Bishop Susan Johnson was elected for her third term on the third ballot at the National Convention taking place in Edmonton. The theme of the event, “Liberated by God’s Grace,” is also the theme of the upcoming international commemoration of the Lutheran Reformation’s 500th anniversary. As an example of how the church will lift up this theme over the next two years, Bishop Johnson described the proposed ELCIC Reformation Challenge under consideration at the convention. The challenge would include providing scholarships to students attending schools of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land, welcoming and assisting refugees to Canada, planting trees in Canada and around the world, and giving generously to the Lutheran World Foundation Endowment Fund.
“Not only will the ELCIC Reformation Challenge make a difference in our world,” Bishop Johnson said. “It will make a difference in our church as we work together and stretch ourselves in generosity as a church in mission for others.”The bulk of her report outlined strides made forward by the ELCIC in four strategic directions set out at its 2013 convention: spiritual renewal, healthy church, compassionate justice, and effective partnerships.
Lifting up the Call to Spiritual Renewal which encourages deeper discipleship in the church, she pointed to new resources that will be mailed out to every ELCIC congregation at the end of August.
“I am convinced,” Bishop Johnson said, “that these ancient and continuing spiritual practices are what we need to deepen our relationship with God and equip us for the baptismal life of discipleship to which we have been called.”
She described spiritual renewal as a key element to becoming a healthy church—a strategic goal that arose from an acknowledgement that the church appeared increasingly unhealthy due to conflict, mistrust, and fear of an uncertain future. “I’m happy to report to you that I see huge changes across our church,” Bishop Johnson told delegates. “We are learning to work together as the body of Christ, as a team.”
She pointed to numerous examples of the church’s increasing health, such as the Church Extension and Capital Fund (CECF), a fund held by the national church to help start new congregations. Recognizing that the old model of purchasing land and loaning money to new congregations for building had become too expensive to continue, the CECF committee agreed to donate capital from the fund to provide each synod with $200,000 spread over three years to experiment with new forms of ministry.
“This is a big deal,” Bishop Johnson said. “It means we have been talking and listening to each other and to God. It means we are building trust and mutual accountability. It means we understand that there are regional differences across the church and that we can celebrate them instead of trying to insist on uniformity.”
Increasing the flow of communication through the church via social media was another positive development. Using the #myelcic hashtag, Lutherans are able to share stories about life and ministry within their church via Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
Bishop Johnson further highlighted the second reading of a new constitution, the adoption of proposed new administration bylaws, and the production of annual reports to share the work of the national church. Another major sign of health, she added, was increased participation in the work of compassionate justice.
She recalled participating in a church leaders’ justice tour across Canada that many Lutherans had attended. “What we heard was people calling on the churches for moral leadership in the areas of poverty and climate change,” she said. “We are being urged to move beyond charity to looking at the root, systemic causes of both these areas. We are also being urged to see how much the concerns of Indigenous peoples overlap both poverty and climate change.”
The closing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), meanwhile, provided the church with an opportunity to continue fulfilling its 2011 commitment to work towards right relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. “This includes the Indigenous members of our church,” Bishop Johnson said. “Because of this we need to do everything we can to respond to the calls to action of the TRC, and it begins with reading them.”
A related item that would be considered at the convention was the repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery that had long been used to justify colonial attitudes. Moving on to effective partnerships, Bishop Johnson provided a lengthy list demonstrating how the church’s work was more effective when it worked with others.
Among the partners she highlighted were the Anglican Church of Canada, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, KAIROS, Canadian Lutheran World Relief, the Canadian Council of Churches, The Lutheran World Federation, the Lutheran Collegiate Bible Institute and Luther College, and the National Church Council. She also noted promising new partnerships under development, such as the growing relationship with Mennonite Church Canada and renewed dialogue with the Canadian Catholic Conference of Bishops.
In an emotional conclusion, Bishop Johnson underscored how far the church had come recently.“When I was first elected National Bishop, I was very concerned about the direction we were headed,” she recalled. “Our resources both in terms of people and finances were receding rapidly. I wasn’t sure the ELCIC was going to survive.”
Since that time, however, she had learned many things from God and members of the church, which she summed up in a message from St. Paul in Romans 5:5—“Hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” “Through your faithfulness, through your witness, through your creativity, through your hopefulness, I have learned that hope does not disappoint,” Bishop Johnson said.
“We are liberated by God’s grace! We are blessed with a hope in Jesus Christ that will not disappoint us. We are being strengthened to meet the challenges ahead.”