Welcome to the Pastor’s Blog. As I venture into the Blog-o-sphere I have several hopes for our time together. One is to illuminate and spot for you God’s activity sitting from where I sit, as Lead Pastor to Bethany Lutheran Church. Two is to address questions that I feel need to be answered considering opportunities we face as a congregation and denomination. And three, I hope to shed light on the joy and privilege of living as a follower of Jesus.

Today I want to catch you up on the recent actions made at the triennial Churchwide Assembly in August, and the odd choice of language that is at the heart of the tense reaction to it.

As you know, our denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, is incorporated with a constitution that reflects our belief in a representative form of governance. We elect Bishops that partner with synod councils (all elected at synod assemblies) and together they lead the synod ‘expression.’ A national Bishop, elected every six years at the Churchwide Assembly, also works alongside a churchwide council. In addition to Bishops and councils, every three years ELCA members are voted to attend the triennial Churchwide Assembly. The assembly (of approx. 700 members) is presented with a list of vetted recommendations to vote on, submitted through local synod assemblies or those that come from the “floor.” These are called memorials or resolutions. In August the Assembly adopted a resolution, that, among other things, declared the ELCA to be ‘a sanctuary church body.” The motion:

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America declares itself a sanctuary church body; and to request the ELCA Church Council, in consultation with the appropriate churchwide units and offices, provide guidance for the three expressions of this church about what it means to be a sanctuary church body and provide a report to the 2022 Churchwide Assembly.

Several national news reports surfaced that the ELCA became the first denomination to declare itself a “sanctuary” denomination. Safe to say there has been much alarm from around the country and from members here at Bethany. Since then, Synodical Bishops have spent a considerable amount of time and energy trying to explain what this resolution means, and what it does not mean. In short, here are the talking points and the message:

  • The ELCA is renewing its public commitment to take concrete action to fulfill scripture’s mandate to welcome strangers—including immigrants and refugees—and provide for their needs, however appropriate in one’s context.
  • The ELCA is not condoning or advocating illegal conduct on the part of its congregations or members. As citizens of the Church, we are also citizens of the State.
  • The ELCA is renewing its commitment to advocating for reform in our nation’s broken immigration system, and for humane treatment of immigrants and refugees.

With this broader understanding of the resolution, I would offer that Bethany is already a sanctuary congregation—not in the sense of harboring illegal immigrants and defying local law enforcement officials—but in the sense of helping those in need. We support Open Door Mission which provides help to everyone in need, including the immigrant. We partner with Elkhorn Schools through Food 4 Kids where we assist in meals for all families, including the immigrant. As people of faith, and as a denomination, we have never refused to help those in need. Scripture reminds us to help the widow, the orphan, and travelers because we were once strangers in a foreign land. Indeed, as Lutherans, we are a denomination mostly made up of immigrants.

If indeed the Assembly intended this broader understanding, then why approve the use of the word ‘sanctuary’ in the first place? Good question. Everyone knows what the word means; the harboring of illegal immigrants. No wonder the confusion. Why not work a little harder to reach clarity, rather than pass a motion that declares the church something… only to also declare we won’t know what that something means for three years? Especially since everyone else outside the church already seems to know what that something means?

Truth is, we are a denomination that offers a big tent for differing opinions and approaches to important issues. Some may feel strongly about the immigration issue, and therefore advocate to change existing laws or even organize protests. Others will work more locally to offer ESL classes, job opportunities, set up school/housing options or provide legal help towards citizenship. I believe what this motion means for Bethany is that we are called to be a sanctuary of healing, hope, and help to our brothers and sisters in Christ, within the constraints of the law, simply because immigrants are no different than you and me, made in the image of this beautiful God whom we serve.

The bottom line; the ELCA needs a second set of decision-makers that could offer checks and balances for our assembly.  What if every resolution adopted by the Churchwide Assembly required a simple majority approval by the Conference of Bishops (a group that meets regularly but has no formal or constitutional authority)? A kind of ‘Senate’ to the ‘House.’ Offering Bishops the opportunity to discern from feedback before a resolution is fully adopted would allow a more constructive churchwide conversation. A due process that short circuits the voices of faithful members sitting in pews will only further disenfranchise our church from itself in the future.

Thanks for reading and all God’s Blessings to you in the Name of Jesus,

Pastor Jon