Conflict-Averse Christians

September 18th, 2017

By Bishop Ann Svennungsen

All things being equal, I’d rather avoid conflict. If you asked me when pastoral ministry was most challenging, I would immediately think of times when the congregations I served were most conflicted. I suspect that is true for most rostered leaders. I still remember a vivid dream the night before a tense congregational vote three decades ago.

Sometimes I think Lutherans – especially those of northern European descent – have a rather simplistic interpretation of Scripture around issues of conflict. We’ve come to believe that a sure sign of God’s favor is when our congregation is free of conflict. Yes, God seeks the unity of the church. And, yes, there are texts that affirm Jesus’ desire that we “might all be one” and Paul’s prayer “that there be no dissension in the body.”

“Avoidance of difficult conversations can be a significant impediment to true community.”

Still, the witness of Scripture is more honest and nuanced than a simplistic notion that if you have enough faith your congregation will be blessed with peace and tranquility; that disagreement and differing opinions are a sign of God’s disfavor. Indeed, I think our avoidance of difficult conversations can be a significant impediment to true community and the discernment of God’s way forward as a congregation.

 

SCOTT PECK TALKED ABOUT conflict-free communities as “pseudo-communities.” Patrick Lencioni argues that “fear of conflict” is one of five things that make for a dysfunctional team. Oh, this can be frightening territory. I am as conflict-averse as the next person. Conflict, in and of itself, is not holy – even though there can be holy conflict. Sometimes conflict is just the result of people feeling grumpy. Conflict “for conflict’s sake” is not the goal.

But if we in the church are to talk about God’s call to radical generosity, about racial justice and white privilege, not to mention the radical, countercultural news that all are sinful and set free by grace alone; we may need to learn some new ways to welcome difficult conversations.

“Conflict, in and of itself, is not holy – even though there can be holy conflict.”

A good place to start is the ELCA Moral Deliberation document or the Minnesota Council of Churches Respectful Conversations. It takes lots of prayer, the building of trust, a shared covenant of love and respect, and a willingness to try, to fail, to forgive, to try again.

Already in chapter 15 of Acts we find the first Christians in a heated conflict about the way to welcome Gentiles into the community formed by faith in Christ, crucified and risen for the sake of the world. Praise God they had the courage to engage – and praise God for their discernment that made for a new way into God’s abundant future.

Ensuring Church as a Safe Place

September 11th, 2017

By Bishop Ann Svennungsen

Healthy relationships matter. Human flourishing is irrevocably tied to the health of our relationships – with family, friends, co-workers, teachers, classmates.

Healthy church relationships matter, too. Indeed, unhealthy church relationships can be destructive in uniquely painful ways.

Tragically, the church has often done a poor job preventing and addressing misconduct in parish relationships. When I was in grade school, a pastor who admitted to sexual misconduct was given some weeks in “therapy,” and then transferred to another congregation where the abuse continued.

“The church should be a safe place for everyone.”

From the start of the ELCA, our denomination has been intentional in developing strong and clear guidelines for preventing and addressing misconduct – thanks, in large part, to the work of the Commission for Women. In 1996, Safe Connections: What Parishioners Can Do to Understand and Prevent Clergy Sexual Abuse was developed. In 2002, the Minneapolis Area Synod published Policy and Procedures for Preventing and Addressing Sexual Misconduct by Rostered Ministers.

 

THE CHURCH SHOULD be a safe place for everyone – a place where people can worship, learn, work, love, and receive care in a manner that is free from boundary violations, emotional abuse, sexual harassment, or misconduct. When safety is violated, the resulting pain can last a lifetime. And, the relationships that suffer are not only human. If a pastor – called to share God’s love – violates the trust of another, it is not hard to imagine the experience affecting the victim’s trust in the God the pastor was called to represent.

Our synod policy seeks to provide for compassionate and resolute response to those wounded by clergy sexual misconduct and appropriate discipline for those who offend. We encourage each of us to report concerns:

  • If you do not feel safe in your church, contact Dee Vodicka, the Executive Assistant to the Bishop, at 612-230-3317 or d.vodicka@mpls-synod.org.
  • If you suspect sexual misconduct, reach out to the synod or the ELCA via the website or phone at 800-638-3522, ext. 2699.
  • If you aren’t sure what is happening but it’s making you uncomfortable, call us.

“Tragically, the church has often done a poor job preventing and addressing misconduct in parish relationships.”

When our office receives such a call, it gets my complete attention. I personally meet with victims to listen to their allegations, affirm my and the church’s care for them, and refer them to an advocate if desired. I also review all allegations of clergy sexual misconduct and administer appropriate discipline, a process that may include the guidance of an advisory or consultation committee. (It should be noted that the synod may not be able to assume primary responsibility for addressing all allegations of sexual misconduct. For example, law enforcement authorities would have responsibility for investigating and addressing criminal allegations, while congregations would have to deal with accusations of sexual harassment by the congregation’s employees. Nevertheless, the appropriate synod office should be notified of all cases of inappropriate sexual behavior in the congregation.)

Healthy relationships of trust and respect are essential to the mission of the Gospel and for the flourishing of all God’s children. May we carefully and resolutely attend to both the prevention of and healing from sexual misconduct in our faith communities.

What Can I Do?

August 15th, 2017

By Bishop Ann Svennungsen

Charlottesville: Did this really happen in America? In the 21st century? Does our social fabric really provide the context for children to grow into white supremacists? Are there no moral standards preventing such words and acts of hatred, bigotry, and violence?

Exactly one week before, in our very own synod, a bomb leveled the office of the Muslim Community Center in Bloomington, as the community was gathering for prayer.

Besides our laments, our cries of righteous anger, we wonder: What can I do? Our family gathered last night to ask that very question. The ideas were many, the hopes were courageous. But, at the end of evening, we knew there were no quick fixes. Even more, we recognized that the enormity of the problem could easily lead to inaction.

In my annual performance review, I asked these questions about the year ahead: Should the Minneapolis Area Synod and our congregations be more intentional and engaged in the issues facing our country and world? Weekly prayer services? Regular demonstrations about climate change and human justice? Greater investment in legislative advocacy?

 

PERHAPS, ANOTHER QUESTION is: What can the synod do to more actively support congregations and individuals in the weekly, daily, and hourly commitment to work for justice? What can we do to encourage and agitate for us to prioritize this work – to take the next step and then the next step after that in this long march toward justice and dignity for all God’s creation?

Besides our laments, our cries of righteous anger, we wonder: what can I do?

“Your Next Bold Step” is the theme for our Bishop’s Theological Conference for the rostered leaders of the synod. In addition to theological and practical learning, we will explore our next bold steps as individuals and make commitments appropriate to our contexts. Even more, the synod will facilitate follow-up groups for all who would like a coach or peer group to encourage and agitate us in this journey over the coming year.

There is no place for the racism and religious bigotry that was displayed so violently in our land these past two Saturdays. We stand against white supremacy – and seek the next bold step in our work for the reign of God where the evil of racism has no place.

The Critical Need for Leadership Skills

July 12th, 2017

By Bishop Ann Svennungsen

Long before women could become pastoral leaders, my mom was a leader in our congregation. I remember her leading in lots of settings – most notably, chair of the building committee for our new sanctuary.

Do I continue to grow in leading in an area where God has given me passion and concern?

I thought a lot about my mom as I prepared to bring a greeting to those gathered in Minneapolis today through Saturday for the Tenth Triennial Convention of the Women of the ELCA.

There’s no question that Mom’s work with the American Lutheran Church Women (ALCW) was key in giving her both the courage and the skills to serve as a leader. When we sorted her files after she died, there was a whole packet of ALCW training materials: “How to Lead a Meeting;” “How to Build an Executive Committee.”

And, at her funeral, we heard again and again from her Bible Study Circles – at St. Luke’s and Hope and Bethlehem Lutheran.

 

AS WE STUDY THE things that make for congregational vitality in 2017, two things continue to stand out:

  • Participation in small groups around prayer, Bible study, and support
  • Intentional focus on leadership development

Following Jesus isn’t simple or easy in 2017 – as it wasn’t easy for Luther or, even the early church. Perhaps, one way to examine our lives of discipleship – and the focus of our congregation’s ministries is to ask: Am I part of a small group gathered around prayer, Bible study, and support?  Do I continue to grow in leading in an area where God has given me passion and concern? And, finally, does my congregation provide such opportunities?

For many reasons, the women’s organization in my congregation today isn’t nearly as strong as the one that shaped my mother’s life. Still, the small group experiences she had and the lessons she learned through her involvement in ALCW are as critical today as ever.

Incarnating Community

June 13th, 2017

By Bishop Ann Svennungsen

How important is it for a pastor to know how to form and lead a healthy community? In addition to teaching pastors how to preach, teach, and provide pastoral care, should seminaries teach students the skills to build community?

This was not a part of the curriculum in the 1980s when I received my M.Div. My classmates and I believed that, when we were called to a congregation, we basically “inherited” a community. The community was already there, already formed. Our job was not to break it.

“What are practices you believe are essential for healthy communities?”

Today, church leaders ask if something vital is lost by our failure to intentionally prepare pastors for this work. I am part of a cohort studying exactly this – a group of pastors, theologians, and bishops funded by a generous grant from The Lilly Endowment.

We just finished a conversation on Christine Pohl’s Living into Community: Cultivating Practices That Sustain Us. Believing that beloved communities are one of the critical ways we witness to the grace and power of God in the world, Pohl suggests four key faith practices that are essential to building healthy communities:

  • Gratitude
  • Promise-Making and Promise-Keeping
  • Truth Telling
  • Hospitality

 

AT THE SAME TIME as I’ve been reading Pohl’s book, our synod staff has been studying Patrick Lencioni’s work on Team Building. I’ve been delightfully surprised to notice the convergence between the two books. According to Lencioni, a healthy staff team commits to five key practices:

  • Trust
  • Commitment
  • Openness to Conflict
  • Accountability
  • Attention to Results

There’s lots of alignment between Pohl and Lencioni. Still, what they ask of us isn’t always easy. Some of the practices are difficult. And, some are easier for you than they are for me. (For instance, this descendant of Northern European immigrants isn’t a natural when it comes to saying that “openness to conflict” is a good thing.)

I wonder how we might learn from each other – how we might strengthen this conversation in our synod. What are practices you believe are essential for healthy communities? When have you experienced healthy/unhealthy community? What have you learned?

In these ordinary days after the Festival of Pentecost – sometimes called the season of the church – maybe we can focus on such questions. And we can work intentionally towards our church as home to many beloved communities.

What’s said in Leipzig, stays in … people’s memories for decades

June 6th, 2017

By Bishop Ann Svennungsen

I have a new resolution: “Each year, take at least one of group of synodical leaders on a week-long mission trip.”

Just last Thursday, 16 of our synod’s rostered leaders returned from a ten-day visit to our companion synod in Leipzig, German. It was the week of Germany’s premiere celebration of the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation.

Our Leipzig partners hosted us in their homes and took us to worship, concerts, festivals, Luther museums, and the May 28 capstone gathering in Wittenberg. We shared in rich conversations – with our partner pastors and leaders about immigration and church/state relations; with our 16-member travel group about theology, highs, lows, and tensions; and with our host families about life … sometimes late into the night.

Very few people have the privilege of being alive for this 500th anniversary – much less spending it in “Luther Land” with companions from our partner church in Leipzig.

Very few people have the privilege of being alive for this 500th anniversary – much less spending it in “Luther Land” with companions from our partner church in Leipzig.

Still, throughout the trip, I had the sense I could lead this group on a trip to Big Sandy, Montana, and we would still have an awesome experience. (I can make fun of Big Sandy because my family is from there.)

 

THE ROSTERED LEADERS of the Minneapolis Area Synod are incredible. The ELCA prepares its pastors and deacons well. As importantly, there is a spiritual and emotional health in our synod’s leaders who have sensed God’s call to ministry and responded to that call.

At the same time, the need for leaders to “be together” in meaningful relationships is as important as it is difficult to incorporate into busy lives. From John Hulden’s peer group cheers to the fast growing communicators gatherings, our synod staff puts highest priority on building relationships – with God, in peer groups, in communities of faith.

Thank you for the privilege of journeying to Germany. And, for the gift of being in relationship with incredible leaders across our synod.

Answer Is …

May 23rd, 2017

By Bishop Ann Svennungsen

Hymns for $300: “If you cannot preach like Peter, and you cannot pray like Paul.”

“What is ‘There is a Balm in Gilead’?”

This was not your grandparents’ synod assembly. Instead of multiple resolutions, we had multiple table conversations; instead of perfunctory reports, we heard the ELCA’s Ruben Duran tell how Lutheran missionaries in Peru brought him to Jesus; instead of long lines during breaks, we had hot cinnamon rolls brought to our tables; instead of a lecture on racial justice, we heard the story of racism told through song in “My American Blues”; instead of long hours of uninterrupted listening, we had participants compete at JeoPARODY (see “Hymns for $300” above).

In addition to engaging presentations by David Lose and Barbara Lundblad, we had guided table conversations on how our own congregations would most effectively strive for racial justice, welcome immigrants, and grow as “real presence: in the neighborhood and with our neighbors.”

I try to envision my parents attending our assembly. They loved to tell me how, in 1960, they traveled from Shelby, Montana, to Central Lutheran in Minneapolis for the constituting convention of the American Lutheran Church. (As usual, they left their five-year-old daughter at home with Rose Ostrem.) I think my dad would have risked sitting through one meaningful table conversation and, then, used the next two for convenient cigarette breaks.

 

OH, SOMETIMES THE CHANGES to our synod assembly make us wonder if the experience is really necessary. If we only vote on one resolution besides budget, does that really merit 16 hours out of our time?

In his book Community: The Structure of Belonging, Peter Block writes that “the small group is the unit of transformation. Large-scale transformation occurs when enough small groups shift in harmony toward the larger change. The small group produces power when diversity of thinking and dissent are given space, commitments are made without barter, and the gifts of each person and our community are acknowledged and valued.”

“Large-scale transformation occurs when enough small groups
shift in harmony toward the larger change,” writes Peter Block.

Our Reference and Counsel Committee is more consistently asking the following question: Is a proposed resolution the best way to address an issue (e.g., asking a synod bishop to write a letter to President Trump)? Or, would congregational conversation and action make longer lasting impact?

Our synod assembly experience is always evolving. We take seriously the evaluations (both spoken and written) each year. I was recently reminded by one of our deans that healthy debate over an important resolution can be energizing, informative as well as impactful in the world.

We work hard on assembly. And we pray.  We trust that the One who promises to be with us when two or three are gathered, will also be present when some 500 gather in Christ’s name.

A Variety of Gifts … for the Common Good

May 2nd, 2017

By Bishop Ann Svennungsen

There are a varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit.
Just as the body is one and has many members, so it is with Christ. 
To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.
(1 Corinthians 12)

At our office, there is no time when the above words ring truer than in the weeks before synod assembly. It’s an “all hands on deck” time – and, praise God, each set of hands brings unique gifts and hard work, all for the sake of the common good.

As we transition from paper agendas to smart phones, one staff member is preparing an assembly app and electronic voting system. Another is finding the best cinnamon rolls for break. Still others are:

  • finding ways to compost and recycle – and recruiting volunteers for the task
  • preparing to fill the screens with powerpoints, videos, and live camera feeds
  • registering congregations and contacting those who’ve yet to register
  • developing “down to the minute” agendas
  • writing sermons, budgets, reports, and the all-important “fun interludes”
  • preparing table conversations on immigration and racial justice
  • inviting the brightest and best keynoters and musicians – and working with them to amplify our theme: “Real Presence: in the neighborhood, with our neighbors.”

The gifts each staff member brings are unique. If you asked me to prepare the assembly app, we wouldn’t be meeting for another six months (if ever).

 

THIS WEEK, Karen Ohm was called away by the illness of a family member. She is where she is called to be – with her loved one. Still, without her, we are incomplete. Every gift is needed. Fortunately, God is providing a person from outside our staff who can do the work for which she is uniquely qualified.

It is interesting, isn’t it, that assembly preparations vividly illustrate our need to be church together? If we are to raise up leaders, build life-giving Christian communities, foster gracious invitation, and work for just and healthy neighborhoods, we certainly need to be “all hands on deck” with an astonishing diversity of gifts.

“Assembly preparations vividly illustrate our need to be church together.”

The synod office wouldn’t even exist without the offerings that come from the generosity of individual disciples, and without congregations budgeting for “church together” through mission support. We do not take these gifts for granted – and we strive to steward them faithfully. Together, we prepare pastors and deacons; start new congregations; foster networks of work for racial justice, eco-justice, and compassionate service; accompany congregations through times of growth, loss, transition, and celebration.

We are incredibly blessed in the Minneapolis Area Synod with gifts beyond measure. I pray that our assembly this weekend is a time to see anew what “all hands on deck” truly and amazingly looks like.

Were You There? Will You Be?

April 11th, 2017


By Bishop Ann Svennungsen

Thanks to the thoughtfulness of a fellow Concordia College alum, I attended last Saturday’s world premiere of “The Passion of Jesus Christ” by Rene’ Clausen. Commissioned for the 125th anniversary of the college and the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, the composition draws the listener into the profound emotion, the moral complexity, and the deep intimacy of Christ’s suffering and death.

Throughout 2017 – this 500th anniversary year – we will be offered a variety of experiences to celebrate the Reformation. Sitting in the audience last Saturday, I was overcome with the sense that this focus – on the cross of Jesus Christ – would likely be the emphasis Martin Luther would have chosen.

More than anything else, Luther was a theologian of the cross. Today, as we prepare to enter deeply into the story of Christ’s passion – Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter Vigil – it is good to recall some of Luther’s wisdom in how to approach these days.

 

FIRST OF ALL, LUTHER makes clear that the proper motivation for contemplating Christ’s passion is not to engender pity for Christ nor anger towards those who betrayed him. Instead, true to form, Luther invites us to enter this story as both law and gospel. Meditation on the Passion serves the law’s purpose: to convict the conscience of sin and sin’s dire consequences. He refers to Christ as “this earnest mirror” (dißer ernster spiegel), which reveals how we fall short.

Once we are aware of our sins, Luther instructs us to cast them upon Christ, seeing in Christ’s wounds and sufferings our own transgressions, which are overcome by Christ’s resurrection. This is pure gospel. And, what is more, Luther urges that, if we struggle to believe this resurrection miracle, we ask God for faith, as “this too rests entirely in the hands of God.” It is all grace.

As we prepare to enter deeply into the story of Christ’s passion – Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter Vigil – it is good to recall some of Luther’s wisdom in how to approach these days.

Finally, Luther counsels us to refrain from too much contemplation on Christ’s suffering and instead to meditate on “Christ’s friendly heart and how this heart beats with such love for you that it impels Christ to bear with pain your conscience and your sin.” Further, Luther invites us to look from Christ’s heart to God’s heart, the true source of the savior’s love. “We know God aright when we grasp God not in God’s might or wisdom (for that proves terrifying), but in God’s kindness and love. Then faith and confidence are able to exist, and we are truly born anew in God.”

I invite you to join with me in prayer for all who lead worship this week – that the Spirit will draw all who gather into the God whose heart beats with such love for us and all creation.

 

The real presence of community

March 21st, 2017

by Bishop Ann Svennungsen

Occasionally, I am free to worship at the church where our son, John Amos, is interred. The columbarium is next to the baptismal font; as I dip my fingers in the water, I remember the promise, “if you have been buried with Christ in a death like his, you shall also be raised. …”

One of my daughters will usually join me, though they occasionally arrive late. (I look for them around the time of the prayer of the day.) I also know members of the congregation. Today, I see a widow whose husband was interred in the same columbarium just before our son, a man who struggles with a chronic and degenerative illness, a woman deep in vocational discernment.

Though we Lutherans do not recognize “community” as one of the sacraments, I believe it is clearly a “means of grace.” It is a means for God to create, sustain, and challenge faith. Indeed, we would affirm that the creation and sustenance of faith is impossible outside community.

 

LAST SUMMER, I WAS invited to join a Lilly-funded seminar of seminary presidents and church leaders exploring how we might better prepare pastors for the work of “building and leading communities.” This is a critical question in our culture of individualism, anonymity, and 24-hour entertainment options without even leaving your recliner. It takes study, practice, and courage to build what seems a counter-cultural endeavor.

“Though we Lutherans do not recognize ‘community’
as one of the sacraments, I believe it is clearly a ‘means of grace.'”

Still, the need for community is great. At the recent Stewardship Lab, Scott Vaughan noted, “in this country, people are starved to death for friends.” We are hungry for community. A recent UCC survey of 864 congregations found a strong correlation between congregational vitality and the ability of pastors to lead communities. Indeed, the leadership capacity to mutually equip and motivate a community of faith was related to the greatest number of congregational vitality factors.

Our synod supports pastors in leadership development through peer groups, training in community organizing, and work in adaptive change. There’s lots being done – more we can do. Let us know what you’ve found helpful in this challenging work of leading community. (Send any suggestions you would be willing to share to Pastor Craig Pederson at c.pederson@mpls-synod.org .)

We need community. We need pastors and lay leaders who can foster community. The witness and embrace of “saints below and saints above” is a vital means for us to experience God’s grace.