The past couple months I have had the privilege of representing Lutheran CORE at four most inspiring events – the NALC theology conference, missions festival, and convocation (August 6-9 in Indianapolis); Lutheran CORE’s annual Encuentro bi-lingual ministries festival (September 14 at an ELCA congregation in Chicago); the STS (Society of the Holy Trinity) general retreat (September 24-26 at a Roman Catholic retreat center north of Chicago); and the LCMC gathering (September 29-October 2 in Omaha).
Space does not allow for a thorough report on all of them, so what I would like to do is to share one or two highlights from each of them.
INDOOR VS. OUTDOOR CHRISTIANITY
On behalf of Lutheran CORE I would like to extend our congratulations to Pastor Dan Selbo on his election as the next bishop of the North American Lutheran Church. Our prayers and best wishes are with him as he steps into this position of leadership, care, and oversight. The answers that he gave to such questions as “What Should Be the NALC’S Most Important Ministry Priorities?” and “What Challenges Do You See Facing the NALC?” make me confident that he is going to give wise, powerful, and effective leadership for the church. I believe that the Holy Spirit was present and guiding the process for the election of a new bishop.
The address from Gemechis Buba, Assistant to the Bishop for Missions, at the close of the missions festival was most inspiring. He based his presentation on the account in John 20 of what took place on that first Easter Sunday evening. John tells us that as “the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you. . . . As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’” Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (verses 19-22).
Dr. Buba commented, “When the Holy Spirit is blown on us, there are no more closed doors.” Many are accustomed to indoors Christianity. They see everything as diminishing and closing. But the Holy Spirit is moving us from indoor Christianity – where there are closed doors – to outdoor Christianity – where there are open doors. He spoke of several Oromo churches, who at first were concerned because they were being kicked out of buildings. They were wondering, “Where will we go now?” They are no longer renting buildings. Rather they are buying buildings.
Dr. Buba also shared how the church of Jesus Christ is always under pressure. The persecution and pressure may be different in different parts of the world, but we are all under pressure. Satan is seeking to destroy the church. But when the Holy Spirit is leading the church, the church becomes unstoppable. Receiving the Holy Spirit, the early disciples moved from being in one room behind closed doors to being out in the world, speaking in many different languages.
Dr. Buba reminded us that some say that there is no future for the church in present-day America. But we follow an unstoppable Holy Spirit. With the early disciples we move from one room with closed doors in Jerusalem through open doors to all over the world.
May we follow our crucified and risen Lord Jesus, who has given us the Holy Spirit and who now leads us to follow him from behind closed doors into the outside, waiting world.
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I believe that our annual bi-lingual ministries Encuentro is our strongest connecting point with the ELCA. The Encuentro is an annual gathering of inspiration, fellowship, support, and resources for pastors, lay leaders, and congregations who either are currently involved in or are considering becoming involved in Spanish and/or bilingual (Spanish-English) ministries. It is held at an ELCA congregation in northwest Chicago (St. Timothy Lutheran Church). It is co-sponsored by Lutheran CORE and the Bilingual Ministries Resource Center out of First and Santa Cruz Lutheran Church in Joliet, Illinois (another ELCA congregation). The majority of those who attend are ELCA, and the majority of the presenters are ELCA – including pastors, theologians, and national church staff. We were especially delighted this year to receive an email greeting from Bishop Jeffrey Clements of the ELCA’s Northern Illinois Synod, and we were deeply honored that Bishop-Elect Yehiel Curry of the ELCA’s Metro Chicago Synod stopped by. Bishop-Elect Curry said during his greeting, “I represent the entire synod.” How delighted we were that the bishop would include in his definition of “the entire synod” a congregation that would host an event planned and sponsored by Lutheran CORE.
When so much of our work is a critical review of much of what is done and valued by the ELCA, it is refreshing to have this annual event, which is a source of support and encouragement for many in the ELCA. Lutheran CORE and the ELCA disagree on many, very basic things, but we do agree on the importance of reaching out to and receiving the gifts of Spanish-speaking people.
I would also want to mention the intentional inter-Lutheran outreach of this annual event. We were very happy to welcome several LCMS pastors and lay people.
Main presenter was Dr. Maxwell Johnson, ELCA theologian and professor at Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana. Dr. Johnson is incredibly knowledgeable, dynamic, energetic, and even funny. He really engages with his audience and is very clear in his teaching of the orthodox Christian faith. Much of his second presentation was on the Virgin of Guadalupe and her appearance to a native Mexican peasant farmer by the name of Juan Diego. Much of what he said reminded me of the Magnificat in Luke 1, where Mary praised God for lifting up the lowly (verse 52). Dr. Maxwell shared how her appearance gave the hope of the Gospel to people who had no Good News from what was coming from Spain. Juan Diego was one of the low and despised indigenous persons who became a messenger of God to the powerful, both in government as well as in the church. Dr. Maxwell sees her appearing as an example of God’s care for and identification with the poor. He said, “For people who have been told that they are inferior – for the Juan Diegos of this world – there is vindication.” He added, “The Virgin of Guadalupe is not necessary for salvation, but she is an expression of God’s love.”
It was exciting to see the extent to which St. Timothy is reaching out to its neighborhood. There were several from the community present during part of the event, and both the beginning of a mariachi-led Misa Panamericana as well as a prayer vigil for peace in the city of Chicago were held outside – as a witness to the community. One woman who came with her family to the Encuentro invited everyone to her home on the evening of Wednesday, December 11, the day before the annual commemoration of the Virgin of Guadalupe on December 12. This will be one of several Wednesday evening Advent prayer gatherings for the St. Timothy congregation. The text for these evening home Bible studies and Vespers will be Mary’s Magnificat from Luke’s Gospel.
Part of the festival was a re-dedication of a more-than-a-century-old baptismal font, which had not been used in worship for several years. That rededication seemed like a recommitment on the part of the congregation to reach out to its community.
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NOT ASHAMED OR AFRAID TO CALL GOD FATHER
The second time I had the opportunity to hear from Dr. Maxwell Johnson was at the Society of the Holy Trinity (STS) general retreat. At that event he spoke on “Ecclesia Semper Reformanda” (the church must always be reformed) as it relates to baptism and the eucharist. I deeply appreciated the powerful case he built against the radical hospitality movement, which would invite all people to receive the Lord’s Supper whether or not they have been baptized. Here are some of the statements Dr. Johnson made which I thought were particularly helpful and insightful. “In baptism the eucharist begins; in the eucharist baptism is sustained.” “No one deserves baptism; the eucharist is the birthright of the baptized.” “The exclusion of the unbaptized from the eucharist is not to protect the eucharist, but out of pastoral care and concern for the unbaptized.” They might not be ready to make a confession of faith in Christ and to commit to the costly discipleship of the life of following Christ. I also appreciated his comment, “The purpose of liturgy is not to permeate our lives with ritual, but to permeate our lives with Christ.”
It was refreshing being with people who are not hesitant to affirm the Trinity and the Trinitarian nature of our faith. It was also refreshing being with people who are not afraid and ashamed to call God Father. The Society of the Holy Trinity is an inter-Lutheran ministerium which regularly gathers pastors for mutual encouragement, prayer, and study, fortifying continued faithfulness to ordination vows.
The campus of the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary, where the retreat was held, is beautiful, and the singing at the worship services was awesome. Very often I did not join in the singing because I just wanted to be surrounded by the beauty of voices lifted up in praise to God.
The Rev. Dr. Ryan Mills, STS, pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in New Haven, Connecticut, and dean of the New England Chapter of the Society, gave the message at the closing worship service. The Scripture passages were the account of the Last Supper in Mark 14 and Luke’s description of the shipwreck on the way to Rome in Acts 27. As I listened to those passages being read, I was wondering how they were going to be related to each other. The way Pastor Mills did it was brilliant.
In Mark 14 Jesus sends a couple of his disciples into Jerusalem, where they are to follow a man carrying a jar of water. Men usually did not carry water in those days, so this man was sure to catch their attention. They were to follow him to a house where a large upstairs room would be furnished and ready for them to eat the Passover. Mark tells us, “So the disciples set out and went to the city and found everything as he had told them” (verse 16). All that we need for our faith to be nourished and sustained Jesus has furnished. It is ready in the Lord’s Supper. The grace that he has promised and that we need is available there – just as he has told us.
In his description of the storm in Acts 27 Luke uses phrases like these. “We were being pounded by the storm so violently” (verse 18). “All hope of our being saved was at last abandoned” (verse 20). “We were drifting across the sea” (verse 27). “Fearing that we might run on the rocks, they . . . prayed for day to come” (verse 29). What did Paul do in a situation like that? He urged them all to take some food – to help them survive. Verses 35 and 36 – “He took bread; and giving thanks to God in the presence of all, he broke it and began to eat. Then all of them were encouraged and took food for themselves.”
Often we feel like we have been caught in a powerful storm of unfavorable circumstances. We feel pounded violently. We can lose all hope of being saved. We feel like we are drifting. Fearful, we pray that day will come. In circumstances such as these what do we need? The body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, to give us courage, strength, and spiritual sustenance. Having heard that message, and having attended that retreat, I felt ready to return to the challenges of life – knowing that Jesus has already prepared all I will need, and that with his presence and grace I can weather the storms.
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INTENTIONAL INTERIM MINISTRY
Attending the LCMC annual gathering, I was blessed and encouraged by the resources that that association provides for congregations that are between pastors, in the call process, and/or in transition. I attended breakout sessions for Call Committee Coaches, on Intentional Interim Ministry (with a focus on the interim pastor), and on Pastoral Succession. I had a hard time choosing between a second breakout session on Intentional Interim Ministry (with a focus on the congregation) and the session on Pastoral Succession. I found myself wishing they were not being offered at the same time.
The session for Call Committee Coaches was led by Perry Fruhling, LCMC Coordinator for Pastoral Ministry. I commend Perry for all the resources he has for congregations that are in the call process. I also deeply appreciate the strong endorsement he has given to Lutheran CORE’s Congregations in Transition ministry initiative.
I was very interested in attending the breakout sessions on Intentional Interim Ministry and Pastoral Succession because I have seen the tragedies that can happen when pastoral succession does not go well. I have seen a strong, orthodox ELCA congregation where orthodoxy did not survive a change in pastors. I have seen the massive disruption and great damage that can happen when the largest congregation in a synod trusts the synod to supply them with their next pastor. I have seen a congregation “settle” for a pastor in order to relieve their own anxiety rather than doing the hard work of continuing in the search process. This congregation is now paying a high price. I have seen what can happen when one person manipulates and controls the call process rather than allows it to be a unique opportunity for the congregation to learn from its past, identify its strengths, and prepare itself for a new future. Having seen what can happen, I was very grateful to learn about the Intentional Interim Ministry that the LCMC has to offer its congregations.
I was intrigued with the comparison that was given between repairing a parking lot and interim ministry. One option is just to fill the potholes. That would be like simply having pulpit supply. A second option would be to apply a thin coat of sealant that would get you through another winter. That would be like having an interim pastor who has not been trained to be an intentional interim. The third option would be to take the time and put forth the effort to take off a few layers and get down to the foundation. That would be like having an intentional interim.
Three kinds of situations were described where having an intentional interim would be particularly recommended – after a long-term pastor, where there have been several different pastors in a short period of time, and when a pastor leaves suddenly or unexpectedly. The comment was made that a congregation should have an intentional interim for one month for every year of the former pastor’s call – but no less than a year.
We learned that intentional interims can and need to be “truth speakers.” Using all the capital and credits that they have, they can deal with issues that the next called pastor will then not have to deal with. A big difference between an intentional interim and the next called pastor is that the intentional interim will be leaving. That factor alone might enable the intentional interim to do what needs to be done.
People attending the breakout session were encouraged to consider whether they might have the gifts and calling to be an intentional interim. We were told that intentional interims have got to be able to love all people – even very difficult people – as they draw from the well of God’s great love for us. They have got to be able to remain calm and be a non-anxious presence. And they have got to be engaged in doing self-care.
I am very grateful to Dawn Spies, Steve Abend, and Steve Lien (former LCMC coordinator of pastoral ministry) for leading the workshop. The next day I was talking with a friend who is serving his second term as an intentional interim. I thanked him for what he is doing, and I committed myself to pray and ask God to bless those who serve in this way and to raise up more intentional interims.
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Thank you to the organizers of and the presenters at these four events. I am very grateful for the opportunity to attend, I value the ministry partnerships, and I enjoy the relational connections.
Blessings in Christ,
Dennis D. Nelson
Executive Director of Lutheran CORE