insights, training costs, and work collaboratively together recognizing that together they are making the world better in someway through innovation and relationship?  This is what I am a part of actually in the work I am doing with the start-up around unemployment issues in Minnesota. We have partnered with a for-profit company which needs to hire more full-time employees who are dedicated and want to have a successful career, we have partnered with non-profits who do work with the unemployed in particularly affected communities and demographics who are looking for job opportunities, we are partnering with government entities to provide the infrastructure necessary to make it possible for these people to get to and from their places of employment and to be then more effective members of society, etc.  Its partnerships like this which stretch across the separate sectors of government, business, non-profits, social entities, etc., which give me hope.

4) The Problem with Dan’s Take on Fundraising

For too long we have thought that the needs we see in the world (hunger, poverty, AIDS, unemployment, the health of our environment… etc.) can only be served by particular agencies or organizations. The problem with this is that it results in nonprofits competing  with one another for few dollars by grants and other fundraisers, and because they are left trying to fight for a few bucks, they are unable to focus on sustaining their work and the end result.  (I am not against competition in the marketplace by any means. But competition within the social sector and among nonprofits I argue makes most of them much less effective.)

There has to be a better way to fund-raise by telling the story about what the organization is doing, and about how to talk about innovation by partnering with for-profits who are socially minded or other non-profits and foundations.  Simply tripping over each other is what has happened in Haiti by  the multitude of NGOs there.  The people of Haiti have been served very poorly in response to their 2010 earthquake, in spite of now easily having the most money and effort ever given to a post-disaster situation.  Because the NGOs and nonprofits have been focusing on their own work, rather than collaborating we have this mess that it has become.

There is a lot to chew on here.  But these are just the immediate four reactions I have to hearing Dan’s talk.  What was your reaction to his talk?  What do you make of my observations and perspectives? I certainly do not have the answers but perhaps together we can come up with some ideas anyway.

 

[Writer’s Note:  If there are any questions regarding the timing of this post, it was originally written this past spring.  However, for some reason it was discovered that it was never published. Thanks for the understanding.]