Milwaukee Reflections

I intended to craft a collection of reflections from the 2019 Church Wide Assembly, but I have decided to compile extremely brief reflections into a single post. Why?

  1. The Church Wide Assembly was August 5-10, 2019.
    Thus, reflections have been shared by those most impacted or vocal.
    Thus, my reflections are not “timely”, “pressing”, or necessarily unique.
  2. The Church Wide decisions, in my opinion, were not ‘out of character’.
    Thus, these do not require in-depth analysis.
  3. Due to the lack of joy writing brings me, I procrastinate and prefer to be short.

What is the Church Wide Assembly?

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) is the largest Lutheran denomination and the seventh largest Christian denomination in the United States of America based upon self-identification and reported membership. It is composed of 9,000+ congregations and approximately 3.4 billion baptized members.

The ELCA  is composed of three expressions in an inter-dependent relationship:

  • Congregations (9,000+)
  • Synods (65)
  • Church Wide (National expression)

Congregations conduct business by an elected Church Council and an annual meeting.

Synods conduct business by an elected Synod Council and a Synod Assembly.
The frequency of Synod Assemblies may vary, but are often annually or biennially.

The Church Wide expression conducts business by an elected Church Wide Council, the Conference of Bishops, and a triennially held Church Wide Assembly. Therefore, the Church Wide Assembly conducts business on behalf of the ELCA as a whole.

2019 Business “Highlights”

Declaration of Inter-Religious Commitment:
I have a passion for ecumenical and inter-faith efforts in dialogue that explores, seeks to understand, and engages in partnerships. This passion is rooted in my academic pursuits and interests in Religious Studies.

Ecumenical is commonly used for our partnership with differing Christian traditions, while Inter-Faith signals those with non-Christian traditions.

Since its conception, the ELCA has engaged in ecumenical and inter-faith dialogue and partnerships, whether “full-communion” or otherwise. Although this is a joy to my mind, heart, and soul, I recognize that it is to the dismay of others who question our commitment to Christian and, more specifically, Lutheran confessional teachings.

Despite the previous publications, engagement, and commitment to ecumenical and inter-faith dialogue, the ELCA did not have a formal policy document for use among individuals, congregations, and beyond. Thus, a formal policy document was presented to the Church Wide Assembly, which was ultimately adopted.

During consideration of the policy, I was prepared to speak (even be “mouthy”) due to a concern raised and its proposed amendment. However, other persons spoke at the mic echoing my sentiments and thus, the assembly did not need it repeated by me.

This policy statement affirms our dedication to invaluable ecumenical and inter-faith relationships for the sake of the world, while also leaving the door open to relationship with additional faith communities in the future.

Declaration of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) to People of African Descent
The assembly was honored to witness the ELCA formally and publicly confess our sins of racial injustice throughout human history as Christians, as Lutherans, and as the ELCA.

The assembly was also honored to have our ELCA siblings of African Descent accept our confession, while passionately reminding us that this is only the beginning. Our ELCA siblings of African Descent will hold our feet to the fire and accountable for real, concrete change towards racial justice in the Church Wide, the synods, the congregations, and beyond for the sake of the world. Thanks be to God!

It was a powerful moment to bear witness!
May we be held accountable in this challenging, but exciting and worth-while work!

Faith, Sexism, & Justice: a Lutheran Call to Action (Social Statement)
The assembly adopted a Social Statement that was entitled
Faith, Sexism, and Justice“.

It acknowledges that sin subverts our ability to flourish, including the sin of sexism.

It acknowledges that women have been restricted in their experience of abundant life due to their biological sex and/or gender within our societies and human structures.

It calls us, rooted in our theological tradition and reason, to resist the sin of sexism and strive for the equity that permits women (biological/gender) to fully participate in the abundant life intended for all living creatures.

Social Statements are developed in an extensive process of approximately five years.
This Social Statement on “Women and Justice” begun in 2012.

Ordination of Deacons:
The assembly adopted changed language in the constitution, in order to ‘ordain’ deacons. This will impact those rostered leaders who are ‘Ministers of Word and Service’.
The roster is composed of:

  • Ministers of Word and Sacrament (Pastors), who are traditionally ‘ordained’.
  • Ministers of Word and Service (Deacons), who were traditionally ‘consecrated’.

Ordained and consecrated are similar, signifying one set part for a (holy) purpose.

The language change does allow for simplification with a single ordination liturgy for all rostered leaders of the ELCA, but the impact is not limited to the liturgy.

The language change will enable Ministers of Word and Service (Deacons) to represent their communities, conferences, Synods, and the Church Wide expression as ‘clergy’ instead of as a ‘lay person’, whether it is on councils or as a voting member. This has the opportunity to secure their seat, voice, and vote at the table, while offering the opportunity for more ‘lay persons’ to have a seat, voice, and vote at the table as well.

Ministers of Word and Service have an unique call and an invaluable role in the church.

I hope that the opportunities are seized to increase their voice and service among us.

Re-Election of Presiding Bishop Eaton:
In 2013, Bishop Elizabeth Eaton of the Northeastern Ohio Synod was elected to serve as the first female Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). Since then, Presiding Bishop Eaton has served the ELCA well internally, nationally, and internationally in public ministry and ecumenical relationships.

At the 2019 Church Wide Assembly, Presiding Bishop Eaton became the first Presiding Bishop to be re-elected on the first ballet… and she did it TWICE!

The Presiding Bishop election begins with an ecclesiastical ballot, which means that all ballots are hand-written and any Ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament in the ELCA is eligible for election. This first ballot also requires a 3/4 (75%) majority.

The Presiding Bishop election was originally conducted in error.
Presiding Bishop Eaton had been re-elected, unknowingly to the majority.

The Presiding Bishop election was conducted again.
Presiding Bishop Eaton received MORE ballots this time… 725 of 897 cast or 81.19%.

This is quite an affirmation of her service in the Office of Presiding Bishop!

Sanctuary Denomination: 
The decision to become the first “Sanctuary Denomination” was the most controversial and publicly highlighted business conducted at the 2019 Church Wide Assembly.

I previously published a reflection regarding this decision (click on the sub-title to read it).

Strategy Towards Authentic Diversity within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)
Please indulge me… I am having a slight flashback of Seminary.

We were discussing the ELCA goal towards diversity, which was 10% people of color.
We were lamenting the lack of diversity in our congregations.
We were brainstorming possibilities for increasing diversity.

I noted that the ELCA should be less concerned with the 10% people of color “goal”, because our congregations should strive to reflect their own neighborhoods…
I believe I received strange looks and questions, which was not that abnormal for me.

It has been about seven years since that day.
I am sitting at the 2019 Church Wide Assembly and the proposal, primarily drafted by siblings of color, is that the ELCA should not strive for a diversity goal (10%) but for authentic diversity that reflects the individual neighborhoods of our congregations.
This authentic diversity will require us to know our neighbors and neighborhoods.

Perhaps, I was simply ahead of the curve. 

Thursdays in Black:
The ELCA is involved in the World Council of Churches, which is a international ecumenical organization composed of 350 member Churches (Christian denominations).

The World Council of Churches has a campaign called “Thursdays in Black”.
The idea is to wear black clothing on Thursdays to raise awareness of rape and violence, particularly gender-based violence, in order to promote change towards eradicating it.

Do you want to participate in this “Public Witness”? It is EASY!

  1. Wear Black Clothing on Thursdays
  2. Wear a “Thursdays in Black” Pin, if you have one. (You can order here).
  3. Snap a Picture and Post it to Social Media with #ThursdaysInBlack and #WCC.
    You can include #ELCA, if you affiliate as such or want to note our participation.
  4. Share with people why you are wearing black.
    Note: The color black is being used as a color of resilience in this movement. 

On Thursdays, I often wear a black shirt that reads “Preach Bravely”.
It was a shirt designed by Young Women Clergy International and Bravely,
with the proceeds benefiting the victims of sexual and gender-based violence.

2019 Observations

50-40-10 Celebration
The ELCA, through the Church Wide Assembly and otherwise, are celebrating milestone anniversaries that eliminated barriers to ordination. These milestones are as follows:

  • 50 years since the decision to ordain women;
  • 40 years since the ordination of the first woman of color; and
  • 10 years since the decision to ordain LBGQT+ clergy who are partnered.

The Church Wide Assembly celebration was on Friday (August 9). During worship, all ordained women were invited to vest (wearing robes & stoles) and process into the service.

I assisted with Holy Communion during the service, but I was loaned an alb (or robe), which was a maternity alb and significantly larger than myself. I also had to be loaned a stole, which was white (color of the day was green)… basically I was a hot mess resembling Dopey (the dwarf). And yes, there are pictures and video. 

The dinner on Friday (August 9) was a celebratory banquet to honor the 50-40-10 milestones. Although I heard criticism for a lack of décor in the hall, my only criticism is that it was heavily focused on the ordination of women (50 years), perhaps at the lack of attention for the ordination of women of color (40 years) and LBGQT+ clergy (10 years).

Although it was a blessing to be present, I struggle with being in the spotlight which has continued to increase with age. Therefore, I felt odd but I attempted to embrace it as my mother said “because you will not be able to hide from it today“.

Discussion from the Floor
There are specific individuals who frequently rise, stand before the mic and all gathered, to voice their concerns, opinions, or questions to the whole, whether it is a council meeting, an annual congregational meeting, or an assembly.

However, this Church Wide Assembly I noted that a few repeat offenders appeared to be clustered into a seemingly premediated effort to ‘heavy load’ the discussion in one direction, while echoing and building upon the previous speech…
even with no persons rising to speak for the opposition.

Admittedly, it was frustrating due to the amount of time spent on ‘repeat’ without opposition but thankfully the question was automatically called (discussion ends) after three consecutive persons speak without a person to speak for the opposition.

Ecumenical and Inter-Faith Relationships
As I noted above, the ELCA has been engaged in ecumenical and inter-faith relations since its conception. The number, diversity, and significance of these relationships cannot be over-stated. The representation from our ecumenical and inter-faith partners in attendance were unable to stand, single file, and face the assembly on our large stage.

We heard from Lutheran companions, such as the Evangelical Church of the Lutheran Confession in Brazil (ECLCB), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCC), and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordon and the Holy Land (ELCJHL).

We heard from the World Council of Churches, which the ELCA is a member.

Prayer Walk (to ICE Detention Center)
The assembly was invited to walk, pray, and protest the current United States Immigration policy of family separation at the Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) Detention Center in Milwaukee, which was only a few blocks from the convention center. I choose to participate.

  • We walked to the ICE detention center in quiet, personal conversations.
  • We gathered and begun to chant: “You are welcome here. No Hate. No Fear.”
  • We heard stories, prayed, and sung.
  • We read “9.5 Thesis” explaining our biblical and theological reasons.
  • We posted these Thesis on the detention center door (with tape).
  • We walked to the convention center singing “Walking in the Light of Christ”.
  • We also thanked the law enforcement officers and volunteers, who stood guard.

It was powerful, thoughtful, and peaceful.
I am proud that it was my first protest experience.    

Media Releases:
The ability of formal media releases were challenged by the ease of social media.
This was particularly challenging for the ‘Sanctuary Church’ vote.
Please note, the language of ‘Sanctuary’ was added to the memorial from the floor.

Minutes after the vote, I was sitting in the assembly hall noting Facebook reactions. 

It was briefly thereafter that liberal and conservative media released written articles without the written memorial or contacting the ELCA for comment. 

It was, again, briefly thereafter that Fox and Friends aired a piece without the written memorial or contacting the ELCA for comment.

These articles and the aired piece had a partial narrative that was embellished and/or misrepresented before the ELCA had opportunity to publicly release the memorial.

Therefore, the decision was received by a number of persons without the details. 

Therefore, ELCA clergy and members who were not attending were blindsided.

Therefore, ELCA leaders were questioned without any source to reference.  

Voting Majority:
I had previously attended a Church Wide Assembly (Orlando, 2011) and I noted a difference in the voting majority/minority.

In 2011, the Church Wide Assembly did not have significant, controversial business perhaps due to weariness from the 2009 decision on Human Sexuality. However, the votes were not won by an over-whelming majority.

In 2019, the Church Wide Assembly did have business that was potentially controversial, but the votes were won by over-whelming majority (most between 85-95%).

This sift may indicate that the leadership and voting assembly of the ELCA is becoming more aligned in their vision of our future, but it may also indicate that the ELCA is losing the voices of the traditionalist.


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