2013 ELCA National Assembly: Why Should I Care?

This week, Lutherans from all over the country are gathered in Pittsburgh for our Assembly. This is a bunch of people of faith, gathered together to do the business of our human institutions, but we believe that God shows up in our human work.   We believe this is one of the ways that we hear God’s voice telling us what new and exciting directions God wants us to go!

We’re also talking through some pretty big social and cultural issues, and electing a Presiding Bishop who will speak publicly about them, so there is possibility for the voice of the Lutheran Church to be a positive one for social justice.  We believe that when the Holy Spirit leads the church, the culture is being slowly changed as well. 

Just like any human institution, the ELCA has lots of insider language, lots of organizational structure, some policies and procedures, and all that other stuff that doesn’t always make sense if you don’t grow up in it.  (or even if you do!)  Here is a Frequently Asked Questions list, so that you might be better able to understand the ways God is moving this human institution that maybe you are a part of now.

What’s the ELCA?
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is one of the Lutheran denominations in the United States.  We are 4 million Christians in 10,000 congregations united Jesus Christ.  We are organized into 65 local regions, or “synods,” and each one has a local bishop and a local council made up of pastors and non-pastors together.  This is our human way of organizing so that we can be with other people to share faith and do good in the world. 

What’s a bishop?
In the ELCA, a bishop is a pastor who others have chosen to provide leadership.  They help the church speak publicly in the world about what we believe, they help congregations to grow and through conflict, and provide some administrative oversight.  Our bishops serve three year terms (usually, with some local variation) and can be reelected.  We do not think they are infallible, or closer to God in any way, just that they are the best ones for this particular task.

What is the Assembly?
Every few years Lutherans from around the country gather to do some church business.  (Previously every two years, moving to every three years now.) We worship together, study Scripture, socialize, hear reports from around the church, set new policies and procedures, and issue Social Statements.  All of this business stuff helps us figure out who God wants us to be today, and how to be that. 

Who is there voting?
Here’s the really cool thing: in the ELCA we believe that God talks not only to pastors and church professionals, but to the everyday people in our churches.  (We call these people “Lay” when we mean “not clergy.)  Each local region chooses both lay and clergy leaders to go, not to represent them, but because we trust them to listen to the Holy Spirit together.  Each of the 65 local bishops also vote.

Why Pittsburgh?
The assembly moves around the country, trying to meet in different regions, and not just the tourist destination cities.  We want to be real in the real places of the country.  It’s just Pittsburgh’s turn this year.

What business is the Assembly doing?
We’re electing a Presiding Bishop and Secretary, and working on two Social Statements: Women and Justice, and Criminal Justice.  We’ll be thinking seriously about how to structure our institution to better suit the world we live in today, and many other wonky things.

What’s a Presiding Bishop?
The Presiding Bishop is the head bishop of the entire ELCA.   He or she speaks publicly for ELCA Lutherans in the country, listens to us and provides leadership for the denomination.  She or he is not seen as infallible, just the right person for this task at this time.  The Presiding Bishop serves six year terms, and can be re-elected.

How is a Presiding Bishop elected?
A Presiding Bishop must be elected by 2/3rds of the votes cast.  On the first ballot, and voting member can write in any name who they think would serve well.  (Most often these are people who have served as synod bishops, seminary presidents, or leaders of Lutheran nonprofits, but they don’t have to be.)  The people who have received the most nominations continue on to further ballots.  Many ballots can be cast, with the bottom candidates being dropped off each time.  As the slate gets smaller and smaller, candidates answer questions and share their thoughts.  Songs and prayers surround each ballot.

So, tell me about this Presiding Bishop election!
Bishop Mark Hanson has been the Presiding Bishop of the ELCA for 12 years, and he is widely liked and respected.  At the same time, there are people who think that maybe 18 years would be too long for one Presiding Bishop to lead, and would like to see some new voices.  To most of us watching, it seems like a well liked and respected incumbent would easily be re-elected, but to our surprise, there seems to be a real contest!

Anything interesting for us in the Gulf Coast Synod?
Yes!  On the first ballot, our own local bishop, Bishop Mike Rinehart, was nominated, and in fact, was in third place!  He declined to run further.  You can read all about his reasons at bishopmike.com . We’re glad that we get to keep him here in TX a little longer!

What’s happening with this election?
After the first few ballots, we started this morning with 7 candidates: four women and three men!  Two men and one woman respectfully declined to run further, so this morning we heard from three women and our incumbent, current Presiding Bishop. One more vote was taken, and three candidates are presenting this afternoon: Bishop Mark Hanson, Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, and Bishop Jessica Crist. 

This is all totally transparent: the Assembly is livestreamed, and there are more than 1,000 people watching online, talking on facebook, tweeting, etc!  You can watch yourself, and see every document the voting members see, at: http://www.elca.org/Who-We-Are/Our-Three-Expressions/Churchwide-Organization/Office-of-the-Secretary/ELCA-Governance/Churchwide-Assembly.aspx

In this election, the favorite seems to change with each ballot.  People are changing their minds as they hear the candidates speak, and as the assembly prays and sings together!  To me, this is an incredibly hopeful sign that it is truly God in the Holy Spirit speaking to us!

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