CHICAGO -- People and groups who share a common interest in small town and rural ministries of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) are developing into an alliance. A diverse group of people representing those ministries gathered here Feb. 19-20 to imagine the alliance and to figure out how to make it a reality.
In advance of the meeting, a subcommittee of the group prepared four detailed models of how an alliance could be structured. Jill Schumann, president and CEO, Lutheran Services in America, Baltimore, presented the models, along with statistical information about ELCA ministries in small towns and rural areas, a possible objective for the alliance, working definitions and possible outcomes.
About 55 percent of the ELCA's 10,766 congregations are in small town or rural settings; and those congregations account for about 33 percent of the ELCA's 5.1 million members. While ELCA seminaries receive 80 percent of their students from urban and suburban settings, 70 percent of their graduates will serve rural or small-town congregations, according to the subcommittee's statistics.
"The primary accomplishment was to have such an incredibly diverse group of people come together so quickly in solidarity related to their vision for small town and rural ministry through the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America," said the Rev. Charles S. Miller, ELCA executive for administration and executive assistant to the presiding bishop. Miller chaired the group process for developing the alliance.
"I expected that they would first debate whether it was possible to have a shared churchwide vision for small town and rural ministry, but they started with that assumption. That was great," he said.
Pastors, professors and agricultural producers were among about 30 people from agencies, institutions and associations supporting ELCA ministries in rural and small town settings, as well as various commissions, divisions and offices of the church. In addition to the ELCA's seminaries, colleges and ethnic-specific associations, the Evangelical Lutheran Coalition for Mission in Appalachia and Shalom Hill Farm, Windom, Minn., were represented.
"They quickly moved to develop a vision statement for an alliance, which is an attempt by those who gathered at this meeting to bring the gifts and resources of a wide variety of partners in this church to bear on rural and small town life and the rural and small town ministry of this church," said Miller.
The vision statement said: "The ELCA through its congregations, synods, churchwide organizations, and in its breadth of individuals, groups, institutions, and agencies assumes a leadership role in small town and rural life to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ. Sharing God's gift of hope and promises of justice and healing this church will develop and mobilize its assets to:
+ Work for economic justice, and alleviate and prevent poverty
+ Embrace diversity, promote harmony and challenge discrimination in all its forms
+ Care for the land and all of God's creation
+ Create a forum for raising rural issues for moral deliberation and advocacy
+ Evangelize the unchurched and reach all with the good news of God's love and care through Jesus Christ
+ Develop and nurture leadership for small town and rural churches and communities
+ Support and sustain small town and rural communities and congregations."
Within "discrimination in all its forms," the group included discrimination based on race, gender, class, sexual orientation or nationality.
Those who attended the meeting outlined several steps to make the vision come alive and create an alliance by mid-2003, said Miller.
"This group was very concerned about not letting the ideas simply remain as good ideas, and appealed to one another to have an action plan for implementation of the vision," he said.
"The alliance will depend on the collection of people and organizations around major topics of concern and interests to rural and small town life," said Miller. The group thought of starting with a half dozen "affinity groups" around specific topics, but when those and other topics are addressed locally, regionally and nationally the possible number of affinity groups is endless, he said. Sample topics included advocacy, community development, leadership development, research and resource development.
"They agreed that the alliance should be housed in the Division for Outreach in the churchwide organization," said Miller. Some staff of that division will be available to support the creation of the alliance, he said.
Those at the meeting recommended that the division's existing rural ministry advisory committee, with a few people from the meeting, serve as the implementation committee for the alliance, said Miller. Eventually the alliance will have a coordinating committee, made up of the chairpersons of those affinity groups, to coordinate the work of the affinity groups, he said.
One goal of the group was to have "a description of the alliance and how individuals and organizations and expressions of this church can become active members in it" ready for presentation to the ELCA Churchwide Assembly, which will be held Aug. 11-17 in Milwaukee. "From there, we will pray and expect that the alliance will grow," Miller added.
By Albert H. Lee