For the last few years I have encouraged congregational leaders to do a fall series with the entire congregation. A series like this galvanizes and energizes people. You get everyone reading the same book, attending a small group, and hearing sermon on the topic. This creates buzz, excitement, and a reason to invite friends. It also is a great opportunity to get people into small groups and potentially lifelong friendships.
The book I’m recommending this year is Enough by Adam Hamilton. Hamilton starts with the “American Dream,” something people all over the world talk about. Then he asks how this dream has turned into rampant materialism. Alexis de Tocqueville described U.S, Americans’ mentality about increasing wealth; he said it was as if everything in American life was focused on getting more. He describes this phenomenon as “affluenza.”
Dave Ramsey made getting out of debt fun, not easy but fun. He showed people how to do it. Ramsey also acknowledged that people want to give. Yet they cannot, because they are in debt up to their eyeballs. We live in a world that encourages us to live beyond our means. Just like that, the dream becomes the nightmare.
This is a topic that is highly relevant. It impacts nearly every aspect of our lives. Hamilton invites us to reevaluate what constitutes “the good life.” It is a spiritual question.
The series has three pieces. The participant book for each person, a DVD for the small group, and a stewardship program guide for your lead team and stewardship team.
Healthcare… even the mention of it raises our blood pressure. If there’s one thing upon which we can agree in the healthcare debate it is this: there are strong opinions on both sides of the issue. It’s not a new conversation. We have been kicking this subject around on the national scene for decades. Is healthcare a right? Is it a privilege? Is it the responsibility of our employer? The government? The individual?
There are no easy answers to these challenging questions. Like you, I have opinions, some stronger than others. Rather than use this one-way communication to give you my opinion, I would rather invite you into a conversation. It’s a conversation happening in our congregations and around church council tables. Councils wrestle with these questions as they prepare compensation packages for their pastors and deacons. Pastors and deacons struggle with the discussion as they negotiate a compensation package that includes health benefits. Sometimes it gets uncomfortable; other times it gets personal.
Let’s begin by laying out some of the starting points for the conversation – synod’s compensation guidelines. In the Gulf Coast Synod, we have attempted to contextualize base pay scales by using the local school district as a benchmark, with adjustments for a graduate degree and an annualized work year. In addition, we recommend that congregations cover the healthcare costs of the rostered minister under the Gold+ Portico plan. If the pastor or deacon is married or has children, we recommend that the congregation also cover the healthcare coverage for the spouse and dependent children. This is the consistent practice in synods across the ELCA. We believe healthy leaders are more effective leaders. We are also committed to taking care of our leaders’ families.
Here’s where the conversation gets uncomfortable. We hear from pastors and deacons that they cannot afford to cover the dependent healthcare coverage. From church councils, we are hearing that the congregation cannot afford to cover the costs of healthcare coverage for the entire family.
Then it gets personal. Members of the church council point out that their employer doesn’t pay for their spouse or dependent coverage. If they want spouse or dependent coverage, it is deducted from their paycheck. Pastors and deacons are often compensated at a lower rate than other professionals with equivalent education. On top of that, pastors and deacons are coming out of seminary with significant student debt (e.g. average academic debt for seminarians is $74,000).
These are just the facts. It gets uncomfortable and personal when we engage in this conversation in the same way it is discussed on the national stage. The tendency is to take sides and dig in. We have all seen video of angry town halls where politicians field angry questions on both sides of the debate. And we get what we get…more anger, more division, fewer solutions.
My hope is that we can do a better job of this conversation in our congregations. I think the place to begin is for all of us to recognize the validity of the arguments on both sides of the debate. What does that look like? Well, I hope that pastors and deacons will be able to acknowledge that most of the members of their congregations do not have the blessing of healthcare coverage for spouse and dependents, unless they pay for it out of pocket. I also hope that church councils can recognize that their pastors and deacons are not “in it for the money.” They are faithful servants who have made sacrifices to follow their call to ministry. They know, and have accepted, that their compensation will be lower than some of their peers.
From there the conversation can begin to look for workable solutions. It would be helpful for both councils and rostered ministers to explore the various options Portico provides. The best way to do this is to gather the facts. Portico realizes that there is no such thing as a “one size fits all” plan for all rostered ministers. You can explore the various options by using the helpful benefit cost calculators on the Portico website. Run various scenarios that make sense for the pastor/deacon and for the congregation.
The gospels are filled with examples of Jesus’ healing ministry. Jesus did not distinguish between the rich and poor, married or single, employed or jobless. Tending to the health of the sick and suffering was not a matter of accounting in Jesus’ kingdom economy. In Luke 4:40, it is reported that “…all those who had any who were sick with various kinds of diseases brought them to him; and Jesus laid his hands on each of them and cured them.” We don’t even know how many were healed that day. Nobody was counting. Jesus healed the sick. It is what he did. It was the right thing to do. It still is.
We have an opportunity and the responsibility as the church to model compassion, grace, and love. One way we do that is by taking care of the health and well-being of our pastors and deacons. That is why our synod compensation guidelines continue to recommend that congregations cover the healthcare costs of their leaders and their families. That may not be the “industry standard” but then, the church has always been a counter-cultural movement.
We all want the same thing – healthy leaders, healthy congregations, and vibrant ministries. Let’s work together toward that end.
A few weeks ago, I noted that the Gulf Coast Synod Assembly was the most relevant I’ve attended in two decades. I meant no hyperbole, nor did I mean to imply that other synod assemblies have not been relevant; I write only from my experience. My note was about those assemblies I have attended for almost 40 years, many of those years requiring several different assembly visits within single assembly seasons. Much of the company of colleagues is wonderful in an assembly season. Still, the hot dogs and beers are better during baseball season.
So what made this particular synod assembly so impressive for me? Not the hotdogs and not the beer. There is no question that leadership counts, from Bishop Rinehart, through the synod staff, and throughout the synod rostered ministry. With that leadership across the board comes a commitment that was made and is still kept, that first was articulated a decade ago; that this synod’s ministry, in all its forms, will be dedicated to mission, and that maintenance-centered or chaplaincy-centered congregational ministry alone is insufficient for the church truly to be the church. Rather, all leadership will be done with the missional eyes, ears, mouths, and minds that ask hospitably about the needs of the peoples and cultures around and outside our previously dominantly monochromatic and privileged spheres.
I’ve heard this talk for more than forty years, too. My teeth were cut on it in Southern California (both words capitalized because SoCal is a proper state of mind). Here in Houston the talk is walked more effectively than was the case in my experience elsewhere, where Lutheran “identity” was the orthodox trope for white ethnic classist survivalist nostalgia. Not so in the Gulf Coast Synod, where the commitment to engaging cultural diversity, aided by the new energy of post-colonialist conviction breaking us out of our “Lutheran identity” silos, is well reinforced demographically, in Houston, by this cosmopolis’ distinction of being the most diverse city in the United States.
The theme of the assembly was “Who is my neighbor?” – a “safe” theme, could have been even trite. Which would have been so had the assembly been the usual matter of doing churchwide and synodical business with a dash of “theme” on the side in the person of a keynote speaker and entertainer or two. That’s the formula I’ve too often witnessed. Here the theme actually normed and flavored the assembly. And it wasn’t done in the tested “liberal” Saul Alinsky mode of placing an edgy speaker in the assembly’s “face,” which would have been to make the speaker an “other,” and so, by implication, not our neighbor.
Our neighbors today are not just nearby. They are among us and with us in this global village day-by-day in the workplace, the play place, the shopping place, if not so much, in the worship place. So it was a wise stratagem and grace that the four speakers who helped us engage the question of “Who is our neighbor?” at depth enough to constitute healthy personal existential challenge simply at their appointed time would stand up from amongst the gathered and start to talk – no stage, no introduction. Just one of “us” standing up to share their stories about themselves and “us.” And each speaker was quite intentional to make us think about our stories too, as we were inspired, catalyzed, and challenged by theirs. And there was a clearly intentional arc to the story of the stories presented by the speaker neighbors from among us.
The first keynoter, Rev. Sunitha Mortha, hit all the right notes rhetorically, drawing our ears and hearts close to her words. An immigrant from South India, there a Dalit and now here an ELCA pastor, serving through the churchwide offices, she spoke of her struggle, having followed her father to Minne-soh-tah, encountering Lutheran kindness but having still to overcome the confusion of Lutheran faith with ethnic cultural pride, so that her faith might be her own. It was relatively easy, and effective, to answer her questions about how we could see ourselves in her story, and thus be honest with each other at our conversation tables about the challenging sides of our own stories of embrace and exclusion (a phrase she borrowed from the outstanding work of Miroslav Volf).
The second keynoter, Dr. Can Dogan, is a young Muslim professional from Turkey. Like so many Muslims who have made a successful life (so far) in Houston, he pushed the “difference” edge a bit more, witnessing to his discovery that here he so needed to engage inter-religious dialogue and relationships over and against the dominant stereotype of who he was/is, after having lived in the culturally dominant “no need to reflect on my privileged position” he had in Turkey. He effectively spoke to and against the myopia—and so xenophobia—that even Lutherans displaced from the great white north can harbor without recognizing it.
The third speaker was Jamal Lewis, a transgender, black artist, Jersey refugee Baptist HBCU graduate, whose poetry and fluid articulateness was even more Holy Spirit like than portrayed in the movie version of The Shack. The more one predicates, the more one accents, of course, difference. But to bring James Baldwin and the most contemporary of literature and film to a synod assembly is remarkable enough on its own. For Lutherans then to be asked to see themselves in her is quite more. Some at our own (mostly progressive) table found themselves in that stranger in a strange land mode; they just could not relate.
For that to be a first experience for some at my table, and surely for many more at other tables (nascent racism and sexism was sure to be, um, “stimulated” by all this) was surely to the good. To be able to answer the question of “Who is my neighbor?” well does turn out to include the challenge to ask “Who am I?”. So I was surprised, in a place and situation like a synod assembly actually, to be thinking deeper and even more creatively about my own story. Of course, I thought – having grown up with all kinds of in and out of church people, atheists, gays and lesbians (who were not so nicely named then), African-Americans, Asians, Latinx, (also not so nicely named then), Krishnas, Hindus, and, wow, even Quakers – that I had little more to discover in myself, or surely not so in a typical church business setting like an assembly.
And of course I was wrong. And here’s where the politics enter in (So, yes, Vicki Blume Walch, the political backdrop here has something to do with the relevance of this assembly). The air was rife with politics in the background. As progressive as Houston is, the rest of stereotypical Texas is our neighbor too. Immigration is a hot button and the state government wants to do worse even than the national administration in refusing refugees. A “bathroom bill” was just passed. People of color have had their voting rights denied, and women’s rights are being trampled all day long. The political air is tinged everywhere with challenge to the work of faith.
Speaking of women’s issues, which are everyone’s issues, the fourth speaker, Kathy Patrick, addressed sexism, relating her own story of faith and challenge. Although met with some resistance from the floor, this too was relevant, because if the real issues are not named and joined, then what’s the point? The manner in which all the relevant and distressing issues of the day were addressed and evoked and finally generative of more thinking, and which framed pretty much all of the other usual “business,” underscored how really relevant all the other usual business of the church is, too.
But, finally, I can’t say more about that because I wasn’t there on that last day, having had to leave the assembly early to see my granddaughter graduate in Iowa. The church has hard work to do everywhere. It may be even harder in monocultureturf like Iowa than in Texas.
But add to all this the great gifts from God of faith, hope, and love, fostered by the excellent spirited musical leadership of the ELCA Glocal musicians, with an assembly led by differentiated and inclusive representation, where the strong and gifted bishop had no need to lead it all and the assembly didn’t need that either. Here one sees and gladly participates in a collegial, truly ecclesial, gathering that is effective and, yes, relevant to people and needs all around.
Much more could be written about the assembly. But this expansion was promised as an answer to why I thought this assembly to be the most relevant I’d experienced in the last two decades, and so I have answered. It all gave me hope and inspired more my commitment to the work at hand. DeoGratias.
These are politically charged times. This very sentence in the presiding bishop’s column is likely to raise eyebrows.
Across this church I’ve heard stories of parishioners disturbed by the Gospel read on Sundays, believing the pastor chose the passage as a critique of the current administration. The Beatitudes seemed to provoke the most attention. In a way this is good—maybe we are all hearing Jesus’ words with fresh ears. But really, the Beatitudes have been the appointed Gospel for the fourth Sunday of Epiphany (year A) for as long as we have been using the lectionary.
In these charged times it’s helpful to consider two things: the relationship between church and state, and how Lutherans participate in civil society. Often we speak about the “separation of church and state.” This principle is usually raised when parishioners feel the pastor (or the synod, churchwide organization or bishop) is being “political.” There is the assumption that the church should only deal with the spiritual and that it should have nothing to do with civil and political life. The First Amendment says: “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The separation of church and state is intended to protect religious liberty and keep the government from interfering in the church.
We Lutherans also cite Martin Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms—the temporal and the spiritual. This has been misinterpreted to mean that the temporal realm is inferior to the spiritual realm—or that God, and therefore the faithful, should not be as concerned with the temporal, should not allow the temporal into the church, and really need not be too engaged in the public square.
But our understanding as Lutherans is that the church and the state, the spiritual and the temporal, are both established by God and are both part of God’s twofold rule. When we pray, “Give us today our daily bread,” we are also praying that God send us the gift of good government (Luther’s Small Catechism).
Both church and state are good gifts from God and have been established for specific purposes. The proper work of the church is to “preach the gospel in its purity and administer the sacraments according to the gospel” (Augsburg Confession VII).
The proper work of the state is to keep peace and order and to support and nourish the lives of its citizens. And since we confess that God entered human life through the incarnation of Jesus Christ, who took our flesh upon him, we do not have a hierarchy of value that places the spiritual above the temporal.
Active participation in public life and the duty of government to care for its people, especially the most vulnerable, have been part of the Lutheran movement from its beginning. In his explanation of the petition “Give us today our daily bread,” Luther said: “It would be therefore fitting if the coat of arms of every upright prince were emblazoned with a loaf of bread instead of a lion” (Large Catechism). He also wrote that the “second virtue of a prince is to help the poor, the orphans, and the widows to justice, and to further their cause.”
Lutherans don’t withdraw from public life. In fact our constitution pledges us to “work with civil authorities in areas of mutual endeavor, maintaining institutional separation of church and state in a relation of functional interaction.” Lutherans fulfill our baptismal vocation when we show up.
So why are we so tense? I think we’ve been influenced by a divisive culture. We forget that we are one people. I think we fail to recognize Christ in others, whether the other is across the pew or across the world. We forget that we all—whatever our politics—stand under the judgment of God and that only God’s promise of reconciling love in Jesus can save us. Set free by that promise we can find a way to serve the neighbor.
Contemporary scholars often describe four “Pauls”:
The Paul of the autograph letters: Philemon, 1 Thessalonians, Philippians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, and Romans
The “Paul” of the pastorals: 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus
The “Paul” of Ephesians, Colossians, and 2 Thessalonians
The “traditional Paul” of Acts
Churches of the Reformation may also have a “fifth Paul”: the “Paul” of the 16th century.
How does the “Reformation Paul” equate to the “genuine Paul”? What did Paul mean by: justice, righteousness, salvation, faith, law, and gospel as he wrote to diverse urban people living in the classed slave society of the Roman Empire? What does a 1st century gospel mean for a 21st century context? These are some of the questions we will explore as we travel through the world of the early church focusing on Paul’s autograph letters.
This is open to anyone over the age of 18 who is serious about studying scripture and growing their understanding of the first century Christian movement. Preparation is required. Read more.
Welcome to the ancient world where scripture will come alive as you enter the past to reimagine the future church.
Cost is $4,290 per person (+$940 single room supplement)
$400 deposit is due by October 3
$3,890 is due by February 8 (+ single room supplement)
Financial assistance is available for the 2018 Gathering. The application for financial assistance opens July 15, 2017. Assistance is given based on the financial need of an individual and their family. Adult leaders should apply on behalf of their young person, using the same congregational ID that they will use when registering for the Gathering. Up to $300 per person may be provided. Please email the Gathering office should you have additional questions about financial assistance.
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:
Building&Grounds: Did you know that the City of Houston offers curbside recycling for houses of worship at low cost? Partner with Compucycle to host an e-waste recycling event at your church. Check out Terracycle for ways to recycle just about everything. Interested in solar power, but put off by the high installation cost? You can purchase solar from Local Sun, a solar farm in Sealy. For lots of ideas on going green in your building, visit the Green Building Resource Center in Houston.
Please contact Lisa Brenskelle from the synod Lutherans Restoring Creation Team for creation care assistance/information. In addition, the team is seeking additional members. If you would be willing to serve, please contact us.