I have recently returned from a meeting of the Conference of Bishops, followed by a meeting of the Region 1 Governing Council. I am keenly aware of being church together. What is the Conference of Bishops? We are 65 Synodical Bishops plus the Presiding Bishop and Secretary. Together we are the one body that can come together claiming that we have been in nearly every congregation in the ELCA. No other body can claim that—not the Church Council, not the Advisory and Governing Boards of our Church. We are church together.
When Bishops meet, we hear from the church officers and staff, and learn about priorities, challenges, projects. We hear about matters that have been brought to the Churchwide Offices from the Assembly, from Synods. And we learn about how the church is working together to address these issues. And we provide both input and feedback to the task forces and committees that are working on these issues. Here are a couple of examples:
Unifying the Word and Service Rosters: In the ELCA we have pastors and we have 3 other rosters—Associates in Ministry (AIMs), Diaconal Ministers and Deaconesses. A task force has been appointed to merge these three categories of lay professionals into one roster. While it may seem a simple task, there are layers of tradition and theology that are deeply held in various parts of the church. Together we are looking for ways to move forward as the church, for the sake of the Gospel.
Mission Funding: This has to do with how we fund being church together. At the beginning of the ELCA, the leadership established the “Gold Standard” for mission funding. The expectation was that Synods would send 55% of mission support received from congregations to the Churchwide, to fund mission together. In reality, for many Synods (including ours and all the Synods in the Northwest), the 55% share was never even a remote possibility. Now, 27 years into the life of the ELCA, a “Think Tank” made up of a bishop from each region of the church, is making proposals for funding how we are church together that take into account the realities of the church today. We are committed to doing mission—as congregations, synods and churchwide. But we are doing it differently, and much more locally. And we are daring to
Conversations on Holy Communion: At the 2013 Churchwide Assembly, a Synod brought a
resolution asking the ELCA (congregations, synods, churchwide) to engage in conversation on
communion practices. We have a 1997 policy document—“The Use of the Means of Grace,”
and new resources were produced in 2013 to facilitate conversation. Our synod staff met with
each of the clusters this past fall to discuss our various communion practices, and the Pastoral
Conference at Chico after Easter will address more issues. Many congregations are having the
conversations, as well, about their communion practices, their understanding of hospitality, and
the best way to welcome people. The intent of all this is not to bring anything to a vote at the
Churchwide Assembly, but rather to get us talking about this thing that is our very identity.
Closer to home, we get to be church together when we gather as a Synod at our Assembly. We
get to have voting members from every congregation hear updates on Synod projects and
priorities, establish a budget, and share our best practices with one another. This year our
Assembly will feature global mission, under the theme: “Serve the World, Especially the Poor
and those in Need.” We will hear from a missionary who serves our companion synod in
Bolivia, from a person who administers scholarships for women from the global south to study
theology, and from people engaged in all kinds of global ministry. And we will have lively
global worship and music as well. I hope you will join us, whether as a voting member or
simply as a guest. You are welcome!
We are church together.
Jessica Crist, Bishop
"I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one." John 17: 15
There is evil in the world. We know it. We read about it in the newspapers and on the internet. We hear it on the radio and on TV. There is evil in the world. Some of the evil seems endemic-like poverty. Some of it seems very focused-like acts of cruelty and violence. In reality, they are not as far apart as they might at first seem.
Christians believe in the reality of evil. We wrestle with the story of the Temptation of Jesus the first Sunday of every Lent. Whenever we have a Baptism we renounce evil. There are many ways that Christians respond to evil. One way is through working for good. We provide food for the hungry and shelter for the homeless, and we also advocate for NGO and government assistance.
But there's one thing that Christians do that is more powerful than everything else. We pray. Prayer is what we do first. It is our first resort and our last. A member of a Lutheran congregation called me and said, "Is there any way that we can get Christians all over the world to pray for the Christians in Syria? I want them to know that people are praying for them." She said, "There's all kinds of talk about bombing and retaliation, but I think it would be more powerful if we prayed."
We can do that, can't we? We can pray for persecuted Christians in Syria and Egypt and China and any place where they are persecuted. In the Gospel for the second Sunday of Lent, Jesus tells his listeners: "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the Gospel, will save it."
Recently, Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton wrote about the death of the Coptic Christians in Egypt: "Even in the brutality of their tragic deaths, they remained steadfast witnesses to Jesus Christ in a world consumed with hatred and violence. It is important that we remember the powerful sacrifices our brothers and sisters in the faith make daily for the sake of the gospel." And she went on to assure the Coptic Orthodox Church that they are in our prayers.
Women of the ELCA are familiar with Leymah Gbowee, Nobel Peace Prize winner, and speaker at the 2011 WELCA Gathering. Along with a group of Christian and Muslim women in Liberia, she organized peace protests that eventually led to the end of the civil war and the election of the first woman to serve as president in all of Africa. The documentary, "Pray the Devil to Hell" tells the story of how a group of women started praying in a fish market, and ended up changing the world.
Prayer was also the catalyst in the liberation of East Germany from Soviet domination. People gathered in churches in East Germany and prayed every week for 5 years. Their prayer and their commitment to non-violence resulted in the toppling of the Berlin Wall, and the dismantling of the regime that kept the eastern part of Germany under an oppressive rule. It all began with prayer.
So, can we pray? Yes, we can! I suggest that we pray for all persecuted Christians this Sunday, and every second Sunday of the month. Will you join me in praying?
Jessica Crist, Bishop
Bishop Jessica Crist
Bishop of the Montana Synod of the ELCA