ELCA presiding bishop-elect ready for leadership challenge
Mark Hanson says his ministry experience int he Twin Cities has prepared him well for national post
Saint Paul Area Synod Bishop Mark Hanson was chosen to succeed Dr. H. George Anderson as Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America at the denomination’s Churchwide Assembly in Indianapolis, Indiana, in early August. During September, he spoke with Metro Lutheran’s editor about where he’s been in his faith and ministry pilgrimage so far, and where he’s heading.
Metro Lutheran: After the first ballot at Indianapolis you were not exactly the odds-on favorite. At what point did it begin to seem fairly certain to you that you might need to have an acceptance speech ready?
Mark Hanson: You know, when I saw the final numbers flash on that big screen, I turned to my wife, Ione, and said, “I didn’t prepare for this! I don’t have an acceptance speech!” When I went to the podium, I literally said what the Spirit led me to say. I went to bed Friday night assuming I would not be called to this office [on the final ballot on Saturday morning].
Your father was an evangelism leader in the former Norwegian Lutheran Church. How has his piety shaped who you are and how you do ministry?
I think I’ve absorbed his passion for preaching the Gospel. I taught a class on inviting people to faith three times recently. I can imagine my father doing something like that. I see the face of Christ turned toward care for the earth and social justice. My dad’s books don’t show that dimension. He would have retreated from the world as an evil place. I see the world as God’s gift, as a place of creation and redemption. The 60s really shaped my engagement with the world. I’ve recontextualized my dad’s passion.
With the current widespread cynicism toward de-nominational structures, and the indifference with which many in the ELCA view the national offices, how do you avoid the feeling that you may be going to Chicago to re-arrange deck chairs on a sinking ship?
That’s one of my greatest challenges. I don’t think I have a lot of time to help the ELCA think differently about itself. I have a commitment to lead this church to confront the world with Christ. When that happens, then we can talk about restructuring. Mission should shape that.
Some in the ELCA are arguing that if the Church doesn’t begin soon to ordain gays and lesbians living in committed relationships, the Church will start losing members and congregations. Others argue that, should this come about, there will be a train wreck in the Church. Is there a good way out of this for the ELCA?
We’re just beginning a churchwide study. I won’t prejudge it. I’m soon to meet with staff who will structure the study. There is a continuum of at least five positions we can hold on this issue. We need to have a conversation with substance and integrity, based on Scripture and confessions, and we need to involve gays and lesbians in the discussion. I think, intuitively, there’s a deep desire in this church to find a way through this without divisiveness. I want us to try to reframe the conversation.
Are you hopeful about the future of ELCA/LCMS relationships?
My commitment is to sustain the connections we already have with LCMS. I hope I can communicate that commitment to [newly-elected LCMS] Pres-ident Kieschnick. I think he and I share a deep commitment to parish ministry.
During your tenure as Saint Paul Area Synod Bishop, you dealt with some contentious issues — The WordAlone movement; Anita Hill’s ordination; irregular ministry practices at Hosanna!, Lakeville; the pullout by Advent, Rose-ville; the Elroy Stock affair. What helped you get through all that?
Absolute clarity. We found a deeper unity in our vision and commitment to mission than any of the divisive elements. The synod has a vision for mission that’s generated excitement. We’re the fastest growing synod in the ELCA. One of my deep hopes is that the synod will continue that growth and that I can take that momentum to Chicago with me.
Do you think the decision at Indianapolis, allowing ex-ceptions in limited circumstances for those resisting ordination under the CCM guidelines, will satisfy WordAlone, or are we likely to see continued activity from that group?
I haven’t had a chance to talk to the leadership of Word Alone. For some opponents of CCM, the passage of the bylaw was enough to satisfy them. Others feel it didn’t satisfy the theological issues they’ve raised. [Luther Seminary professor] Jim Nestingen made a positive contribution to the process [by the way he participated in] the process for finding a new presiding bishop.
How does prayer shape your life and ministry?
It’s been a very important part of my life. If leaders don’t have people with whom they can pray, and places to do it, they become empty in spirit. I’m an extrovert. I seek out people with whom I can be in prayer. I have a prayer partner who always asks me, “How are you tending to God, Mark?” Since Indianapolis, I’ve been overwhelmed by the number of people who tell me they’re holding me in prayer.
What have you learned from raising six children (including four bi-racial ones)?
We have had to learn that relationships don’t survive if not tended to. We’ve had to learn the art of resiliency (that’s “grace” dressed up in psychological language). Those are lessons on which I hope to draw as I lead this church.
If you could spend a week on an island with one or more persons whom you admire, who would you invite along?
Among those no longer living, I’d include my father-in-law, the late Elmo Agrimson (whose bishop’s chair I now occupy in St. Paul), and the great Lutheran theologian, Dr. Joseph Sittler. Among the living, I’d include Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa. I can think of a lot of others. I think I could fill up the island pretty quickly.
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Hanson will be installed as ELCA Presiding Bishop in Rockefeller Chapel, a gothic cathedral-style building on the campus of the University of Chicago, at 2:00 p.m. on Saturday, October 6. His six-year term begins November 1.