The ELCA Rostered Ministers Gathering 2017, the first of its kind, brought together more than 900 pastors and deacons, to Atlanta, Aug. 7-10, under the theme “On the Way … Together.” The story of the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35) guided their time.

While keynote speakers and sermons acknowledged the challenges currently faced by the church—and organized religion as a whole in the U.S—the overall tone of the gathering was optimistic, encouraging a season of coming together and focusing on being a witness of Christ’s love in the world.

The gathering started with a festival eucharist worship service on Aug. 7 that included music by the Atlanta Brass Quintet; the Sehwe Percussion Ensemble from Decatur, Ga.; and the Redeemer Singers children’s choir from Redeemer Lutheran Church, Atlanta.

Preaching at the service, Thulie Beresford, pastor of St. Barnabas Lutheran Church, Charleston, S.C., said, “Sometimes as Christians we can be chained to the rhythm of pain, arrogance and hopelessness. But God can give us new beginnings, and even now it’s not too late to walk alongside each other. Brothers and sisters, we have been sent to go out into the world to share the good news.”

In her keynote address at the gathering’s first plenary session Aug. 8, Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton said it’s a challenging time to be in ministry. “We are all trying to figure out how God is using his leaders so that people who so desperately need to hear the good news can,” she said. “It’s important we are true to our understanding of the gospel and that we, as Lutherans, don’t withdraw from the world. We didn’t ask for this, but here we are. You’ve been called for such a time as this.”

A Beer and Hymns social event that evening served as a celebration of the 20th anniversary of the ELCA Fund for Leaders. An offering of more than $17,000 was collected for the fund during the event, which featured several Lutheran musicians performing and leading the assembly in song.

James Alexander Forbes Jr., a well-known preacher and senior minister emeritus of the Riverside Church in New York City, was the keynote speaker on Aug. 9. Forbes, who received a standing ovation of welcome before his speech even began, addressed the topic of racism and coming together to be a “dream team” during a challenging time in ministry.

“No matter how long you’ve been Lutheran, you’ve got to be sure no longer to be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of mind, which means more than brain,” he said. “Recognize that to become the dream team, you have to undergo a reconstruction of the infrastructure of your being.”

A celebration banquet that night included live jazz music from the Chris Clay Quintet, Atlanta, and messages from Eaton; Chris Boerger, ELCA secretary; Linda Norman, ELCA treasurer; Kevin Strickland, assistant to the presiding bishop and ELCA executive director for worship; and William Gafkjen, bishop of the Indiana-Kentucky Synod and chair of the ELCA Conference of Bishops.

Rachel Held Evans, a New York Times best-selling author, gave the final keynote address Aug. 10. Her message also gave nod to the challenges organized religion faces: “Let the old church die to its old ways. We don’t win this by holding on with a death grip. We win by trusting the God who raised Jesus from the dead and who will do the same for us.

“You have the sacraments. You have the call. You have the Holy Spirit. You have one another. You have a God who knows the way out of the grave. You have everything you need. You just need to show up and be faithful.”

The gathering concluded with another festival eucharist service Aug. 10, with Eaton delivering a sermon based on the story of Peter and Jesus walking on water (Matthew 14:22-33). “Trusting a merciful God is something we are called to do,” she said. “When we think it’s up to us, that’s when we always get into trouble. It’s God’s inclination and desire to come to us.”

Other gathering activities included Bible studies, small group conversations to discuss ELCA Future Directions 2025, and workshops on such topics as discipleship, racial equity training and managing online communities. Attendees also had opportunities to participate in service projects and learning opportunities around the Atlanta area, including visits to the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum, the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Site, and the National Center for Civil and Human Rights.

Megan Brandsrud
Brandsrud is an associate editor of Living Lutheran.

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