David Olson: Ready for the next chapter
Retiring ELCA Minneapolis Synod Bishp says he has no regrets
While an increasing number of Lutheran church leaders are welcoming the relief of retirement, or even ending their terms in office early, the Rev. David Olson says he’s had a good and fulfilling ministry leading the largest of the ELCA’s 65 regional synods for the past 14 years.
“Twelve might have been a better number,” he says. “I thought of possibly staying around for another five years in a parish, but now I’m 63, so I’ve decided not to go that route. Still, I’ll do a ministry somewhere.”
Olson and his wife, Nancy, plan to relocate to the state of Maryland, partly to be near the ocean, where they can enjoy using their sailboat.
Concerning his long tenure as bishop, he says, “I’ve enjoyed it more than people may think. There’s much more joy than it appears. My long-time interest in the urban scene and multicultural ministry gave me energy. It’s been like a red thread running through everything I’ve wanted to do.”
Thinking about metropolitan Minneapolis, he says, “This synod and county are really white, but we dare not neglect the immigrants.”
Another thing that kept him going, he says, was his passion for starting new mission congregations. “That interest goes back to my early adolescence. I’m proud of the new ministries we have started here.”
What’s good and bad about serving as pastoral leader for the ELCA’s largest synod? “I’ve been a bishop to about 700 rostered pastors. That’s a real challenge. We have a lot of baptized members here, but that wasn’t an issue for me personally. All of them are being cared for in congregations.”
Another unusual ingredient, he admits, was serving the synod with arguably the largest number of very large congregations in the entire ELCA.
Still another challenge for the bishop in Minneapolis is, he points out, the institutional history of the area. “This is the synod where the former American Lutheran Church’s national headquarters was. We still have pensions, publishing, seminary, Fairview Health System, Lutheran Social Service, all in our geography or right next door. And there are lots of other Lutheran institutions near at hand as well.
“And, keep in mind, many former church executives (from the ALC) still live here. They shape our ministry somewhat.” Reflecting on what he’s just enumerated, he adds, “People in the rest of the ELCA may assume we have more influence than we perhaps have.”
Being the ‘big synod’ hasn’t always resulted in top performance, however. “Because of our size we’re expected to give the most ELCA support, but we’re usually fifth. That’s partly because we have so many other Lutheran ministries to support around here. [Many of these are listed on page 3 of the August print edition — editor.]
Some in the Lutheran Church believe bishops have too much power, while others think they don’t have enough — especially when they want quick action in their parishes. How does Olson see this?
“The issue about ‘power’ is really about governance. The way ELCA bishops behaved before and after the CCM [ELCA/Episcopal] debate came along is about the same. I don’t think bishops’ authority has eroded. One thing that has contributed to the perception that bishops have ‘more authority’ is the fact that some have acted decisively to challenges to church rules. But most bishops want to behave pastorally. That’s the way we’ve thought of them.”
In a synod with so many very large congregations, especially in the outlying suburbs, is there a danger that big parishes will simply walk away from the ELCA and become their own mini-denomination?
“Having so many large congregations is a real challenge,” Olson admits. But he adds, “These parishes are not necessarily disloyal to the larger church; they’re just different.” And, he hastens to add, “We [the synod and the larger congregations] are working in partnership.”
He cites an example: “St. Andrew Lutheran in Eden Prairie is as committed to the ministry of the ELCA as any congregation you can find. But some large congregations, of course, are not quite so.”
What causes the disconnect? “Some of it depends on size, some on the pastor’s attitude, some on the tradition from which the congregation comes. When you have multiple staffs, they have their own set of dynamics.”
Olson says, “I found that having regular meetings with leaders of large parishes, or being on the phone with them, was very important. They’re busy and may not even have time for synod activities.”
Referring to his counterpart in the Saint Paul Area Synod, Olson says, “Mark Hanson and I started meeting with pastors of large congregations. Some of them want to ‘color outside the lines.’ The meetings have been cordial.”
Mindful of two congregations recently disciplined in the next-door Saint Paul Area Synod, Olson said, “When something happens ‘beyond the rules,’ we need to ask, ‘What was the mission purpose behind it?’ and even ‘Do we perhaps need to change the rules?’”
While David Olson says he found serving as bishop for 14 years energizing, he also admits, “There were moments when I thought, ‘This is a terrible job; I just have to get out of it.’ There were a handful of times I seriously considered doing something else. But that was because those opportunities looked really interesting.”
He says he found dealing with clergy misconduct issues terribly challenging.
How does the retiring bishop view the future of the Lutheran Church — optimistically or with trepidation? “We’ve had some real difficulties making the ELCA work so far,” he admits. “The multiple traditions that make up who we are are still not really merged. We move away from culture competing, to culture enriching us. If we wait too long to get the groups on the same page, it could be too late.”
He is just as passionate about mission now as he was 14 years ago. “We need to find a way to get the church off the dime, do significant mission, and have some lasting impact on the wider culture.”
Olson thinks the ELCA needs a national mission strategy. He asks, “Can ‘heartland Lutherans’ figure that out? We have evangelical zeal, but we lack the needed strategy.”
Also, he says, we need a greater focus on strategy at the national level. And, the synods could be the means of helping local congregations express their mission more effectively.
As he hands over the reins to bishop-elect Craig Johnson, David Olson says his successor’s idea [voiced publicly at the synod assembly that elected him] deserves real attention— building a partnership among Lutheran agencies, the synod, and congregations.
Olson includes in his list of “unfinished agenda items” the need for a better mechanism to deal with congregational conflict, and a still-not-developed partnership between city and suburban congregations. “We’re only part-way along in that process,” he says.