ELCA Demonstrates the Breadths of its Work in Society

Nov 13, 2002 03:00 AM EST

CHICAGO -- The board of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and the Division for Church in Society (DCS) demonstrated the breadth of their work for a new executive director when it met here Oct. 24-26. Topics ranged from a possible war between the United States and Iraq to an ELCA social statement on education.

The chair of the board, Rev. Denver W. Bitner, Zion Lutheran Church, Rockford, Ill., said the highlight of the meeting was having its new executive director present. The Rev. Rebecca S. Larson became executive director on Oct. 14, and the board meeting had been postponed from September so she could attend.

Larson, a pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, was elected July 23 to a four-year appointment as head of the division. Since 1994 she has served the Lutheran World Federation as secretary for research and development, Department for World Service, Geneva, Switzerland.

The division's vacancy began Dec. 1, 2001, when the Rev. Charles S. Miller became the ELCA's executive for administration and executive assistant to the presiding bishop. The Rev. L. James Wylie served as the division's interim executive director. Wylie was senior vice president, Lutheran General Health System, Park Ridge, Ill., and Advocate Health Care, Oak Brook, Ill.

The DCS board passed a formal resolution thanking Wylie "for seeking to be a bridge between our past and our future, and for his representation of the pastoral office in prayer, witness and joy."


In recent weeks, several ELCA boards and committees asked the ELCA Church Council to affirm an August 30 statement in which the Rev. Mark S. Hanson, ELCA presiding bishop, opposed the use of military force to overthrow Saddam Hussein in Iraq. The council is the chief legislative body of the church between ELCA churchwide assemblies; it meets here Nov. 15-18.

Those requests often asked the council to adopt a "message on terrorism." Many also mentioned the ELCA social statement "For Peace in God's World" and other church resources to assist conversations on the consequences of war. The Division for Church in Society develops social statements and messages for the ELCA to consider.

The DCS board postponed any action on the possibility of developing a message on terrorism until its next meeting in February.

The board adopted a resolution on Iraq that asked the council to encourage prayers for peace and the use of ELCA resources in "moral deliberation" of issues related to war. It urged consulting other churches around the world "as the ELCA develops its ongoing response to the crisis concerning Iraq." The resolution commended the work of the Lutheran Office for Governmental Affairs, the ELCA's federal public policy advocacy office in Washington, D.C., and the Lutheran Office for World Community at the United Nations in New York.

"We are influenced by the world around us, and often those voices are the loudest voices that we hear," said Bitner. "In the midst of that we ought to be hearing the voice of the church and the voice of our scriptural tradition as well," he said.

Before passing the resolution, the board deleted wording that would have affirmed Bishop Hanson's statement. The statement was met with mixed reactions by the board, said Bitner. Some members were pleased with the statement, some were not. Some members thought it was appropriate for the bishop to speak publicly on the possibility of war, some did not. "So, those were two different questions people were wrestling with," he said.

"It's important to note that the Division for Church in Society represents a broad spectrum of the thought and the culture of this church," said Bitner. "It is a board that is very lively in its debate. It doesn't just salute everything that comes by. It really does wrestle with these things," he said.

One board member, Robert W. Tuttle, professor of law, George Washington University, Washington, D.C., said after the meeting that he supported deleting the affirmation. "I thought the bishop's statement exceeded the church's competence, both in terms of information and in terms of responsibility for a particular office," he said.

Tuttle agreed with the content of Hanson's statement and supported his right to speak as a U.S. citizen, however he questioned whether the bishop could speak at this time in this case. "He judges a particular direction of political action to be 'immoral' -- acts falling outside legitimate exercise of a Christian's responsibility in the world," said Tuttle. Such a judgment would not only weigh heavily on those in political leadership but may also be seen as encouragement for "those who carry out the commands of leaders to cease their actions -- indeed to disobey, if necessary," he said.

"Coming from a military family, I understand the impact that such words can have on the lives of those who believe that service in arms can be a Christian's vocation in this world," said Tuttle. "There are appropriate times when a word of conclusion and judgment can, should and must be spoken. Nevertheless, such a word must recognize the limited understanding and competence we have, even in exercising this word that calls into question the vocational responsibilities of our brothers and sisters in Christ."


The ELCA Churchwide Assembly in August 2001 called for the development of a social statement on education. The Division for Church in Society is responsible for conducting studies and developing the church's social statements for consideration by a churchwide assembly.

Working closely with the ELCA Division for Higher Education and Schools, DCS hosted a consultation here in July to help set the direction for the statement on education. The DCS board received a report from that consultation and defined the purposes of the possible social statement:

  • present a Lutheran vision of education for our time;
  • address issues of education and schooling for children and young people in our society, with attention to purpose and quality, equity and access for all, responsibilities, and religion's role in public schooling;
  • set forth an understanding of our church's own educational institutions (preschool, primary and secondary schools, and colleges and universities);
  • consider our church's ministries in relation to public schools and universities and the vocation of Christians involved in education in different roles.

The board received a time line that indicated the board would name a task force in February to oversee the statement's development. "Listening posts" next summer will act as hearings across the church. Study materials will be available in 2005, and the first draft of a possible social statement should be ready by 2006. The ELCA Churchwide Assembly in 2007 is to consider a proposed statement on education.


  • The DCS board received a progress report from the Rev. James M. Childs Jr., director, ELCA studies on sexuality. The Division for Ministry and DCS are working together to address questions of blessing same-gender relationships and allowing people in such relationships to serve as ordained and lay ministers of the ELCA.
  • The church has no policy on blessing relationships. It expects its ministers to abstain from homosexual relationships.
  • The divisions plan to have recommendations on these questions for the ELCA Churchwide Assembly in 2005. DCS also plans to develop a social statement on sexuality that the ELCA Churchwide Assembly may consider in 2007.
  • The DCS board considered creating a staff position to coordinate the ELCA's work in the area of faith and science. It decided to explore whether or not the position might be shared with other units of the church.
  • Bitner said the board was interested in having "a voice within the structure of our church that is helping us deal with issues of how faith and science relate and helping the church frame the questions we need to be asking in the 21st century."
  • The board reviewed the statement of cooperative ministry and the standing policies and procedures for Lutheran Disaster Response (LDR) and recommended the ELCA Church Council approve them. LDR is a cooperative ministry of the ELCA and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.
  • The board supported and asked the council to advocate for "the legal barrier which prevents tax-exempt religious entities from participating or intervening in any political campaign on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office."
  • Board members engaged in discussions to assist the ELCA strategic planning process, which is being spearheaded by the Office of the Presiding Bishop. They also reviewed the first draft of a churchwide strategy on evangelism, which the ELCA Division for Congregational Ministries is leading.

"There was a strong plea on the part of the Division for Church in Society to see the work that this church does in justice, in the serving of those who are in need, as elements of evangelism," said Bitner. "Evangelism, as we understand it as Lutherans, is a message to the whole person. We need to see the work that we do in this division is very evangelical as well," he said.

By Albert H. Lee
[email protected]