The ELCA Conference of Bishops meets the last weekend of September most years. This year was no different, but it was for me. This year my youngest brother Joel and his fiance had chosen that Saturday to be the day of their wedding. So my time at the conference was interrupted. But that does not mean it was not fruitful.
My Wednesday was spent in the assignment process with bishops, churchwide staff, and seminary leaders. Our role was to prayerfully work together with and on behalf of the candidates who had been approved for ordination to assign them to a region (and later synod) where they would serve there first call. Part of why I agreed to stand for the office of bishop was that I believed in the importance of processes like these, working with our leaders, and discerning where the church’s needs are and to try to match that to candidate strengths.
This process has been known to raise the anxiety of our candidates and rightly so. The reality is we have more openings than we do candidates and that candidates who are not restricted or administratively assigned to a particular synod (a process that must be approved by the bishop of the local synod and impacts the entire regions ability to call leaders) can give preferences but the church has needs. I remember my own assignment process, wondering how this was done and hoping to get sent to a place that could use the gifts Kendra and I would bring. While we had no preference for the Greater Milwaukee Synod that was were we were assigned and we were blessed to serve and learn and grow there over the almost 6 years we served.
The fall assignment is generally smaller than the spring assignment process as it mirrors the academic year. That said, there were still a large number of candidates to discuss and prayer over.
The first step is that each synod states how many vacancies they have (these are congregations finished with study, awaiting candidates to interview). For this assignment there were 263 vacancies reported across the ELCA the vast majority of these in the synods in a swath from Pennsylvania to North Dakota. For these vacancies we had 138 available candidates. Not a terrible number but the challenge was this, 99 had all ready been administratively assigned including 3 that NT-NL had assigned or had been given a restriction (something we rarely do, only 13 restrictions were approved by ELCA bishops). These administrative assignments are often to part-time calls or specialized ministry. In the case of NT-NL 2 were called to part-time ministry. So after the administrative assignments we had 39 candidates open or with preferences. This is where the challenge then comes in of discerning from the candidates paperwork, the seminary advocates who speak about them, and the needs of synods. This is a process done with a lot of care and prayer but the reality is some people, and many synods, leave the day surprised and frankly often a bit disappointed.
One of the realities for us in NT-NL is that we have long realized that we must raise up our own leaders, particularly for the places that are challenging to fill. These could be urban or rural, language or ethnic specific, or ministry specific to a particular challenge. This is a culture that I desire to encourage and continue as we grow leaders to serve our unique contexts.
There is much history in this process, sometimes called pejoratively, “the draft.” While perhaps in the past candidates were seen more as names on paper, bargaining chips to exchange to fill “holes” in a synod, or just plan ignored or not listened to, this is not the case today. The bishops, candidacy coordinators, and seminary advocates want this process to be positive and find good places for approved candidates to serve. This is why I enjoy this work of assignment, as long and tedious as it may at times feel, because it is about leadership development.
Thursday I spend the day in my committee, the “Theological and Ethical Concerns Committee” where we discussed many things including how the conference works together to speak on issues and challenges facing the church and our world. I also enjoy the work of this committee as it is also vitally concerned with leadership in the church.
But Thursday night I had to go home. The wedding in Atlanta required me and my spouse to co-preside as well as to escort our children so they could participate as well. It was a gift to be asked to be a part of my brother and his wife’s special day. I am grateful for the hospitality of the people of Cross of Life Lutheran in Roswell, GA as well as Bishop Jullian Gordy of the Southeastern Synod who was gracious in allowing me to do this work in his synod’s territory.
October is going to be a busy month. Time to get back to work here and by the end of the month in Sierra Leone.