Friday, November 20, 2009

The bishop tries happy talk

Where does the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) stand today? We stand together in God's grace, but we are not standing still. We proclaim Jesus Christ and are fully engaged in this mission by actively caring for the world that God loves. God's mission is serious work that calls for serious commitment. We bring all that we are -- especially our rich diversity, our shared tradition and even our disagreements -- in service of God's mission.
(“An Open Letter to ELCA Members” from Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson, November 20, 2009)

The ELCA today released a letter from Bishop Mark Hanson, along with an accompanying video (its content was similar but not identical to the letter). Take a look at the opening paragraph above. Reading it reminds me of that refrigerator magnet toy which allows you to arrange words into profound poetry or nonsensical gibberish, however you feel moved. The words and grammar make sense but together the paragraph says—nothing. It imitates the kind of political and bureaucratic verbiage we see and hear all the time, only a small dose of which is necessary to put us to sleep.

Obviously the release of the letter and video is an attempt to balance the “negative energy” surrounding last week’s mass layoffs at the ELCA churchwide office, stories of withheld mission support and departing congregations, and the CORE announcement that it would be forming a new Lutheran denomination. All of that, however, is barely acknowledged in the letter itself.

As so often happens with institutions in trouble, the assumption is made that the real problem is public perception. All we have to do is manage the news cycle. We’ll drown out the bad news by shouting good news even louder. Unfortunately in the church such PR campaigns are too obvious and serve only to deplete energy rather than build it up. In this regard the video is even worse than the letter, since meaningless words are combined with the Bishop’s robotic happy talk.

I don’t know what such cheerleading is supposed to accomplish. The limited distribution of these pieces means they go primarily to people well aware of the denomination’s difficulties. For these folks many of the items of good news Hanson highlights ironically only raise more questions:
  • Why is a Florida congregation planning regional mission strategy rather than the ELCA or synod? (If they can do it, what do we need churchwide structures for?)
  • Why are we starting more ministries in poor minority communities when so many previous multicultural mission starts are struggling or closing?
  • The ELCA will “raise up leaders” by supporting its seminaries but won’t acknowledge the financial crisis of many current pastors, that it simply can’t sustain eight independent seminaries, or that it is not at all clear that the full-time pastor with an expensive graduate education is a model that will work in the future.
“Honesty is the best policy” we were told as children. It works even better with adults. The ELCA has serious problems and its membership is mature enough to handle a serious discussion of them. They don’t need to be cheered up. They just need the truth. (I think that's in the Bible somewhere.)

Follow up: blogger and religion journalist Susan Hogan has similar concerns: Bishop Hanson, ELCA need new PR

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