National Lutheran News

Mark Hanson says ELCA church growth possible

Presiding bishop spoke to Metro Lutheran’s editor in December.

The Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Luth-eran Church in Ameri-ca (ELCA) was in the Twin Cities on December 18. While here, the Rev. Mark Hanson spoke to the editor of Metro Lutheran.

Metro Lutheran: During 2004 the baptized membership of the ELCA fell below 5 million for the first time. Is there any stopping the decline?

Mark Hanson: It will only stop and turn when members see themselves as primarily responsible for sharing good news. We are now taking “evangelical” seriously. Congregations are also becoming evangelizing. Until the baptized members see themselves as evangelizers — with commitment and urgency — decline will continue. Eighty-three percent of our congregations are flat or declining. Only 17% are growing.

What do you see on the near horizon for ELCA in terms of financial support for churchwide ministries? Are you hopeful or gloomy about the prospects?

The year 2004 has been much better than 2003. All denominations experienced reductions in 2003. We had more consistent giving in 2004. There were no cutbacks in staff and programs this year.

Has your new leadership role at Lutheran World Federation (LWF) stretched you thin, or are you finding the extra time and energy for this added assignment?

There are frequent meetings in Geneva, Switzerland. I combine LWF visits with visits to ELCA mission fields. I sometimes visit with two hats. We see mission as accompaniment. There are maturing churches all over the world. It’s a shift in thinking. I need to be able to bring back as many dynamic stories of faith from overseas as possible. The ELCA now has an incredible explosion of global interconnectedness. That’s exciting.

Is your second proposal for restructuring the churchwide organization getting a better reception than the first one did?

The second one went much better. The ELCA Church Council accepted it unanimously. I don’t regret pulling the first one back. There was not input from people (up front). The second approach gives us a much more thoughtful way of doing the church’s work. We need to change the culture at Churchwide, to build more collaboration with congregations. The vast diverse middle of the church is frustrated when Churchwide seems preoccupied with a few controversial issues.

The last time you and I spoke, you said congregations weren’t talking about the sexuality issues on next summer’s assembly agenda. Do you still worry about the church’s readiness to take the proposed votes?

I think I’m being proven wrong about that. We’ve had thousands of sets of the study materials purchased or downloaded. When I ask in congregations whether they’ve done the study, the numbers are pretty high.

Is there any best-case scenario for what could happen next August when the sexuality issues are put on the table?

We are a church not of one mind on controversial questions, but of one faith. This is not an either-or choice. There’s a continuum. I’ve wondered, “Is there a way to dissent where we have no consensus?”

No matter what is decided next summer, can we avoid a walkout of a lot of congregations? Should we be instructed by what’s happening in the Episcopal Church (which elevated a gay man in a committed relationship to the office of bishop)?

A possible walkout al-ways concerns me. I understand that the conscience of the members of this church are, finally, bound by the Word of God. I respect and expect people will act on that basis. Some say, “If it doesn’t go our way, we’re out of here.” That sounds like American consumerism at work. Even if some congregations, regrettably, leave, we will still be brothers and sisters in Christ. The relationship won’t end.

The Episcopalians made their decisions first and had the conversation afterwards. We’ve been very deliberate about our decisions. The process feels different to me.
We don’t take decisions in isolation. World church bodies are at very different places. They don’t always agree with each other. Sweden and Kenya are at very different places. Some churches deal with poly-gamy, others with cohabitation between consenting adults.

Given the theological divide, is there any real point to ELCA/LCMS conversations?

We’ve had very rich conversations with LCMS. I’m encouraged by the respectfulness and honesty shown on both sides. The LCMS has a deep respect for the Gospel. The ELCA takes being a confessional church seriously.