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Reflections on the 2016 Churchwide Assembly

From Rev. Mona Fitch-Elliott (St. John, Jersey City):

Bishop Eaton presided with humor and flair and I was glad to be there.

We chose Vice President, Bill Horne,

and a new ELCA era was born.

With Black Churches and Catholic Churches, immigrant children and the Native nations, we changed and upgraded our human relations.

I prayed, I danced and I ate, and I also participated in the debates.

The doctrine of discovery to #black lives matter action, was graced with presence of the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Our hosts Bishop Tracie and secretary Luann never tired, while worship was lively, with great music and gospel fire.

From Arundel Clarke (Synod Council Vice President; Resurrection, Hamilton Square):

There were many things to reflect on with this being my first Churchwide Assembly.

From a technical and process perspective. I was very pleased with the planning and execution of the participation management. Bishop Eaton and the ELCA Team kept people engaged, related to many, and didn’t allow for any dead time. I especially have a renewed appreciation for the Parliamentarian role. I deal with rule conflicts and sequence on a daily basis, but not on this scale from the way I see it.

From the worships, to the sessions, to the food, there was variety. Common and new experiences for everyone. Even when the discussion became heated (i.e.- Unity of the Rosters), it was insightful to experience the emotions of others during this transformation of the church. It was exciting to come home with stories of what everyone is doing, and to state that people were willing to talk openly about race and the issues we’re facing without the fear or ridicule for our questions, comments, and observations.

I was very grateful for those whom nominated me for Churchwide VP. It encouraged me to think prayerfully and in a timely matter to review the path God had put me on thus far. Knowing I want to help people but not knowing the best means in which for me to do so, I asked God to lead the way. For the most part, I took many roles with questions but not much hesitation and not knowing the outcome.

This time felt different where there were two paths presented before me and I had to make a choice. I withdrew my nomination, but with the assurance that I am where I am meant to be at this time. Our own Synod has challenges we are faced with and I am a part of a team with opportunities that will lead us in the right direction.

There is so much more that could be said about the entire week by me. Overall the experience was enlightening, and allowed for me to “open up” to much that I usually keep suppressed. Between the worships and engaging with people familiar and new, there was a strange sense of calm that I experienced. For this I am thankful.

- Arundel

From Wayne Olsen (St. Paul, Teaneck):

The theme of the Churchwide Assembly in New Orleans was “Freed & Renewed in Christ.” So it was that we celebrated that freedom. By rejecting the Doctrine of Discovery we have freed ourselves to love and serve our native American sisters and brothers. By asking God to forgive us for being slaves to white privilege, we are free to proclaim that Black Lives Matter. By moving closer to the Roman Church, we are freed to celebrate together the progress of the past 500 years.

This freedom brings responsibilities, tasks that without Christ would be too difficult to achieve. This freedom blows away cobwebs and dust from too many years of the status quo. Daily, we ate and drank the body and blood source of this Freedom, a Freedom nobody can ever take from us.

Throughout the week, we saw what freedom in Christ’s love can do, build bridges, widen paths, make the tent so big that everyone can fit.

There is truly no freedom, no renewal without Jesus. 500 years have passed, and a renewal awaits us.

We are free!

----- Wayne Olsen

From Eric Kim (Holy Trinity, Red Bank):

The ChurchWide Assembly in New Orleans was a memorable experience. There were meetings to attend, local foods to eat, breakout sessions and Holy Communion. Everything was planned out and done with thought and care. There were many people to meet and much to discuss. Bishop Eaton made sure we were engaged which made for a successful assembly. In the end, we moved one step closer in accomplishing what we set out to do and that is to be one church.

We celebrated the “Declaration on the Way” which moves us closer to a Eucharistic fellowship and drinking from the same cup with the Roman Catholic Church. There were discussions on gender-based violence, working on a social statement on women of justice, the AMMPARO initiative (Accompany Migrant Minors with Protection, Advocacy, Representation and Opportunities), how to confront racism from church, how to invest with Israel’s occupation of Palestine, supporting ELCA World Hunger and voting for a new Vice President to name a few.

But, we learned that we are all the ELCA and there is much work to be done. It is not a matter of how and why we do this work but focusing on how to get it done. It is work we must do together even though we are in different places. Bishop Eaton mentioned there are four emphases we should remember; that we are Church, we are Lutheran, Church together and Church for the sake of the world. We need to understand that we are church first and we need to be clear that our lives are formed by word and sacrament that we gather as the beloved children of God. Our lives are within Christ and that’s where our identity, our peace and our strength are.

Attending the ChurchWide Assembly was an enlightening experience and it opened my eyes to the many things the Church is involved with. It’s an experience I am thankful for and to share it with all the new people and friends that I have met.

Jim Harris:

The idea of the Assembly was humbling: I was to be one of 980 voting members from 65 synods and more than 9,300 congregations, serving on behalf of the more than 3.7 million baptized members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The proposals before us were complicated and controversial. Despite pre-assembly preparation and reading, I felt a little overwhelmed by the responsibility of being God’s hand on a voting button.

The Assembly was very well organized; I always felt that I had the necessary information available to me. Differing views were heard and respected. I was heartened by the demonstrated collegiality among the participants; I was encouraged by the high level of discussion during sessions; I was inspired by the example of our leaders; I was invigorated by the daily worship.

We had historic positions to consider. As we approach the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s historic challenge, I was mindful that our world and our Lutheran worldview continue to evolve. I am particularly joyful that the assembly approved:

  • The resolutions on Peace with Justice in the Holy Land and the Repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery, both of which speak to Doing Justice.

  • Accompanying Migrant Minors with Protection, Advocacy, Representation and Opportunities (AMMPARO) Strategy, which speaks to Mercy.

  • The Declaration on the Way, which speaks to us together with our fellow Christians in the Catholic Church walking humbly with our God.

I was particularly encouraged that this assembly of Lutheran demonstrated progressive attitudes toward the future and did not focus on our past 499 years of church history.

The assembly was well organized, the work was meaningful and I am glad I was chosen to contribute.

Rev. Sara Lilja:

Thank you so much for the opportunity to attend Churchwide Assembly this year in New Orleans. It was a blessing for me to be able to worship, discuss and grow in community with Lutheran from across our synod, the nation and the world.

I was especially moved by the discussion of race and racism in our church and in our culture. The memorial that passed called, “Deepening Relationships with Historic Black Churches”, was but one of the several discussions that we had addressing this sin. The memorial recounted the past decisions of the ELCA.

“The leadership of the ELCA has called its membership: to shared confession of the church’s sinful complicity in racism, and to commit itself to confronting and combating racism in church and society, claiming that “because we are sinners as well as saints, we rebuild walls broken down by Christ. We fall back into enslaving patterns of injustice. We betray the truth that sets us free. Because we are saints as well as sinners, we (are called to) reach for the freedom that is ours in Christ” (Freed in Christ: Race, Ethnicity, and Culture, 1993 social statement)”

And the recent statement by Bishop Eaton calling us to confront racism in our communities and our church in the wake of the June 17, 2015, shooting at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., by building relationships with local leaders and congregations of Historic Black Churches.

The Recommendation passed by an overwhelming majority with the following language. To receive with gratitude the memorial of the Southwestern Texas Synod calling for the Deepening of Relationships with the Historic Black Churches;

To refer the memorial to the Presiding Bishop and appropriate Churchwide staff to develop a Churchwide strategy for deepening relationships with Historic Black Churches in consultation with the African Descent Lutheran Association, Conference of Bishops, Church Council and ecumenical partners;

To encourage synod leaders to initiate and/or continue local efforts to strengthen and expand partnerships with Historic Black Churches in consultation with synod bishops, synod leaders of the African Descent Lutheran Association and synod members of the Lutheran Ecumenical and Inter-Religious Representatives Network; and

And to encourage congregations to initiate and/or continue their efforts to strengthen and expand partnerships with Historic Black Churches.

My imagination was drawn to the idea of Lutheran congregations of the New Jersey Synod sharing fellowship events, racial discussions or community service projects with neighboring historically black congregations. This grass roots effort holds such promise for breaking down barriers and building up the Kingdom of God!

I left the Assembly filled with hope for racial justice work in New Jersey Synod, and I hope you will all join me in this effort.

Lynn Perry:

I have attended quite a few synod assemblies, but this was my first churchwide. I was very excited and honored to be chosen to go. With my life flipped a bit upside-down recently, I wasn't sure that I was going to be able to pull it off, but I trusted that God knew what God was doing. And God did.

I found the experience to be enriching, enlightening, and reaffirming. I enjoyed all of it, including (and on some level especially) the procedural part of it- the voting, the discussions, the wordsmithing, the voting again- the "governmental" "behind-the-scenes" part of the church. The music was wonderful; how can one not be moved by the sound of almost 1,000 Lutherans singing as one? And I definitely enjoyed bonding with my fellow attendees, sharing food and fellowship in a beautiful city.

Rev. Annemarie Cook:

Thank you for this opportunity to reflect on an experience that I am still thinking about daily. As a self proclaimed "church meeting nerd" the opportunity to attend the 2016 ELCA Churchwide Assembly filled me with excitement and appreciation. It is a privilege to serve the synod and wider church in this way and I am grateful for the NJ Synod for this opportunity. The week was filled with wonderful worship, inspired preaching, thought provoking reports, challenging discussions, and welcomed moments of laughter and joy. I loved reconnecting with beloved college and seminary classmates and colleagues from all over the ELCA who gathered with us. I also cherished the new connections and friendships that were made with some of our NJ Synod voting members. We bonded with meals, treats at our table, cheering for our bishop when she was introduced, supporting each other when technology failed us, and even a few beers at a local bar that became a favorite place to end a long day or continue discussing a hot topic. Bishop Elizabeth Eaton challenged the church to think beyond what we have always known in order to better embrace what the church needs to be right now. Her report was passionate and personal and is available on YouTube. Of all the things she said that were worth remembering it was what she said as the assembly closed that still rings in my ears. She said, "This is not a dying church, it's a changing church". This is a truth we all need to hear and heed as we move into an uncertain future yet knowing that God always goes before us and likely leading us into change that will cause discomfort for us for the sake of all. While we have been home for a few weeks I have found that serving as a voting member does not end when we step off the plane back home. I have been called on to report about assembly on a few occasions and look forward to more opportunities to talk about the actions of the assembly, encourage engagement with some new initiatives, share the ELCA YouTube channel to hear those inspired sermons, and encourage others to consider attending the next assembly in 2019. Thank you to the NJ Synod and the ELCA for this incredible opportunity to be the church and celebrate the ways God is still working in and around us as we share the Good News of Jesus Christ.

LuAnn Barnes:

Attending the Churchwide Assembly in New Orleans deepened my respect for the ELCA and how we value, encourage, and rely on the voices of lay people. It was an opportunity to see how many ways we are actively engaged in the world and on so many levels: clean energy, hunger and nutrition, migration of children and their families (AMMPARO), how and where to apply financial resources, stewardship of water, our military polices and support for personnel, veterans and their families, and our relations with Historic Black Churches to name but a few.

I attended as a Voting Member for Karen Kelly who was then recovering from unexpected surgery. I know how much Karen wanted to be present for the action on unifying the three lay rosters. I, too, looked forward to the conversations and action since so much of my work as a Synod staff member is with our rosters. Soon we will have two rosters Ministers of Word and Sacrament and Ministers of Word and Service, beginning in January 2017.

I participated in the Care for Creation experiential learning track. We traveled to the Lower Ninth Ward, hit so very hard by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Many homes have been rebuilt. What I saw, as we went street after street, were the cement porches and foundations – a place someone once called home. Those remnants remain and now surrounded by carpets of green grass. It is a vivid reminder of the work we still need to do about racial equality and economic disparity. The very next day those issues were before us for consideration as a Church. A Task Force will be formed to develop strategies to keep us accountable.

Of all that I participated in, the Declaration on the Way, caught me most off guard. I surprised myself at the emotion I felt upon it being passed by the Assembly. I still remember seeing the vote projected on the screen – 931 yes and 9 no votes were cast. As child of God baptized in a Roman Catholic Church, I rejoice that conversation is taking place. We (Lutherans and Catholics) have common consensus on thirty-two statements regarding church, Eucharist, and ministry. Thirty-two may seem a small number to some but it is a start!

I am grateful for the opportunity to travel to NOLA, worship, have a beignet, meet new people, see colleagues, and get to know a little better our fifteen other voting members from NJ who I truly believe also love this church.

Cassandra Mack:

I was selected as a voting member of the New Jersey Synod for the Churchwide Assembly. This was my first Churchwide Assembly and I felt welcomed from the beginning. The hospitality of the people of New Orleans was felt from the airport shuttle to the hotel to the convention. Everyone seemed genuinely happy to have us in the city.

Once at the Convention center the work began. Our Church loves all that God has made and took time to love the earth during our assembly. We were reminded of school days as we negotiated lines, to receive ID cards, books, seating assignments and electronics. I enjoyed the happy mayhem and made a few new friends along the way.

Bishop Bartholomew met with us and helped us understand the process of being a voting member at the Churchwide Assembly. She reminded us that this is our work and we should make our decisions based on prayerful discernment. I felt empowered, responsible and ready to contribute my part in determining the future direction of Churchwide.

The music, worship, plenary sessions, Bible studies and God’s grace in action activities left me encouraged and enlightened. Bishop Eaton reminded us that “We are church, we are Lutheran, we are church together, and we are church for the sake of the world." As I think upon that statement I am reminded of a poem and how the words of that poem played out as we participated in the Churchwide Assembly:

~By James W. Foley~

Drop a pebble in the water: just a splash, and it is gone; But there's half-a-hundred ripples Circling on and on and on, Spreading, spreading from the center, flowing on out to the sea. And there is no way of telling where the end is going to be.

Drop a pebble in the water: in a minute you forget, But there's little waves a-flowing, and there's ripples circling yet, And those little waves a-flowing to a great big wave have grown; You've disturbed a mighty river just by dropping in a stone.

We embarked on a large task as we read, heard, and contemplated the Church’s future priorities. We endeavored to make sense of the turmoil in our world and find our place in it. I was struck by the choice of the Assembly to begin with a welcome from the indigenous people of Louisiana. During the multicultural dinner we heard about efforts with the indigenous people in Canada and Alaska to bridge the gap created by the past practices of assimilation and the desecration of sacred sites. I visualized the ripples building and flowing.

Drop an unkind word, or careless: in a minute it is gone; But there's half-a-hundred ripples circling on and on and on. They keep spreading, spreading, spreading from the center as they go, And there is no way to stop them, once you've started them to flow.

Drop an unkind word, or careless: in a minute you forget; But there's little waves a-flowing, and there's ripples circling yet, And perhaps in some sad heart a mighty wave of tears you've stirred, And disturbed a life was happy ere you dropped that unkind word.

We were treated with spiritual yoga and Bible study. Starting the day with centering and breathing helped me to prepare for the intense discussions. Spending time in the afternoon with the Word kept me grounded during the debates. Bishop Eaton reminded us in the heat of debate to respect each other and the process. We rose to the occasion and allowed all of our brothers and sisters to be heard. Voting losses created more meaningful discussion rather than waves of tears.

Drop a word of cheer and kindness: just a flash and it is gone; But there’s half-a-hundred ripples circling on and on and on, Bearing hope and joy and comfort on each splashing, dashing wave Till you wouldn’t believe the volume of the one kind word you gave.

Drop a word of cheer and kindness: in a minute you forget; But there’s gladness still a-swelling, and there’s joy circling yet, And you’ve rolled a wave of comfort whose sweet music can be heard Over miles and miles of water just by dropping one kind word.

I began this journey with a sense of wonder and hope. I used every opportunity to meet someone new. In the process I made new connections and new friends. I am still in contact with ‘my sister’ from Minnesota and I welcome the continuing conversations we have about justice in America. I also had wonderful conversations with people in the airport during my 13 hour ordeal returning home that still bring gladness today. I am continuing to share my experiences with my brothers and sisters in the Tri-State area and beyond.

Ella Peterson:

Church has always struck me as a decidedly vague term. It is a group, a building, a concept, an act, and an identity all rolled up in a single, all-encompassing word. It can mean so many things to so many different ears, and that has always fascinated me. So, when I was elected two Junes ago to attend the Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the potential new learnings seemed endless and exciting. Maybe, I would ascertain a more concrete notion of Church, and all of what Church entails.

My first learning was that Churchwide Assembly felt precisely like my local Synod Assembly, just on a giant scale and with slightly fewer familiar faces. This was not a hindrance however, as throughout the course of the week I met scores of people who I would quickly call friend. Never before had I felt such an immediate feeling of belonging amongst total strangers. It was a radical understanding of community, and I slowly realized, an inherent aspect of Church. Church has always signified community to me, but this more than just the lovely people who sit in the pew in front of me. This was the precise feeling of going to church on Sunday scaled all the way up to a thousand people. This sense of belonging and acceptance was palpable everywhere I went during the week, from casual chats in elevators to meetings of the Reference and Council Committee. Seemingly everyone was a genuinely loving and affirming person, and they made any doubts that I had about my place in being there dissapear. No one would disparage the validity of my voice as a sixteen year old from New Jersey, and instead encourage me to stand up and speak. The support that I felt was tangible in the plenary hall, from the beignets being sent down the table for a snack, to the helpful answers any time I was a little lost or confused.

I arrived at Churchwide with many questions, notably about myself. Like any sixteen year old, my identity is a fluid concept, as changing and unpredictable as the waters of the Mississippi. I’m still very much growing into being someone who I can’t quite visualize yet. I love my faith, I love being Lutheran, but I don’t wear it proudly. I keep my identity in compartments, and very rarely do I let the bigger picture of who I am come into view. This week was the first time when I felt an extended ownership of this critical part of my identity, without any apologies or doubt. I felt loved, encouraged, freed and renewed. I came and was accepted for being just who I was- a beloved child of God, quirks and all. It was an indescribable experience.

Yet this was not the end of my learnings. You see, this complete and total acceptance is not just for me. It is for everyone. Another crucial insight is that “Church” is so much bigger than my congregation on Chester Ave, or the Synod Office in Princeton. We, as a collective Church, come from thousands of different perspectives. The lovely people who I encountered came from lives and worlds radically different from mine. Just among the youth members, I was amazed by the rich spectrum of experiences. Our Church is not a homogenous being, but instead a marvelous and eclectic collection, in ways that I hadn’t anticipated. It doesn’t just mean excessive coffee and jello salad, or spirituals and sweet tea, it means all of those things at once, together. It is together that we make up the body of Christ.

And so, I came back to my questions about Church. And here, I must be honest with you. My conclusions cannot be summed up neatly in a few short sentences, just as Church cannot be summed up in a few short sentences. What I discovered is that Church, our Church, is simply too profound, too large, too all-encompassing to be tied up in a tidy little definition. We are intentionally broad, we are intentionally vague, because we are not going to be limited. Church is a living word, a growing word, with new meanings and significance being constantly found anew. My understanding of Church was nurtured and expanded in during that wonderful week, and I am so much better off because of it. I have no concrete notions to offer, but instead more of the unknown that I was so determined to combat. There is no satisfying answers, just more questions. But that is the greatest learning I could gain.

Rev. David Stoner:

The 2016 ELCA Churchwide Assembly held for me many highs and zero lows. That includes a fourteen hour airport, plane, airport, plane, airport trip that only enhanced my anticipation for what I was about to witness. That anticipation held from Monday to Saturday. What an event! This was my first Churchwide Assembly. It was an honor to be a voting member from the New Jersey Synod. Bishop Bartholomew estimates that the entire triennial Assembly cost more than three-million dollars. For my money we should spend that amount every year; it’s worth it.

If you have ever wondered if this church, our church, your church, Christ’s church, is in decline, or ascension, take my word, we are as high as a kite and reaching for the stars. Pastor James Philips, (Our Redeemer Lutheran Church, Washington D.C) made this loud and clear. Suggesting that if we think there is anything Christ’s church cannot do, “…that’s graveyard talk.” He put this in perspective, “When you go to a graveyard, there is no expectation that anything good is going to happen. And when you have no expectations, fear, terror, despair and chaos follows.” Pastor Philips, took us to the heights of being a resurrection people, and did not let us down. I commend his sermon to all of you. You can, and I hope will, view his sermon at the ELCA YouTube channel, (Here’s a link)

But, it was the rest of this historic assembly that showed the star flight direction our church is heading. “Declaration On The Way, Church, Ministry, and Eucharist,” is a document written by the task force for the Catholic-Lutheran Dialogue. ELCA and the Roman Catholic Church, speaking specifically about the 32 areas of agreement on which the two churches have worked. There are still areas of dis-agreement, nonetheless this document not only accentuates the areas we have in common, but promises to continue to work on the areas that still need work until a day when we can say we have, “buried the hatchet” so to speak. One of the most incredible images of the Assembly, was Bishop Denis Madden, Auxiliary Bishop of Baltimore Maryland, (Task Force Co-Chair) for the Roman Catholics, holding a chalice that we had been using at communion. It was a gift from Rev. Mark Hanson (Task Force Co-Chair) for the ELCA. Bishop, Madden, held the chalice high before us all and said, “I will not use this cup, until we can use it together.” As we begin the 499th year of the Reformation, I cannot imagine a more uniting and hopeful gesture. Dare we conceive that joint communion between our two churches may be possible in our life time?

We approved, (to name a few):

AAMPARO, the ELCA’s strategy to Accompany Migrant Minors with Protection, Advocacy, Representation and Opportunities.

And - Approved the Ministry of Word and Service roster. Beginning Jan. 1, 2017, ELCA associates in ministry, deaconesses and diaconal ministers will be a single, unified roster of Ministry of Word and Service.

And - Justice for the Holy Land through Responsible Investment

And - Repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery

And - Deepening Relationships with Historic Black Churches

But wait, there’s more: The Rev. Jesse Jackson, took the stage at a servant event. The event was called, “From Doctrine of Discovery To #blacklivesmatters. This was a surprise visit from Pastor Jackson. But for twenty minutes, he explained, in a clarity I had not as yet heard, the rational for the “Black Lives Matters Movement.” He said, (and these are the best my memory and quickly written notes can do): “Why the Black Lives Matters Movement? Because, for 246 years, legal slavery in this country declared that black lives do not matter. For ten years, during the Re-construction period, the Abolitionists tried to say that Black Lives do matter. But then 100 years of Jim Crow laws, said, once again that Black Lives didn’t matter. Then the Cilvil Rights Movement, tried to say that Black Lives Matter. Yet again, fifty years of the war on drugs and Mass Incarceration of black men, (causing harm to black families and children), sends the mixed message that they do not.” He used an illustration I had never heard before. “If you plant two seeds of equal strength, side by side. Water them both, fertilize them both and then build a barrier that keeps the sun from shining on one of them. One seed will flourish and the other will wither, because without the sun there is no photosynthesis. The wall that was built took the opportunity for photosynthesis away from one of the good seeds. The walls of racism, whether institutional or personal, have taken and continue to take, the opportunity away from many of our African American brothers and sisters.

Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, ELCA Presiding Bishop, accentuated this in her Report of the Bishop the very next day. She told the story of her father: My Father, flew B-24s, in World War II. He flew many missions in the European theater, and came back alive. One reason he lived was because his plane and squadron were protected by the Tuskegee Airmen. A group of fighter pilots of great skill and courage, who happened to be black. I exist, she said, in part, because of how well the Tuskegee Airmen did their jobs. When my father returned home, he took advantage of the GI Bill, and went to college, took out a low interest VA mortgage on his first home, and settled down to live a middle class life. The Tuskegee Airmen, did not. They were not eligible for those benefits. That, my brothers and sisters, is “white privilege.”

As I sat and listened to these two great preachers, I realized that the Black Lives Matters movement, isn’t about me, a white man, saying that of course black lives, matters, because all lives matters. No, this is about our nation declaring, without mixed messages, actions, or policies, that black lives really do matter and ends, once and for all this nations institutional and systemic racist policies that continue to harm our brothers and sisters who are not white. Bishop Eaton, began her Report by saying, that the ELCA is the second “whitest” denomination in the country. 97.2% of our church is white. She went on to say, “We must find a way to disentangle the Lutheran faith, from our white culture.” Let the congregation say, AMEN!

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