Seeing Through a Glass, Clearly

November 20th, 2017

By Bishop Ann Svennungsen

When my father started his optometric practice, he borrowed $2,000 from a local farmer to purchase equipment. When I asked how far $2,000 went in 1952, he said, “Not far. We spent most of it on the phoropter. You know, the instrument for testing vision, the one with all the lenses. After we bought that, we only had enough for second-hand chairs and desk. But we were in the business of helping people see.”

Once a year, we spend a lot of money, time, and energy in hope that we might see things more clearly – so we recognize anew the abundance of God’s provision. We call it Thanksgiving.

 

THE TRADITION IS AS old as the ancient Israelites. “When you come into the land that the Lord is giving you, take some of the first fruit, set it down before the Lord. Then, with the Levites and foreigners, you shall celebrate all the bounty that God has given you.”

It’s about the gifts. It’s about the Giver. But, something else comes into the focus during this feast. Look again at the table set in Israel. Strangers and foreigners have a place. When we see God as the Giver of everything we have, we recognize anew our place in God’s world. It’s not about me and all I’ve done. If I have resources, talents, wealth – that’s not ultimately my doing. It’s about God and what God has done.

“When we see God as the Giver of everything we have, we recognize anew our place in God’s world.”

And this same God seeks fullness of life for all creation. It’s like my father’s phoropter. Once the right lens is more clearly focused on the goodness of God, the left lens comes into focus as well – revealing the neighbor, especially the neighbor who lacks the fullness of life that God intends.

Walter Brueggemann writes that, in the faith of the scripture, you can’t say “God” without also saying “neighbor.” I hope and pray that as I gather with loved ones this Thursday, I will see just a bit more clearly that all I have is a gift from God and see more vividly the Christ who dwells in the stranger, the oppressed, the forgotten – my beloved neighbor. I pray the same for you.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Showing Up

November 6th, 2017

By Bishop Ann Svennungsen

Every Memorial Day, my mother made her way to the cemetery to place flowers on her parents’ graves. For me, All Saints’ is the day I feel a similar need. Our son, John Amos, died at the age of 30 on May 2, 2015. He is interred in the columbarium located intentionally next to the baptismal font at Edina Community Lutheran Church. My mom’s potted geraniums don’t quite work there as they did in a cemetery – but lighting a candle in that space and saying a prayer are meaningful alternatives.

This year, I’m remembering especially how much our son loved the Lutheran church. I can’t remember a single time he objected when we said, “It’s time for worship, time for youth group.” He couldn’t wait to go. John was the most positive church person I’ve ever known.

Giving thanks for John this All Saints’ Day has reminded me again how “showing up” matters. The older I get, the more I realize how showing up is often the most important thing we can do. We may not have the right words; we might be late or dressed all wrong. But, our authentic presence often means more than we could have imagined.

 

LUTHERANS SHOULD HAVE LITTLE trouble understanding how important it is to show up – especially to receive the means of grace. Luther talked a lot about how the gospel comes to us “extra nos” (outside of us). The righteousness of Christ – outside of us – becomes our very own through the grace of God. When we show up for worship, God meets us there; and through the means of grace, we receive Christ’s forgiving and healing presence. We are reminded of who we are: beloved children of God and followers of Jesus Christ.

“Our authentic presence often means more than we could have imagined.”

The world is so effective at proclaiming the religions of consumerism, division, individualism, entertainment, and greed. Worship, for me, awakens and reorients me in the reign of God, empowers me to participate in God’s work, and grafts me once again into God’s alternative narrative of justice and mercy.

Showing up matters. Kathleen Norris, who writes honestly about the journey of faith and doubt, talks about showing up in worship even when she struggles to believe. “I learned to be patient in my doubts and questions, she says, to be vigilant and attentive – not absenting myself from church, but participating even more.”

The Spirit calls us through the gospel – again and again and again. We need preachers to proclaim that word; we need a community willing to pour the water, share wine, break bread, and offer it as gospel to all of us who await with empty hands.

An Opportunity for Resurrection: A Reformation Sermon

November 4th, 2017

Bishop Ann Svennungsen offered this sermon during the Reformation worship of the Ministerium gathering of the Minneapolis Area Synod and the Saint Paul Area Synod at Christ the King Lutheran Church in New Brighton, Minnesota, on October 31, 2017. 

I’ve been thinking about what Luther would say if he were here today. How does his message from the Middle Ages translate into the 21st century?

So much has changed. Are his words even relevant? In the 16th century, the church was at the top of the triangle in a well-arranged hierarchy of church, empire, and household. It was illegal not to be a Trinitarian Christian. Jews were given some leeway, but if you were Jon Hus proposing that people receive both bread and wine – and that scripture be translated into their language – you could be burned at the stake.

The legal and social compulsion to be a Christian was as high as it ever was. Compare that to today: Just 50 years ago, it was assumed a good citizen was also a member of a faith community. Now, even those cultural expectations are gone – not to mention any legal pressure.

Most of my daughters’ friends don’t go to church. They are remarkable people; I like them all. Most are social activists; they teach in impoverished school districts, work for legal aid, or volunteer in free medical clinics. But the encouragements felt by their parents to be church members are not there for them.

Oh, I don’t have any desire to return to the Middle Ages. I believe the death of Christendom is actually an opportunity for resurrection – the rising of a church centered on the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

But how do we create that present day reformation? What would Luther say to us? What would he say to the people who aren’t looking for a gracious God – but wondering if there’s a God at all? And who ask, if there is a God, how does that even matter in my own, personal life?

 

INTERESTINGLY, ONE OF THE THEOLOGIANS who has helped me with this question isn’t even Lutheran. Douglas John Hall clearly states that he’s not a Lutheran, never has been, never intends to be, … but, he says, “I wouldn’t have become a theologian (perhaps I wouldn’t have remained a Christian) had I not been introduced to Martin Luther (this splendid, bombastic, impulsive, and deeply honest human being).”

Hall’s book Waiting for Gospel: An Appeal to the Dispirited Remnants of Protestant Establishment has helped me grapple with the Reformation’s relevance today.

Just like Luther, Hall’s greatest lament is the way we also confuse law and gospel. Oh, the law we proclaim is not about buying indulgences; but it is about exhortation and imperatives. On one hand, we preach about moral improvement; offer strategies for personal growth – and think that is Gospel. On the other hand, we ask folks to work for justice, peace, and the environment; to fight racism, sexism and homophobia; and think that is Gospel. Oh, Hall says, “let me be clear, I am not asking for less activism. Christians who act for justice and peace are truly “not far from the kingdom of God.”

“I don’t have any desire to return to the Middle Ages. I believe the death of Christendom is actually an opportunity for resurrection – the rising of a church centered on the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

And yet, exhortation is not the good news. The law is not gospel. And fulfilling the law is always beyond our grasp. To love neighbor as self is not just about acts, but also about heart, about motivations. And purity of thoughts and motives is always beyond our grasp. Luther knew this well.

“Though I lived as a monk without reproach,” he wrote, “I felt I was a sinner before God. I could not believe God was satisfied by my penance. Indeed, I did not love, but hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, I was angry with God. I said ‘is it not enough that miserable sinners are eternally lost and crushed – without also having God add pain to pain, threatening us to be righteous as God is righteous.”

In the midst of that dark night of the soul, Luther was transformed by his study of Romans. “At last, he writes, by the mercy of God, I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous live by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: The righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which the merciful God justifies us by faith. Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.”

Born again. When was the last time someone told you they felt they’d been born again? That is the work of the Gospel. Something more radical than all our exhortations can ever produce.

 

IT IS ALSO POSSIBLE THAT mainline Protestant preachers don’t hear about people being born again because we only preach about the healing of society. We forget the anguish of individuals. Or, we leave the healing of hearts and spirits to therapists, counselors, support groups, prescription providers. Oh, don’t get me wrong. I am the first to recommend counseling, treatment – all the gifts of God given through medicine and psychology. Still, what about “both/and” rather than “either/or?”

I was recently asked to recommend a counselor for someone dealing with depression. I thought long and hard about therapists I knew; sent out some email inquiries; took time to report my ideas. But, did I ever suggest that the person visit with their pastor for prayer? Did I ever wonder if weekly communion might just be part of the road to new life?

“Fulfilling the law is always beyond our grasp.”

We know it takes courage to speak to social ills like unchecked capitalism, racism, patriarchy – but it also takes courage to speak to the heartbreaking, subtle, often unrelenting problems in someone’s personal life. Each person has their own story of sorrow and pain – some more public than others. Indeed, we mostly carry our struggles in private.

Yes, we can work to change social ills – but within each social ill is a person whose pain goes deep. “Is there any reason for me to hope for a future? Is anything meaningful I can do?” Even God seems to ask – in the flood, in the prophets – can a creature as fragile and self-conscious as a human survive? We are finite, fallible, and mortal. Not even the best social science can address those 3 a.m. thoughts that remind us of our mortality and insignificance.

And, what is more, we are surrounded by cultural expectations of success, having it all together, staying upbeat and positive. There’s great pressure to appear content, to seem in charge, … even when we’re not.

I recently spoke with Kate Welton Reuer, our ELCA campus pastor at the U of M, and she shared a concern being expressed across all our college campuses. In this country, estimates are that one third of college students suffer from depression. One third. Could this be related to the expectations we have? Students wonder: “Am I good enough? Am I smart enough? Am I strong enough to meet the expectations I, my parents, and others have for me?”

“Am I enough?” It’s a question with power to plague us our whole lives long. It was Luther’s question – it’s also ours. Am I enough?

The law won’t address that question. All the exhortations, social analyses, calls to justice – essential as they are – can’t address this fundamental angst of the human soul. And left to our own internal conversations, even our most positive and consistent self-talk, we will not be able to set ourselves free from whatever prison we find ourselves in. It is Gospel that addresses our deepest yearning. It is God’s love in Christ that has the unique power to proclaim, “Yes, you are enough. You are loved. You are forgiven.”

With undying love and unconditional commitment God comes to you – right where you are – and says that you are beautiful, whole, enough. This is Gospel.

In his interview with Krista Tippett, Martin Sheen talks about his own experience of conversion/rebirth. I know there are enough West Wing fans here to know that I’ve got your attention. (I think Bob Hulteen has watched the series 13 times). Sheen says, “I was searching for that elusive thing that all of us search for. Most of the time we’re not even conscious of it, but we’re searching for ourselves in an authentic way. We want to recognize the person we see in the mirror, and embrace that person with all the brokenness and lackluster, all the things that only we are aware of in the depths of our being. … I came back to Catholicism, and it was the single most joyful moment of my life, because I knew that I had come home to myself. In deeply personal ways, this satisfaction has lasted all these years. I’m still on the honeymoon. Go figure. The love that I longed for, and I think all of us really long for, is knowing that we are loved. A knowingness about our being that unites us to all of humanity, to all of the universe. That despite ourselves, we are loved. And when you realize that, … it makes all the difference. … You know how, so often, people say — and I said it, too — that ‘I’m looking for God.’ But God has already found us, really. … And when we find that love, that presence, deep within our own personal being — that love is overwhelming.”

“We can’t manufacture beloved-ness, it needs to be proclaimed.”

When Tippett asks him how prayer works for him, he says the central energy of prayer is that communion at the Eucharist. “For the most part, I’m just so stunned and so joy-filled that … I just pray ‘thank you.’”

Like in the Eucharist, the gospel comes from outside of us. We can’t manufacture beloved-ness, it needs to be proclaimed. Luther talked a lot about extra “nos” (outside of us). The good news comes from outside of us. The righteousness of Christ – outside of us – becomes our very own through the grace of God.

We need preachers to proclaim that word; we need a community willing to pour the water, share wine, break bread, and offer it as gospel to all of us who await with empty hands. And freed in the gospel, born again, assured we’re enough, we will be free to engage the work of justice, to throw ourselves into the healing of all creation.

A Time to Take a Step

October 11th, 2017

The following is an excerpt from Bishop Ann Svennungsen’s sermon preached at the opening worship for 145 synod pastors at the 2017 Bishop’s Theological Conference at Cragun’s Resort near Brainerd, Minnesota, on October 8, 2017. The theme for this conference was “Your Next Bold Step: Faithful Leadership for a Time Such as This.”

My best friend in 6th grade was Bobbi Pierson. She was smart, funny, creative – always ready for the next adventure. She and her dad made us both a pair of stilts and we got pretty good at using them. We were quick to roam the prairie in search of gophers; ready to grab our sleeping bags and camp out in her backyard. It was with Bobbi that I tried my first and only cigar.

Sometimes I wonder if Bobbi enjoyed my company partly because I was gullible. I remember one day. We were walking home from school after a thunderstorm. A mud puddle blocked our path. Seeing a big piece of cardboard nearby, Bobbi asked, “I wonder if this could hold us if we tried to cross on it?” Of course, she thought I should be the one to try it. I can still see the mud stain on the coat I was wearing that day.

Bobbi opened my eyes to a great big world. And, taught me the pitfalls of gullibility – the wisdom of avoiding certain things – especially your best friend’s suggestions.

Sometimes, I think the world looks at Christians and thinks we are those folks who avoid things: swearing, gambling, drinking, same-sex marriage, engaging in the messiness of politics. If you avoid certain things, you’ll be a good Christian, holy and righteous.

“I know how to avoid swearing, cheating, stealing. I’m not quite sure how to stop gun violence or homelessness, how to dismantle white privilege and racism, how to prevent sex trafficking at the Super Bowl, …”

However, scripture won’t allow such a narrow interpretation of righteousness. Joseph Sittler tells a powerful story of what righteousness means. While in Israel, his car broke down. He took it to a mechanic, a native born Israeli. It took several hours to fix, but when Sittler came to get it, the mechanic was standing there smiling at a perfectly running engine. And he said, “sedeka.” Sittler asked him to say the word again and, when he repeated “sedeka,” Sittler knew he was hearing the Hebrew word for righteousness. Yes, that’s righteousness. He now had a well-functioning engine, each part working for the good of the whole.

That’s also the righteousness God envisions: Humans and all creation working in harmony – pistons, spark plugs carburetor – whatever your task, doing it right and well, involved and working for the good of all.

That takes engagement, involvement, even getting dirty. If the pistons decided they wanted to be set apart, to remain pure and clean and untouched, then the car wouldn’t run.

Rather, this active, dynamic work of righteousness sends us smack into the mud and grease of this world. Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” And the light isn’t put under a bushel. It’s not lit and then removed from everything – to protect it – to keep it pure.

Maybe Christians like to limit the definition of righteousness because, well, avoiding stuff is lot easier. I know how to avoid swearing, cheating, stealing. I’m not quite sure how to stop gun violence or homelessness, how to dismantle white privilege and racism, how to prevent sex trafficking at the Super Bowl (in one of the most Lutheran cities in the country), how to reach and exceed our clean energy goals, how to care for refugees in a crisis greater than anything we’ve seen since World War II.

Merely avoiding food in a holy fast isn’t enough according to the prophet Isaiah. True fasting includes both attending to God and attending to the neighbor. And that can get complicated, even messy.

 

SOMEHOW, SOMEWAY, I’VE surrounded myself with people with community organizing experience in the synod office. Our bishops’ assistants, John, Craig, and Deb, are all trained as community organizing. So are Bob, Emilie, and Jaddie. In fact, they form the basis of a whole organizing department, which also includes our awesome LVC volunteers – Grace and Emily.

Right now, they’re planning amazing congregation-based community organizing training week next January – for the whole synod. But, I think it’s partly a ruse to get me there and up to speed.

The truth of it is – I’m pretty excited about the training. It seems to me that now, as much as any time I can remember, the church needs tools – strategies – to work for justice and healing in the public square. We’re pretty good at caring for victims – shelters, food shelves, job training, after school programs. But what about addressing root issues – dismantling the systems that create oppression and inequality?

We’ve planned this conference believing that the tools of congregation-based community organizing can empower and guide us as we take the next bold step in God’s work for justice and the well-being of all.

To be sure, community organizing is not just a Lutheran or Christian enterprise. But, we do have some pretty incredible Lutheran theologians to guide us in this work. ELCA Pastor Dennis Jacobsen just published a 2017 edition of Doing Justice with a forward by both Pastor Grant Stevenson and Pastor Bill Wylie-Kellermann. Ray Pickett, New Testament scholar and head of Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, our own Sue Engh, who serves as ELCA director for congregation-based organizing, and our guest speaker, Pastor Heidi Neumark, all provide exceptional wisdom.

“Congregation-based community organizers invite us to imagine the world as it should be in contrast to the world as it is.”

Congregation-based community organizers invite us to imagine the world as it should be in contrast to the world as it is. Oh, they weren’t the first to extend this invitation. Jesus and the prophets did a lot of that as well.

But that contrast – that gap between the world as it should be and the world as it is – doesn’t it feel as if it’s grown wider this year? Or maybe people feel freer to say out loud that they’re Nazis or white supremacists – attitudes they’ve kept hidden until now.

Whatever the case, it feels that Christians working toward “the world as it should be” will need greater wisdom, smarter strategies, and bolder courage.

 

WE WILL LOOK TOGETHER at the theological basis and the practical fundamentals of congregation-based community organizing. We will talk about power, self-interest, one-on-ones, the world as it should be, the world as it is, and how we can lead congregations to engage the public square.

In the 1940s Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote “the church is the church only when it exists for others.” Self-preservation is antithetical to the cross of Jesus Christ. In the 1960s Martin Luther King reminded us that power without love is tyranny; but love without power is sentimentality. This power merged with love was the strategic brilliance of the Civil Rights Movement.

What is God calling us to be and do with our love and power – participating in God’s love and power – in the second decade of the 21st century?

Particularly, what are church leaders called to do? Jacobsen wonders: “Who takes the local church into the public arena if not the pastor? If the pastoral leadership of the local church is resistant to a public arena ministry even the best-intentioned laity will be blocked. Clergy reluctance keeps churches in the sanctuary.”

“What is God calling us to be and do with our love and power – participating in God’s love and power – in the second decade of the 21st century?”

So what’s your next bold step? What’s mine? Our time together is intended to help us wrestle with that question.

It will take a lifetime to understand the depths of the word “sedeka.” It was a word Luther struggled with for years. For years, he believed we humans must first become righteous to earn God’s love. Through his study of Romans, he discovered that God’s righteousness is an active and dynamic righteousness, a righteousness that reaches and fills us just as we are through faith in Christ.

God so wants to make things right in our lives and in all of creation that God became involved in the even the deepest of ways. God reached into the dirt to form human beings. In Christ, God entered the mess of sin and evil and brokenness; and though the Spirit, God enters each of our lives – even the depths of our souls.

God goes the distance for you, for me, for all creation. And God calls us to enter into this broken world, not to float over the mud puddles, but to get deeply involved, to sin boldly but believe more boldly still – working together so all may know God’s shalom.

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.