Earlier this week the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) released a 19-page “consultation paper on future directions of the ELCA,” entitled, “Called Forward Together in Christ for the sake of the world.”
According to the title page, “This directions paper shares the key messages harvested through conversations across the ELCA. We invite you to comment on the directions and priorities that have emerged.” If you have not yet seen the paper, please read it here.
After reading the paper, and then going back through it a couple more times, I am very happy with this. I believe it is a great step in the process of conversation, discernment, and decision making as we are church together, continuing to discern and articulate who we are, who we are becoming and “why we do what we do.”
Instead of some just quick immediate reactions, I want to walk through the paper with what stands out to me.
Opening of the Paper- Purpose, Mission, and Perspective
In her opening letter to the paper, ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton notes that, “There is broad consensus about the church we want to become, but in some of the areas that are highly important we do not have a clear or effective strategy.” I think this is an important recognition, which you can see if active in a congregational, synodical, or churchwide capacity. To help address this, there is an open invitation for feedback, shared discernment, and conversation within the paper.
The release of this paper signifies the end of the first of three stages in 2016 of “Conversations across the church about the future.” Now the church is entering the next stage of “Consultation on directions and priorities that emerged through these conversations,” which will then lead to the third stage of “Reaching decisions about where the ELCA is heading and to what it will give importance” (page 1).
I am particularity inspired and excited to see the repeated questions raised about the importance of connection, collaboration, and clarity. For example, “How can the ELCA maintain strong congregational participation and ownership and become more connected as one church?” (2) “How can we be clearer, better focused and more effective in the way we tell the good news and embody God’s love for the world?” (3)
There is a stated understanding that “While God’s mission is clear, as people of God, we must constantly discern how to express and carry out that mission in a faithful, relevant and compelling way in today’s world” (3). What that looks like will be dependent on context, skills, passions, needs, etc.
Growth, Membership, and Data
There was an interesting discussion about the commitment to growing membership, and I found myself writing in the margin in this section that these data points illustrate why it’s critical for rostered leaders to cultivate stories and be story tellers themselves. On a more personal level, for me this is yet another reason why I believe my wife Allison has been called to be a pastor in this church in this unique time and space, and why in part that I believe I have been called to ministry as well.
There was also important discussion about diversity, interdependence, generations, age, and mutuality.
Within the section sharing “Key Messages From Across the Church,” big points of identity and what it means to be a distinctively Lutheran church were articulated (8-9). I particularly appreciated the insight about collaboration and relationship I read in the statement, “As church together, through formal and informal relationships and networks, we can achieve things on a scale that would otherwise not be possible” (9).
“God’s Work. Our Hands” and the idea of a Relational Church
I found myself underlining much of the section explaining that “We are a relational church.” Perhaps that is a product of me serving as a mission developer this year? Whatever the reason I love the way that this section begins, “We are a faith community, some would say a movement…” (9) I also am glad that the importance of ecumenism was named and explained, as well as the importance of engaging in dialogue and collaboration across faiths and other parts of civil society, government, and business for “the sake of justice, reconciliation and peace in the world” (9).
It seems that from the conversations and listening process, the tagline, “God’s work. Our hands” was affirmed, and hoped to bed retained and broadened in use (10). I was also glad to read within the section, “A Christ-centered thriving church,” there has been a “call for the ELCA to be a more public church,” which is something I have written about much before on this blog over the past few years and months (11).
Theologically, I greatly appreciate the emphasis given to both sacraments (baptism and communion) and their relationship and connection to the Word (12), as well as the great importance for leaders and leadership development. I loved the majority of this section, especially the wide view of the importance of education and formation at all levels (13). I agree that continued leadership development, education, and life-long learning are imperative to being a leader in general, and especially in a world that is changing so rapidly.
Key lines that caught my eye included recognition that,
“This church needs leaders who are passionate about Christ, spiritually grounded, theologically fluent, ecumenically committed and growing in their capacities to lead in a complex world” (13).
“Leaders for tomorrow will need a more mixed education- with a strong theological and vocational orientation and knowledge and skills relevant to different contexts. The rapidly changing world requires church leaders who are compassionate, adaptable, courageous, committed evangelists with strong relationship and communication skills and cross-cultural competence. Future leaders must be able to explain theologically and practically who we are as a Lutheran church and why we do what we do” (13).
There it is again, one of my favorite phrases, “why we do what we do,” which is offered a few different times in these 19 pages.
Different Expressions of Ministry
There was a good acknowledgement of social ministry and the joyful response of service that are part of the church (13-14). However, I honestly would have expected more conversation here given the large umbrella of Lutheran social organizations that there are that most members and congregations are not even aware of.
There was also a helpful discussion about “Youth and young adults,” though I did sense a bit more fear here than in other sections, which I think reflects the average feeling within congregations who are dealing with big questions related to “life, death, resurrection,” and the present and future. I guess that tone shouldn’t be surprising to me, but it does leave me hoping for more intentional multi-generational and cross-generational work, because that will be critical for both being a “now and not yet” church (14).
The stewardship leader and organizational behavior management student in me was excited to read the “Church structures and relationships” and “Stewardship of resources” sections, but honestly I didn’t learn anything really new here. That probably has more to do with my current roles and reading interests than anything else. If this is an area of ministry or leadership that is new to you, then it probably would be a very helpful summary (15-16).
Tensions and Next Steps
The theological nerd in me appreciated the paradox and tension acknowledgment towards the end of the paper where it is written, “Lutherans are comfortable living with ambiguity and uncertainty. This is a strength when it comes to being church in an increasingly complex world” (16). I was equally appreciative to read at the end of this section that, “The Future Directions Table was keen to see that living with tension does not become an excuse for not making hard decisions,” thus, even though there is tension, that cannot prevent action and forward movement, or paralyze us to act (17).
Perhaps a central question to this whole paper is, “How do we get the right balance between the autonomy, interdependence and being church together?” (17)
Priorities are proposed (17) and thoughts about implementing them are shared (18).
If I had to pick one element that caught my eye towards the end was the desire and importance of having “more gatherings and networks that bring people together for spiritual discernment, future planning, problem solving, and learning exchange” (18). Of course, I did underline much of this section.
I am still digesting my thoughts on this document. But my first reaction is that I am encouraged. I am grateful and appreciative for the team and table members doing this work (19), and look forward to being part of the conversation and work of the church together in thinking and acting on this in the year(s) ahead.
In an upcoming blog post I will start offering some answers to the questions I highlighted above. For now, I invite you to also read and sit with this paper.
What do you hear? What do you wonder? How are we called forward together in Christ for the sake of the world?