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 .)

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.


The warmth of Nigeria

March 7th, 2017

By Bishop Ann Svennungsen

In the midst of 95 degree heat and under cloudless skies, some 30,000 Lutherans gathered for a five-day annual conference in Demsa, Nigeria. Arriving in vehicles of all sizes and kinds – including pick-up trucks with families sitting on top of their belongings in the cargo bed – attendees set up temporary shelters to house them for the week.


Bible studies, prayer, song, dance, and lively conversations – these were the center of the celebration, culminating in the final worship service which included the Installation of Archbishop Musa Filibus.


When the Minneapolis Area Synod gathers in assembly, staff is always hoping that we can get 600 or more people to participate for a little more than 24 hours. As I told those gathered in Demsa, I couldn’t imagine 3,000 Lutherans together for a week, much less 30,000.


Even more, the gathering was remarkable because it was held in an open field fewer than 40 miles from the 2015 Boko Haram bombing in Yola; fewer than 200 miles from 2016 church burnings and killings in the north. Many precautions are taken – I never felt afraid – but I was overwhelmed and deeply moved by the witness of these Christians, publicly singing their love of Christ in the face of persecution.

I was overwhelmed and deeply moved by the witness of these Christians, publicly singing their love of Christ in the face of persecution.

I am so pleased that I was finally able to visit our companion synod in Nigeria. When our synod delegation travelled there in 2014, my son was in high risk chemotherapy, so my first calling was with him. However, now that I’ve made this trip, it won’t be long before I start talking about the next.


From small to significant, here are my current top ten reasons to plan the next trip:


10. It is warm in Nigeria in February.


9. The air travel is not too ominous (8 hours to Paris; then 7 hours to Abuja, Nigeria).


8.  We have much to learn from our Nigerian brothers and sisters. And because English is Nigeria’s official language, such learning comes easier for sojourners from the U. S.


7. Our hosts from the Lutheran Church of Christ in Nigeria (LCCN) are generous beyond measure.


6. The Minneapolis Area Synod is the only ELCA synod serving as a companion synod to the Lutheran Church of Christ in Nigeria (while 19 ELCA synods relate to the Tanzanian dioceses).


5. American guests are able to see the fruits of our synod’s missionaries there: Mary and Jonathan Preus, Gary Sande, and Brad Holt.


4. The new archbishop has been nominated to serve as President of the Lutheran World Federation.


3. The LCCN health services – with projects ranging from the new Demsa Hospital to malaria prevention to health education to building wells – is served by a staff that will impress you with their competence and spirit.


2. It is amazing to become friends with such loving sisters and brothers in the faith.


1. The inspiration from the witness of the LCCN to Jesus Christ will sustain you long after you return home.

Welcomed by God’s Grace, Are We Ready to So Welcome?

February 7th, 2017

By Bishop Ann Svennungsen

What joy I felt to see the Star Tribune’s picture of the Somali family reunited last Thursday. Peeking behind a teddy bear as big as she, a four-year-old girl stands embraced by her sisters and mother – together after more than three years of separation. Lutheran Social Services of Minnesota (LSS) played a major role in that reunion. Though she was set to arrive in U.S. on January 31, the four-year-old’s departure was denied because of an executive order suspending refugee arrivals from seven Muslim-majority countries. Fortunately, through the tenacity of LSS and others, the family was reunited last Thursday.

Amidst the swiftly changing landscape around immigration regulations (executive orders, judge’s decisions, appellate courts), we wonder how we might respond in a timely and loving manner.

The Lutheran church has a long history of both helping refugees and working for fair and generous immigration policies. Today, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services (LIRS) is the second largest resettlement agency in the entire United States.

Closer to home, LSS currently plans to resettle 655 refugees in 2017. Recognizing that many refugees are Muslim, LSS commissioned the remarkable study “My Neighbor is Muslim,” a welcome resource for individual or congregational study.

Augsburg College is home to a large population of refugee students and is clear about its mission of hospitality and justice. President Paul Pribbenow writes, “Augsburg’s history is rich with the contribution of individuals who came to America; indeed, founded by Norwegian immigrants, Augsburg has an immigrant sensibility and will stand firm in the face of threats to our community and our immigrant neighbors.”

As the world faces the largest refugee crisis since World War II (with some 60 million displaced persons), we have extraordinary institutions in our own city at work to provide welcome and safe haven. I encourage you to explore the LSS, LIRS, and Augsburg websites as you look for ways to “welcome the stranger.”


OUR ELCA SOCIAL TEACHING (Immigration message and Immigration policy resolution) affirms that the United States should assume its proper share of international responsibility for the resettlement of refugees and other persons who have a well-founded fear of being persecuted – and to welcome them to the U.S. without discrimination based on race, religion, or national origin.

No, our government has not specifically banned refugees on the basis of religion, but we seem to be treading very close. As we seek to be faithful today, it is wise to remember the words of another Lutheran in a country where there was official discrimination on the basis of religion – the religion of Judaism. In critiquing the German government, Bonhoeffer said, “We are not simply to bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”

Amidst the swiftly changing landscape around immigration regulations (executive orders, judge’s decisions, appellate courts), we wonder how we might respond in a timely and loving manner.

As citizens, we can act as advocates for those vulnerable persons who are most deeply affected by government policies. The ELCA Advocacy office works with individuals and congregations interested in making themselves heard on behalf the marginalized, the oppressed, and the pilgrim.
Eventually, the system worked for the four-year-old reuniting with her family in the U.S. But, for every story like hers, there are many more that do not have happy endings. Knowing that each of us is a sojourner welcomed by the extravagant grace of God, may we be filled with wisdom to be moral leaders and courageous citizens in our day.

How invested are you?

January 26th, 2017

By Bishop Ann Svennungsen

In times like these, the social teachings of the ELCA are a significant gift as we in the church discern how to act in fresh, faithful, and wise ways in response to the issues of our day. I commend the social statements, along with the catechism, as good reading in this 500th anniversary year. (Go to the Social Statement webpage and follow the tabs for social messages and social resolutions in addition to social statements.)

Our ELCA Committee for Corporate Social Responsibility met in Chicago this week to discuss the resolutions from the 2016 Churchwide Assembly regarding potential investment screens for fossil fuels and for human rights in the Middle East. I am one of three bishops who serve on this committee.

The conversation was rich and lively – just the beginning of an important process of discernment.

However, one of the most troubling takeaways for me was the statement that only 25-30% of ELCA rostered leaders and staff with pensions managed by Portico choose the Social Purpose Fund for their investments. The impact of this is staggering:

  • Portico invests $8 billion dollars a year.
  • Following the instructions of its members, only $2 billion of Portico’s portfolio must be invested in funds screened for social responsibility; $6 billion is invested in funds which do not have to comply with ELCA-approved screens.
  • Currently, ELCA-approved screens instruct investors to:
    • Limit or prohibit investment in firms related to alcohol, gambling, weapons, pornography, tobacco, private prisons, and egregious environmental damage;
    • Seek “investment in for-profit and not-for-profit organizations that promote national or international economic development of urban and rural communities and neighborhoods characterized by a high proportion of people living in poverty and/or people of color”;
    • Seek “investments in corporations which are taking positive steps toward a sustainable environment.” (For more information about Corporate Responsibility resources, go here.)


THESE ELCA SCREENS ARE rather commonplace as screens go – neither overly radical nor onerous. In fact, Portico is careful to ensure that the difference between investment return on screened funds versus non-screened funds is less than one percent.

Pastor Luther Kendrick writes, “As one called to preach the gospel, including justice, concern for the neighbor and caring for the common good, where my pension funds were invested was a faith issue and not simply a financial question. I gladly invested my funds in those socially responsible options. I saw it as faithfulness and common sense. The returns of these socially responsible funds were nearly identical to the unscreened funds in the plan

[and sometimes higher], so there was no financial downside” (Living Lutheran, April 22, 2015).

Screening our investments for social responsibility is one simple action we can take.

Those who march for justice are often asked whether their marching will make a difference. “How will things be different?” “What will you do after the march is done?” Screening our investments for social responsibility is one simple action we can take. Perhaps, we could entice 90 percent of our synod’s Portico participants to make this commitment.


It is easier to make this change than to write a letter to Congress. Here’s how to do it. Sign in. Follow the prompts. Or (as I do), just call Portico and have them walk you through it.

In her book, Resisting Structural Evil, Cynthia Moe-Lobeda writes: “Christian ethics … is the art of coming to know ever more fully both God and the historical realities of life on Earth, and holding them in one breath, so that we may respond to the latter in light of the former” (p. 302). I thank God for the ELCA and our shared commitment to live faithfully in today’s world.