Return to Milwaukee (Forum Letter July 2019)

Started by Richard Johnson, August 03, 2019, 07:08:38 PM

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Richard Johnson

Return to Milwaukee
by Richard O. Johnson
Forum Letter July 2019

When the ELCA churchwide assembly convenes in Milwaukee August 5, it will be the second time that city has hosted the event (the previous time was in 2003), making Milwaukee only the third city to win the privilege of welcoming the ELCA more than once. (The others, if you were wondering, are Orlando, three times, and Minneapolis, twice.) That assembly sixteen years ago was dubbed by Forum Letter "the Mark Hanson Show." Hanson had been elected presiding bishop two years earlier, and he showed himself to be very much in charge in Milwaukee, for good or for ill (and there was some of each).

That Milwaukee assembly probably won't go down in history as one of the defining moments of the ELCA. An evangelism plan was adopted, but it apparently didn't have much success since ELCA membership has declined by about 30% over those sixteen years. A "strategic plan" was adopted, which was really a plan to streamline the churchwide operations in the face of unsustainable deficits. As was true of all ELCA assemblies in that era, there was a lot of talk about sex, which mostly amounted to postponing decisions. No, it wasn't a high point in ELCA history.

A very different church
Sixteen years later, it is a very different church in so many ways. I doubt we'll be calling this assembly "the Elizabeth Eaton show," though the presiding bishop will indeed be the star. She has proven to be an effective and responsible leader, with little of the need for control often exhibited by her predecessor. Despite an occasional misstep, she continues to be a popular and inspirational presiding bishop. There will be an election this year, and it would be shocking if she were not re-elected handily, maybe even on the first ballot.

More interesting will be the election for ELCA secretary. Bp. Chris Boerger has held the post for six years. I haven't heard any formal announcement of his retirement, but his information does not appear in the list of "possible nominees for secretary." This list, with accompanying biographical information, is the way the churchwide planners try to do something of an end run around the ecclesiastical ballot required by the constitution. Voting members were "asked to identify up to three individuals who they believed could be possible candidates" and those people were then invited to submit biographical information. The assembly material emphasizes, though, that these names "may or may not appear on the ecclesiastical ballot" and that additional names may appear. Still, "the Spirit will be present" and this odd process "allows preparation while also being open to how the Spirit may move." I know we're all relieved.

Anyway, Boerger's name does not appear on the list, and he is of an age where he's probably ready to retire. Either that, or nobody thought to suggest his name. The list includes fourteen names, eight pastors (including one bishop), one deacon, and five lay people. I'm familiar with only four of them, but that doesn't mean much. In an assembly that is predominately laity and likely with a large majority who have never been to a churchwide assembly before, most voting members will know fewer of these names than I do, so what might happen is totally unpredictable. It will all hang on which seven get enough votes on the second ballot to "make the cut" to address the assembly. Then it will depend on how well they come across.

Uninformed prediction
My completely uninformed bet is that one who will make the cut is the deacon, Sue Rothmeyer of Chicago. She is on staff at Immanuel Lutheran Church in the Windy City, and she has an impressive resume. More important in this context is that she's the only woman among the fourteen "possible nominees." And the fact that she's a deacon, at a time when the ELCA is still trying to sort out what it actually thinks a deacon is, and when deacons (and those who held the other offices that only recently got folded into the newly defined diaconate) have been a sort of forgotten minority in the church—not oppressed, exactly, but regarded as neither fish nor fowl in terms of ecclesiastical status. So I'd expect her to get a lot of votes for those reasons alone.

The bishop is Matthew Riegel, currently bishop of the West Virginia-Western Maryland Synod. Being the only bishop on the list might mean he'll get some significant support, though why one would want to give up the bishop's miter for the office of secretary is beyond me. If he thinks bishops have headaches, I'd guess the secretary has even more, and you'd have to work at Higgins Road. Seriously, though, Riegel is well respected and is known to be among the more orthodox of the bishops. A background in campus ministry would serve him well in dealing with Higgins Road bureaucrats.

Paul Baglyos appears to be the only "possible nominee" with a PhD, which would likely be totally useless in the Office of Secretary. But he's currently the Candidacy and Leadership Manager for Regions 7 and 8, and was before that Region 3 Coordinator, which gives him experience both with the churchwide organization and the candidacy process, both useful in a prospective secretary, and it also gives him name recognition across a fairly wide swath of Lutheranism. Like Riegel, he has some campus ministry experience on his resume.

Most of the lay people on the list are employed with various non-profits, church or secular. Most have been active in a variety of church organizations; a couple of them are current or past synodical officers. The other pastors are mostly serving parishes, though one is a synod staff member.

So it will be an interesting election to watch; the ELCA Secretary is an influential officer whose role can be highly magisterial. It is the Secretary who interprets the constitution and who essentially tells synods how they have to interpret their constitutions. It is a powerful position. And, don't forget, other names could appear on the ballot. When the Spirit is present, you never can tell.

Social statement and a commitment
There will be other issues debated and determined. Probably the biggest will be the proposed social statement "Faith, Sexism, and Justice: A Lutheran Call to Action." It was originally supposed to be a statement on "women and justice," but somehow the title shifted a bit. Eileen Smith offered a lengthy evaluation of the first draft of this statement in Forum Letter ("Women and justice: this draft falls short," FL June 2018), concluding that, while there is much to commend in the statement, it is ultimately unsatisfactory. But Forum Letter's track record in getting the churchwide assembly to make substantive changes in social statements isn't that great, so you can probably assume that the statement as it now stands (and it is so long that I haven't had time to compare it section by section with the first draft, other than to see that there's now a title that highlights the word "sexism").

The other major statement on the agenda, "A Declaration of Inter-Religious Commitment," was also reviewed, mostly negatively, by Forum Letter ("Inter-religious policy: the ELCA proposal," FL April 2018). I'm happy to say that some of our specific objections have been addressed, and the final proposal is definitely an improvement. It still, in my view, falls short of what it might have been. It is likely to engender less debate than "Faith, Sexism, and Justice" because it's not as, well, sexy. My prediction is that it will pass, with only minor changes, by at least an 85% majority.

There will be other things on the agenda, to be sure. There will be daily worship, celebrations of various kinds, lots of elections for positions of which voting members know little, between candidates of whom they know less. That's how it works. Perhaps the best we can expect is something like Forum Letter's evaluation of that earlier Milwaukee assembly: "It was not a disaster, but it will not qualify for greatness either."

P. S. I'll be arriving in Milwaukee late Sunday night; the opening Eucharist is at 3 p.m. Monday. You can also livestream the sessions (and see the schedule) at

The Rev. Richard O. Johnson, STS

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