By Paula Schlueter Ross
Addressing some two dozen black LCMS pastors Feb. 7 in Selma, Ala., LCMS President Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison said his office is “ready to move” on a search to find a candidate to serve as a national director for black ministry.
Harrison made his remarks to members of the Synod’s Black Clergy Caucus at their Feb. 6-9 conference at Concordia College, Selma. He said the position description would be posted in LCMS periodicals and on the website soon, and he encouraged the Synod’s black leaders to help him fill the new post.
Whoever is called to the position, he said, would bring the concerns and needs of those in black ministries to the attention of the mostly-white national Synod.
In his two-hour presentation, Harrison also talked about his rural Iowa background, explained the Synod’s budget challenges and led a Bible study on the “Witness, Mercy, Life Together” synodwide emphasis.
The LCMS, he said, needs “to do a better job of listening, talking and trying to understand one another” to solve problems. But, in spite of the challenges that face the church body today, he said it “has unbelievable blessing and capacity” to make a difference in the world.
Harrison said he believes that the Synod’s black ministry would benefit “by looking outside of itself,” and encouraged every caucus member to visit Africa, for example, and make new connections.
He also suggested a caucus retreat to determine “where we’re at, where we want to go and how to get there.”
During a question-and-answer period, the Rev. Dr. McNair Ramsey Jr., a recently retired administrator at Concordia, Selma, held up recent copies of two Synod publications. Ramsey said the fact that there were no African-Americans pictured “disturbs me greatly,” and he challenged the Synod to “bring some color” to its publications.
The Rev. Gregory K. Williamson, installed in January as the Synod’s first chief mission officer and also attending the Black Clergy Caucus, told Ramsey, “you’re absolutely right.” Showing more cultural diversity in LCMS communications materials is “one thing we need to fix,” Williamson said, and he promised to “fix it.”
Addressing the same topic later on, former caucus Vice-President Rev. James McDaniels, pastor of St. Luke Lutheran Church in High Point, N.C., said members of the Synod’s black congregations need to “see more African-Americans … in Sunday-morning bulletins” so they will feel more a part of the LCMS.
Only one black congregation submitted an overture to the last LCMS national convention, in 2010, McDaniels said. “We need to call, and write, and pass resolutions on black ministry to get things done,” he said. As black Lutherans, he added, “we need to do our part.”
In his presentation to the caucus, Williamson, who has a military background, shared a “common thread among great leaders.” Most are “well-educated and informed by faith,” he said, and come from “devout homes.”
He focused on what he called “seams in the church” that are “exploitable” and need to be mended:
- LCMS communications, particularly from the president’s office to districts and congregations. “How many LCMS members read The Lutheran Witness? Are we relevant to the people we serve?” he asked, and he suggested increasing the flow of information between “the people in the pew and our Synod.”
- “languished” relationships with church bodies in other countries. “We can’t forget about our allies in ministry,” he said, or “we are ripe for defeat.”
- pastors’ relationships with their congregation members. “Where are the seams and gaps in your ministry?” he asked. If pastors can’t communicate with church members, they’re “irrelevant,” he said.
- the “downward trend of parochial education in the LCMS.” Williamson said the Synod must continue to endorse “rigorous education,” which he has seen “makes a difference in people.”
With 1.2 billion people, China is the largest ethnic population in the world and the second-highest financial power, right behind the United States, he said. Why couldn’t the Synod set a goal to produce — through its education system — 1,000 Mandarin speakers over the next 25 years? These graduates could serve in business, government, finance and other vocations, he said, perhaps influencing those they meet with their faith.
“We need to think in new ways for ministry,” Williamson said, and “can no longer focus on a world geographically, but we must focus on people.”
The Rev. Dr. Tilahun Mendedo, president of Concordia, Selma, reported on the “state of the college” — which is changing its name to “Concordia College Alabama” — and its hopes for the future.
Although the college has students from other states and countries, it is still predominantly black, Mendedo said. A goal is to make the student body “as diverse as possible,” he said, and the school is working “intentionally” to do that.
The chapel that opened last year on the campus now has between 40 and 100-plus worshipers on Sunday, he said, and a new West Campus on busy Broad Street has given the school “more visibility and exposure.”
The college is launching a five-year capital campaign with a goal of raising $15 million, and also wants to start a foundation, so donors are needed, Mendedo said. Concordia is “still struggling” financially, he said, but a successful campaign would “leave us afloat.”
Some 98 percent of the growing student body — and close to 80 percent of faculty — are not Lutheran, according to Mendedo. “The Good News is here,” he told Reporter, and “it is not too late” to help those non-Lutherans “understand God’s love in Christ Jesus so that they appreciate our confessional values [and] may believe, teach and confess it in their vocations.”
With lots of renovation plans, the college could use lots of volunteers, he said, and he encouraged the pastors to bring crews of workers from their congregations to the campus to “help build [it] up together.”
Mendedo suggested three ways to help the college:
- Pray, “both personally and in your church.”
- Encourage students to attend Concordia, Selma. “You have influence” among children, grandchildren, neighbors and friends, Mendedo said, “just as others have influenced your life.”
- Support the college, both financially and with gifts of time.
Others who addressed the caucus included:
- the Rev. Dr. Lawrence R. Rast Jr., president of Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Ind. Rast, who addressed “the future of theological education in the LCMS,” said traditional residential seminary education “will continue” but will have to meet the needs of a changing society in which most young people do not attend church services and church memberships are aging.
He said the Fort Wayne seminary and Concordia College, Selma, are working together to establish a seminary extension program on the Selma campus, perhaps as early as 2013.
Rast also asked, “What can we do to partner with the Black Clergy Caucus now to increase the number of African-American pastors in the LCMS?” One suggestion was the need for more black faculty members at the Synod’s two seminaries, and Rast encouraged caucus members to send him the names of those who might serve on the school’s faculty or staff. “I’m determined to diversify our faculty,” he said.
He added that nominations for both seminaries’ boards of regents — and other LCMS positions that will be decided at the Synod’s 2013 national convention, including the boards of directors for the LCMS, CPH and Concordia University System — may be made until the Oct. 20 deadline. (Click here to download a PDF of the nomination form.)
Another suggestion was made to introduce children to church careers earlier, such as when they’re in elementary and high school. Rast described the seminary’s Christ Academy program that invites high-school youth for on-campus visits, and offered to explore the possibility of holding a Christ Academy event at Concordia, Selma, as well.
- the Rev. Quentin Poulson, director of Ethnic and Black Ministries with the LCMS Board for National Mission. Poulson said the Synod’s black ministry needs to “embrace multi-ethnic ministry” or it won’t have a future in today’s increasingly multi-ethnic communities.
He said Lutheran congregations need to have “Christ-centered values,” be “mission-focused” but also respond to people’s physical needs, and be “spiritually healthy” with all members active in ministry.
Poulson encouraged congregations to work together to identify leaders, provide training and serve others, and he gave examples of LCMS congregations and schools that are making a difference in their communities.
- James Sanft, president and CEO of Concordia Plan Services (CPS). Sanft said CPS is “run with tremendous efficiencies” and works with other national church associations to keep health-care costs to a minimum.
He said the CPS “Be Well Rewards” program — which provides a cash incentive to those who take part in healthy behaviors — last year paid out $1.6 million in awards to some 11,400 LCMS workers and their spouses. Acknowledging that that was only 23 percent of the total “potential reward,” Sanft said he’s still “glad we got 11,000 people thinking about health and wellness.”
He encouraged caucus members to take part in the 2012 “Be Well Rewards” program, which began Feb. 1, and said the cash reward has been increased to $300 (from $250 last year), with an additional $50 that may be earned with 24 consecutive weeks of physical activity. Sanft called physical activity “critical, critical, critical” for keeping health-care costs down.
He also described components of the administration’s health-care reform and how they might affect Concordia Plan Services and Synod workers, and said CPS is working on strategies to maintain quality health care for the future.
In a question-and-answer session, Sanft urged caucus members to find out if their congregations qualify for the Small Business Health Care Tax Credit, which can provide thousands of dollars to churches with fewer than 25 full-time employees. For more information, visit the CPS website at www.concordiaplans.org.
- the Rev. Kurtis Schultz, president of the Synod’s Southern District. Schultz lamented that there aren’t enough black — or white, or other ethnic — pastors being recruited in the LCMS to replace those who are retiring. He said the Synod is not unlike other U.S. Christian denominations in that all are declining.
But in Ethiopia, East Africa, he said, the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus is thriving with some 6 million members. Based in Addis Ababa, it is the largest — and fastest growing — Lutheran church body in the world, he said.
When he had an opportunity to visit Ethiopia in January, Schultz made the trip to learn “what is it that they’re doing that they can teach us?” The “key,” he said, is that the Mekane Yesus church goes “to where the people are” and finds “ways to make connections.” Its leaders “spend time with people” and when they see a need, they fill it. It’s an “incarnational … lay-driven church,” he said, whose members “give back” by contributing their time and talents.
“This is first-century Christendom,” Schultz said, and is similar to the way Rosa Young took the Gospel across Alabama, opening Lutheran schools. “Isn’t that what Jesus told us to do?” He encouraged caucus members to also visit Ethiopia, and said he believes church leaders there “have more to give to us than we will ever give to them.”
The Rev. Dr. Bryant Clancy of St. Louis, a past executive director of the former Board for Black Ministry Services, said he enjoyed Schultz’s presentation on Ethiopia and the district president’s encouragement to visit Africa.
Clancy told Reporter he would like to “go [to Ethiopia] and take a look and see” how Lutherans there are reaching so many others with the Gospel. “It is the largest Lutheran body in the world, so, obviously, they’re doing some tremendous work.” He added that he believes “we can learn a great deal from that.”
Another highlight, Clancy said, was learning from Rast that the Fort Wayne seminary is working with Concordia College to establish an on-campus pastoral-training program. “I think that’s excellent,” he said.
Commenting on the new director for black ministry position, McDaniels told Reporter he hopes “the church is looking for someone in black ministry who can help to ‘build bridges’ between all races and cultures in the church, and among church workers as well as people in the pew. We need someone in that office who will help the LCMS work effectively in ‘Witness, Mercy and our Life Together’ in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
The Rev. James Wiggins Jr., former caucus president and pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Jacksonville, Fla., called the conference “a huge success” and cited two highlights:
- LCMS President Harrison’s pledge “that an African-American will be added as high-level staff within the new structure of the LCMS to provide leadership that is so desperately needed to assure that black ministry is fostered, facilitated and respected” at all Synod levels, and
- “the support of [seminary] President Rast to actively pursue avenues with the Black Clergy Caucus and Concordia College, Selma, that will strengthen recruitment of African-American church workers to serve the LCMS.”
The conference, held annually, also included a variety of other pre