By James Heine
ST. LOUIS — Leaders of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod continued their talks regarding “cooperation in externals” during a meeting here May 25-26.
The top leaders of North America’s two largest Lutheran church bodies met as the Committee on Lutheran Cooperation. This was the 36th meeting of the committee, which gathers twice a year. Among the topics in St. Louis: relationships with Inter-Lutheran agencies, church-body updates and ecumenical relations.
Also on the agenda: reorganization and restructuring issues, as both denominations are dealing with tight finances.
While the ELCA and the LCMS are not in altar and pulpit fellowship, the meeting also continued the long-standing practice of setting aside time for theological discussions.
Participating in the meeting for the ELCA were Presiding Bishop Dr. Mark S. Hanson; Dr. Marcus Kunz, executive for discernment of contextual and theological issues; Dr. Donald J. McCoid, executive for ecumenical and inter-religious relations; and Dr. Kathryn A. Kleinhans, professor of religion at Wartburg College, Waverly, Iowa.
Several ELCA representatives were unable to attend because of severe storms throughout the Midwest and the resulting effects on air travel.
Representing the LCMS: Dr. Matthew C. Harrison, Synod president; Rev. Herbert C. Mueller Jr., Synod first vice-president; Dr. Albert B. Collver III, director of church relations – assistant to the president; Dr. Raymond L. Hartwig, Synod secretary; Dr. Larry Stoterau, president of the LCMS Pacific Southwest District and chairman of the Council of Presidents; Rev. Larry Vogel, associate executive director, Commission on Theology and Church Relations; Ron Schultz, chief administrative officer; and Barbara A. Below, assistant to the president.
Also present at the meeting were Dr. James W. Voelz, professor of exegetical theology at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, and Jonathan D. Schultz, Concordia Publishing House vice-president and corporate counsel and the secretary of Lutheran World Relief’s board of directors.
After a call to order by Harrison, the committee began its meeting with a discussion of cooperative activities, especially as they relate to inter-Lutheran agencies such as Lutheran World Relief (LWR), Lutheran Services in America, and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. In response to a question about the potential effect of LCMS 2010 Convention Resolution 3-03, “To Cooperate in Externals with Theological Integrity,” Harrison said that the LCMS Praesidium, in cooperation with the LCMS Commission on Theology and Church Relations, would provide an assessment of, and a report on, cooperative efforts no later than July 13, as specified in the resolution.
Harrison said that the LCMS “is not going to take a step that pulls us away from the inter-Lutheran agencies,” but said he anticipated that some provisions of current agreements would end, such as those relating to military chaplains. Regarding Recognized Service Organizations (RSOs), Harrison said the LCMS would likely be more conscious of RSOs conforming to LCMS doctrine and practice.
In response to Harrison’s comments regarding chaplaincy agreements, Hanson said, “We will have to anticipate what that means for us.”
“I don’t expect a long document,” Harrison said about the report forthcoming from the LCMS Praesidium.
Both Hanson and Harrison affirmed that the church bodies should, wherever possible, cooperate “on the ground” during disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and the earthquake in Haiti.
Also, during this part of the meeting, Jonathan Schultz, as secretary of LWR’s board of directors, distributed a report prepared by LWR President and CEO Rev. John Nunes, introduced the organization’s new tagline – “Sustainable Development, Lasting Promise” – and presented an overview of LWR’s recent activity, including the Lutheran Malaria Initiative. He also reported on the efforts of LWR’s Board Task Force on Church Relations.
LWR’s board and its president and CEO recognize that “the ‘L’ in Lutheran World Relief is important to our engagement with U.S. Lutherans and in our relief and development work around the world,” Schultz affirmed, noting that “further dialogue concerning partnerships with the churches is expected in the months ahead.”
As part of the meeting, the ELCA and the LCMS shared information about their denominations.
For the ELCA:
* Hanson reported that for the fiscal year ended Jan. 31, the church-wide ELCA had $2.6 million income in excess of expenses in current operating funds, compared with an unfavorable variance of $1.4 million on Jan. 31, 2010. Receipts totaled $66.8 million for the fiscal year compared with $76.5 million the previous year, a decrease of 12.8 percent. Expenses related to the current operating fund amounted to $64.2 million, a decrease of 11.6 percent from Jan. 31, 2010. Revenue in the period was favorable to the budget by $1.7 million. Hanson said the positive balance was the result “radical restructuring” and the elimination of positions. Also, he noted that the church’s decline in revenue continued a three-decade trend of stewardship decreases for the ELCA.
* The ELCA’s synods are well into the assembly season. All 65 are meeting, Hanson said. “This year has been good,” he said. “There is not the polarization of recent years.” The ELCA is saddened by the congregations that are leaving the denomination, he added.
* The ELCA’s 2011 Churchwide Assembly is scheduled for Aug. 15-19 in Orlando. The assembly will consider a series of recommendations, including a move to a three-year cycle, the consideration of a churchwide campaign to support work aimed at ending malaria, the recommendations of the ELCA’s LIFT (Living into the Future Together) Task Force and a social statement on genetics, faith and responsibility.
Hanson said the statement addresses broad issues resulting from genetic science and its applications, such as medical technologies, agricultural uses, genetic determinism, and reproductive cloning in humans and others. As with the LCMS, the ELCA affirms that it rejects the idea of reproductive human cloning, and the statement will reflect that position, he said.
In a subsequent discussion of the reception of the proposed statement on genetics, Hanson said the ELCA’s social statements are often misunderstood. The process is “very, very long,” he said. There are drafts, hearings, more drafts and additional consultations before the statement is presented to the assembly for adoption by a two-thirds vote. The statements “don’t bind but inform,” Hanson added.
* In considering its recommendations to the Churchwide Assembly, the LIFT Task Force has been guided by two questions, Hanson said: (1) What is God calling this church to be and do in the future, and (2) what changes are required to accomplish these tasks?
* Regarding departures from the ELCA, Hanson said that to date, 794 congregations have taken a total of 851 first votes, of which 598 passed and 253 have failed; 497 second votes have been taken, and 472 have passed. (Withdrawing from the ELCA takes two votes.) Most congregations leaving the ELCA have joined the LCMC – Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ. Less than a half dozen have joined the LCMS.
For the LCMS:
* Harrison distributed copies of the May issue of The Lutheran Witness (www.lcms.org/witness), which provides a snapshot of the LCMS. “We have some real financial challenges,” Harrison said. Because of the steady decline in undesignated funds over the past 30-40 years, the ability of the national church body to function “is severely reduced,” he said, explaining that undesignated funds support the administrative functions of the national Synod, pay for utilities at the International Center, enable, for example, the work of the CTCR, and make possible many other support activities.
In contrast, Harrison said, other parts of the Synod – e.g., Concordia Publishing House, the LCMS Foundation, the Lutheran Church Extension Fund, Concordia Plans – remain healthy as a result of good leadership. To confront the financial realities faced by LCMS Inc., the Synod has made some “painful, painful, cuts,” Harrison said.
* To complement Harrison’s presentation, CAO Ron Schultz presented a preview of the FY 2012 budget, which projects revenues of some $77.2 million and expenses of $76.7 million, down some $10 million each from FY 2011. Schultz also noted that the FY 2012 budget proposes no pay raises and reflects a reduction of 57 staff positions compared to FY 2011.
* WITNESS, MERCY, LIFE TOGETHER and the reorganization mandated by the 2010 Synod convention: Assistant to the President Below provided the committee with an overview of the reorganization mandated by the LCMS convention and the WITNESS, MERCY, LIFE TOGETHER emphasis endorsed by the Office of the President.
“We are beginning to put the plan into place,” Below said. “We are completing phase one with employee rollouts.” Phase two will be akin to “putting drywall on the house,” she said. It will be staff-driven and led. Phase one, which included the staff reductions as well as reorganization, will have been easy compared with the work ahead, Below observed.
“Restructuring isn’t done; it’s just beginning. For example, it will take us several months just to map a new chart of accounts.”
Below noted that there were no plans to dilute familiar LCMS brands such as World Mission and World Relief and Human Care. “The reality is we don’t want to mess with what the donors value,” she said.
Below concluded by noting the benefits of the new structure and the WITNESS, MERCY, LIFE TOGETHER emphasis: an opportunity to remove roadblocks and improve processes, a biblical focus for the national office’s work, a sense that every vocation has value, and a structure that encourages working together.
“The convention handed us a football, and we have the chance to play the game,” Below said. “At the end of all this we will be more efficient and better able to respond.
“Those same words would describe our efforts,” Hanson said.
For the ELCA:
* McCoid reported that the ELCA has pledged $500,000 to Japan for disaster response. Also, at present, the ELCA maintains a “ministry of accompaniment” in approximately 90 countries. He noted that a strategic plan for the Lutheran World Federation communion will be considered at the LWF council meeting June 9-14 in Geneva. The plan is a strong statement, McCoid said, and helps the LWF identify with “our global community.” Like many other organizations, the LWF is facing financial challenges, but is positioned to serve as an important leader, McCoid added.
* Episcopal Church: McCoid noted that the ELCA recently celebrated a decade of full communion with the Episcopal Church in North America. The milestone was noted on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border, McCoid said.
* United Methodist Church: McCoid reported that the ELCA’s relationship with the denomination continues to grow. “We are discussing what it means to be in full communion with them,” he said. Coordinating committee ministry continues also with Presbyterians, Reformed Church in America, United Church of Christ, and the Moravians. A new round on Teaching Authority in the Church is scheduled with Roman Catholics. Also, the ELCA and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church are seeking closer cooperation on the local level, he said.
*Anabaptists/Mennonites: McCoid encouraged the LCMS to “look deeply” at the statements and requests for forgiveness and reconciliation the LWF and ELCA have made regarding the persecution of Anabaptists in the 16th century. He noted that a three-way conversation among Lutherans (the LWF), Mennonites and the Vatican will begin soon.
For the LCMS:
* Partner churches: LCMS Director of Church Relations Collver highlighted the Synod’s altar and pulpit fellowship agreement reached last December with the Siberian Evangelical Lutheran Church. He also reported that two of the Synod’s partner churches, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Argentina and the Lutheran Church of Guatemala, have elected new presidents. In addition, he called attention to the Synod’s International Student Seminary Education Program (http://lcms.org/projects), which brings men from around the world to study at the Synod’s seminaries and allows seminary professors the opportunity to teach at partner-church seminaries around the world. Collver noted that a challenge gift of $250,000 in matching funds had been placed before the Synod for this program.
* International Conference: Collver distributed copies of the conference brochure for the Ninth International Lutheran Theological Conference Oct. 4-7 in Prague. The theme of the conference: “Lutheranism in the 21st Century.” After a short discussion and review of past conferences, Collver encouraged the ELCA to send an observer.
* CTCR: Associate Executive Director Vogel summarized the recent work of the commission, including preparations for an international model theological conference in the fall of 2012 and the Synod’s continued preparations for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017. He distributed copies of the CTCR’s recent document, “Together with All Creatures” and reported on the current work of the commission, including studies relating to the natural knowledge of God, biblical hermeneutics, sexuality (man and woman), the theology of science and the theology of prayer.
Vogel also highlighted recent discussions with the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Church in North America, while Harrison reported that the Synod and the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Church were continuing conversations initiated while Dr. Gerald B. Kieschnick was LCMS president. In WELS, Harrison said, “there’s a new wind blowing about talking with Missouri.”
* Also on the topic of external relations, Collver reported that the next meeting of the International Lutheran Council is scheduled for June 2012 and that the Synod is engaging also in discussions with emerging confessional Lutheran groups in Norway, Sweden and India.
The theological portion of the meeting focused broadly on Law and Go