Monday, February 07, 2011

Goodbye to All That

The movement from January into February brought an ending and a transition that should not go unnoticed or unremarked for those of us staying in the ELCA. What has ended is the former churchwide structure, which came to a formal close on January 31st, 2011. The announcement of a new "streamlined" structure was made last fall, along with the word that a number of positions would be eliminated with the consequent lay-off of individuals serving in those jobs. The fate of some of those individuals was known right away, in particular the former heads of divisions which would no longer exist. But the fate of many others was and is largely unknown, and is only being publicly revealed as some are bidding farewell in various publications of the churchwide units.

And so it was that as I read through my email this evening, I found this message from Pastor Robert G. Schaefer, Executive for Worship for the Worship and Liturgical Resources section of the churchwide structure, in the February edition of ELCA Worship News:

"Epiphany and Mission
"It has been an honor and a privilege for me to serve as Executive for Worship and Liturgical Resources as part of the Office of the Presiding Bishop for two years. It is, therefore, with many mixed emotions that I am taking my leave at the end of January to serve as Lead Pastor of a congregation in Southwest Florida. My departure will coincide with the end of the Worship and Liturgical Resources section and former churchwide structure on January 31, 2011.

Praise and Thanksgiving
I am thankful for the opportunity to have, for a brief time, shared in assisting our presiding bishop in the oversight of worship in word and sacrament and this church's efforts to be an evangelizing church centered in the means of grace. I am deeply grateful for the remarkable worship staff I have served alongside and am awed by their understanding and grace during this time of difficult staff reductions. It has been a joy to travel across this church to promote the centrality of word and sacrament in God’s mission to the world. I have witnessed the many and rich ways worshipping assemblies bring the centrality of these means of grace to expression in local contexts. It has been a blessing to serve with Bishop Hanson and all the remarkably gifted and dedicated staff of the churchwide organization.

I leave now to return to my first love; stewarding the means of grace in a local worshipping assembly of this church. My pastoral ministry will be greatly enriched by my time in Chicago. I remain hopeful that as we continue to fine-tune the work of the worship team in the new Congregational and Synodical Mission (CSM) unit, that the centrality of word and sacrament, spoken of in our confessions, will continue to find clear expression in the organizational structure of the ELCA.

Blessings on the journey,

Pr. Robert G. Schaefer
Executive for Worship
Office of the Presiding Bishop"

As Lutherans we view church structure and governance as mostly matters of indifference (adiaphora), which is not the same thing as saying that we don't care how the earthly church chooses to order and govern itself. Rather, we recognize that structures come and go over the course of the centuries, and how the church orders itself can vary as long as the Gospel is rightly proclaimed and the sacraments rightly administered (the satis est of the Augsburg Confession). And being as the ELCA seems to "re-structure" itself with some frequency (so much so that I and others have difficulty in remembering just what the various parts of the churchwide structure are calling themselves now), it would be foolish to have any "feelings" for a structure now relegated to the dust-bin of ecclesiastical history, one that like those structures before it in the ELCA has been abandoned in the current dismal fiscal environment.

What we should not view with indifference is the exodus of men and women from their positions and jobs in the churchwide offices, as many of these positions have been eliminated and cut back. These brothers and sisters in Christ have worked for the ELCA, most of them behind the scenes, out of a sense of call and mission. It is an unfortunate but necessary fact of the times that personnel matters are dealt with privately; usually this privacy is a benefit to workers.

However, one distinct drawback is the inability, in such a time, to fully understand the scope of the layoffs at the churchwide level, or to name specific individuals in prayer as they go through this transition. Often one only learns after the fact that a position has been eliminated (or "consolidated") and that the individual that one had come to rely on is no longer there.

The ELCA has come under a huge amount of criticism in the past decade, and especially in the past two years. Some of the criticism has come from questions regarding the "essential" position of some of the projects that the ELCA has supported. For some critics, the recent downsizing has been overdue. However that may be true, the toll this latest restructuring is taking both on those who have had to leave and on those who are left behind in the churchwide offices cannot be ignored or made light of. In particular, as it becomes clearer in the year ahead what is left, and what has been preserved, going forward in the leaner ELCA churchwide structure, the question may need to be asked if the re-structuring truly serves the "right preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments" or not.

I note that Pastor Schaefer closes with that hope and prayer in his farewell message to those who attend to worship matters in this church. He writes: "I remain hopeful . . . that the centrality of word and sacrament, spoken of in our confessions, will continue to find clear expression in the organizational structure of the ELCA." I take this opportunity to thank Pastor Schaefer, and others who worked with him, for their attention to the centrality of word and sacrament in the portion of the Church of Jesus Christ known as the ELCA over the past few years. Without an advocate for worship within the structure, it is uncertain what lies in the future for such an emphasis and witness for Lutheran worship and liturgy. At the least, it will be more difficult to find people in the structure of the ELCA to whom we can address our concerns.

And let us continue to lift up in our prayers those who have not fared well in the re-structuring, those who are still trying to find jobs and positions, whether in or outside of the organizational church. May these servants of the church be surrounded by those who can support, comfort and strengthen them until they find the place to which God is leading them.

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