Category: Mission

Words Matter

Don’t trust leaders;don’t trust any human beings—there’s no saving help with them!Their breath leaves them,then they go back to the ground.On that very same day, their plans die too.[Psalm 146:3-4 Common English Bible] On Wednesday, January 20, 2021, my wife and I sat down to watch the broadcast of the inauguration ceremonies from Washington, D.C.…

Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

[Matthew 17:4 NRSV]

delivering-the-keynote-address-pltsOn October 5, 2016, I had the distinct privilege of giving the keynote address to the Fall Conference of the Theological Education for Emerging Ministries (TEEM) Program at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary (PLTS) in Berkeley, California.

TEEM is an alternate route to ordained ministry in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America for people identified to provide pastoral ministry to emerging ministry contexts throughout the church, or to underserved communities, which include ethnic, multicultural, rural, inner city ministries and ministry with deaf communities.

Having entered ministry through the TEEM program, I have become somewhat of an anomaly in the church in that I was the first person to emerge from the program to be elected bishop. I’ve stated before that since becoming bishop in 2014, it seems that more people than I could ever imagine are interested in hearing what I’ve got to say. Two years into my call I am still somewhat surprised by that experience.

The theme for the conference was “Theologizing for the World.” The title gave me the latitude to take the address in multiple directions. Even though it was a keynote and not a sermon, I used the call to Abram, as found in Genesis 12, as a scriptural springboard. It is my conviction that the story of the call to Abraham offers us a lens through which we can understand our relationship with the living God. It is a reading that resonates with me on several levels. First and foremost, it is a call story. And I feel any talk of theology must start with a discussion of call.

As Abram was called and obeyed, I reminded the students that in much the same way, their candidacy for ministry in the TEEM program was God’s idea before it was theirs. None of us are where we are because we choose to be in that particular place. God calls us in the waters of our baptism to serve, to be a child of God, to become a member of a royal priesthood, a holy nation. It is my hope that my words inspired the students.

presiding-at-worship-pltsI was also honored to preside at worship at the Chapel of the Cross, a Eucharist service that was organized by a group of students from the seminary community and at which the Rev. Shauna K. Hannan, Associate Professor of Homiletics, preached.

After a potluck lunch, I was treated to a tour of the campus by the director of the TEEM program, the Rev. Moses Penumaka, and accompanied by our Northeastern Ohio Synod Director for Evangelical Mission, the Rev. Terrance Jacob.

This tour was significant in that it will be most likely my first and last time ever on the Berkeley campus of PLTS. In August of this year, PLTS announced that it has decided to relocate to downtown Berkeley starting in fall of 2017. The decision puts PLTS closer to social and civic life, closer to public transportation, to become not only in but also of Berkeley.  It will be a 15-minute walk to Graduate Theological Union, a partner in the ministry of PLTS, and blocks away from the University of California Berkeley campus.

The current location at the top of the hill, with its beautiful campus with inspiring views Spanish colonial era buildings has been home to seminarians since 1952.

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Having been there for only a day, I can’t begin to imagine the difficulty involved in deciding to leave. As I observed the stunningly breathtaking scenery from the top of Sawyer Hall, I was reminded of the scene at the Transfiguration with Jesus, Peter, James and John. [Matthew 17; Mark 9]. I jokingly said to Moses Penumaka, and Terrance Jacob, “It is good for us to be here. I will make three dwellings, one for Moses, one for Jacob and one for Abraham.”

All the changes taking place in the church and in the world have had a transfigurational effect on our ELCA seminaries. They are being challenged to become creative in the ways of doing theological education in order to prepare leaders for the ministry to which Christ calls us. Pacific’s move is just one of several that have taken place in recent times. The seminaries in Philadelphia and Gettysburg announced a merger earlier in the year. A few years ago, Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina, became a part of Lenoir-Rhyne University in North Carolina.

The lesson of the Transfiguration has not been lost on the leadership of PLTS. As Peter and the disciples learned, ministry happens in the valley, not on the mountaintop. I pray for PLTS and all of our ELCA seminaries; that this decision is pleasing to God and bears fruit for the future of PLTS, the church, and for the mission of God in the world.

We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.

[1 Thessalonians 1:2-3 NRSV]

So how do I begin to detail my visit to the Northern Diocese of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in South Africa?

Initially, I wanted to give a daily diary of places I visited, people I met and events I witnessed. But a piecemeal report of that nature also calls for reflection, otherwise it becomes a travelogue without significance.

The other item I began to take into account is that I was seeing all these people, places and events for the first time; whereas, there are several people in Northeastern Ohio who have visited our companion synod in the past and may consider my new discoveries as somehow disregarding their past history with those whose lives they were able to touch in that region.

Jake Dikobo

Jake Dikobo

So let me start with that background in mind. I mentioned in my last post that our main goal while in South Africa was reestablish the relationship between the Northeastern Ohio Synod and the Northern Diocese of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in South Africa ELCSA. We once had a committee that was very involved in global mission and a partnership with our companion synod. They have made several visits there and hosted several people here as well. People like Jake Dikobo, who recounted to us with fondness every detail of his visit to the United States in 1995. He remembered dates, places and people as if it had been just last week.

Jake Dikobo (center) speaks with the bishops after worship on Sunday.

Jake Dikobo (center) speaks with the bishops after worship on Sunday.

For a variety of reasons our committee has been inactive for several years. Some have moved, some have died, some have gotten older while yet others have refocused their passion on to other interests. As I return I hope to communicate with some of those people to learn from them what fueled their passion initially for this ministry.

So this reengagement is an opportunity for a fresh start.

On my first day, Pastor Terrance Jacob and I met with Bishop SWS Sihlangu simply to get to know him. I experienced him to be a very humble man. He was elected in 2010 and will continue to serve until his retirement in two years.

Bishops in ELCSA do not serve terms, by the way. They are elected until they reach the mandatory retirement age of 65. Then they are given the status of Bishop Emeritus. They may continue to serve in whatever capacity they can, supplying as parish pastors or preachers, but they can hold no official office.

Bishop SWS Sihlangu at his office in Polakwane.

Bishop SWS Sihlangu at his office in Polakwane.

Bishop Sihlangu has three predecessors still residing in his diocese. Their photos hang on the wall behind his desk. You can make of that what you want. However, their presence does not pose a challenge to his authority. By contrast, he seems rather comfortable in his own self-identity.

He gave us a small slice of what goes on in the diocese, which is sub-divided into circuits – the equivalent of our conferences here in Northeastern Ohio. There are six circuits that are further sub-divided into parishes and each parish has several congregations. So the parish pastor is a pastor to all those congregations.

The diocesan office shares a building with a congregation, Phodisha Ditshaba, where we were able to meet with their Women’s Prayer League, their Youth League, and 12 theological students who are being housed temporarily in the guest house, due to some financial issues that have forced the seminary to send the students back to their respective dioceses. That is a topic that merits its own story. More about that in another post.

We visited three congregations, a circuit center, and also met with the Young Adult League of St. Paul’s Congregation in Polakwane. On Saturday we drove four hours to be with the Executive Committee of the Young Adults League of the diocese, and capped it off with a joyous, Spirit-filled worship service on Sunday, which was led by the Young Adults.

So now that you have some background, with God’s help I’ll begin to further detail the visit over the next several days.

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