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ELCA BISHOPS TROUBLED BY NEW MINISTRY PROCEDURES

The Rev. William Bohline

The Rev. William Bohline

A second controversy over whether a congregation has violated ELCA procedures for calling and ordaining pastors has been tossed into the lap of Mark Hanson, bishop of the St. Paul Area Synod, and the synod’s 15-member governing council of lay and clergy persons.
This one involves one of the ELCA’s fastest growing congregations, Hosanna! Lutheran in Lakeville, which has grown from a mission congregation of the old Lutheran Church in America to a 4500-member parish in the past 20 years.
Hosanna! joins St. Paul-Reformation Lutheran of St. Paul as sources of thorny disputes with which the parent synod must wrestle and eventually come to a decision, but the issues in the two cases are far different.
St. Paul-Reformation has clearly challenged ELCA guidelines by voting to call and ordain Anita Hill, a longtime staff member who is living in a committed lesbian relationship.
Hosanna! last fall “commissioned” three veteran leaders in the congregation to serve as pastors on its staff, rather than hiring ones from the regular ELCA clergy roster.
The Rev. William R. Bohline, the 52-year-old senior pastor who has led Hosanna! from its infancy, denies that his congregation “ordained” anyone at the Reformation-Sunday ceremony last fall or is trying to foment a revolution in the ELCA. He does concede that the church was “coloring outside the lines” of established ELCA practices but says it would prefer to be considered an agent of renewal in a denomination he thinks clearly needs it.
The exclamation point in the name of the Lakeville congregation is no grammatical error. It reflects the enthusiastic, Spirit-filled approach that Bohline feels is responsible for his church’s explosive growth. When the young mission-developer pastor started knocking on doors in the exurb south of Minneapolis on I-35 in 1980, he says he discovered that his target audience was “lukewarm Lutherans and comatose Catholics.” These young couples were not anti-church but were hungering not for talk about religion but for a personal, life-changing relationship with Jesus Christ, Bohline says.
Responding to this need, Hosanna! has developed a ministry in which people “feel the presence of God and the power of the Holy Spirit,” according to the pastor. They worship in a way he describes as “very uplifting, inviting and inclusive,” and he says they leave the sanctuary feeling that their pastors have tried to connect with them in the everyday problems they face.
Faced with the need to expand its pastoral staff beyond himself and Teaching Pastor David Householder, Bohline said, the congregation recognized that it had within its own ranks three women who had demonstrated over a period of years spiritual gifts, a calling to serve, a passion for ministry and the ability to make a difference in people’s lives.
It decided to train these three through a course called “Pathways to Ministry” and then presented them to the congregation in a “commissioning” service that included prayers and the laying on of hands by the regular pastors and elders of the congregation.
Hosanna! recognizes that the three — Kristi Graner, Pat Moe and Janine Olson — are not ordained ministers eligible for call to any other congregation, Bohline emphasized. But they are able to exercise the full range of pastoral duties within their own church.
The three serve in areas of ministry in which they previously excelled as lay volunteers. Graner is pastor in charge of developing small-group ministries; Moe is pastor of prayer and care ministries; and Olson, who headed a Sunday School program that now enrolls 1500 children through the 6th grade and 485 students in confirmation, is pastor of life ministries. Olson can conduct baptisms, funerals and — under special arrangements with Dakota County — weddings.
Bohline maintains that the action Hosanna! has taken in selecting people with spiritual gifts from within its own ranks as pastors is fully in accord with practices of the early Church recorded in the New Testament and the teachings of Martin Luther. To turn for leadership to people who have demonstrated they are in tune with the style of ministry that has spurred the congregation’s growth rather than seeking a match through the ELCA’ s regular call process “makes head sense and heart sense,” he declares.
Enmeshed in the action Hosanna! has taken in calling pastors from within its ranks is some strongly worded criticism of the national synod by its senior pastor. “The Lord is calling us to be a new Church,” Bohline declared. “It’s time for another Reformation.” The ELCA will have to be transformed or it will die, he maintains, and Hosanna! would like to be part of a transformed denomination.
“The ELCA doesn’t have a compelling vision of what God wants us to be,” Bohline asserted, and that has led to the springing up of divisive issues.
“They’re practicing a way of church that doesn’t work anymore,” Bohline maintains. ELCA practices are based on control — the concept that power flows from the top down, rather than collegiality — that the power of God is invested in local congregations, he says.
“There’s nothing like a Spirit-filled local congregation,” he declared. “The ELCA is too hierarchical and rigid. It’s hard for the winds of the Spirit to blow within it.”
Bohline blasts the long discussions between the ELCA and the Episcopal Church as a “monumental waste of time and money,” carried on by two “relatively unhealthy” denominations. This has come at a time when people are hungering to know Jesus Christ and the ELCA has failed to find a dynamic way to witness to them, he says.
The pastor said Hosanna! intends to continue its practice for calling pastors, which the congregation has included in a revised constitution, and “would consider” leaving the ELCA if it were ordered to drop it. The one thing that would certainly drive Hosanna! out of the parent church would be a decision by the latter to ordain homosexuals living in a committed relationship or to bless same-sex marriages.
Bishop Hanson made clear in an interview that his synod will not rush to judgment on whether Hosanna! has violated the ELCA constitution and said it is less clear that it has done so than St. Paul-Reformation, which has called Hill, a lesbian, as a pastor and is moving toward ordaining her in late April.
Part of the reason for this difference lies in technicalities. Hosanna! did not call the three pastors by a formal act of the congregation, and the congregation’s use of the term “commissioning” rather than “ordination” presents an ambiguity, although Hanson says he has difficulty seeing any difference between what happened in Lakeville last October and a regular ordination ceremony.
But while it does seem that Hosanna! has stepped outside the spirit and probably the letter of ELCA procedures for preparing and ordaining pastors, the bishop said, the case has helped raise the issue across the entire ELCA of how the church is going to meet the demand for pastors at a time when the supply is falling short.
The action at Hosanna! “has forced us, along with the shortage of pastors in rural communities and the lack of ability of the ELCA to produce pastors for the many immigrant communities coming in, to ask, ‘How does this church provide leadership in Word and Sacrament ministry for congregations that feel the church isn’t supplying the number and gifts in pastors that it needs,’” the bishop said.
Some might say the answer is to license lay people and ordain them to serve in a single location as Hosanna! has done, Hanson indicated. At any rate, he said, it is a “lively question” that will be before the ELCA in the next few years. Already the question is being discussed through forums like those on the Internet, where there were hundreds of entries in just the past month, the bishop said, and it is sure to be a topic debated at the St. Paul Area Synod’s assembly April 20 and 21 at Concordia University-St. Paul.
In the whole debate, Hanson said, the question needs to be raised as to just what it means to be part of the ELCA.
“We’re not an association of congregations, we’re not the United Church of Christ,” he said. “We are a church with three expressions: the church exists in congregations, in synods and as the churchwide ELCA.”
Hanson said he appreciates the desire of Hosanna! to be an agent of change, but he added: “The tension for me is, ‘How can churches be agents of renewal but still have some sense of mutual accountability?‘
“What we have said as a Church is that no matter to which of the 11,000 ELCA congregations you belong, you can be assured that your pastor is going to be trained, your pastor’s going to be prepared by the faculty of a seminary and approved by a synod canvassing committee, and that your pastor’s going to preach the gospel as we understand it in the Lutheran church. That’s kind of a guarantee almost.”
Hanson said he doesn’t feel the ELCA is guilty of imposing top-down authority but rather of upholding mutual accountability across the church.
Fast-growing churches like Hosanna! are often looking at other fast-growing congregations, not necessarily Lutheran ones, for their models and to the spiritual gifts of their own members for leadership, according to the bishop. They need to ask themselves whether, with their desire for freedom and independence, they have come to a point where they would fit better outside the ELCA, he said.
If the leadership of the St. Paul Area Synod decides that either or both Hosanna! and St. Paul-Reformation have violated the ELCA constitution, the next step, will be to determine the consequences for each church.
Hanson and his governing council have a number of options available in choosing those consequences. The bishop could issue a public letter of censure and admonition to a congregation; the bishop or the council could bring the congregation to a disciplinary hearing, a judicial-type proceeding in which each side would present its case before a hearing committee, which would then determine the guilt or innocence of the congregation and impose a penalty if one is warranted; the council could decide, on the recommendation of the bishop, to remove the congregation from the synod roster without a hearing; or the bishop could negotiate with the congregation to find a solution, such as suspension from the synod roster, that would be agreeable to both without forcing the congregation out of the synod.
Whatever action is decided on by the St. Paul Area Synod cannot be overruled by the ELCA’s national headquarters. Hanson says he’s very much aware that what is decided here will have a ripple effect across the entire denomination. “I’m very mindful that I do this on behalf of the whole church and not just the St. Paul Area Synod,” he declared.
Meanwhile, a case similar to that of Hosanna! but with distinct differences has arisen in the Minneapolis Area Synod.
Calvary Lutheran Church of Golden Valley, one of the largest congregations in the ELCA, has adopted a proposed amendment to its constitution that would enable it to call pastors who are not necessarily rostered in the ELCA.
The apparent goal of the amendment would be to make sure Calvary could call pastors who share the congregation’s hostility to the Called to Common Mission accord with the Episcopalians and even ministers from other denominations who have a different slant on ecumenical matters or other theological issues from that which prevails in the ELCA.
Even though the amendment passed by a comfortable margin after lengthy debate, Calvary put off ratification for a full year. However the amendment has been fowarded to the Synod’s constitutional committee, which will move ahead in making a recommendation to the Synod Council on whether the amendment violates the ELCA constitution.