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Companion synod program becomes vehicle for learning

During the past decade, the Minneapolis Area Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) has built some significant ties with the Leipzig District of the Lutheran Church in the German state of Saxony. The connections have been made under the ELCA’s companion synod program, and there have been 20 visits back and forth, ranging from a single individual up to a group of 18 persons.

The latest visit to Leipzig (in October 2009) included some high-profile leaders of a variety of ministries of the Minneapolis Area Synod (MAS). They traveled at the invitation of the Leipzig District to join celebrations of the 20th anniversary of the toppling of the East German communist government.

The Thomas Kirche is the church most commonly associated with Johann Sebastian Bach, where he served as cantor.

The Thomas Kirche is the church most commonly associated with Johann Sebastian Bach, where he served as cantor.

In the wake of that trip, with the involvement of MAS leaders in a number of areas, the pastor who coordinates the Minneapolis-Leipzig companion synod program, Paul Rogers, believes there could be a real blossoming of the relationship in the next several years. “That’s been my dream since 1998, that this would become an ongoing thing at a variety of levels, but always under the umbrella of the life and ministry of the church,” Rogers said.

The seeds of the partnership were planted in the 1980s, when the late Herb Brokering led tours to churches in the communist states of Eastern Europe. The connections made with congregations in the Leipzig area of Germany became part of the companion synod program of the ELCA when it was formed in 1988.

But following the end of communist rule in 1989, the German churches had their hands full with reunification issues and questioned whether they would continue the programmatic relationship as it had developed.

Renewing partnerships

In 1998 Rogers, who served as chairman of the old MAS global mission committee and who had extensive experience in church work in Germany, came up with the idea to renew the partnership on the basis of shared ministries. People involved in youth ministry would be connected to their counterparts in the other nation, and there would be similar links in social services, education, synod leadership, and the like.

Even though MAS and the Leipzig District face some similar challenges, the idea behind the exchange visits is not for one jurisdiction to find programs it can copy from the other, Rogers said.

“When we visit, we come back and we’re different, and we may see our own challenges in a different way,” he explained. “Even if we don’t necessarily copy or use anything from the experience, it broadens the perspective.”

Following the end of communist rule in 1989, the German churches had their hands full with reunification issues and didn’t have time to provide hospitality to American tourists.

Ekkehard Vollbach, then superintendent of the Leipzig District church, agreed enthusiastically to the changed nature of the partnership, and in 2002 a six-person delegation from the Minneapolis synod traveled to Leipzig. Joining Rogers were a representative of Fairview Health Services, a parish pastor, a member of the synod staff, and two professors from Augsburg College, Minneapolis.

A focus on youth

Youth ministry became a major area of activity, and between 2003 and 2008 youths from Leipzig and Minneapolis visited each other in alternate years.

Leaders of the two jurisdictions have revised their thinking and now believe the emphasis should be on ministry and its challenges in youth work, Rogers said. The focus will be on bringing together pastors and youth workers rather than just youths and the adults who accompany them, he said.

A delegation of Lutheran church leaders from the Minneapolis Area Synod, ELCA, visits with counterparts from the Leipzig District of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Saxony on the 20th anniversary of the peaceful revolution.

A delegation of Lutheran church leaders from the Minneapolis Area Synod, ELCA, visits with counterparts from the Leipzig District of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Saxony on the 20th anniversary of the peaceful revolution.

The 18-member MAS delegation that traveled to Leipzig in October included Rogers; Bishop Craig Johnson; Prof. Mary Jane Haemig, representing the president of Luther Seminary; Paul Pribbenow, president of Augsburg College; the Rev. Mary Halverson, co-pastor of Grace University Lutheran Church; Mark Eustis, CEO of Fairview Health Services; Bruce Pederson of the office of church relations at Fairview; Mark Peterson, CEO of Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota (LSS); Jodi Harpstead, COO of LSS; Mark Thomas, president of Fairview senior services; Bruce Torgerson, CEO of Mt. Olivet Rolling Acres; and Dr. James Hart of Central Lutheran Church and the University of Minnesota School of Public Health.

Harpstead described the trip to Leipzig as “very valuable.” She explained: “We met with our counterparts from Diakonie [the Leipzig equivalent of LSS]. We also met them a couple years ago when they came here. It’s really helpful for us to get a global perspective of how social service is done in other places, as well as how other countries care for their most vulnerable citizens.”

Harpstead also said she “absolutely” believed this latest trip would lead to an expansion of contacts in the Minneapolis-Leipzig partnership. “We expect to stay in touch with our partners in Diakonie. We hope they’ll come here next time,” she said.

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