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Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod confronts financial crisis

Third largest U.S. Lutheran group moving to put its fiscal house in order

The Rev. Timothy Gau-ger summarized the mood of many of the delegates at this summer’s Wisconsin Evangelical Lu-theran Synod (WELS) national convention when he said, “If I made a bumper sticker for our convention, it would read ‘Get Our House In Order.’”
Gauger, a committee chairman, was speaking on the opening day of the synod’s 58th Biennial Con-vention in New Ulm, Minnesota.
Faced with rising costs to ministry and flat revenues, recalling missionaries from foreign fields and at-risk pastoral and teacher training schools, the delegates led the way by declaring ministerial education, mission outreach, and publications as ‘essential ministries and the synod’s core work.’ Those ministries will receive funding priority.
The extent of the concerns surfaced early in the first election, as incumbent First Vice President Wayne Mueller first lost, then won reelection after the original winner, the Rev. David Kolander of Brookfield, Wisconsin, declined the call. In accepting his election, Mueller said, “I humbly — and I do emphasize humbly — accept your call to be vice president. And, I beg your prayers for me and all those who serve you. Pray for God’s wisdom for us, along with your own appeal to the throne of God to examine your personal stewardship and your encouragements to your congregation, to consider the great blessings we have at the cross, to kneel there, and to rise in appreciation of his grace.”
Although the delegates passed a balanced budget, they faced the constant reminder that this two-year spending plan comes at great expense to ministry. It allows for no new traditional home mission starts, calls for three world missionaries to be recalled in the first year and 10 in the second, decreased funding of the ministerial education schools, and a 21% decrease in Parish Services. The $41,669,000 budget the first year and $41,769,000 the second are both more than four percent below the past year’s budget.
In view of the constraints, the assembly reaffirmed its support for the ministerial education system consisting of two prep schools, a college of ministry, and a seminary, but with reduced funding from the past year. The schools, for the first time in their histories, will need to receive independent funding to survive.
To help WELS get its house in order, the convention approved several initiatives without increasing the budget.
* Developing a $300 million endowment ($150 million for ministerial education and $150 million for mission outreach) plus $50 million for capital needs.
* Calling a full-time director of communications to develop a strategy for improving synodwide communications.
* Starting a Web video broadcasting network.
* Training everyone in the 450,000 member denomination in sound Christian stewardship, reaching from the president to the people in the pews.
* Streamlining the ad-ministration structure of WELS ministries.
* Improving financial systems with the help of nonbudgetary funds.
Asked to comment on the current state of affairs in WELS, national President Karl R. Gurgel said, “Admittedly, we have a serious financial situation. Expenses exceed projected revenue by a considerable margin — millions. Financial support for the synod’s worker training schools is in short supply. Mission expansion at home and abroad has ground to a halt. However, trusting God’s faithful grace, WELS is serious about making a concerted effort to meet the challenges, erasing the shortages, once again seizing mission and ministry opportunities.”
The Wisconsin Synod is generally characterized as a theologically conservative faith community. It is the third largest Lutheran church body in the United States. With national offices in Milwaukee, the denomination includes 1,259 congregations. After several years of membership decline, the numbers now appear to have stabilized.
WELS helps support 195 congregations in its home missions program, along with 57 world missionaries and 19 teachers working in 36 different languages in 23 countries
For more about WELS, visit
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Baumler is WELS Director of Communications and editor of it’s national magazine