Addressing the Churchwide Assembly, Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton reported on the ELCA’s missional identity and goals for the future.
“We are church,” she declared, naming the assembly theme and the first of her four emphases. “The church’s unique mission is to preach the gospel purely and to administer the sacraments rightly. No other institution has been called by God to this ministry.”
Eaton spoke of Future Directions 2025, a set of ministry priorities approved by the Church Council in November 2016. They call on the ELCA to become a thriving church; an equipping church; a welcoming church; a visible church; and a well-governed, connected and sustainable church.
She directed the assembly to five videos, each corresponding to a Future Directions 2025 goal and showing “what God is up to in the world and in this church.” Voting members and guests learned about The Neighborhood Church, Bentonville, Ark.; the Youth Leadership Summit; the Welcome Church, Philadelphia; AMMPARO ministry in Honduras; and the “Hope in the Heartland” event in South Dakota.
Eaton concluded: “Dear church, it’s time to come back to the center—to the incarnate one laid in a wooden manger. To the glorified one raised on a wooden cross. To the fierce, tender love of God that the tomb could not restrain. … God waits for us there, the source of our life who gives integrity and power to our works of love and justice. We can’t do this on our own. Let’s come back to the center.”
Vice president calls for unity
Bill Horne, ELCA vice president, opened his report to the assembly with a reading from Galatians that spoke of the oneness found in Christ. This message was a common thread throughout his report, as he said the divisiveness in the country right now compels him to pursue a life of unity.
“I have been fortunate to witness our members consistently emphasizing their unity in Christ as the common identity that we all share as Lutherans,” he said. “The communities we serve challenge us to live this belief out in everything we do.”
In considering the work of the church and the strategies of Future Directions 2025, Horne urged assembly participants to find an area that excites them and get involved. He challenged the church to ponder what the ELCA does to express Christ’s love in the world that goes unnoticed and to have more conversations about being church for the sake of the world in congregations.
“We are all quite eloquent, at times, articulating the importance and significance of doing social justice and confronting all of the ‘isms’ that hurt us, but we often don’t want to dismantle or rework the framework that keeps us in bondage,” he said.
Conversations on critical topics might be painful but necessary, he said, adding, “When we focus on the world, the meaning of our baptism and [the] eucharist, our life as Christians and our service to our neighbor, being of one mind helps us to navigate through the rough spots in living with each other.”
Boerger: Consider ELCA’s role for the future
During his final Churchwide Assembly report as ELCA secretary, Chris Boerger, who is retiring this fall, explained the responsibilities of the office, outlined actions that were coming before the assembly and gave updates on actions taken by the 2016 ELCA Churchwide Assembly.
One of those updates referenced a commitment for congregations to reflect the ethnic and racial diversity of their communities. On this, Boerger said “little progress” had been made, noting that at the end of 2015, the ELCA was 92% white and at the end of 2018, the church was 94% white.
“As a white church, we say the right words,” he said. “We, the majority population of this church, need to do more than talk. If there is to be a future for this denomination, we need to pay attention to who is living in our neighborhood and our community.”
With an update that echoed his report from the 2016 assembly, Boerger said the ELCA continues to see a decline in baptized membership, with a decrease of 2.8% from 2017.
“We still have 3.4 million members. We are not an insignificant church,” he said, adding that 2018 saw a drop in the number of baptisms for children and adults. “Our theology speaks of the power and the gift of baptism. How we share that gift and invite others to receive it is a question we should ask.”
Boerger ended his report by thanking ELCA members for entrusting him with the Office of the Secretary: “I have said often that it is wonderful to have your favorite call as your last call. We are the clay jars that God has chosen to use to proclaim the gospel to this time and in our individual contexts.”
Treasurer encourages “small changes”
ELCA Treasurer Lori Fedyk reported that since the 2016 ELCA Churchwide Assembly, more than $5.2 billion has been given as regular Sunday offerings. Over the last three years, each year’s expenses were at or below the approved spending authorization.
Fedyk reported that while Mission Support—a portion of the offerings that congregations share with synods and the churchwide organization—represents the largest component of revenues, it continues to decline. It represented 62% of total income of the churchwide organization for 2018, down from 70% in 2012.
While Mission Support has declined with an average of $1.1 million annually over the last five years, Fedyk reported that individual giving trends to congregations have increased slightly. Mission Support enables the churchwide organization to fund local and global ministries, and Fedyk encouraged the assembly to think about how small changes can have significant impacts.
“We are so grateful for your gifts which enable this work,” she said. “We also recognize that each of the three expressions—congregations, synods and the churchwide organization—make prayerful decisions throughout each year as it relates to what work we can continue to support based on declining Mission Support.”
Fedyk also reported that over 2016-2018, ELCA World Hunger received nearly $67 million and Lutheran Disaster Response received $41 million.
“We take very seriously our responsibility to faithfully steward the resources that have been entrusted to us by our members, our congregations and our synods,” she said. “Without you, we could not do this work.”