Our church is aging. Many of our congregations are graying. They wonder what their future is, whether their grandchildren will have a place to worship.
The clergy roster is graying, as well. Baby boomers are coming of age, and with the recession mostly past, baby boomers are beginning to retire. A large percentage of our pastors are in the baby boomer generation. Once, the church could count on seminaries to produce enough pastors to replace the retirees. But no longer.
It is not the fault of seminaries. It is not anyone's fault. But things have changed. Once, candidates going to seminary had their way paid for them. Seminary cost was not an issue. But just as other education costs have risen, seminary costs have risen dramatically, as well. Many students enter seminary with significant college debt, and leave seminary with even greater debt.
Across the ELCA we are working to find ways to help lessen seminary student debt. One way is shortening the amount of time it takes to get an M.Div., the degree normally required for ordination. Our seminaries are trying out a variety of approaches, from giving academic credit to religion courses taken in college, to making internship more flexible, to lessening the credit hours required for graduation.
Another approach is to support candidates in seminary, not only with our prayers, but also with dollars. The ELCA has started a Fund for Leaders in Mission Scholarship fund, and has raised millions of dollars to assist students. Each year several students at each ELCA seminary get a full scholarship. Jessie Obrecht, of First Lutheran in Havre, is our most recent recipient. In addition to these national scholarships, the Montana Synod has a synod fund and is able to give out smaller scholarships to some of our students. This fund started with several bequests, and we ask that offerings at Installations and Ordinations be directed to the Fund, along with First Call Theological Education. Some congregations have scholarships for seminarians, either from their congregation, or at large.
Last weekend the Montana Synod Candidacy Committee met and interviewed candidates for ministry. Not only do we work with candidates for word and sacrament (pastors), we also work with candidates for word and service (Associates in Ministry.) If you could see the candidates we have, you would be very hopeful about the future of the church. Who will lead in the future? These folks will, along with others.
The church of our grandchildren will not look like the church of our grandparents. We may have congregations without buildings, and pastors who are bi-vocational. We may have a vibrant ministry of the baptized, strong lay leadership, and LPA's who assist in all kinds of ways. Our newest class of LPAs numbers 30 people. How exciting to have so many people committing themselves to doing God's work with their hands!
Jessica Crist, Bishop
As people in the United States are living longer, there are more and more discussions on quality of life issues. Many of those discussions focus on end of life issues. Patients’ rights issues mingle with death with dignity issues. Nobody wants to suffer a prolonged, painful death. And the conversation moves eventually to the right to die. Some states, like Oregon, have incorporated it into their legal system, and have physician-assisted suicide as a legal option.
Montana is a legal no-man’s land in this issue. The Supreme Court determined that there is no law prohibiting physician-assisted suicide. But neither is there a law that allows it. In past legislative sessions Montana has seen bills introduced both to allow and to prohibit physician-assisted suicide. Both have failed. But the issue is not likely to go away.
Society has changed a lot in the last several decades. Medical advances enable people to live much longer with debilitating conditions. And at the same time there is a movement to allow people more agency in their own health-care decisions. Every time I drop by the hospital lab across the street I am asked if I have a living will.
Families are not always in agreement with each other on end of life issues. The tragic situation of Terry Schiavo a decade ago brought to the public eye the tragedy than ensues when family members are at odds with each other about the best course of action (or inaction.)
So what can we say as Christians? The ELCA has a social message on “End-of- Life Decisions,” adopted in 1992. It affirms 6 basic principles:
+Life is a gift from God, to be received with thanksgiving.
+The integrity of the life processes which God has created should be respected: both birth and death are part of these life processes.
+Both living and dying should occur within a caring community.
+A Christian perspective mandates respect for each person. Such respect included giving due recognition to each person’s carefully considered preferences regarding treatment choices.
+Truthfulness and faithfulness in our relations with others are essential to the texture of human life.
+Hope and meaning in life are possible even in times of suffering and adversity, a truth powerfully proclaimed in the resurrection faith of the church.
The statement explores artificially-administered nutrition and hydration, and the refusal of beneficial treatment. And it addresses physician-assisted death. It states:
“As a church we affirm that deliberately destroying life created in the image of God is contrary to our Christian conscience. While this affirmation is clear, we also recognize that responsible health care professionals struggle to choose the lesser evil in ambiguous borderline situations—for example, when pain becomes so unmanageable that life is indistinguishable from torture.”
“We oppose the legalization of physician-assisted death, which would allow the private killing of one person by another. Public control and regulation of such actions would be extremely difficult, if not impossible. The potential for abuse, especially of people who are most vulnerable, would be substantially increased.”
The entire statement is 5 pages, and you may find it helpful to read. You can find it at www.elca.org. I commend it to you as part of your moral discernment for the legislative issues that face Montana and Wyoming in the coming months.
Jessica Crist, Bishop
Every year thousands of quilters across the country gather fabric and thread and sew hundreds of thousands of quilts for distribution through Lutheran World Relief. In our Synod, there are hundreds of quilters who make quilts both for LWR, and for local use, as well. And some also make health kits and school kits to distribute to God’s beloved children across the globe.
Quilters are doing God’s work with their hands. Taking scraps of fabric, sewing them together, praying over them and then sending them off—this is truly God’s work. We often wonder what sort of difference an individual can make. Quilters make a difference. Each quilt is given to a person in dire need—the world’s neediest people get these quilts.
People use these quilts for warmth and for shelter. Some use them to carry their belongings, others to carry a child. One quilt may not seem like it is making a difference. But it does. It does to the individual who receives it. It is concrete evidence that someone cares, that someone who will never meet them, and wants nothing in return cares. And, taken together, the hundreds of thousands of quilts that are gathered every year make a powerful statement that Lutherans care.
Winter is approaching in the northern hemisphere, and there are many shivering refugees who will be grateful for the gift of a quilt.
When I visit congregations I try to bring a bag of fabric to donate to the quilters there. I am so grateful for what they do, and I want to help out. If you have quilters in your congregation, please thank them. And if you do not, consider starting a group. There are lots of quilters around, and they would be happy to help you out. Or you can donate your fabric to them, like I do. One of the wonderful things about quilting groups is that they work together. As Christians
we are much more effective when we work together. So whether you quilt, or donate fabric or donate shipping costs or pray, you are part of the body of Christ, working together, doing God’s
work with your hands. Thank you.
Jessica Crist, Bishop
Bishop Jessica Crist
Bishop of the Montana Synod of the ELCA