RoNEL 2022 reflections on Lutheran identity, inclusiveness and serving the neighbor
(LWI) – How do leaders of different member churches of The Lutheran World Federation (LWF) experience being church in minority contexts, diversity and inclusiveness, their role in the public space, ecumenism and serving the neighbor? These were some of the questions for reflection among a group of 16 heads of churches who took part in the Retreat of Newly Elected Leaders (RoNEL), 4-12 September, at the LWF Communion Office in Geneva and in Wittenberg, Germany.
The LWF offers the annual retreat as a space where its member church Bishops and Presidents, heads of dioceses and synods, come together to contemplate their vocation, reflect on the concept and practice of church leadership and deliberate on the meaning of being leaders in the Lutheran communion. [Link to previous story]
Priesthood of all believers
The theme for this year’s RoNEL was “Leadership and Episcopal Ministry in the LWF Communion.” Rev. Dr Nestor Paulo Friedrich, LWF Vice-President for the Latin America and Caribbean region, invited participants to reflect on what constitutes a good leader, leadership and management, and exercising power and authority.
The role of a bishop, the church leaders concurred, is to be “a shepherd of the flock who as the chief pastor not only leads but moderates issues among pastors and congregation members” while maintaining “a healthy doctrine within the church or dioceses especially by visiting congregations.” A person in leadership, they observed, leads people toward “God’s vision” and represents the church in “advocating and being a prophetic voice for justice in society.” In addition to the primary role of preaching and teaching, they noted, a leader is expected to “set a vision or strategy of where we want to go as a church” and take responsibility for conflict resolution in the church itself and wider community.
Friedrich, former President of the Evangelical Church of the Lutheran Confession in Brazil (IECLB), encouraged the RoNEL participants to focus on the “general priesthood of all believers,” which presupposes that the baptized are empowered and challenged to put their gifts to service. "Leadership is a collaborative activity that involves the participation of people, groups and sectors of work,” without concentrating decisions and tasks on one person. “Delegate, distribute, and trust tasks [to others] : it is part of healthy leadership. This is the kind of leadership we need to develop in church and institutions,” he emphasized.
Leadership is a collaborative activity that involves the participation of people, groups and sectors of work
– Rev. Dr Nestor Paulo Friedrich, LWF Vice-President, Latin America and the Caribbean.
The IECLB leader likened this shared leadership to the image of the body, in which each member is important and has a function. Similarly, “the people who lead have a special role of conducting the processes. But they are part of the body like the other members, and so they are equal to all members.” While community leaders assume a special responsibility in administrative and spiritual matters, “it is only in this sense that they differ from the other members,” he added.
Lutheran identity in diverse contexts
Participants shared their experiences of Lutheran identity, what constitutes a minority church, and opportunities and challenges in the respective contexts. In the United States, there is a general movement from being a Christian nation to a more secular context, and many churches are figuring out what this means for them, said Bishop Regina Hassanally, Southeastern Minnesota Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). “There is a pervasive understanding that salvation comes through following the rules. For me it is about thinking how the Lutheran faith offers a unique gift that no other church offers in my context,” she added.
For Pastor President Rev. Julio Caballero, Christian Lutheran Church of Honduras (ICLH), greater responsibility and commitment is expected of a fairly small church whose “members live in very simple households,” and “not all have the purchasing power to live a dignified life.” About 90 percent of the church’s members are women, he said.
While the Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession in the Slovak Republic, with its beginnings in the 16th century Reformation fit the description of a minority Lutheran church in the former communist era, this is no longer the case, said Bishop Ivan Elko. The church has made a mark in the country due to its long-standing contribution to the education, cultural and political fields.
An inclusive church
Unity in diversity was one of the concepts that the RoNEL group discussed. Although everyone is expected to be in, there are many people who are left out or don’t feel welcome in the church, they observed. They cited the common failure to make the church a conducive environment for people living with disabilities, sexual minorities, migrants, other Christians, and those who profess other faiths. A church that is eager to accept something new should be ready to sacrifice its own comfort or lose something, they noted.
“Where do we start from with the gospel message when the image of God is a man with a white beard?” remarked Pastor President Rev. Wilma Elisabeth Rommel, United Evangelical Lutheran Church, Argentina. However, she added, “an inclusive church can be a church that makes people feel uneasy because it is accommodating all of us.”
Presiding Bishop Kenneth Sibanda, Evangelical Lutheran Church in Zimbabwe, noted that most churches are very conservative. “God created men and women, everyone must come to the church—all, saint and sinner. “It (the church) is supposed to accommodate all people, and in any case, we don’t put up a sign to say ‘you are not welcome.’”
A prophetic voice and service to the neighbor
Participants also shared challenges and opportunities on the prophetic voice of the church in an ecumenical context and in society in general. In a predominantly Muslim context, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Malaysia (ELCM) engages in open dialogue with other Christian denominations on issues of mutual concern in society and ecumenism in general, said ELCM Bishop Steven Lawrence.
Church of the Lutheran Brethren of Cameroon President Rev. Alvius Debsia Dabah, said the social political environment in his country is relatively conducive for the church’s participation in the public space. “We have more opportunities to work with people in need, and in evangelism campaigns.” The church’s work in promoting peace is also recognized, he noted, citing a visit with Muslim leaders to communities in the northern part of the country where there was conflict.
In Honduras, like other countries in the region including El Salvador, Nicaragua and Venezuela, the Lutheran churches are relatively small, ICLH Bishop Caballero said. “It is not easy to speak for those who don’t have a voice when violence is the order of the day, and it is especially difficult for a church that is poor. But we continue to take up this call.”