ELCA bishop answers questions in churchwide webcast sessionThe bishop of the nation’s largest Lutheran church for the third time held a churchwide webcast town hall Sunday afternoon, taking questions from pastors and lay people online and a few from a small audience.
By: Stephen J. Lee, Grand Forks Herald
The bishop of the nation’s largest Lutheran church for the third time held a churchwide webcast town hall Sunday afternoon, taking questions from pastors and lay people online and a few from a small audience.
This was the third such forum by Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson as he’s dealing with difficult issues largely linked to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s decision in assembly last summer to allow gay and lesbian pastors to live with partners.
Hanson took 20 questions during the hourlong forum, including a half-dozen from the small audience in a chapel at the ELCA’s Chicago headquarters.
Gay clergy issue
Most questions seemed to have as background, at least, the controversy over the year-old new policy that allows gays and lesbians who are in lifelong, monogamous relationships to serve as pastors.
A young man from Nekoma, N.D., who identified himself as Josh Moen, submitted an online question he said directly was about “the gay debate,” as read by moderator the Rev. Wyvetta Bullock, administrative executive for the ELCA during the webcast of the forum: Why not, instead of having a “national convention” of ELCA members decide on the new clergy rule, allow each congregation to have a referendum, to “vote as you may?”
Hanson said the representative form of ELCA church government means each congregation did have some part in the decision by about 55 percent of 1,000 delegates who voted at the churchwide assembly in August 2009 in Minneapolis to allow openly gay and lesbian clergy.
And nothing in the new policy keeps any of the ELCA’s 10,300 congregations from deciding “what particular pastors should be called,” in consultation with synodical bishops, Hanson said. “This is not something being imposed on you, but something being opened up, that you can take advantage of.”
Two retired pastors, across the country from each other, each asked about the same question, one of several queries about the declining finances of the ELCA: What about the recent announcement that pensions of pastors and other ELCA employees will be reduced 9 percent a year for three consecutive years?
“That’s a difficult question,” Hanson said.
The downturn in the economy in recent years means pension investments haven’t done well, and adjustments were needed, he said.
Hanson reminded the retired pastors that “many people sitting in pews are struggling,” with loss of jobs and income, too.
Hanson said it would not be appropriate to respond to a pastor’s question about the ELCA cutting off pensions of former employees of Augsburg-Fortress Press in Minneapolis because “we are in litigation over that.”
Several other questions focused on the ELCA’s flagging finances.
Giving from congregations and the 65 regional synods has kept falling, so that last month the ELCA church council had to make a rare mid-year revision downward in the 2010 budget, after an earlier one.
Nearly all the synods are giving less to the national church than they did a year earlier, with overall giving down about 15 percent, church officials have reported. The total mission support from members by the end of 2010 is projected to be about $51 million, down from $59.7 million in 2009.
Several staff workers were laid off and programs cut earlier this year, and now the projected budget for this year will come in at about $65 million, down from nearly $80 million in about 18 months.
The cutting isn’t over, Hanson said Sunday.
“We are about to reduce the budget of the churchwide significantly in the next month, after significant reductions in the past year,” he said.
Not only the general economy and the new clergy policy are factors, but an aging membership is part of it, too, because the seniors are the big givers, Hanson said. He said “smaller congregations feel a huge impact when one or two generous members pass away.”
But he said in the midst of very challenging times, he sees lots of reasons for hope.
At a Phoenix meeting last week with the Episcopal House of Bishops, it wasn’t sexuality issues or theological divisions on the agenda, Hanson said.
“I was asked to come and speak about evangelism and how we Lutherans have a passion to talk about the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Two or three questions alluded to recent controversies over Islam and the ongoing peace talks in the Mideast between Israel and Palestinians.
Hanson has been president of the Lutheran World Federation for seven years, and a Jordanian bishop just succeeded him to represent 70 million Lutherans worldwide. That’s a sign of how active the ELCA has been in Mideast issues, he said.
Saying he had to boast a little about his church, Hanson said only “half an hour or so,” before Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently announced resumption of face-to-face talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders in Washington, he got a call from Washington “from the chief of staff of the former national security council in the Pentagon,” who said, “I want to thank you for all you’ve done to bring us,” to this point.
That’s a credit to Lutherans’ reputation as peacemakers, Hanson said.
“Right now, we are at a very critical moment, when we need to pray” that talks between Israel and Palestinians will bring “a two-state solution,” he said. “We know Israelis are facing deep divisions, as are Palestinians, and we, as a church, as Christians, can be a bridge.”
It appears fewer listened to Sunday's town hall than two earlier ones.
John Brooks, ELCA spokesman, reported Sunday that 1,169 players were launched by Web viewers; some no doubt were groups watching together. Brooks had said that 2,296 players were launched for the March town hall and 3,148 for Hanson's first one in December.
Hanson will hold his next online town hall at 4 p.m. Nov. 21, according to Brooks.