NB: The notes below come from the Fall 2018 meeting of the Conference of Bishops, held in Chicago September 27-October 2. As they are intended to give you an overview of the work of the bishops, rather than a narrative, they are not edited or hyperlinked.

Thursday, September 27

Bishops gathered by regions for Synodical Assignment of First Call Candidates. Delaware-Maryland received one unrestricted candidate.  We prayed for all the candidates and the congregations that were being prepared for their leadership.

Following lunch the various committees of the Conference met to hear updates from Churchwide staff and determine how we can best interface synods and churchwide. I serve on the Roster Committee, supporting the discernment processes for those who seek to be rostered on leave from call or ask for a waiver to the three year initial congregational call guidelines.

Bp Viviane Thomas-Breitfeld, South Central WI Synod, presided for opening worship and Bp Wayne Miller, Metro Chicago Synod, brought the Word. Following worship we broke bread together and welcomed the new bishops to the conference.

Friday, September 28

The day began with Morning Prayer that was lead by Bp Roger Prois from the Western Iowa Synod, and encouraged the conference to be hopeful.  We then went into session with the company of seminary presidents and leaders.  Conference chair, Bp Bill Gafkjen, set the stage for the conversation and President Louise Johnson of Wartburg Seminar introduced her colleagues from the other schools.

Matt O’Rear, of Wartburg Seminary, shared the current status of the various seminaries and how grants from different sources are helping theological education focus on what might be.  He talked about goals:

  1. More students
  2. Ethnically and culturally diverse church
  3. Cultivation and marketing strategy
  4. Professional market research.

Matt told us of the new common website, new resources for discernment (including a very well-produced video on the website) and early marketing data.  There are currently about 1300 people who have expressed interest in theological study, normally 10% of those who are seeking actually enroll.  The ELCA sem experience is 16%.  There are approximately 2776 open calls in the ELCA, to fill those vacancies we will need nearly 10,000 asking if they should serve. Some signs of hope were those High School students who participated in the Horizon Internship program, 60 who were part of the Young Adult Discernment Retreat, and imagination is coming into play.

Presiding Bishop Eaton then laid out the format of the conversations that would follow around the implementation of Together in Christ: Future Directions.  Participants were the CoB and Senior Leaders of the Church Wide Staff.

After lunch and a short break we resumed our conversations focusing on the 5 goals and the actions identified with each of those goals.  The Conference, along with senior leaders of Churchwide, broke into 20 groups to work out objectives and ways the actions could be accomplished.

We worked until 4pm, then after a break regrouped to hear Judith Roberts, Domestic Mission Unit, update us on the Multicultural Mission Strategy.

The day concluded with the Fund for Leaders recipient banquet. Dianne Lewis, Chapel (Libertytown), a student at ULS/Gettysburg, was a recipient from our Synod.

Saturday, September 29

Morning worship was led by Bp Paul Erickson, Milwaukee Synod.

The Conference then moved back into deliberate conversation and process work to develop ways to accomplish the 5 goals and supportive actions for Future Directions. Our hope is a team of CW folk and bishops will edit and/or compile our work product with a draft document in the near future.

After an hour for lunch and spontaneous meetings we reconvened with Bp Jerry Mansholt, Eastern Wisconsin, leading us in prayer.

Some of the work groups meeting Friday and this morning shared the ideas and plans they developed.  It seemed that energy was high to do this work and all were invested in the time.  PB Eaton commented that she felt it was a healthy exercise and would plan to include it in future CoB gatherings.

Chair Gaftken gave the current terms of the Exec committee and who will be finishing their time on the committee and announcing that we need to fill one open position.

Bp Patricia Lull, St Paul Synod, was invited to report on the latest draft of the Inter-Religious Policy Statement.  Comments and public input were collected until June 2018, with respondents including; Bishops, Church Council members, ELCA colleges and seminaries faculty and students, synod hearings, American Indian consideration group, and individuals and pastors of the ELCA.  Inputs were generally affirming and noting the timeliness of the document. The Church Council will receive suggested amendments until October 26, with action by the Council at their November 2018 meeting.  VP Bill Horne commented that he has served on the writing task force and feels it is an important piece for our church.  Bp. Lull noted that this is a policy statement that could lead to further inquiry and discussion. The latest draft will be posted on the web following the CW council the second week of November 2018. The CoB recommended this draft to the Church Council and offered two amendments, which Bp Gaftken will include in his report.

VP Bill Horne facilitated a discussion of the paper “Toward a Faithful and Multidimensional Understanding of Sustainability”  It is agreed that sustainability is more than financial and much of the conversation revolved around how the word is interpreted and contextualized.

Following a time when Bishop’s shared personal concerns we adjourned for the day.

Sunday, September 30

Bp. Jim Arends presided and Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton preached the Gospel for our morning worship (though I, admittedly skipped COB worship to visit Lebanon Lutheran Church in Chicago, where Pr Matt Zemanick serves after having been ordained at Holy Spirit, Eldersburg last December)

Sec. Chris Boerger offered his report.  He began by thanking Frank Imhoff for his service to the ELCA as he is about to retire.  Boerger reminded us that voting member names must be given to chuchwide before Novmeber 1, and sooner if possible.  We are also to remember the ratio of lay to rostered and that we can send one additional youth/young adult and one additional person of color or whose primary language is other than English.

He went on to talk about the submission of parochial reports and only two synods have 100%, the accumulative is 78% of all ELCA congregations.

We are now a church of 3.45 million souls, down 2.9% from 2017. And total worship numbers are down about 2%.  To quote his written report “The significant trends that we see show that congregations continue to pay down their debt. Congregations of this church had debt totaling $1,228,165,017. That is down $37.7 million from the previous year. 70.1% of the reporting congregations have no debt. Total regular giving by members, even with fewer members, was up $3.6 million or .2%. Total regular giving was $1,758,832,857. It is also interesting to note that earned income was up 14.4% to $203,555,752. Grant income from any source was up 16.6% to $31,139,872. Both earned income and grants would suggest that congregations are finding new sources of funding or additional sources of funding for their work.”

Boeger went on to say that we are now using the constitutional language of “synodically authorized worshipping communities”, rather than “congregation under development”.

The annual directory of the church went digital last year and has been widely accepted.  (Note: any changes that need to be made should go through the synod offices.) He asked that any roster transitions or other changes be made as promptly as possible.

A constitutional amendment that will be brought before the assembly in 2019 will change the formula for clergy/lay representation on boards, committees, and voting members.  Deacons will no longer be considered “lay” which will more appropriately balance the leadership formula.

Vice President Bill Horne reported on his work in the past months.

Church council update:

  • Approved process for developing an ELCA Governance Policy Manual
  • Received Entrance Rite Discernment Group Report
  • Received Draft of Inter-religious Policy Statement
  • Created task force to consider a future ELCA campaign and strategic focus on generating additional revenue for the church.
  • Women in Justice: one in Christ Social Statement hearing
  • TEAC update
  • Gender Identity discussion
  • Café conversations with ethnic-specific and multicultural associations.

November ELCA Church Council 2018 Agenda

  • Review Constitutional amendments
  • Review proposed Inter-Religious policy Statement
  • Consider Word and Service entrance rite
  • Review and approve Governance Policy Manual
  • TEAC Report
  • Mission Support pilot
  • Cleansing and Contemplative conversation on racial justice
  • Faithful and Trustworthy servant document
  • 2019 and Beyond Conversation
  • Draft paper: Toward a Faithful and Multidimensional Sustainability

He attended three synod assemblies; Rocky Mtn, Pacifica, Nebraska, and also attended their synod council meetings.

He is planning to be part of the synod VP Gathering October 19, with focus on Two Way Communication, Listen and Share.

Bill felt the ELCA Youth Gathering was a needed and great event.  He noted that MYLE seemed separate from the Youth Gathering, rather than part of the whole.

His place at the Leadership Table is hard work, but, allows for collaboration, improves good governance, and must tackle the most difficult problems that face the church.

The church council decisions must meet the expectations of Rostered Ministers, lay leaders, and congregation members.

God is calling the ELCA to do God’s Mission in the world.

Bp Guy Erwin spoke on a draft document, “Church Council Governance Manual”.  This is a new attempt to define the purpose and responsibilities for the council. Bp Erwin noted that the council is asking for input from the CoB on relationship, what is missing from the document, and is it understandable.

Each CoB meeting includes guests from the ELCA Church Council. They offered their reflections on what they have experienced.

There was an open seat on the Executive Committee of the CoB and a first ballot to fill that spot was taken.

We broke for lunch and an afternoon of sabbath.

Monday, October 1

Morning prayer was led by Bp Katherine Finnegan, Upper Great Lakes Synod, pondering on the question, “When have you been stopped by the Spirit?”  Reflecting on Acts 16:6-7.

The second ballot was taken

The Conference went into executive session for 20 minutes.

A third ballot was taken

Bp Tom Aiken, NE MN, reported the work of the Roster Committee.  His report included requests for extension of Leave of Call status, and non-stipendiary calls for Word and Sacrament ministers.

Aiken then shared a document that helps guide the work of the Roster Committee and Bishops in requesting exceptions to the 3 years of congregation service for specialized ministry.  Subsequently he reported that 7 Bishops had requested such exceptions and 6 were approved.

Bp Jon Anderson, SW MN, offered the report of the Theological and Ethical Concerns committee.  He facilitated a conversation about when and how bishops should publicly speak.  Committee members shared that the conference is not of one mind on many issues, so a bishop cannot speak on behalf of the conference nor the ELCA, however if a bishop writes something that is a good teaching piece, it can be shared for that purpose.  Anderson noted that bishops should be comfortable with speaking at their own pace and comfort level. He also offered a document that might help guide bishops in their calls for “sign-on” letters and other forms of pubic statement.  His hunches are: speak to leaders in a non-reactive way, when faced with a crisis a team should be commissioned to offer some thoughts so that individual bishops can write their own statements,  bishops speak to their own synod, God gives us particular vocations and not all readers/hearers will agree with our position.

Victoria Flood, Director for ELCA Mission Support, and Nick Kiger, Assistant Director of MS, were called on to comment on their work and the status MS.  Nick lifted up the work of Mission Interpreters and how important their efforts are.  Victoria then talked about individual synod MS commitments and subsequent symposiums.  She also shared that the 2018 Stories of Faith in Action is now available. Included in this edition is a devotional guide to help readers connect to the stories.

After a brief break, Rev. Ron Glusenkamp, Director for the ELCA Campaign, gave us an update on the campaign.  The theme for this year is Leadership.  There are now grant availabilities for disability ministry and youth and young adult.  The Church council has extended the campaign until June of 2019 and planned gifts are being counted in the total. His hope is that we will finish strong, with Big Game Challenge, 40 days of Giving during Lent.

We engaged in a hearing of the draft social statement “Women and Justice” led by Bps Ann Svennungsun, MPLS, and John Roth, Central/Southern IL.  This is a remarkable document that is long overdue. The proposed Statement will be available next spring and will be reviewed by the CoB and addressed by the Church council with the intent to have the Churchwide Assembly deliberate on it in 2019.

We broke for lunch at 12:15pm and reconvened at 1:30pm

ELCA Treasurer, Lori Fedyk, gave the unaudited YTD results ending August 31, 2018.

Mission Support is favorable to budget, due to investments and mineral rights.  Expenses are favorable to the budget due to underspending in all units.  36.2% of expenses are in the Domestic Mission unit, Global Mission 19.8%, and the other areas are less than 10% each.

World Hunger is at a record level of $7.8M in direct giving, with endowments and bequest bringing the total to $9.5m.

LDR has received $2.5m with few disasters in the early part of the year, before the current hurricane season.  $4.5m has gone to areas of need.

Campaign for the ELCA is at 82.1% of the goal of $198m.

MS support trends are showing a decrease by 4 synods, 9 increase and the balance to be stable.

Treasurer Fedyk then went on to speak of the changes in the recommended health plan for CW employees and its effect on the financial future of the organization.  (CWO employees will be provided Silver+ as the standard, spouse and dependent coverage costs will be shared with employees, CWO will be making a contribution to HSAs for employees)  Historically the cost for benefits has increased while Mission Support has decreased.  The cost has risen to over $3m per year with family coverage at > $25k. This change should see a $700k savings for the year.

CWO will still run a deficit in FY 2019 and some positions will be eliminated, but this will help somewhat.

Rev. Jeff Thiemann, President and CEO of PORTICO, presented on PORTICO’s philosophy of benefits review.  He noted that 2.5% of members are in Platinum, 86.5% in Gold, Silver 7.1% and Bronze 3.9%.  He then offered a list of benefits available to members which can be found on the website.

He went on to talk about the changes in the Retiree Medical plan rollout and the reactions to the changes,  PORTICO is making strides toward improved health by proactively working for healthier members.

We then went into Executive session with the General Counsel of the ELCA.

Molly Beck Dean brought us back from a short break with a presentation on the ELCA Youth Gathering.  She shared the goals then reported that 31,242 had registered, with 29,967 attending from 2740+ congregations.  There were 636 volunteers and 478 planning team members.  The pre-events (the tAble & MYLE) were well attended. A moving story of a group from Puerto Rico helped refinish pews in a congregation as a respite from their lives. The service learning numbers are available on the web page.  61 partner organizations were part of the learning center. Synod day was well received in 22 ballrooms throughout the city.  It was about young people leading and getting to know those closest to them, and the bishops. +40K books were offered in kind, $700k +was raised for Global Farm Challenge, the Sunday offering was over $200k split between 3 ministries.  The Conference gave her feedback on reactions within synods from the event and specifically the Mass Gathering speakers.  She is now planning for the next event in Minneapolis for 2021.

Bp Brian Maas, NE synod, reported on the work of the Domestic Mission: Leadership Committee specifically on a replacement document for Visions & Expectations.  There was significant conversation about standards and the variety of voices at the table.  The Conference moved to return it back to the committee for further work.

Pr Walter May, Executive for Synodical Relations, gave thanks for his team and new hires.  He also announced that Pr Eric Wester, Assistant to the Presiding Bishop and Director, Federal Chaplaincies, is retiring from his position.

Bp Mark Narum, W ND, was called on to report on the work of the DM: New and Renewing Committee. (This committee is looking to change its name to Congregational Vitality Committee. I serve on this committee of the Conference)

This committee heard of new documents that more clearly outline the DEM hiring process and job description.  There also will be a DEM symposium to anticipate the future of the DEM position.  The committee also learned of the work of the Congregational Vitality team and changes soon to be realized in the granting process.

Bp. Narum then facilitated a conversation on the Entrance Rite for Word and Service Ministers Discernment Group.

Bp. Tom Aitken, NE MN, brought a request from the Middle East Ready Bench that the Conference unanimously agree to send letters to all US Senators urging the President to release 2017 funds for Augusta Victoria Hospital and 5 other hospitals in Jerusalem.  That motion did pass unanimously.

Pr Stephen Bouman, Director for the Domestic Mission Unit, addressed the Conference as this will be his last CoB gathering in his position.  He may be retiring but he is not leaving the ministry on behalf of the poor.

We moved to Bishop’s announcements and concerns before breaking for dinner.

Tuesday, October 2

Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton gave brief report on the TEAC conversations asking synod to maintain their level of financial support to seminaries. This is an ongoing concern and there seems to be many moving parts with seminaries exploring various methods of funding their operations, recruiting students, and offering full tuition educations.

Bp Dick Graham, Metro D.C. Synod, provided a report on and request for the Pilot Synod experiment. 5 synods have been withholding Mission Support dollars equal to the cost of DEMs and mission starts and fund those ministries locally.  There have been mixed results with the program and the working group hopes that it can be continued for another 2 years, without any other synods included at this time.  Bp Graham noted that there are a number of experiments being conducted with the attitude that we need to do something different in regards to Mission Support. The pilot team requested that the Conference recommend to the Churchwide Council that the experiment be continued for another 2 years.  It was moved and carried.

Our work concluded at 9:45am with prayers for safe travel.