“Pastor, you’re being too political”

By Bishop Mike Rinehart

My kingdom is not of this world. – Jesus

Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. – Jesus

american-flag-in-churchWhen is one being too political? Is it a violation of the separation of church and state for church officials to support or oppose certain legislation? How about church members?

Trained pastors and deacons, of course, know that the Bible is very political, and that Jesus is very political. If our people don’t know that, we have only ourselves to blame. It is up to us to help them understand how very political it was to call Jesus the Son of God, when everyone knew, because it said so on the coins, that Caesar, and only Caesar was the son of God. It is up to us to explain that to say that Jesus is Lord was sedition, a crime punishable by death. If our people don’t understand this, we need to up our preaching game.

The First Amendment

People often cite the first amendment to say that the church should not meddle in government affairs, and the government should not meddle in church affairs. Here’s what the first amendment says:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

It’s just the first part of this amendment that addresses church and state. There are basically two points: Congress shall not establish state religion, and Congress shall not impede the free exercise of religion. The amendment goes on to talk about freedom of speech, press, assembly and petition.

There is nothing in the first amendment that prohibits the church from speaking to the state about laws. In fact, that would be limiting freedom of speech. Likewise, there is nothing that prevents the state from holding houses of worship and religious leaders accountable to the law. Religious institutions are not above the law. Congress is not to establish an official state religion, nor to prevent the free exercise of religion. This does not mean the two ignore each other. Government leaders belong to churches, and church members serve in public office.

Prophets

There is a long-standing tradition of religious leaders speaking prophetically to government leaders. In the central story of the Old Testament, God told Moses to go to Pharaoh, and instruct him to release all the slaves. When he did so, was he being too political? Was Moses a religious leader or a political leader?

Prophet Nathan condemned King David for his sexual misconduct with Bathsheba. Isaiah went to King Hezekiah. King Zedekiah consulted with Jeremiah. Amos, Isaiah and the other prophets called kings and people to justice for the orphan, the widow and the immigrant.

Power

There was a day and age in which the church in the state walked hand-in-hand. Political leaders and business leaders were expected to be church members in good standing. Church leaders were expected to support government decisions. To do otherwise was unseemly. To oppose the Vietnam war, or segregation was considered unpatriotic by some.

Both mainline church and the state upheld a vision for America. These visions were pretty closely aligned, especially after World War II. It was during this era that the flag started appearing in the chancels of churches. The problem was, it was a white vision. People of color were not worthy to drink from the same drinking fountains or eat at the same restaurants as white people. Churches were just as segregated as the rest of society. A Time for BurningPastors who spoke out against this system were often pushed out of their congregations for being too “political.” Watch A Time for Burning, about a Lutheran pastor’s attempt to integrate a parish in Nebraska. 

White churches and black churches developed different paradigms for preaching. In the white church, pastors were expected to support society’s dominant structures. Everyone knew they weren’t perfect, but it was felt the flaws were minor. It was often believed that everyone had the same opportunities to succeed or fail.

In the Historic Black Churches, it was recognized that those structures had failed African Americans. Pastors had to give people comfort and strength to meet the next day in a society where they were constantly being told to move to the back of the bus, the back of the line, or the balcony of the church, because of the color of their skin. Blacks were more likely to be pulled over, more likely to be arrested, and more likely to be convicted. Housing, education and opportunity was substandard, resulting in generational consequences. Preachers in the Historic Black Churches spent more time on transforming societal structures, and strengthening people to meet the challenges they faced. Church become the very place to deal with societal inequities, not the place to avoid them.

Not talking about uncomfortable social topics is a white church phenomenon. Challenging societal structures and corporate sins is considered being “too political.” One can decry the moral failings of the individual, but never the moral failings of the government.

Partisan

Sometimes, when people say a religious leader is being political, what they really mean is partisan. They mean, that religious leader is supporting a particular party, as God’s party, or a particular candidate as God’s candidate. We know all parties to be under the power of sin. None can be equated with the kingdom of God.

When Jesus says, “my kingdom is not of this world,“ he makes it clear that there is no political party that can claim to be aligning itself with the kingdom of God. This passage does not, however, mean that God’s kingdom is irrelevant to the world. The kingdom is breaking into our world in the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. The gospel has some very concrete ideas about how Christians are to engage the world. We are to be in the world, not of the world. Jesus did not shy away from denouncing the evil of his day, even defying Herod and call him a fox.

The moral voice, not the political voice

Cardinal DiNardo, when meeting with the bishops of various denomination in Houston, has been known to remind us that we are the moral voice, not the political voice. For those of us that are pastors and deacons, we proclaim the gospel, not any particular political ideology. If we are to be the moral voice however, we must not hide that voice under a bushel basket.

Morality is not just about individual behavior; it is about corporate behavior. Corporate evil. If one person can act badly, then many people as a group can certainly behave badly as well. If a law is immoral, it is immoral for religious leaders to be silent.

Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke prophetically against Naziism, and against Hitler himself. In fact, he participated in an assassination attempt on Hitler. It cost him his life. He spoke prophetically about following Christ in his book, The Cost of Discipleship.

What are Bonhoeffer had not spoken up? What if he had said, “This is a political matter, not a church matter?” Sadly, this is what most of his colleagues did.

Does the gospel have anything to say to the pressing matters of our day? Is it just about the afterlife? Does it have implications for how we live? I have discovered that when people disagree with you, they say you’re being too political. When they agree with what you were saying, they believe you’re being prophetic.

When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.
―Dom Hélder CâmaraDom Helder Camara: Essential Writings

So when people say the pastor is being too political, they may mean that they feel the pastor is supporting one political party over another. This is a fair critique. No party is the kingdom of God. Other people, however, may mean that they simply disagree with the pastor’s position. They may not like that the pastor is making a moral stand in the midst of a controversy issue.

At the end of the day, religious leaders must speak from a moral center, no matter what the cost. To be silent in the face of evil is evil itself.

Just teach the Bible

“Just teach the Bible,” some will say, but one wonders what Bible they are talking about. Could they be talking about the Bible that is dominated by the words of the prophets? Could they be talking about the Jesus who took a whip of cords and overturned tables in the temple? Just preach the gospel, others will say, but one wonders which gospel they are talking about. Are they talking about a feel-good gospel that keeps everyone in line with things as they are? Is it a gospel about pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die, salvation by in church singing Jesus songs and believing church doctrines? Or we talking about a gospel that calls us to take up our cross and follow Jesus into a world in need of healing, feeding hungry, clothing the naked, welcome the stranger and visiting the sick and imprisoned?

The prophet Amos decried a phony religiosity that could sing happy God songs and ignore the poor and needy. God spoke in Amos 5:21-24:

I hate, I despise your festivals,
    and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
    I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
    I will not look upon.
23 Take away from me the noise of your songs;
    I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
24 But let justice roll down like waters,
    and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

All of this leaves pastors and deacons in a bind. These are the people that pay our salaries after all. You don’t want to say anything that is controversial or that will make them mad. And one must be constantly vigilant about being self-righteous. We must speak the truth in love, but never, ever, assume we are the only ones to him the truth has been revealed. Even if we are trying to invite people into Jesus more generous, inclusive way of being the world, we cannot move them from A-to-Z. You can only move them from A to B, one step at a time. And they will only listen if they know you love them. You are in the right to be heard, by living love and generosity to them in your own life.

This is not easy. The Bible never said it would be. Paul was jailed, stoned, beaten and once had to be smuggled out of town in a basket. If you are silent about social evils, and there are plenty, you are complicit. If you speak up, you may risk being self-righteous, and possibly lose your job.

If only we had a good role model, one who paid a tremendously high price for speaking the truth in love.

The State of the ELCA: Review of Russ Crabtree’s book

By Bishop Michael Rinehart

The State of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America: An Organizational Intelligence Perspective, by Russell Crabtree, has about 97 pages. It was probably finished in 2016, based on a few of the examples, though there is no date in the book that I could find.

The State of the ELCABishop Wayne Miller of the Metropolitan Chicago Synod says the book is a “must read for congregational leaders, synod staffs, and synod councils.” Bishop James Hazelwood of the New England Synod, who spoke at one of our leadership events a few years ago says, “Russ Crabtree… provides a clear evidence-based approach to assessing where we are as a church.”

There is a lot of data in this book, not attendance, membership or giving, information readily available elsewhere, but data gathered from 288 ELCA congregations of every size, 57,000 members in five synods. The information reports the experiences of members, as reported by the members themselves.

Crabtree gives us an example from another discipline. Yoga, in practice, has around $27 billion in revenue. There are 20 million practitioners, 91% of whom say they are satisfied with the experience of their current yoga studio. 91% satisfaction rate. What would members of ELCA congregations say?

The book has nine chapters. His conclusion is thoughtfully titled, “What does this mean?”

  1. Vitality of ELCA congregations
  2. Beliefs and spiritual practices of ELCA members
  3. Aspirations
  4. Pastoral transitions
  5. Financial giving
  6. Synods
  7. From data to discernment
  8. Interview of pastors from large and small transformational ELCA churches
  9. Interview of pastors from more conservative and more progressive transformational ELCA churches

Congregational satisfaction, contrary to popular thought, does not mean pandering to the members. Inwardly-focused congregations tend to have lower membership satisfaction rates, while outwardly-focused congregational have higher member satisfaction rates. This makes sense if you believe the gospel. Joy is found when we give ourselves away.

Perception

Crabtree discovered that Lutheran congregations fare some what better than a number of other denominations in satisfaction. They have higher satisfaction and less polarization than, say, Presbyterians (PCUSA), Episcopalians, and Methodists. The numbers, however, are not great. 33 percent of Lutheran members generally agree that folks are “going through the motions” in their congregation. Only 58% of white ELCA members are satisfied with their congregation, as compare to 70% in Latino ELCA congregations and 67% in African American ELCA congregations. Crabtree reflects with curiosity, that white males, arguably the most prosperous and privileged demographic group in the United States, are among the least satisfied. The least satisfied group of all is Lutheran households that make more than $300,000 a year. His conclusion about overall satisfaction: If you believe increasing attracting people with resources and power is a pathway to congregational vitality, you would be mistaken.

80% agree that the church exhibits and atmosphere of genuine care for members, however only 43% agree that the church adapts to meet the needs of those it wants to reach. Lutherans perceive their church to be more internally then extremely-focused.

There are some Lutheran congregations that have much higher satisfaction and energy levels than the average congregation, only about 10% of ELCA congregations. Crabtree calls these transformational congregations. The last two chapters have stories from interviews of these congregations, large and small, conservative and liberal.

Some church leaders may believe that simply having worship on Sunday is fulfilling the mission, but a high percentage of ELCA members wouldn’t agree. 57 percent of ELCA Lutherans agreed that the church is effective in fulfilling its mission.

Crabtree gives a sobering look at the church, but he also offers some pathways to a hopeful future indicated by the work he has done with congregations over the years.

When asked to prioritize the list of 17 goals across all groups and sizes of the church the top five areas where ELCA members want to invest additional energy are:

  1. Reaching new people
  2. Attracting families
  3. Healing the broken
  4. Developing financial generosity
  5. Equipping people for ministry in the world

Pastoral Transitions

Nothing gets the congregation fired up more than the call process. Crabtree regularly surveys congregations on their most recent pastoral transition. Sometimes denominational executives and interim pastors focus on the grieving process in congregations when a pastor leaves. While there are some who are grieving, only 16% of those who responded said uncomfortably so. Grief ministry is appropriate, but should not be a dominant theme in most congregations.

Like congregations in general, there is also some good news in pastoral transitions. 31% indicate a willingness to become more available to serve during a pastoral transition. Because participation breeds commitment, smart congregations will find 30 tasks for every 100 adults who attend worship during a transition: prayer teams, focus groups, going away parties, call committees, transition teams, listening, welcome… Rather than decline, some congregations find a pastoral transition is a good time for a shot in the arm.

Only 3% say they plan to give less during a pastoral transition. 13%, a significant group, indicate they are willing to give more to support a transition. If a congregation of 200 households in a community with an average income of $100K has 30 families willing to step up 1%, that $30K more for interim costs, interview costs, relocation costs.

During interims some people get off the bus and some will get on the bus. But only 7% say they intend to explore other churches. 1/5 are on the fence. How many actually leave will depend on what happens during the transition. Here the author offers a warning: If anxiety is high and not addressed by congregational leaders, more may leave. Only 50% of members feel their congregation’s leaders are doing an effective job of communicating. There is an opportunity here for us to up our game.

When asked, during a pastoral transition, if they feel the congregation is stronger, weaker or about the same as just before the pastor’s departure, one third say stronger, one third say weaker, and one third say about the same, an even split. If they believe the congregation is stronger, they will try to drag out the interim, believing the call process is moving too quickly. If they believe they are weaker, they will complain that the call process is not quick enough.

Stewardship

50% of ELCA Lutherans favor an annual appeal. 7% do not. 43% on the fence. When doing an annual appeal, leaders will simply have to spend a significant amount of time winning over the middle. But here is some good news: Even those dissatisfied with their church support doing a campaign.

When asked which of these five most influences their giving decisions, ELCA members prioritized them like this:

  1. Personal faith and call to be generous.
  2. Effectiveness of ministry in making a difference.
  3. How well the church manages finances.
  4. The state of the economy.
  5. Reaching out to the needs of the world.

It’s important to manage finances well, but this is not the reason give. Older members give out of duty, personal faith, a call to be generous. Younger members give if they feel their congregation is making a difference.

Different people give for different reasons. It’s important to listen to your congregation, perhaps survey them. Find out why they give. The way you approach giving can be adapted to the motives of your people. Be creative. Be generation-specific. Develop messaging that addresses various giving motives.

The Synod

The average person in the pew knows little about the synod or the churchwide organization. What the congregation knows or feels is often based on what the pastor and key lay leaders say and do. Only 41% of clergy are satisfied with their synod. 48% believe the synod is going thru the motions. With lay leaders the numbers can be lower. And as time passes, the numbers go down. Leaders who are very aware of the synod plateau at 48% satisfaction. After 6-10 years that satisfaction drops to 39%.

It is difficult for any entity to be sustainable in the long run if more than half of the persons who make decisions about funding that entity are dissatisfied or on the fence about how it is doing.

Our synod took Russ Crabtree’s survey in 2011 and in 2016. Congregational leaders evaluated the work of the synod. A survey was sent to every congregational council member that would give us their email address. In both years the sample was sufficient, though in 2016 the sample was smaller (233) than 2011 (385). In 2011, overall satisfaction was low. In 2016, after our first strategic plan, reorganization and creation of LEAD, Crabtree’s organization said satisfaction was high. We were told they had never seen a score this high from any judicatory. Here was the question:

On the whole, I am satisfied with how things are in our Synod.

2011    2016

Clearly agree              38%     52%

On the fence               53%     42%

Clearly disagree          8%       5%

 

More satisfied. Less dissatisfied. Less on the fence. In another question, in 2011 38% felt we were just going through the motions. In the 2016 survey that number dropped to 13%.

While we celebrate this, the survey still shows room for significant improvement. We are a long way from yoga’s 91% satisfaction rate. Our goal is to be network of Christ-centered, outwardly-focused congregations passing the faith to the next generation. How do we get there?

When asked what they wanted from their synod, congregational leaders listed these five things out of a list of 16:

  1. Equip pastors/leaders to reach new members.
  2. Equip pastors/leaders to develop disciples.
  3. Work with churches that are struggling.
  4. Rethink how to be vital Lutheran churches.
  5. Equip congregations to address community problems.

Leaders do not want the synod to:

  1. Streamline the synod organizationally and administratively so that it makes use of its financial resources. This came in DEAD LAST.
  2. Provide leaders with interpretive resources that will build more support among members for the work of the synod. This came in next to last.

Synods must not only change how they communicate; the must change what they do. Better marketing of a synod won’t change this much. The only path toward vitality for synods is to direct energy into helping congregations grow into vital entities. This is one of the reasons we created LEAD. After receiving a bad report card in 2011, we recognized we were not resourcing congregations as we would like. We were too distracted by congregational conflict, hurricanes, and other matters. We felt the only way forward was to create a separate organization that did not have to deal with maintenance, an organization that could spend 100% of its time focused on leadership development and congregational vitality. We now have that entity and are deeply grateful to Peggy Hahn and her team for their work in this church.

Our new strategic plan focuses on four things we heard congregations asking for:

Deepening Faith By Mindy RollDeeping Faith: We will help congregations and their members deepen faith. We heard you, loud and clear. We’re off and running. Please consider putting together some small groups to work through a new curriculum we created, authored by Pastor Mindy Roll, creatively entitled. Deepening Faith. This small group gathering will invite people to reflect upon their lives and their faith together. Each person will need a participant guide, and the group leader will need the leader guide. Deepening Faith Leader GuideThis lines up with Crabtree’s data that shows ELCA congregational leaders want the synod to help them develop disciples. Our synod assembly this year, Faith5, will focus on thing we can do to teach the faith in the home as well.

Hospitality: We heard from congregational leaders a desire to get better at hospitality, from welcoming newcomers, to a deeper hospitality in the community. We all know we need to work on this. Chris Markert has assembled a team that is working on this. They are about to launch a congregational self-assessment on hospitality. This lines up with Crabtree’s data that shows ELCA congregational leaders want the synod to help them reach new members.

Leadership: We heard positive feedback for LEAD, and were told to keep that focus on leadership alive. A community will usually not grow any more than the leader is growing. With the context changing underneath our feet, we need to continue to learn adaptive leadership. We are going to continue to pour energy into coaching, digital resources, and feeding a pipeline for future leadership.

Structure: Our organizational structures, governance and constitutions were built for a former era. Some of them are still useful, some are no longer helpful. A committee-reports-to-the-whole council of four officers (president, VP, secretary, treasurer) and eight standing committee chairs (building, education, fellowship, stewardship…) is no longer the most helpful governance in many contexts. A one-size-fits-all approach will not do. How do we organize to be a lean, purpose-drive congregations that maximize people in ministry, rather than bury them in committees and administration? Are our structures serving us or are we serving our structures?

We hope this focused work will help us respond creatively to the challenges Crabtree to painstakingly lays out for us. This book is a good read for congregational and denominational leaders in the ELCA. I’m deeply grateful to Russ, Robin and others for their work in our synod, and in the whole church.

When Should I Announce My Resignation or Retirement?

By Blair Lundborg, assistant to the bishop TX-LA Gulf Coast Synod

pastor shaking handsOne of the questions we often field in the Synod Office is how and when to announce an upcoming resignation or retirement.  Perhaps you are not surprised to hear the simple answer “It depends.” There is not a one-size-fits-all answer. In fact, there are more questions than answers when it comes to announcing your departure. For example: How long have you served? Is there conflict or unrest in the congregation? Will the position you leave be full time for your successor? Have you accepted another call or are you at the point of considering making yourself available for call? Are you or considering a vocational change or going On Leave From Call?

Here’s the unvarnished truth. Our resignation or retirement will not be nearly as difficult for the congregation as they (or we) might think. It’s a humbling reality, but it’s true. Pastors and deacons change calls with regularity. At any given time, there are usually about 10-15% of the congregations in the Gulf Coast Synod in the call process.

The moment we announce a resignation our effectiveness in ministry begins to diminish. Giving the congregation more than 60 days simply prolongs the inevitable. Giving less than a 30 day notice will likely raise the anxiety. The exception to that is a conflicted setting where a severance package has been negotiated.

As I think back on each of my pastoral transitions, I can identify several responses. There was a sense of loss and sadness expressed by some, but certainly not all. Others had accepted it and were ready to move on. This was usually the largest group. A handful of people were ready to celebrate! None of us are irreplaceable. It’s humbling, but true.

There are guidelines we must follow according to the congregation’s constitution. The specific language from the required constitutional provision is found in C9.05.2. A rostered leaders “resignation shall become effective, unless otherwise agreed, no later than 30 days after the date on which it was submitted.” Generally speaking, thirty days is standard, sixty is bearable, more than that is usually too long.

Congregations are actually quite resilient. They will get over us, probably sooner than we care to admit. If we think they need a year to prepare for our departure that probably says more about our needs than theirs. People will grow weary of saying good-bye, especially if it goes on for several months. Good-bye fatigue is real. Long good-byes also delay the transition process. People need to move on just as we feel the need to change calls.

Informing the leadership is different. They need more time. Not much, but more. Maybe a couple of weeks? The council president needs to know about our resignation or retirement before the full council or congregation. Connect the council president with the bishop’s office as soon as you let them know of your intentions. Council presidents need to make plans with the bishop’s office for an exit interview, interim coverage, and other transition matters. The synod staff will work with the leaders so when your departure is officially announced the council can assure people that they are already working on the transition.

On occasion, the bishop’s office has been asked to help multi-staff congregations with a succession plan. This usually precedes a retirement where a new staff person is called for a period of overlap service with the outgoing rostered person. Upon the retirement of the outgoing leader the associate moves into the lead seat. As attractive as a succession plan seems, it is much more complicated than it sounds.  It is also beyond the scope of this short article. Suffice it to say, there are very few successful examples of the succession model.

So, what is a best practice when it comes to announcing a resignation or retirement? A call to the bishop’s office is a great place to start. Bishop Mike and the synod staff are prepared to help you think through the process. And yes, it does depend on the particular circumstances leading up to your decision to leave. Let us help you sort that out so you can end well and your congregation can begin strong with their next pastor or deacon.

Walk with Lutheran World Relief during Lent

Season of Hope banner

Facebook:

Walk with Lutheran World Relief (@LuthWorldRelief) during the season of Lent and announce to the world that the hope of Christ makes a new season possible: a Season of Hope. LWR has prepared a suite of resources to energize congregations for global good, including a special homily series, step-by-step instructions to assemble Personal Care Kits, weekly devotionals by Lutherans in the U.S. and LWR staff and a Palm Sunday bulletin insert and children’s activity sheet.

Visit lwr.org/lent for these and other resources to make a positive impact on families living in some of the world’s poorest communities!

Twitter:

Walk with @LuthWorldRelief this Lent and announce to the world that the hope of Christ makes a new season possible: a #SeasonofHope. Visit lwr.org/lent for resources to energize congregations for global good!

Email:

Walk with Lutheran World Relief during the season of Lent and announce to the world that the hope of Christ makes a new season possible: a Season of Hope. LWR has prepared a suite of resources to energize congregations for global good, including:

  • A special homily series featuring pictures and stories of the families you reach with LWR
  • Step-by-step instructions to assemble Personal Care Kits for families in need around the world
  • Weekly devotionals by Lutherans in the U.S. and LWR staff
  • Palm Sunday bulletin insert and children’s activity sheet

Visit lwr.org/lent for these and other resources to make a positive impact on families living in some of the world’s poorest communities!

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Reaching Out to Others/Reaching Out to Christ

By Lizbeth Johnson, Synod Gift PlannerLutheran Federation of the Southwest logo

 

Matthew 25:38-40
“When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you? The King will reply, I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did for me.”

As Christians, we hear scripture, read scripture, and believe scripture, but the opportunity to live out the promises of Christ in the role and blessing proclaimed in God’s word is the reality we long to know in the depths of our heart.

Steve Galus
Steve Galus

Such a relationship and deep understanding was forged with Living Word Lutheran Church, Katy, Texas, congregation member Steve Galus and Rick Johnson, the “Courthouse Candyman” of Houston, Texas. Rick was one of many homeless individuals in the city of Houston where 3,412 homeless are currently residents. Mr. Johnson’s life however, was different for many reasons. He was far from the invisible needy that often find themselves victims of circumstances in a big city. Why? Because he was a “reacher” for Christ.

Rick sold candy and other small items on the street near the courthouse and downtown. He had relationships with

Rick Johnson.png
Rick Johnson

the individuals who worked in the area buildings. He sought relationships and considered the regulars in the courthouse area—the lawyers, judges, and other county and city officials—his friends. He had a wonderful attitude that helped him to reach out to build friendships, not just reach out for financial support. His positive attitude and love for his customers resulted in equally positive responses from others. Rick truly cared about those who bought his candy and interacted with him. Most enjoyed him, appreciated him, and looked forward to seeing him, but few cared for him in the way Christians are called to care for those less fortunate. One reason Rick as a homeless man drew people to him like a magnet is because the spirit of Christ lived big in him. He never saw his problems, but saw the opportunity to speak peace, love, and witness to the saving grace of Christ through his warm interactions.

One of those who truly cared in return and wanted to help in a transformation way was Steve Galus. Steve saw in Rick what Christ sees in each one of us, an individual who reached out for opportunity that makes a difference in the world. And even better, Steve saw an opportunity to reach out in Christ’s name as well. Through God’s providence, Mr. Galus was actually able to secure an apartment for Rick and from that beginning, their relationship grew based on faith in Christ. An unlikely pair, Steve and Rick became good friends like so many individuals who encountered Rick. However, for Steve it was a relationship built on Christ love for mankind—hence the Matthew 25: 38-40 scripture fulfilled in his life. Of course, Rick Johnson was not considered by many to be the “least of these,” because of his positive attitude and welcoming manner, nonetheless, the Lord is no respecter of persons and the blessings of God continued to fall. Rick was easy to love because he had been transformed by Christ. He served time in prison, but became a Christian after studying the Bible during incarceration. Throughout numerous hardships, he managed to live on the streets by selling wares in the downtown area. Friendly and open to conversation, caring and compassionate, Rick Johnson was loved in return. Christ living big in him was a draw like a magnet, homeless or not. The challenge is in loving others who do not encourage our interaction and who do not necessarily love us in return. The scripture still holds true.

Rick died of colon cancer a year ago, but was able to die in dignity among friends and family in his own apartment thanks to the efforts of Christian outreach—in this case, Steve Galus’ resources. As with so many scripture promises, our gain in their initiation as directed by the Bible far outreach our risk in stepping out in faith. The Lord blesses in every step we take toward his ways—in pursuit of His lifestyle. The funeral was attended by hundreds of individuals who were blessed by Rick’s life. Steve Galus spoke at Rick Johnson’s funeral. He spoke not of what he had done for Rick, but of what Rick had done for him in responding in good faith. He spoke of his character and the essence of his life. Rick died “well with his soul” and Steve was able to describe it with great love and passion.

Rick and Steve are a good example of Christ love extended to the benefit of both. The relationship was built on Christ as their common bond. The scripture in the Bible according to Matthew 25:40 reminds us that love shown to any person “down on their luck,” struggling in life for basic necessity, is a gesture to Christ himself. Steve Galus knows more than most of us the joy of giving and living out a scripture directive—receiving the treasure we can experience in return—a true friendship built on faith in Christ. The relationship that began in faith ended with the hope of Jesus and His promises for everlasting life. Rick Johnson is already enjoying those promises. Steve’s life is richer by far because of the bond they shared.

Church speak

By Elizabeth Eaton, presiding bishop

elizabeth-eaton
Bishop Elizabeth Eaton

A colleague at the Lutheran Center related this story. An unchurched friend of hers was visiting and noticed her Advent calendar. “What is Advent?” she asked. A simple question. But my colleague soon discovered it wasn’t that easy to explain Advent to someone who had never heard of it, but who also had no frame of reference for it.

My colleague talked about a season of hope, longing and preparation, about the coming of the Christ child. Noticing her friend’s puzzled look, she stopped short of talking about the eschatological and hermeneutical possibilities presented by the season.

It’s not that my colleague lacks an understanding of Advent or isn’t herself a faithful person. Nor are her communication skills deficient—she is wicked bright and funny, and relates well to people. No. She had come face-to-face with the reality that a growing segment of our population has had little or no connection with the church or any other religious tradition. They don’t speak our language. They don’t know our stories. They don’t measure time the way we do—Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, Pentecost. They literally don’t know what we are talking about.

You might have had a similar experience—not just an encounter with someone from another religious tradition, but with someone with no religious tradition. How do we talk to them? How do we tell them about the intimate, abiding, deep love that God has shown to us in Jesus? How do we even tell them about Jesus? How do we explain Jesus and the incarnation, the crucifixion and the resurrection?

We know what we are talking about, but we can’t assume that others do. Many people don’t even know that they need to know Jesus—or that the Jesus they think they know isn’t the Jesus they need to know.

I once asked a group of our pastors and deacons to explain the gospel in a tweet without using the words sin, grace or gospel. A tweet then was 140 characters—it’s now 280 characters, but I don’t think that would make the assignment any easier.

Those of us (myself included) who have spent our lives in the church live in a kind of bubble. We do speak the same language—church speak. We know what we mean, we understand key phrases and metaphors. We know what makes sense to us. But for those who have either no experience with the church or a painful one, we speak an unintelligible language.

So where do we start? I believe we should start from the conviction that Jesus has the words of eternal life, that he is the way to truth and hope and life. Can we even explain that to ourselves? Do we have the words that speak to our own hearts? Can we explain the Christian tradition to ourselves, and do we believe it? When we are able to confess, live and breathe that we live, move and have our being in God, we then need to find the language that speaks to those outside of the church bubble.

We can’t cede the public space to the popular culture or to a distortion of the Christian message. It’s hard to take that both Harry Potter and the Marine Corps (I’m a huge fan of both) have a more compelling exposition of the gospel (“It’s all about love, Harry”) or of koinonia (“Serving something greater than themselves”). We are missionaries again. Without diluting the gospel or in any way pandering for popularity, it falls to us to commend the faith within us clearly and genuinely.

I know we stake our lives on the truth of Jesus’ death and resurrection. This brings freedom and life to us so we can invite others into God’s freedom and life.

A monthly message from the presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Her email address: bishop@elca.org. This article originally appeared in Living Lutheran’s January 2018 issue. Reprinted with permission.

Two Books on Katharina von Bora

By Bishop Michael Rinehart

In November, I decided to read a book on Katie Luther, a person I had never learned much about. After looking around a bit, I settled on Ruth Tucker’s book. I took this book along with me on our synod’s trip for the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation. While traveling with our group around Leipzig, Wittenberg, Eisenach, Eisleben, Wartburg, Erfurt and such places, I found myself fascinated with the life of this unique person.

A member of our group had just finished a novel about Katie Luther by Jody Hedlund, entitled, Luther and Katharina. The novel was steamy in places she said. The story suggested some remarkable occurrences. Were they historical? she wondered. In this blessed age of instant books, I downloaded the book as our bus cruised down the Thuringian autobahn. I read these two books side-by-side, enjoying both the historical facts of the former and the smooth fictional imagination of the latter.

Katie Luther: First Lady of the Reformation: The Unconventional Life of Katharina von Bora

Katie Luther first Lady of The ReformationIn a letter to Joachim Camerarius, Luther’s friend and colleague Melanchthon said,

On June 13, Luther unexpectedly and without informing in advance any of his friends of what he was doing, married Bora . . . These things have occurred, I think, somewhat in this way: The man is certainly pliable; and the nuns have used their arts against him most successfully; thus probably society with the nuns have softened or even inflamed this noble and high-spirited man. In this way he seems to have fallen into this untimely change of life. The rumor, however, that he had previously dishonored her is manifestly a lie . . . I have hopes that this state of life may sober him down, so that he will discard the low buffoonery which we have often censured.

Katie Luther: First Lady of the Reformation: The Unconventional Life of Katharina von Bora by Ruth A. Tucker gives us a historical window into the life of Katharina von Bora, and an understanding of the incredible impact their marriage had on the Reformation, and Luther himself. Tucker takes us through what we know about Katharina’s childhood, her entrance into the Benedictine cloister at the age of five, her escape from the convent on Easter morning twenty years later, her uncertain future, her life with the reformer, and her struggle after his death.

Katie’s mother died when she was little. Her father remarried a woman with children of her own, and so Katie was sent to boarding school, and then to a cloister. This was not an uncommon fate for girls in this situation. It was not uncommon to sell girls into monasticism. It fed the system, fed the child, and removed her from the family inheritance.

It is hard to imagine a lifetime of seclusion in a cloister. What was that life like in the early 1500’s? It would be easy to malign life in a cloister, but it was not a bad life. The average life span for an abbess was 50, while the life expectancy of women outside the cloister was 30-something. Arranged marriages to elderly men who had absolute control over women and family life, a high probability of death during childbirth, the potential of yellow fever or another malady, made life difficult for late-Medieval women.

But life could be difficult in the convent as well. Stories of 16th century nuns rebelling are interesting. Nuns become pregnant, sometimes against their will. Some convents are considered, according to accounts of the day, to be virtual brothels. Disobedient or pregnant nuns can be punished by beatings, being placed in stocks, solitary confinement, or a host of other outcomes. Escape attempts are punished severely. Assisting an escaping nun, considered kidnapping, is punishable by death.

Such was the fate Leonard Koppe faced when he aided the twelve nuns of the Marienthron convent of Nimbschen. Koppe was a city councilman in Torgau, who was encouraged by Luther himself. Nuns should be free to leave a convent if they so desire, Luther felt. Life would not be easy. If these nuns were not married off, what would become of them?

Twelve nuns escaped that night, in herring barrels: Magdalene von Staupitz, Else, Lanita, Ave, Margarete, Fronika, Katharina, and a few others. They would not be the last. In two years, half the nuns at the convent escaped. That other convents experienced the same exodus speaks for itself.

According to James Anderson, “both Erasmus and [Jesuit] Maimbourg . . . eulogize her as possessed of . . . a dignity, without affectation, about her air and manner, which at the very first sight commanded respect.” A letter from that era says Luther “took a wife, from the noted Bora family, a girl of elegant appearance, 26 years old, but poor.”

Tucker compares Luther’s writing about women prior to his marriage, then his writing afterwards. As a young monk, Luther speaks of women like Eve, whose weakness and disobedience led to the fall. After a few years of marriage his appraisal has shifted dramatically. Still laced with sexist tropes, Luther nevertheless speaks of Katie with tremendous respect. She is, afterall, the primary breadwinner, brewing beer, growing and selling crops, and running an inn the size of a modern-day motel. He calls her “Lord.” When decisions need to be made, he often defers to her, even asking him to give instructions to his printer when he is out of town.

This book offers many insights for students of the Reformation. Katie is the only wife of a reformer who is painted in portraits and spoken of so prominently. It is hard to imagine what would have become of Luther had she not been running affairs at the Wittenberg cloister where Luther lived, first as a monk, and then the rest of his life as a family man.

Luther and Katharina, by Jody Hedlund

Jodi Hedlund brings these characters to life in her novella about Katie and her relationship with the reformer. Leonard Koppe, Katie’s Aunt Magdalene, Abbot Balthazar, Pastor Bugenhagen, Dr. Philip Melanchthon, Lucas Cranach and many others laugh, eat, discuss and struggle.

Nearly a decade after the posting of the 95 Theses, a pragmatic Luther claims to be marrying out of utility, not love. Certain that he will be martyred for his writings and resistance, he knows he will provide no long term support for anyone. How then, does the reluctant commoner fall so deeply in love with this woman of noble birth?

Melanchthon, working tirelessly to reconcile the divided parties, knows that Luther marrying will upset the apple cart. It will derail the current negotiations, and confirm the suspicions of the critics who are smearing Luther, saying this whole Reformation business is simply to satisfy Luther’s lust. No wonder Melanchthon is not invited, and things happen so quickly.

Hedlund’s story tracks the historical events quite closely, the ups and downs, the death of children, the realities of Medieval life. Of course, any work at historical fiction must extrapolate. Conversations have to be constructed by speculation. We can only imagine what the actual conversations between Martin and Katie were like. Fortunately, we do have some of their letters, which reveal much. There are also some characters and events in the book that are complete fabrications. An authors note at the end is helpful in clarifying those few imaginative scenes. The book, therefore, is of course not a scholarly work, but it might be a delightful read for those who like fiction, but want to know a little bit more about this intriguing unique character in world history.

Pathways to Generosity Conference  April 3-5, 2018

By Chris Markert, Synod Mission Catalyst

At this time of the year, Bishop Mike often reminds pastors and deacons to go ahead and sketch out tentative vacation and continuing education in 2018.  Of course, you can always shift and change dates, but it is easy to end up at the end of next year and realize you didn’t take all your vacation and continuing education.

As you consider continuing education opportunities, consider the stewardship conference called Pathways to Generosity, April 3-5, at King of Glory Lutheran Church- Dallas, Texas.

The conference is an ecumenical training that will include workshops in a variety of areas:

  • How to Ask
  • Financial Health of Congregations
  • Developing a Communications Plan for Stewardship
  • Social Media and Stewardship
  • Best Financial Practices
  • Preaching Stewardship

Keynote speakers include Bishop Pedro Suarez of the Florida-Bahamas Synod and the Rev. Katie Hayes of the Disciples of Christ.

Registration fee: $275

If you’re interested in learning more about the Pathways to Generosity Conference, or about stewardship practices in general, please contact Chris Markert, Synod Mission Catalyst.  [link: chrism@gulfcoastsynod.org]

Disengage the Autopilot

By Elizabeth A. Eaton

I was driving to work one day thinking about my schedule—the meetings I needed to attend, reports I needed to finish, preparations still to be completed for upcoming travel, email I needed to answer, phone calls I absolutely had to make, and compiling a grocery list in my head so I would pick up what I needed for supper on the way home from work. All of a sudden I found myself pulling into the parking garage at the Lutheran Center. I had driven the 9 miles to work and had no idea how I got there. I didn’t remember the traffic lights, the turns, the scenery—nothing. I had been so absorbed in what was coming up, that I was completely oblivious to the present.

I think this experience is not unique to me. We set part of our lives on autopilot and set the planning, list-making, what-if scheduling part on overdrive. Our culture actually encourages this. When do back-to-school sales start showing up in stores? When do Christmas decorations appear in town squares and at the mall? We have already seen evidence that the next presidential campaign is underway. It can be light all the time now. Burgers or tacos at your favorite fast-food emporium are available around the clock. It’s disorienting. We’re thrown out of rhythm.

I remember how confused I became when I first started my call as synod bishop. Gone were the familiar patterns of parish ministry: Monday I got organized for the week, Wednesday night was catechism, Thursday night was choir practice, and everything pointed toward Sunday. The year made sense: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, Pentecost. As synod bishop and in my current call, we plan so far in advance that I’m not always sure what time of year it is—and there are so many time zones!

Now, planning is a good and necessary thing. One ought to be aware of what is coming up, what needs to be done, and where one needs to be. But I found that I was so driven by all of the contingencies and possibilities that I was everywhere all of the time and therefore not anywhere at all.

I asked my spiritual director about this and she recommended that I meditate on these four words: “Just this. Just now.” It’s a simple discipline, but not an easy one. It can alleviate all that anticipatory stress, but only if we are willing to quiet down. Near the end of Psalm 46, after descriptions of tumult and uproar, the Lord says, “Be still and know that I am God.”

Here we are in Advent. This season doesn’t exist in secular culture, where everything is barreling toward Christmas. No time to wait, no time to notice, no time to be present. Not this. Not now. All of a sudden we will find ourselves on the day after Christmas not knowing how we got there.

Advent is a holy season, a season that bids us to be present, to be still. So much is evoked in this season—hope, longing, the bittersweet awareness that the world is beautiful and broken. Consider all of these things. Sit with them. Pray with them. Be aware of this time of great promise that comes, at least in the Northern Hemisphere, when night is longest. “In a momentary meeting of eternity and time, Mary learned she would carry both the mortal and divine” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, 258). Disengage the autopilot. Notice.

The rest of that Advent hymn invites us
to be present:

We are called to ponder mystery and await the coming Christ, to embody God’s compassion for each fragile human life.

God is with us in our longing to bring healing to the earth, while we watch with joy and wonder for the promised Savior’s birth.

Just this. Just now.

A monthly message from the presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Her email address: bishop@elca.org. This column originally appeared in the December 2017 issue of Living Lutheran. Reprinted with permission.

Lisa’s Pieces:  Creation Care Tips from the Synod Lutherans Restoring Creation Team

Lutherans Restoring Creation

By Lisa Brenskelle

The mission of Lutherans Restoring Creation is to promote incorporation of care for creation into the full life and mission of the church, working in five areas:  worship, education, discipleship, building & grounds, and public ministry/advocacy.  For some timely tips in these areas, see below:

Worship In Lent, consider a Confession of Sin Against God’s Creation or A Litany for the Planet, found at the same site. Consider these creation-focused prayers for Lent in year B. Creation-focused commentaries on the lectionary are available. A creation-focused prayer is posted weekly on the synod leaders Facebook.

Education The Interfaith Environmental Network of Houston will hold an educational event for houses of worship and their members on Feb. 4. Consider the new book, Toward a Better Worldliness: Ecology, Economy, and the Protestant Tradition for an adult study.   The online Sunday Evening Conversations on Creation on Jan. 28 addresses Caring for the Plants that Care for Us and on Feb. 25 addresses Stewardship of the Waters. An Interfaith Environmental Study begins soon, with specific resources to be selected by participants. Contact gcs.lrc@gmail.com to sign up.  Consider this video created by a Luther College student for youth education.

Discipleship:  Make use of the “Bulletin blurb” eco-tips (+ verses & quotes) on the synod leaders Facebook page each week. Offer this Lenten devotional resource from the Columban Mission Institute to members or this Creation Covenant.  Pass along these green Valentine’s Day tips. Offer the devotional Rooted and Grounded in Love to couples.

Building & Grounds Want to reduce your energy bills? Check out these energy conservation webinar recordings.   Consider these water conservation tips for religious institutions, these tips for water efficient landscaping, and these suggestions for water efficient appliancesReduce waste from your building/grounds with these tips.

Public Ministry/Advocacy:  The weekly Opportunities to Care for, Learn About, and Enjoy God’s Good Creation features volunteer events in the greater Houston area (see upcoming opportunities link). February is National Wild Bird Feeding Month.  Have kids/youth create a bird feeder for a local sanctuary/preserve, and keep it stocked with seed or suet.  Keep an eye on the birds you are feeding by participating in bird counts at the sanctuary/preserve.  Petition the governor of Texas  to support clean energy policies.

For more information on any of the above, or for creation care assistance/information, contact the synod Lutherans Restoring Creation Team by writing to Lisa at gcs.lrc@gmail.com. The team is seeking additional members.  If you would be willing to serve, please contact us.