From the Bishop

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A spirit of change

June 11th, 2019

By Bishop Ann Svennungsen

Did you feel the winds shift this month? Maybe it was the same wind that inspired Peter’s Pentecost sermon, “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh. Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy.”

We’ve heard a few more daughters prophesying in synod assemblies around the ELCA this spring. Seven women were called as bishops – six serving as the first female bishop their synod has elected.

When I began my term in 2012, there were seven female bishops among a conference of 65 bishops. In 2018, there were 14. Now there are 21. This represents an increase from 10% to 32%, a significant shift.

“We’ve heard a few more daughters prophesying in synod assemblies around the ELCA this spring.”

Peter proclaims the radical generosity of God – pouring out the Spirit on all flesh. The ELCA still has a long way to go in reflecting the diversity of our world. When I began serving as bishop in 2012, we had two bishops of color. Today, there are six.

I just returned from the Metro Chicago Synod Assembly where those gathered elected the Rev. Yehiel Curry, an African-American pastor from the southside of Chicago. The practice in the ELCA is to invite a current bishop to serve as an informal mentor to each incoming bishop. I am thrilled to be invited to serve in this role with Bishop-elect Curry.

 

AS WE SEEK TO reflect the Pentecost vision of diversity that God intends for the church, we need to be boldly intentional about raising up leaders who look like the people in our world. Growing as communities of radical welcome and inclusion depends on it. And, so does our understanding of God.

One of my all-time favorite stories from my ministry comes from my time at Edina Community Lutheran Church (ECLC), now 25 years ago. Elizabeth was four years old and a member of ECLC. The Rev. Erik Strand and I had been her pastors since she was baptized as an infant. When I announced that I was leaving the congregation and moving to Iowa, sometime after she heard the news, Elizabeth turned to her mother and said, “Mommy, isn’t it sad that God is moving to Iowa? But,” she said, “at least Jesus is staying here.”

Though her theology was then a bit suspect, Elizabeth showed how imagination can be opened, and how she will see God as much more than an old man with a white beard. That rich understanding of God – in Elizabeth and countless others – will shape our ways of being … as leaders and as communities.

More family

May 28th, 2019

By Bishop Ann Svennungsen

“I need more family.” These are the words of Jira, an adopted African-American teenager, spoken after her father is killed. “I need more family,” she says, to support her newfound desire to find her birth mother. Her story is told in the mini-series The Red Line, a profound glimpse into the lives of three families after the tragic shooting of Jira’s father by a police officer.

“I need more family.” Have you ever felt that need? Oh, sometimes more family simply appears. Friends bring dinner every night when you’re recovering from surgery. Your church builds a fence for your yard after your son is born with Down Syndrome.

Just a generation ago, “more family” was part of the deal. My father was one of nine siblings. I am one of 26 close-knit cousins on Dad’s side alone.

 

WHAT ABOUT 2019? And, what about the ordinary times – when no one is sick and “more family” simply shows up with a covered dish? How do we foster this deep need for relationships in the ordinary days? I rejoice to see how our churches are doing this. And, I pray you experience both community-building worship and small group relationships within your church home.

But, I’m curious about faithful practices to build “more family” with neighbors and friends. I’m probably more of an introvert than extrovert, so I may find this more challenging. Still, I’d love to hear good ideas. How have you built community in your neighborhood or with the people down the hall in your apartment or condo building? How have you deepened the relationships you already have? What does it look like when followers of Jesus seek to create “more family”?

“What does it look like when followers of Jesus seek to create ‘more family’?”

Though I’m hesitant to quote from two TV shows in one posting, I’ll close with words from the final scene of Life Itself. (I don’t recommend the movie – it received pretty bad reviews, especially for being too preachy. I blame my watching it on “post synod assembly” syndrome) Still, I like these words from a mother to her young adult son as she is dying:

Listen to me: you have had many ups and downs in your life. Too many. And you will have more. This is life and this is what it does. Life brings you to knees. It brings you lower than you think you can go. But if you stand back up and move forward, if you go just a little farther, you will always find love.

You can almost hear Luther’s theology of the cross in her words. Though Luther would probably say, “Yes, life brings you to your knees. But, even there love will find you.”

A 2020 vision for synod assembly

May 13th, 2019

By Bishop Ann Svennungsen

Under the wonderful theme “In this Together: What the World Needs takes all of Us,” we gathered for our 2019 synod assembly, now visible in the “rearview mirror.”

“It’s an ‘all hands on deck’ event for the synod staff, with work beginning for next year even before the current assembly is even done.”

Looking back on the complexity of the event, one could also say: “In this Together: What the Assembly Needs takes all of Us.” The list is long and includes:

  • Confirming contracts with sound and video, interpreters, caterers, hosts, child care providers, and furniture rental companies;
  • Inviting speakers, presenters, nominees, musicians, and visual artists;
  • Creating videos, power points, clues for “Jeoparody,” and composting stations;
  • Preparing final copy of worship bulletins, resolutions, agendas and contingency agendas – all timed to the minute; and
  • Managing the online registration process for 450-plus people; confirming the correct representation of lay, clergy, and youth; and leaving the space as clean as we found it.

It’s an “all hands on deck” event for the synod staff, with work beginning for next year even before the current assembly is even done.

When it all comes together like it did last weekend, we all breathe a sigh of relief and give thanks for what feels almost miraculous.

 

SOME DISTINCTIVE HIGHLIGHTS of 2019 include:

  • Representing a glorious diversity of race, age, and gender; our speakers inspired and challenged us with unique perspectives that complemented each other in remarkable ways. Often referring to the speaker who preceded them, they truly engaged with each other, with assembly participants, and with our theme. (There was nothing “cookie cutter” about the presenters.)
  • The theme engaged what some call the “issue of our generation” – the reality of climate system change and the church’s calling to serve the world Christ came to save. We heard from Presiding Elder Stacy Smith with deep ties to Flint, Michigan; from Bishop Bruce Ough, a leader at Standing Rock; from Dr. Larry Rasmussen, a premiere Lutheran environmental ethicist; Mikka McCracken, a millennial Korean American whose faith story in the ELCA is so powerful, inspiring and authentic. Even our Vice President’s report by Felecia Boone and Treasurer’s Report by Ty Inglis were among the finest I’ve ever heard. Recordings of our speakers will soon be available on the synod’s YouTube Channel and on the website.
  • Within 24 hours, we heard the witness of a Native American, Korean American, Latina, and African Americans – all bringing profound perspective to the church they love but a church that remains 96% white.

Yes, a synod assembly takes all of us to be successful. And that raises a significant concern for me. If it “takes all of us,” what does it mean that fewer than half of our congregation’s voting members were present this year (450 present versus 936 that are eligible to attend).

Attendees are quick to affirm that it’s important work – well worth their time. What changes can we make to increase engagement? We are working to develop more comprehensive invitation process with intentional follow-up conversations. We are looking at an earlier assembly date so we aren’t competing with one of the first warm days of spring.

What other ideas might you have? We welcome your thoughts and ideas. Because, you see, we’re all “in this together.”

Who gets a seat?

April 30th, 2019

By Bishop Ann Svennungsen

I actually met the Pope this year! In preparing my synod assembly report, I reviewed last year’s pictures and was delighted to see the one with Archbishop Bernard Hebda from St. Paul, Bishop Peter Bartimeaus from Nigeria, and myself visiting with Pope Francis. We were the key religious leaders accompanying a choir of Minnesota Lutherans and Catholics invited to sing at the Vatican.

Knowing we had little time to greet Pope Francis, I made sure to thank him for Laudato Si, his encyclical on the environment. It stands as a unique and powerful contribution of the Christian faith to the work of addressing climate system change. It will also enlighten the conversation shaping our synod assembly: “What the World Needs Now Takes All of Us.”

 

ANOTHER MEMORY FROM our trip to Rome is not so heartening for me. Amazingly, the choir received an invitation to sing “Ubi Caritas” in the Sistine Chapel. We gathered in the chapel after touring the Vatican museums. Bishop Bartimeaus arrived with the composer and other leaders. Archbishop Hebda arrived last. The leaders made room for him – so that the key trip leaders sat together in a central space.

“In addition to our conversations about Laudato Si and caring for creation, our synod assembly will consider a memorial affirming the new social statement: “’Faith, Sexism, and Justice: A Lutheran Call to Action.’”

When I arrived, all the seats were taken. The chapel has only one seating area – a continuous bench circling the outside wall. It also has security personnel to watch over protocol. I tried to find a spot, sensitive to looks I received from security. Finally, I sat on the curb-like space at the feet of those sitting on the bench. In the silence before the choir began singing, security came and stated clearly that I could NOT sit on the floor like that.

I was dressed in full bishop regalia: my purple clergy shirt, my pectoral cross. And I am a woman. Recognizing all the reasons that could’ve caused that awkward moment for me (people arriving at different times, a shortage of seating space, overpowering awe at the chapel’s beauty, my unwillingness to advocate for myself), I still have a deep sense that my experience of disregard was because of my gender. There was literally no “seat at the table.”

Finally, a group of folks moved together so I could squeeze into a place on the bench. I recognize my feelings of marginalization are minor compared to those felt by people whose exclusion leaves them without fundamental resources. Still, there is a relatedness among all forms of discrimination.

“I still have a deep sense that my experience of disregard was because of my gender.”

In addition to our conversations about Laudato Si and caring for creation, our synod assembly will consider a memorial affirming the new social statement: “Faith, Sexism, and Justice: A Lutheran Call to Action.” Whether or not you will be joining us at synod assembly, I encourage you to read what I believe is an historic document. If approved, it will be the first call to action of its kind – for the ELCA or any of our full communion partners.

What the world needs takes all of us. We begin by inviting all of us to sit at the table.

Triduum tension

April 15th, 2019

By Bishop Ann Svennungsen

Where I grew up, we had a festive pie reception after our Maundy Thursday worship. Homemade pies from every kitchen were brought to St. Luke’s and shared with the congregants. Yes, we did the stripping of the altar, symbolizing the abandonment of Jesus and his stripping before the crucifixion. Yes, we left in silence. Then, we had pie and coffee.

You might guess that we never talked about the Triduum at St. Luke’s Lutheran in Shelby, Montana. I’m not sure I truly heard about it until Erik Strand – one of my best worship “professors” – coached me in my second call as a pastor. In the congregation Erik and I served, we even went so far as printing one bulletin for The Great Three Days – inviting worshipers to enter in to the three days as one service, one deep immersion into the paschal mystery, the passing of Jesus from betrayal, death, burial, into resurrection life. A “pie reception” would have shockingly disturbed the flow of that experience.

“We live with the discomfort of the tension – sometimes leaning to one side, sometimes the other.”

In his book, Between Cross and Resurrection, Alan Lewis writes of the profound importance of holding these three days together:

In summary, the complex, multiple meaning of the (paschal) story will only emerge as we hold in tension what the cross says on its own, what the resurrection says on its own, and what each of them says when interpreted in the light of the other. It would not be impossible to graph the entire history of church doctrine and life by plotting the interpretations which have failed to give due weight to one or the other of these essentials in the story by which and for which the Christian community lives. We might discover that the second day, which serves both to keep the first and the third days apart in their separate identities and to unite them in their indivisibility, offers a useful stance from which to make one more effort at a properly multivocal, stereophonic hearing of the gospel story. (emphasis mine).

 

HOLDING IN TENSION the cross and resurrection, by definition, means we can’t resolve the discomfort. The tension in a game of tug of war is only resolved if one side wins. And, holding that rope in perfect and endless equilibrium is impossible. So, we live with the discomfort of the tension – sometimes leaning to one side, sometimes the other. The tension must remain.

Douglas John Hall speaks to this tension: “Gospel …  is good news because it engages, takes on and does battle with the bad news, offering another alternative, another vision of what could be, another way into the future.”

“In the resurrection witness, suffering is accompanied and challenged by a hope.”

The hope we have in Christ’s resurrection doesn’t just whisk away all the problems we have, all the suffering we face. Good Friday and Holy Saturday remain. We know they are still there. But, somehow, in the resurrection witness, suffering is accompanied and challenged by a hope – a vision of “what could be another way into the future.”

We hold all preachers, worship leaders, musicians, artists, and participants in prayer as we enter together the great mystery of the Christian faith.

Trustworthy Servants

March 25th, 2019

By Bishop Ann Svennungsen

When bishops ordain pastors or consecrate deacons, we ask if they will commit to being an “example in faithful service and holy living.” If their answer is yes, they respond: “I will, and I ask God to help me.”

To what, exactly, are they committing themselves? What, exactly, is holy living? Since it was formed, the ELCA has sought to provide further detail in its expectations about “holy living.” Our predecessor bodies – the ALC, LCA, and AELC – did the same.

Still, this is not a “once-for-all” endeavor. Our guidelines are not set in stone. Pastors and deacons can now divorce. LGBTQ pastors and deacons can now marry. While it was once permissible (and is still legal in some states) for men to rape their wives, that is not acceptable in the church’s understanding of “holy living.”

All that we do and all that we are, both at home and in the public square, is a witness. The shape of our faithfulness bears witness to a loving and just God, who has freed us to love and serve our neighbor.

The ELCA’s constitution gives the ELCA Church Council authority to approve the specific expectations included in our understanding of “holy living.” Currently, the expectations are articulated in “Vision and Expectations.”

 

AT ITS MEETING ON April 4-7, the ELCA Church Council will review the draft of a document, “Trustworthy Servants of the People of God,” which, if approved, would replace “Vision and Expectations.” The upcoming council discussion has provoked serious and lively debate. Questions include:

  1. Should rostered leaders be held to higher standards than other Christians? What about the priesthood of all believers?
  2. Why do we focus so much on sexual misconduct and not as much on failure in prayer, generosity and tithing, and a commitment to justice and the environment?
  3. Should the potential effect a behavior has on a congregation be considered when discussing expectations? (E.g., an affair with a parishioner affects a congregation in ways that a failure to tithe might not.)
  4. What policy most effectively prevents boundary violations?
  5. What is the process for developing such statements as “Trustworthy Servants of the People of God?” Could we advocate for a longer conversation with more inclusive representation?

Neither “Vision and Expectations” nor “Trustworthy Servants” are documents with authority to create new policy. Rather, their authority is to interpret the policy that is created in the ELCA’s governing documents and social statements. To be sure, “interpreting” policy requires making judgments and one could argue our church needs a longer, more inclusive process before making such judgments. However, if our church wishes to create a new ethic about sexuality or prayer or justice expectations, it will require a more involved process, including Churchwide Assembly vote(s).

 

JUDGMENT CALLS ARE also made in the application of documents like “Vision and Expectations.” Recently, the Conference of Bishops apologized for its failures in this regard:

As a Conference of Bishops, we recognize and acknowledge that [Vision and Expectations]’ application has been uneven and inequitable. We express our profound grief and deep regret for the times when Vision and Expectations has been misused to single out, marginalize, and block people seeking to be leaders in this church when their peers were not always held to the same vision and expectations.

If our church wishes to create a new ethic about sexuality or prayer or justice expectations, it will require a more involved process, including Churchwide Assembly vote(s).

The discussion of “holy living” is complicated, profound, and evokes strongly held opinions. All that we do and all that we are, both at home and in the public square, is a witness. The shape of our faithfulness bears witness to a loving and just God, who has freed us to love and serve our neighbor. People are paying attention. How, then, shall we live?

Please join with me in praying for our Church Council as they meet April 4-7. We are a theologically grounded, gospel-centered, deeply engaged, and interconnected church. May the Spirit work through all the charisms of the ELCA and our mutual discernment as we each seek to live counter-cultural lives as followers of Jesus.

‘A widening gap’

March 12th, 2019

By Bishop Ann Svennungsen

Everywhere you turn you can find a survey about why young adults aren’t coming to church. I thought I’d conduct my own. In a comprehensive survey of two, I heard: “It’s hard to go to church all by myself,” and “I spend so much time keeping my kids quiet, I leave church more exhausted than inspired.”

From early on in scripture, people have asked: “Will our children have faith?”

Deuteronomy is clear about teaching God’s word to future generations:

Who has a god so near to them as the Lord our God is whenever we call? … But take care and watch yourselves closely, so as not to forget the things that your eyes have seen, … make them known to your children and your children’s children. (4:8-10)

You shall put these words of mine in your heart and soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand. … Teach them to your children, talking about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. (11:18-19)

The Psalmist writes: “We will recount to generations to come the praiseworthy deeds and the power of God, … that the generations to come might know, and the children yet unborn; that they in their turn might tell it to their children; so they might put their trust in the Lord. (Psalm 78: 4, 6)

 

ROSTERED LEADERS IN OUR SYNOD have an extraordinary opportunity on Thursday, March 28, to hear from people doing real, qualitative exploration of “the widening gap between young adults and Christian congregations.”

“Augsburg is one of only 12 schools to receive funding and participate in Lilly Endowment’s Young Adult Initiative.”

The Augsburg Riverside Innovation Center is a “big deal” for our church. Sometimes, we’re cavalier about the remarkable wisdom from our own neighborhood (a prophet not welcome in her hometown and all). But, Augsburg is one of only 12 schools to receive funding and participate in Lilly Endowment’s Young Adult Initiative. The schools are located across the country and represent Mainline Protestant, evangelical, historic African American, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and independent congregations. Yes, for Augsburg to be selected is truly a big deal!

Now, two years into the project, we are invited to learn some of Augsburg’s discoveries. All rostered leaders are invited to join us for the conversation. This is not about filling our pews or assuaging our guilt. This is not about the survival of the church. It is about the story of God’s fierce love revealed in Christ – a love that forms beloved community and gives meaning and purpose to life.

Called to empathy

February 18th, 2019

By Bishop Ann Svennungsen

What a weekend! On Saturday I was honored to convey the church’s deep gratitude at the funerals of John Nelson and Orval Westby, two pastors who’d been ordained for 63 and 73 years respectively. Seventy-three years! I’d have to live past 2055 to claim that.

On Sunday, I was privileged to preside at the ordination of Ian McConnell, someone I pray will serve as a pastor well beyond 2055. In the ordination sermon, Pastor Tania Haber spoke of the importance of imagination – quoting the Harvard commencement address given by J.K. Rowling: “Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation; it is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.”

Imagination – and its fruits of vision and empathy – are critical gifts for pastors. Empathy is central to emotional intelligence; one of the most important skills for effective leaders. Trust is built on empathy, and without trust it’s almost impossible to lead.

 

BUT, EMPATHY IS ALSO essential for preaching. Pastor Fred Craddock, preaching professor at Candler School of Theology, encouraged preachers to imagine what it’s like to be situations unknown to them:

When the pastor writes a sermon, an empathetic imagination sees concrete experiences. Others may display knowledge of “poverty programs” but the pastor knows what a bitter thing it is to be somebodys Christmas project. [The pastor] sees a boy resisting his mothers insistence that he wear the nice sweater that came in the charity basket. [The pastor] can see the boy wear it until out of mothers sight, but not at school out of fear that he may meet the original owner on the playground. There are conditions worse than being cold. Others may discuss “the problem of geriatrics” but the pastor has just come from the local rest home and still sees worn checkerboards, faded bouquets, large print King James Bibles, stainless steel trays, and dim eyes staring at an empty parking lot reserved for visitors. Others may analyze “the trouble with the youth today” but the pastor sees a fuzzy-lipped boy, awkward, noisy, wishing he were absent, not a man, not a child.

In his annual report to the synod, Pastor Orval Westby, then is his 90s, answered the question: What suggestions do you have for the ELCA? He wrote: “provide more opportunities for pastors to grow as preachers.”

“Even with all the vision and empathy in the world, regular preaching is a daunting task.”

I take his suggestion seriously. What opportunities encourage you in your preaching? What’s missing? Is there more our synod could do?

Even with all the vision and empathy in the world, regular preaching is a daunting task. I am eager to hear more about what sustains and stretches you. And, to explore ways our synod might be a stronger source of support.

We. Are. Fam-i-ly.

February 4th, 2019

By Bishop Ann Svennungsen

“My church is like a family!” It’s the most frequent answer I get when I ask what people like about their congregation. “We feel like a family.” There’s much to celebrate in that statement. We imagine families as places of care, deep and ongoing relationships, loving acceptance. “Family is a life jacket in the stormy sea of life,” says J.K. Rowling.

“Worship is the most public part of our shared life.”

However, there is a problem with this image. Christians are called to be a family with permeable boundaries – communities of gracious openness – welcoming people we’ve never met.

I am especially concerned when worship – the most public event of the week – seems like a family reunion. When a newcomer comes to worship in such a setting, she can feel like a stranger eavesdropping on a family dinner. Rather than experiencing welcome, he can feel even more on the outside looking in.

 

YES, MANY CHURCH activities can promote the sense that we’re family – support groups, small groups for prayer and Bible study, counseling, and spiritual direction. Worship, I believe, is something different. It’s the most public part of our shared life, so we must ask: How do visitors experience worship here? Think for a moment about a 28-year-old first-timer, someone new to this country, someone struggling with depression. How would they experience worship at your congregation?

“Christians are called to be a family with permeable boundaries.”

Little things make a difference:

  • Does the worship liturgy require that people recite things from memory?
  • How easy is it to get to coffee hour? Is it in the room down the hall, needing detailed directions, a place where everyone notices when you walk in the door?
  • Is the coffee good?

The congregation is a remarkable gift from God. We need the welcome and community it brings – surrounded by folks who share our greatest joys and sorrows, challenged to live lives of meaning and purpose for the sake of the world. And, we need the community of faith because Jesus has promised to meet us there – in Word and Sacrament, in the words of forgiveness, in the presence of one another.

Paul calls Christians to “welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you.” (Romans 15:7) Let that be our way of life – as disciples and communities in Christ.

Practicing Justice

January 15th, 2019

By Bishop Ann Svennungsen

Each of the three congregations I have served included an aspect of social justice or social ministry in my job description. Zion Lutheran in Iowa City, Iowa, had a peace and justice group; Edina Community Lutheran has an expectation of regularly mentioned social issues in the sermons; and at Trinity in Moorhead we created an evangelism and social justice pastoral position.

As a pastor I have often asked myself how we can live out Micah’s call to “do justice.” How can we fulfill the promise we make in the affirmation of baptism “to strive for justice and peace in all the earth?” I believe both our congregations and individual disciples want to be faithful in this calling, but we often wonder how we make a concrete difference for the sake of justice.

This week, 44 people are attending faith-based community organizing training sponsored by our synod. I attended the same training a year ago and experienced an incredible “aha” moment. For the first time, I felt like I’d experienced a specific faith practice for “doing justice.”

Justice will not come to the neighbor in need simply because we’ve got a brilliant argument for a change that makes for justice.

THROUGHOUT HISTORY, Christianity has offered specific guidance on the practice of prayer (Ignatian spiritual exercises), the practice of Bible study (the ELCA’s Book of Faith), the practice of hospitality (The Order of St. Benedict). What if we could sense the same concrete wisdom for guiding us in the practice of “doing justice?” I believe faith-based organizing is just such a thing.

Key things are “deep listening” to the needs of the community through focused “one-on-one” conversations; discernment about a particular issue the community wants to address; identification and equipping of leaders; building a coalition of allies; assessing who has “the power” to make change; planning and implementing the process needed to convince those in power.

Christian practices are initiatives Christian people do together over time to address fundamental human needs in the light of and in response to God’s grace within all creation through Christ Jesus. Our EcoFaith Network has used this practice around the issue of inclusive financing — making alternative energy solutions affordable for everyone. And, our synod is using community organizing in its efforts on racial and economic justice.

Christian practices are initiatives Christian people do together over time to address fundamental human needs in the light of and in response to God’s grace within all creation through Christ Jesus.

Oh, some may be cautious about the use of community organizing — hearing in the media about confrontational practices or attention-seeking actions. The methodology we use at the synod is more sensitive to the culture of the church — and to its values.

Sometimes, we think our calling is simply to have a good idea; make a strong case. Organizing asks us a deeper question: How can you actually succeed in making a difference? Justice will not come to the neighbor in need simply because we’ve got a brilliant argument for a change that makes for justice. We also need strategies whereby, together, we act to convince those with power to make that change.

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