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Fargo-based Lutheran synod to elect bishop this weekend

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Although pastors from Grand Forks and Grafton are nominees to be elected this weekend the new bishop of the Eastern North Dakota Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America during a meeting in the Alerus Center in Grand Forks, you won’t see lawn signs or billboards or hear campaign announcements on the radio.

Church elections for bishops in the ELCA are rather delicate, and campaigning for the office is seen as sort of a sin.

In fact, often the biggest fans of the nominees hope they lose.

“I don’t want anyone to vote for him,” said Loretta Moe, longtime member of Grafton Lutheran, with a laugh, only half-joking about the Rev. Chris Gaule, her pastor and a bishop nominee. “We really don’t want to lose Pastor Chris because he’s very, very well-liked.”

About 440 voting delegates — including 125 clergy and about 315 lay members — will represent the 95,786 baptized members in 207 congregations of the Fargo-based synod at its annual assembly Saturdayand Sunday in Grand Forks in the synod based in Fargo.

More than 100 others, visitors and guests also are expected to attend, said Maren Jystad-Spar, spokeswoman for the synod.

Along with Gaule, the other pre-assembly nominees are the Rev. Lynn Ronsberg of Sharon Lutheran in Grand Forks; the Rev. Mark Strobel of Martin’s Lutheran Church, Casselton, N.D.; and the Rev. Terry Brandt, an assistant to the bishop in the synod office in Fargo.


The tradition of self-depreciation isn’t only Norwegian diffidence but has echoes going back to the ancient — as in pre-Lutheran — church, when the first rule for a bishop candidate was “nolo episcopari,” or Latin for “I do not wish to be a bishop.”

ELCA bishop candidates don’t exactly say that, but they tend to be clear that they do not seek the office, much less campaign.

“It’s important to know I believe the election of a bishop is a call process,” Brandt said in his interview with the synod office for profiles of the four nominees. “I enter this process seeking to be faithful to what God may or may not be up to in my life. Having my name generated and submitted by multiple congregations and conferences has been a humbling affirmation.”

Moe said Gaule told his flock, “It was somebody else from another congregation that put his name in for bishop. And he came to us from Forman (N.D.) and at that time he came to us, he wasn’t looking to leave Forman. But he’s firm in his belief that God leads you where you are needed. That’s why he didn’t withdraw his name from the possibility, because he’s seeing if that’s where God is leading him.”

This synod election is somewhat unusual because the incumbent, Bishop Bill Rindy, told church members earlier this year he would not be available for re-election to a second six-year term.

Rindy said that just as surely as he thought God led him to be called to be bishop in 2008, he’s convinced he is to return to the pastoral ministry now rather than be available for what is typically re-election for incumbents.

He wanted all nominees to know as early as possible he was not available, so they could take that into account in deciding whether to remain in the election process, Rindy said.

Changing church

Ronsberg has said this is a challenging time for the synod and the ELCA as a whole and therefore an opportunity to re-examine how the church sees itself and its mission.

Since forming in 1988 from three predecessor groups, the ELCA has lost 27 percent of its baptized membership, going from 5.5 million to 4 million, similar to other mainline Protestant denominations.

The numbers appear even more stark when compared with the nation’s general population increase of 30 percent to 317 million, meaning the ELCA has gone from representing 2.3 percent of the population to 1.3 percent.

 The synod has seen the number of congregations fall from 234 in 2007 to this year’s count of 207, an 11.5 percent decrease, while total baptized membership has fallen by about 7 percent the same period.

It has meant less giving overall and more belt-tightening by the synod and the national headquarters in Chicago.

But in this region, the ELCA is the largest religious denomination, and this is the most heavily ELCA area of the nation, with a membership equivalent to about a quarter of the general population.

The synod is one of 65 regional synods in the ELCA. The Northwestern Minnesota Synod will meet in assembly May 15-16 in Moorhead but doesn’t have a bishop’s election on the agenda.

In a special ELCA touch, for all the synod’s congregations without their pastors on Sunday morning, Bishop Rindy provides a sermon available online for someone to preach in each church. This one is titled The Good Shepherd, because one of the scriptures for the day is the 23rd Psalm and he connects that idea to Mother’s Day.

The first ballot for a new bishop in the Eastern North Dakota Synod will be held right away, at 9:30 a.m., Saturday and any ELCA pastor can be nominated from the floor.

 A new bishop could be elected Saturday, but if not, a fifth ballot is planned during the noon hour Sunday, shortly before the assembly closes, Jystad-Spar said.

Moe said she’s leaving it in the Lord’s hands.

 “I totally agree with Pastor Chris about leading you where you are needed. But he’s very good, so we wish him well, but we also don’t want to see him go. It’s kind of bittersweet.”

 The results will be announced online here