Author Topic: Non-cooperation in externals (November 2010)  (Read 1140 times)

Richard Johnson

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Non-cooperation in externals (November 2010)
« on: March 02, 2011, 06:55:25 PM »
Non-cooperation in externals
Reprinted from Forum Letter November 2010
©2010 American Lutheran Publicity Bureau. All rights reserved.

To most in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who pay attention to such things, the constant angst in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod about “cooperation in externals” is a puzzling thing. ELCA Lutherans are genetically predisposed to ecumenical action. The ELCA, after all, has full communion agreements with several other denominations; it is an active member of the National and World Councils of Churches and the Lutheran World Federation. It cooperates right and left with all kinds of people, and not just in “externals” either.

   The LCMS, on the other hand, cooperates only rather gingerly with other groups, even other Lutheran groups. The operating principle seems to be that if the cooperation has only to do with service and not with worship, education, or most anything else, then it may, under some carefully defined conditions, be acceptable. Thus the LCMS has remained a part of Lutheran Social Services and Lutheran World Relief, even though it meant working with the ELCA—with whom, need I say, they are not in doctrinal agreement.

Assessing cooperation
   After the ELCA’s action last year to permit persons in homosexual relationships to serve in the ministry, there were folks in the LCMS who thought any cooperation with the ELCA, even in “externals,” ought to be axed. A motion to that effect was made at this year’s LCMS convention, and it garnered 43% of the votes. What finally did pass was a resolution initiating a study to propose “theological criteria for assessing cooperative endeavors, determining what would necessitate termination of such cooperative efforts.” The convention seemed to be saying that there is a point where they will no longer work with the ELCA in any capacity; that point hasn’t been reached yet, but they can see it from here.

   The reaction in the ELCA was some collective head-shaking. If they can’t work with us on matters like this, the attitude ran, then the heck with it. It’s their problem. Let them go their own way.

Working together—not
   All of that has been turned upside down by the ELCA’s decision to pull out of the Lutheran Malaria Initiative. LMI, ballyhooed with great enthusiasm at the ELCA’s 2009 Churchwide Assembly, was to be a joint effort by the two Lutheran churches and Lutheran World Relief, in cooperation with the United Nations Foundation (UNF), to fight malaria, the deadly disease that is still the scourge of many parts of Africa. This was an exciting moment—both because it was a cause that everyone could support (and thus a welcome contrast to more contentious issues being discussed), and because it was the first opportunity in a long time for the two large Lutheran church bodies in the U. S. to tackle something together in a high-profile way.

   The proposal had developed when the United Nations Foundation, which had received a sizeable grant to fight malaria from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, approached LWR with the idea of mobilizing the “Lutheran constituency” in this cause. For several months representatives worked on a project that could be fully supported by both the ELCA and the LCMS. The ultimate plan anticipated the raising of $75 million—with some $30 million coming from LWR, $25 million from ELCA, and $20 million from LCMS. The UNF’s primary role would be a large grant to assist in the fundraising process.

   All of this was presented to the churchwide assembly last summer. There were lots of fine words about how the LMI partners had agreed that we must do more than simplistic actions like handing out nets; how malaria is intertwined with poverty; how a malaria campaign would relate to existing programs to combat hunger and HIV/AIDS. The proposal before the assembly was to continue development of LMI and to prepare resources, pilot projects, solicitation of donors, etc., all of it building toward a churchwide campaign to be approved by the 2011 assembly. Things were off and running, and with a good deal of excitement.

Financial free-fall
   What was not anticipated was the financial crisis engendered by the churchwide assembly’s actions on sexuality. The ELCA has seen giving plummet in the last year, and while the official explanation about this generally mentions “the economy” as the first cause, nobody is really fooled by that. Mission support (funds congregations send to the ELCA through their synods) through August 31 of this year is down nearly 15%, ELCA treasurer Christina Jackson-Skelton told the bishops in October, and there is no end in sight to the crisis.

   And so, in an announcement made September 30 by Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson, the ELCA has unilaterally “ended the partnership that was entitled ‘Lutheran Malaria Initiative.’” This decision shocked the ELCA’s partners in LMI; they tried mightily to find a way the ELCA might continue to participate, but to no avail.

   There are many things puzzling about Bp. Hanson’s explanation, and about the decision itself. Start with the opening words: “The ELCA’s commitment to malaria work continues.” No one doubted this, of course, until the announcement that the ELCA was pulling out of LMI. He goes on to say that “the ELCA, encouraged by the vote of the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly, has developed a strategy to join the global movement to contain deaths from malaria in Africa by 2015.” It is rather odd, first of all, that he seems to draw a distinction between the churchwide assembly and “the ELCA.” I thought that the churchwide assembly was the ELCA, or, more precisely, that the Assembly is the official voice of the ELCA. The way he phrases this, it sounds like the ELCA is actually the executive staff at Higgins Road, who are happy to take advice from the churchwide assembly, but in the end make their own decisions.

Who’s in charge here?
   He then notes that “some changes are being made to the structure of this project.” Apparently the ELCA’s “project” was not LMI at all, but some more amorphous dream about malaria. Whether anyone at the ELCA headquarters ever thought much about malaria until approached by the UNF, I cannot say. They certainly didn’t express the thought very forcefully.

   “ELCA leadership has determined that a $30 million campaign around malaria, which was to be tested in the current biennium, is not feasible at this time,” the bishop tells us. Puzzling on a number of fronts. First, the proposal submitted to the churchwide assembly was for a $25 million campaign. But the higher figure does sound less feasible, I suppose.
   Second, one would think a “test” normally implies some sort of standards by which to evaluate feasibility. Has the test yielded some results? If so, what are they? If not, why is the test being stopped before the testing period is even half over?

   And then one wonders just who “ELCA leadership” might be. This announcement came right before the Conference of Bishops meeting in October, and the Church Council meeting follows in November, so apparently those groups aren’t the “ELCA leadership.” Of course we already knew this about the bishops, who are only “advisory”; nearly every statement out of ELCA headquarters referring to the bishops states that explicitly. But if Higgins Road is going to renege on a commitment made by the churchwide assembly (which seems to me to have a pretty good claim itself on the phrase “ELCA leadership”), then they might at least be upfront about just who is making these decisions.

Spinmeister
   But oddest of all is the announcement that the ELCA will continue with what it calls “the ELCA Malaria Campaign,” with a goal of $15 million. This, the bishop says, is to “right-size” the campaign for the “current realities” (“right-size” instead of “down-size”—get it?). He then, in a remarkable bit of spin, explains how much better this campaign will be financially—the bottom line being that the ELCA will be able to direct these funds as it chooses, and not be bothered by the opinions or restrictions of our (former) partners. One is left wondering: if the LMI provisions were so inefficient or onerous, why was the ELCA involved in it in the first place?

   And speaking of spin, you’ve got to love the news release issued by the ELCA. It quotes Bp. Hanson: “This new, focused effort will assist the ELCA to keep our commitments strong and allow us to bring health and hope to those affected by malaria in Africa.” From that it derives a headline, which, in case you missed the implication, proclaims that
the “ELCA Strengthens Malaria Work Through New, Focused Effort” (emphasis mine). This new go-it-alone campaign, you see, isn’t really bad news, but it actually makes for a stronger program. Apparently this new one doesn’t even have to be tested; it can just be imposed by fiat.

   ELCA officials quickly took down the LMI page on their website, and replaced it with information about the ELCA Malaria Campaign. (No word yet as to whether we will we call this ELCAMC or just EMC.) This was done so quickly that an opening greeting from former bishop and now program coordinator Andrea DeGroot-Nesdahl begins with the remarkable statement, “When I first heard about the ELCA Malaria Campaign, I thought: ‘Malaria? How can I make a difference about malaria?’”—remarkable because actually she had been working on malaria for more than a year before the “ELCA Malaria Campaign” was announced.

Dueling campaigns
   What will happen now to LMI? Despite Bp. Hanson’s decree that the ELCA has “ended the partnership,” nothing of the sort has happened. LMI will go on apace, but without the ELCA’s participation. The ELCA, often so frustrated by and even scornful of the LCMS doubts about “cooperation in externals,” is now the one not cooperating. I was told by two different persons involved in LMI that the initiative will probably keep its total goal at $75 million, with LCMS and LWR picking up the slack left by the ELCA’s withdrawal. That will certainly make the ELCA look good on the world stage.

   So it appears we will have dueling malaria campaigns. My own recommendation to ELCA individuals and congregations is that they strike a blow for continuing cooperation in externals by directing their benevolence funds to fight malaria to LMI through Lutheran World Relief—an agency, of course, in which the ELCA participates, so one can hardly be accused of dissing the ELCA by so doing. Frankly, at this moment in time, LWR seems a more responsible and financially healthy avenue for our mission dollars.  —by Richard O. Johnson, editor

©2010 American Lutheran Publicity Bureau. All rights reserved.

The Rev. Richard O. Johnson, STS