The global church is a reality, not just an abstract concept, for the thousands of Lutherans engaged in ELCA companion-synod relationships.
“Companion synods nurture a church that is global, not only the parochial enclave of being together,” said Rafael Malpica Padilla, executive director of ELCA Global Mission.
The companion-synod program started soon after the ELCA was formed in 1988. Today it connects synods and their congregations with Lutheran church bodies throughout the world. Sixty-four synods have at least one global-church companion. Because many synods relate to more than one church, there are more than 120 companion-synod relationships.
Most participating churches, including the ELCA, are members of the Lutheran World Federation, the global communion of national and regional Lutheran church bodies headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland.
These connections are nurtured by prayers, presence and projects. As Lutherans from varied nations pray for, visit, support and encourage one another, they share their gifts and learn new ways to live out their faith.
“In several letters, the apostle Paul tells Christians to ‘greet one another with a holy kiss,’ ” Malpica Padilla said. “That’s what companion-synod relationships let us do. They let us receive one another, participate in each other’s ecclesial life, in our struggles as Christian people trying to live faithfully.”
For Martin Malley of Ralston, Neb., participating in the Nebraska Synod’s relationship with the Northern Diocese of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania “enlarges my worldview and lets me see outside my box.”
Visiting Tanzania during a synod trip was Malley’s first peek beyond his “box.” Dropped off after dark on the steps of Nkuu Kati Lutheran Parish in Nkuu, he felt anxious. “I didn’t know the food, the people, the culture, the language or where I would stay,” he remembered. “ ‘What am I doing here?’ I wondered.”
Malley’s anxiety vanished when church council members came out to greet him. “By the end of the weekend, I was so taken with the people and the beauty of the place that I was on fire!” he said.
Now Malley serves as the synod’s volunteer coordinator of Tanzania ministries, weaving myriad Nebraska-Tanzania connections into the fabric of the synod and diocese.
“Scores if not hundreds” of Lutherans have traveled between Nebraska and Tanzania and built “long-standing personal relationships” over time, said Brian Maas, bishop of the Nebraska Synod.
Nebraskans and Tanzanians swap pulpits, visit each other’s schools and congregations, and keep up with each other on Facebook. Nebraskans have donated generously to the Northern Diocese, funding scholarships, purchasing textbooks, equipping evangelists with motorcycles and supplying hospitals and clinics. But “this is not about us doing projects,” Malley said. “It’s about us having Christian friends on the other side of the world.”
In companion-synod relationships, care and support flow both ways. Visitors from Nkuu Kati took note when Malley and other members of Messiah Lutheran in Ralston showed how they were retrofitting the church’s bathrooms to accommodate people of all abilities. “Three months later [Nkuu Kati] sent a check for $300 to support our project,” Malley said. “We knew then that this was a partnership.”
Shared ministry models
Companion-synod friendships have kindled a global conversation about how to be church in a changing world. For people from the Montana Synod and the Bolivian Evangelical Lutheran Church, the conversation centers on lay leadership formation.
Challenged by mountainous landscapes, vast prairies and a shortage of full-time pastors, both entities turn to lay leaders to fill the gap. Eighty percent of Bolivian pastoral leaders are laity. Montana’s 204 pastors and four deacons are supplemented by 113 lay pastoral associates (LPA).
“The Bolivian sense of distance is like Montana, but even more so,” said Cynthia Thomas, a synod-appointed LPA from Great Falls. Every Sunday, she drives 300 miles to lead worship in three rural communities—peanuts compared to the distances traveled by Bolivian lay ministers. She calls their work “phenomenal.”
“One of the gifts that God has given our church is the large number of members who feel called to lay pastoral ministry,” said Emilio Aslla Flores, president of the Bolivian church.
Exploring their programs, the companions discovered that, whereas Bolivian lay pastors are the primary leaders of their congregations, most Montana LPAs play a supporting role, filling in when pastors are gone. Many LPAs are women.
In Bolivia, “due to cultural reasons and tradition, the leadership of women pastors has mostly been absent in the life of our church,” Aslla Flores said. When the two groups participated in a joint seminar on lay leader formation in Bolivia last year, each presented its training program and curriculum. Aslla Flores said this mutual exchange equipped his church “to make the changes needed in the next few years to increase participation of women leaders.”
During the seminar, LPA David Scholten realized that Montanans generally become lay leaders because of their strong faith and their commitment to the ELCA. Bolivian lay pastors, he added, “are more about evangelism, about the concept of vocational call.”
Another aspect of the Bolivia-Montana conversation is indigenous ministry. A couple years ago, Aslla Flores was excited to meet ELCA leaders from the American Indian and Alaska native communities at Rocky Boy’s Reservation in Montana. The Bolivian church consists entirely of indigenous people, which makes it unique among Latin American Lutheran churches. Members are either Quechua, Aymara or Guaraní. Although 8 percent of Montana’s population is American Indian, “we have not done a good job of indigenous ministry,” said Jessica Crist, bishop of the Montana Synod. “We can learn from the Bolivian church.”
Thanks to the Bolivia-Montana relationship, Crist said, “people can see and say, ‘What we are doing is not just about the small congregation I am a member of. This is about the church across the globe!’ ”
Support and inspiration
The Pacifica Synod includes Hawaii and six counties in southern California. With a large Asian population and congregations made up of people from Indonesia, China and Japan, a companion in Asia “seemed the right place to go [to create a relationship],” said the synod’s bishop, Andy Taylor.
The Pacifica Synod relates to the Basel Christian Church of Malaysia (BCCM).
“Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Confucianism are all present in Malaysia,” said Franklin Ishida, ELCA director for Asia and the Pacific. “The great beauty of engaging in Malaysia and other parts of Asia is coming to a better understanding of the role of church in multireligious, multicultural, multiethnic contexts.”
Several visits have nurtured this companion relationship. Money from synod members helped build two BCCM-run kindergartens in East Malaysia. Plans also are underway to connect youth from both companions and to develop sister congregations, one in Malaysia and one in California.
James Chong, bishop of the BCCM, said this companion relationship gives them “strong moral and spiritual support in our journey of our faith as minority Christians. It is comforting to know that we belong to a wider church and we will not be alone in our struggle.”
Taylor agrees, adding that global relationships can influence “how we do mission locally.” Attending graduation at Sabah Theological Seminary in East Malaysia, he was intrigued by a degree awarded to “people who are not pastors but get theological training and talk about what God does in the world.” Taylor wondered if the ELCA might incorporate this model into its leadership training.
For Chong, the answer is clear: “We constantly keep in mind the main purpose of our existence as a church, to bring the gospel to others and [make] disciples.”
Different contexts, same mission
Vitality is of particular concern to Lutheran churches in Europe and North America because, as religious affiliation declines in developed countries, more disciples are dying or leaving the church than are being added through birth and outreach.
There are lessons to be learned from churches in the former East Germany, which have persisted despite “decades-long discouragement of religious practice under communism,” said Kathryn Kleinhans, dean of Trinity Lutheran Seminary, Columbus, Ohio, at a fall 2018 consultation of six ELCA synods and their German companions.
At the consultation, German leaders shared with their North American companions how they are merging, reorienting their work and encouraging young adults to participate. One highlight was a recent YouTube campaign to persuade young people to make their voices heard by running for council positions.
On the flip side, Lutherans in the global south (the developing nations of Africa, Central and Latin America and most of Asia), where the church is expanding, have much to teach about vitality and evangelism.
“Congregational vitality is not only about how we can improve numbers or reverse the decline,” Malpica Padilla insisted. “It’s about rootedness in Christ, about discipleship, about life in community, about congregational ministry for the sake of the world. The experience of Tanzanian congregations [whose numbers are growing rapidly] can serve the ELCA well as we wrestle with this issue.”
Experiencing the vitality of those congregations through the Tanzania-Nebraska relationship “has had a leavening effect,” Maas said. “We benefit greatly from the spirit and the spiritual grounding of the church in Tanzania.”
Thomas experienced vitality during a march through the streets of La Paz to the church where 80 years of Lutheranism in Bolivia was celebrated. “Everybody was so joyful, so excited that we were celebrating the Lutheran church,” she remembered. “I’ve been proud to be a Lutheran, but I don’t think I ever got that excited about it. It truly made my heart pound.”
Chong said Malaysian Lutherans know that “God’s heart is longing for those outside the church. As a church, we strive to have God’s heart at the center. So we count our members, and if the number is reducing, it is a concern for us.”
For Lutherans dismayed by local decline, there is great hope in Jesus’ command “to go and make disciples of all nations.” Today, through companion-synod relationships, ELCA members heed Christ’s call alongside neighbors from Tanzania, Malaysia, Bolivia, Germany and beyond in an ever-evolving global church.
“We are God’s church in two different places,” Taylor said. “We can learn from each other and encourage one another.”