2018 SA Oral Report of the Bishop

Church historian Alan Kreider asserts that, during the first three centuries of the church’s life, the Holy Spirit worked to spread the gospel not so much through rushing wind and tongues as of fire, but through what Kreider calls “ferment.” Think sauerkraut, pickles, yogurt, cheese.

Ferment is not susceptible to human control and its pace cannot be sped up. But in the ferment, there is a bubbling energy –a bottom-up inner life–that has immense potential. Fermentation is gradual. Except for a stray bubble that emerges now and then, nothing seems to be happening. Until late in its operation, it is unimpressive. And yet it has a cumulative power that creates and transforms.

In my written report, which you will find on pages 17-35 of the assembly book, I share the Holy Spirit’s fermentation that I have observed in our synod. I confess that, when I hear the word fermentation, I think of the making of beer, wine, and liquor. Waiting on the Holy Spirit becomes akin to sitting patiently with a cup in hand, ready to collect drops of the Spirit’s elixir of grace, resurrection, direction, add new life. In this oral report, I’d like to highlight five of those drops that I’ve collected, which all begin with D– Developments, Direction, Debt, Disability, and Discernment.

Developments

The first drop is developments since my written report. We will introduce the Synod Staff this evening at dinner. We shared with you that Pastor Sarah has determined the time has come for her to complete her ministry among us, a decision I fully support. Many asked what the plan is moving forward. Even as I am heartbroken to say goodbye to Pastor Sarah’s departure, I am very excited to share that Pastor Rosanne Anderson will join us as interim assistant to the bishop from July 2018 through August 2019. You can read about Pastor Anderson in the May Bishop’s Newsletter. Welcome, Pastor Anderson.

I also want to share that we are establishing a synod desk at St. Luke in Grand Rapids where Pastor Anderson plans to be one day a week. We thank St. Luke for their generosity as we continue to be grateful to Immanuel in Mount Pleasant for hosting Pastor Sprang, Samaritas in Acme for hosting Pastor Timm. Church of the Savior in Kalamazoo for hosting Pastor Friesen-Carper, St. Matthew in Heron, where I have a great office and the coffee is always on when I arrive, and our partnership with St. Stephen in Lansing, where the bishop and administrative staff work.

Direction

The second drop is direction. My written report is organized according to the direction that Inamed for our work as a synod: Proclaiming Christ and Prayerfully Participating in Jesus’ own work of reconciling the world to God’s very Self by Renewing Congregations, Empowering Leaders, and Strengthening Connections.”

Mission Support–I want to thank you for your support of this direction through your prayers, participation, and mission support. Pastor Sprang observes: “Our fiscal year 2017 showed a 5% increase in giving from congregations to Mission Support.” I would add that we also saw increased giving to targeted areas of our work. Pastor Sprang continues, “It has been at least 6 years since we were at that giving level. We prayed about it. We have a mission plan. We asked you to support the work we do together. And you came through. Thanks be to God.” I want to add my  personal thanks to you.

Call Process–When I think of renewing congregations, perhaps the most important work we do is matching the right leader with the right congregation. So, we devote a good amount of time and energy to the call process. We completed 80 call and contract processes since I became bishop; that’s an average of one every three weeks. I share this because I know that, for individual congregations, it feels like the process takes a very long time. We currently have 17 congregations in the call process– five part time. This is the smallest number we’ve had since I became bishop.

Interest in North/West Lower Michigan from rostered ministers outside our synod is slowly but steadily growing; we have a long way to go before we are Columbus, Minneapolis, or Seattle. There continues to be more full-time calls than pastors to fill them.

I am regularly asked about seminary graduates. This year, a total number of 118 candidates were assigned to the 65 synods. 256 vacancies appropriate for a first call pastor were reported. At best, 46% of available first call congregations received a pastor.

As I seem to do every year, I ask for your patience when your congregation is in the call process. I also ask you to encourage those in whom you see gifts for public ministry. All you have to say is, “I think you should consider becoming a pastor.”

            Clergy Stress–Turning to our work of empowering leaders, Pastor Cathy Schibler of Portico reports that the stress level of rostered ministers in the North/West Lower Michigan Synod is high compared to the average across the ELCA. As I reach out to our rostered ministers, I’ve learned that pastors and deacons find it challenging to continually walk the “tightrope” that is preaching and leading in our divided, even polarized, political climate. I can attest that pastors receive harsh criticism from both the left and right for the same sermon or action.

Pastors and deacons are stressed as they and their families deal with a variety of personal, family, and health concerns and crises.

And, when deacons and pastors are relentlessly criticized and even bullied by a handful of congregation members while the congregation’s leaders stand idly by and the congregation’s members remain silent, deacons and pastors become isolated. They lose joy in ministry and begin to wonder whether their service has meaning. They may become ill. Their loved ones may become bitter. They may seek a change in call or career.

            It would genuinely be a sign of the Holy Spirit to find an occasion to speak a word of appreciation to your pastor or deacon. Be patient and forgiving when they make a mistake or disappoint you. Put the best rather than the worst construction on things. Don’t allow your first response to be to assume or question their motives. And when someone behaves inappropriately toward your pastor or deacon, call them on it. Tell them to stop.

Remember the promises you made when your pastor or deacon was installed: to receive them as messengers of Christ, pray for them, help and honor them for their work’s sake, and in all things strive to live together in the peace and unity of Christ. You will have the sincere thanks of a grateful bishop. You will also be blessed by the ministry of a pastor or deacon who feels appreciated and renewed.

            Size–in terms of strengthening connections, this year I was asked to develop a piece describing how different size congregations relate to the synod.  It is included with my report, along with a teaching piece on the difference size makes to a congregation, as well as a report on our congregations’ membership and worship attendance based on annual parochial reports. I could take a semester to work through those documents. I invite you to have a look at them.

Debt

The third drop is for debt. I continue to be very concerned about seminary debt and rostered minister indebtedness because debt hinders the work of the Holy Spirit. Debt limits the congregations that a pastor can serve. Indebtedness hinders the ability to attract a pastor who wants to come. Addressing indebtedness gives the Holy Spirit freedom and room to maneuver.

Our synod attorney, Dawn Brackmann, reports that there are ways we can defray debt directly related to seminary education. The two next steps are (1) determining the approach that works best for us and (2) begin to raise money for this purpose. I welcome leaders to assist me in this work. To keep things moving forward, I will work through the possible models Dawn researched, seek out expert advice, and propose a model for our synod to Synod Council.

I appreciate Synod Council designating offerings from services of ordination and installation– services of the synod–for this purpose, beginning in 2018. I encourage congregations to follow Synod Council’s lead by so designating these offerings. My hope and plan is to make our first awards at our 2019 assembly.

Disability

            The fourth drop is disability. We are designating half of our assembly offerings to ministry with persons who live with disabilities through the Campaign for the ELCA. Thank you. Our church has a long way to go in this area. When I was in seminary, I was told we could work on ministry with persons with disabilities once we got gender figured out. Then it was race. Then sexual orientation. Someone recently said to me, right after climate change.

            Some think I need to be doing more advocacy and commenting more on societal issues. I work quietly on the issue of disability. When I became a bishop, I received the unexpected prophet’s mantle from many across our church who live with disabilities to advocate for them. When we elected a Native American bishop, an openly gay bishop, and two African American women as bishops, we hailed it as historic signs of the Holy Spirit. And that is right, for, indeed, they are. And when this synod elected a bishop who is legally blind, it went largely unnoticed. And beyond our synod, a bishop who lives with a disability is often an inconvenience. Our church has much work to do.

            I do not say this to complain but to thank you. For, while people may not recognize it because ministry with persons with disabilities may only have a very small place on our church’s agenda and may not show up on our church’s radar, what you as a synod are doing in supporting a bishop who is legally blind is a prophetic act, a step closer to the fullness of God’s reign, and an unmistakable sign of the Holy Spirit, especially for those who live with disabilities and need a sign of hope. I know this because they tell me so. So thank you.

Discernment

            The fifth drop is discernment. At our 2019 assembly, we will engage in a process of mutual discernment as we elect and call a bishop. From December through April, I engaged in a time of discernment about whether I sense God calling me to be available to serve another term as your bishop. I have wrestled with God in prayer. Cathy and I have talked deeply and honestly. Chelsey weighed in. I listened to synod leaders, our staff, and other bishops. What I thought was a no-brainer turned out to be good, hard, holy work.

            This is why we need to watch and listen for, and tell each other about, signs of the Holy Spirit. Because they give us the strength, the courage, the will, the grace, the resilience, and the joy to keep going. Thankful for intentional process of discernment Cathy and I are all in to keep going. If you’ll have me, I’m available to serve another term as your bishop.

What will the next six years bring? I found an answer in a hymn:

The Church of Christ in every age

Beset by change but Spirit led,

Must claim and test its heritage

And keep on rising from the dead

As I say, we will need signs of the Spirit to keep going. Thankfully, they’re all around us. All we need do is sit patiently with cup in hand and wait for the drop, drop, drop.

`© 2006 Craig A. Satterlee ● North/West Lower Michigan Synod ELCA ● 2900 N. Waverly Rd. ● Lansing MI 48906 ● 517-321-5066