Thousands of ELCA congregations across the country are helping those in need as way to celebrate the denomination’s 25th anniversary.
The laundry baskets Melissa Pohlman fills with cleaning supplies and toilet paper also hold the new focus of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
As the ELCA celebrates its 25th anniversary, the largest Lutheran denomination in the country finds itself with a shrinking membership but a growing commitment to revive its missionary heritage of helping the needy.
To mark the milestone, the church’s nearly 4 million members in some 10,000 congregations across the country are holding a dedicated day of service on Sunday — performing charitable acts like cleaning up neighborhoods, delivering meals to the impoverished and collecting supplies for refugees oversees.
“We can be more visible in communities and not just be known for hot dish or lutefisk,” said Pohlman, a pastor at Central Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, one of the hundreds of Minnesota congregations participating in the day.
Central is giving baskets of household items to people coming out of homelessness. In Maplewood, members of Lutheran Church of Peace are picking up litter along Interstate 94.
“Christ’s people aren’t just the people inside the [church] building,” Pohlman said. “Sometimes Lutherans need a kick to get out of their buildings and go meet those people. Love on those people and learn from those people.”
Formed by the merger of three Lutheran denominations in 1988, the ELCA observes its anniversary at a time of significant change. It elected its first female presiding bishop in August and its first openly gay bishop in June. But it has also lost some 600 congregations and nearly half a million members nationwide since its 2009 vote to allow openly gay clergy in committed relationships to serve as pastors.
The denomination has had to reorganize, cut back staff and is now embarking on a nearly $200 million capital campaign to shore up funds. Minnesota still has nearly 800,000 ELCA members, more than any other state.
‘The motivating thing’
The Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, the newly elected presiding bishop, takes a matter-of-fact approach to the numbers. She says the denomination may be getting smaller, but that doesn’t mean Lutherans can’t be effective in spreading the gospel and helping those in need.
“If we’re just going to pack the pews so we have better statistics and can pay our bills, then that’s not faithful,” she said in an interview last week. “The motivating thing is not to get people in. The motivating thing is to help people have a relationship with God through Jesus … try to recapture our missionary zeal or heritage.”
The ELCA is not unlike many other mainline Protestant denominations that have seen their membership numbers dwindle as more and more Americans categorize themselves as “nones” — or not holding any religious affiliation.
Shaken by the down economy and declines in giving, the ELCA reorganized and eliminated nearly 100 positions between 2008-10, primarily at the ELCA’s Chicago headquarters. In 2001, the denomination had an operating income of more than $85 million, compared to 2012, which was around $70 million.
Building up and out
At their churchwide assembly last month, ELCA leaders approved the denomination’s first major fundraising campaign — a five-year effort to raise close to $200 million to start new congregations, educate and develop leaders, and bolster global mission work, among other efforts.
L. DeAne Lagerquist, chairwoman of the religion department at St. Olaf College, predicts the capital campaign is likely to succeed, appealing to Lutherans who want to see where their money is going.
“People like to give money for things they want to give it for,” she said. “It’s a strategy that allows people to see what they’re paying for.”
As it embarks on raising more money for mission work, the historically white faith group has also sought to diversify its ranks and has encouraged churches to appoint people of non-European ancestries to leadership positions.
In addition to Eaton’s historic election, Lutherans elected the denomination’s first openly gay bishop in June. Part Osage Indian, he is also the first American Indian bishop in the ELCA.
In 2012, Minneapolis-area Lutherans cast another historic vote, electing the first female bishop — the Rev. Ann Svennungsen — to lead the nation’s largest Lutheran synod.
Outgoing presiding Bishop Mark Hanson, who was defeated by Eaton last month, said he views her win as an indication that church members are seeking out more diverse leaders.
He also sees members making strides in doing mission work in the name of the church.
“Through all of our turmoil over the last few years … what has been consistent is Lutherans have said, ‘We may differ on human sexuality but we do not differ that we need to be a church engaged in response to human suffering, to poverty, to the environmental crisis, and to war … We will be a public church, not a private club.’ ”
“There is great wealth and great generosity among Lutherans,” Hanson said. “The whole campaign is really building on our strengths, not trying to plug up or shore up our weaknesses.”
Even if their numbers are fewer, Lutherans such as Joy McDonald Coltvet, senior pastor of Lutheran Church of Peace in Maplewood, see Sunday’s day of service as an ideal way to mark their anniversary.
“Our congregations … service is their first priority,” she said. “So it makes sense we would celebrate in that way because it’s a core value.”
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