We’ve just completed a week at the ELCA Churchwide Assembly in Columbus, and I thought it would be helpful to share with you a brief summary of some of the highlights, as well as my own thoughts and impressions of a short but very full week. If you’d like to review the events in more detail as well as view the video recordings of the plenary sessions and worship services, you can find them at https://www.elca.org/churchwideassembly.
Voting members. The following individuals attended Churchwide Assembly as the Greater Milwaukee Synod’s voting members: Bishop Paul Erickson, Dr. Joyce Caldwell, Soledad Beltran, Todd Beutin, Ian Bischoff, Johnathan Dehlinger, The Rev. Kimberly Jordan, Charlotte Linberry, The Rev. Denise Mbise, Briana Roberts, Deacon Ellie Schmidtke, The Rev. Beth Ann Stone, and Carol Yust. Thank you to all of them for their service!
Health issues. In our own delegation, we had several individuals who needed to withdraw from participating in the days leading up to the event for various reasons, but we were able to substitute a lay voting member from Emaus-ELCA in Racine, Soledad Beltran, who was attending as a visitor. COVID-related protocols at the assembly had been upgraded to include requiring masks by all participants, as well as vaccinations for COVID and daily testing. There were several individuals who came down with COVID during the assembly, including Bishop Eaton, who tested positive on Friday morning. Another change related to the pandemic was the shortening of the assembly by a full day from the previous assembly’s schedule, and several bible studies and forums were held in the weeks prior to the assembly via Zoom.
Worship. Always a highlight of assemblies, the worship life at the assembly was powerful and rich. We were blessed to have our own Dayvin Hallmon, director of the Black String Triage Ensemble, as one of the assembly musicians, and they led us in a wide variety of liturgies and hymns, including a Wednesday Eucharist service that celebrated Native American music, liturgy, and preaching.
Public Apology. One of the more powerful sessions, on Tuesday afternoon, included a public apology from Bishop Eaton to four members of La Iglesia Luterana de Santa Maria Peregrina in Stockton, California. (The details of the events concerning that congregation and the Sierra Pacific Synod are referred to in a pastoral letter that I wrote back in June.) The apology included commitments to continue working to make amends for the harm done to the community, and a renewed commitment to take the actions called for in various anti-racism statements of the ELCA. This apology was received by the members of the community and this powerful time was followed by a worship service of lament and prayer.
New ELCA Vice-President. We elected Imran Saddiqui, the Southeastern Synod Vice President, on the fifth ballot to a six-year term as the ELCA Vice President. The other final candidates were Roberto Lara Aranda, President of the Latino Lutheran Association, and Tracey Beasley, Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod Vice President. Saddiqui has a fascinating personal story, having converted from Islam 10 years ago, and was just elected to a second four-year term as the Southeastern Synod Vice President. He brings a wide range of experiences to the position, including work with consensus-based decision-making.
Legislative Actions. There was a total of 78 memorials from synods across the ELCA, though many of these were quite similar. The way the assembly works is that there is a memorials committee that meets in early July and, in partnership with Churchwide staff, groups the memorials together and prepares background information and recommendations for the assembly to act upon in a large “en bloc” resolution. Members of the assembly can request that individual memorials be “pulled from en bloc” for separate consideration, and many of the memorials were considered separately. Other resolutions can also be presented to the assembly, and these are reviewed by the Reference and Counsel Committee (which I had the pleasure of serving on this year). It’s a complicated and often challenging process, but we worked our way through all of the resolutions and made some important decisions:
- Reconstituting the ELCA. We voted to establish a Commission for a Renewed Lutheran Church, which will work over the next three years to “reconsider the statements of purpose for each of the three expressions of this church, the principles of its organizational structure, and all matters pertaining thereunto, being particularly attentive to our shared commitment to dismantle racism, and will present its findings and recommendations to the 2025 Churchwide Assembly in preparation for a possible reconstituting assembly.” This is a major undertaking, and I believe there are various reasons this proposal passed overwhelmingly, but the general recognition is that the structures of this church, which were created in the 1980s and have been tweaked repeatedly over the years, need a more thorough overhaul. The ELCA Church Council will begin the work of forming this commission and clarifying their charge at their November meeting.
- Governance review. There were a number of other resolutions passed regarding how our church functions, and task forces were called for to review such things as: on leave from call, the ecclesiastical ballot, the use of Nondisclosure Agreements, and one calling for a Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility Audit of the ELCA governing documents. It’s hard to say at this point how these reviews will intersect with the work of the Commission on the Renewed Lutheran Church, but it’s safe to say that there’s a lot of work in front of us as we try to reform and renew the structures of our church so that we can more boldly and freely proclaim the Gospel.
- Human Sexuality Social Statement. One of the memorials that came from our synod called for a revision of the 2009 Social Statement, Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust. This original memorial was interpreted to be a narrower request for updating the language to reflect current realities and understandings, and it was adopted. A second resolution was presented that called for a more substantive revision, including a reconsideration of the provisions related to bound conscience, and this resolution also passed by a large margin.
2025 CWA. The end result of all of these actions is that the 2025 Churchwide Assembly, to be held in Phoenix, Arizona, will have a rather full agenda:
- Electing a presiding bishop and secretary
- Receiving the report of the Commission for a Renewed Lutheran Church and deciding whether to call for a reconstituting convention
- Receiving recommendations from the other governance task forces
- Acting on the proposed social statement on the Church and Civic Engagement (called for in 2019) and the revised social statement on Human Sexuality
In summary, it was a full and exhausting week, and I left feeling tentatively hopeful for our future. This church is far from perfect, and we have lots of work to do to address the harm and pain that our brokenness has caused. But there were so many folks in Columbus this past week who are committed to doing the work in front of us, and so many folks who love this church, and, more importantly, love the Gospel this church has been entrusted to share. I’m not sure where this work will lead, but I am looking forward to discovering how the Spirit works and moves with us, among us, and in spite of us to break us and make us new.
Bishop Paul Erickson
ADDITIONAL READING: “5 things you need to know from the ELCA Churchwide Assembly”