Monday, December 10, 2012

Thoughts from an alum

Given the news coming out of Luther Seminary today, I thought I'd offer my reflections.  A couple of things I write here are suggestions of actions I believe would be helpful; some are simply my thoughts, feelings, and reactions.  Other people may disagree with my suggestions, or feel, think, and react differently.  That is fine.  Also, please note: I am a very recent alum.  I am not an HR guru, a finance person, or a higher ed administrator.  I am not a current student, nor a an old-timer with a degree from LNTS.  I'm a first-call pastor at a smallish congregation in a small Midwestern town.  So, here goes.
  • I like Rick Bliese.  From his rosy Santa Claus cheeks to his "dad jeans", by all accounts, he is a good, caring person who loves Jesus and the students, faculty, and staff at Luther.  He has personally been very supportive to me during my time at seminary and in candidacy, and I feel bad that this is what eventually "had" to happen.
  • We need to be in prayer for him and his family - obviously this is a huge, and hugely negative, transition for them, down to the fact that they live in seminary housing and so will need to find a new place to live.
  • The seminary is going to have to find a way to start handling pastoral care for students.  I'm aware Luther just hired a new campus pastor - I know nothing about her except that she's supposedly good.  I hope she is, although she has no institutional memory at this point, and in times of major upheaval such as this, that can be somewhat limiting.  Others are going to have to step up.  Students on campus are literally (yes) dying for someone to care for them.  Administration is generally available to meet one-on-one, or hold a "forum" in the chapel for people to (sort of) air their concerns.  But very few individuals offer one-on-one prayers, or hugs-and-tears.  Students feel trampled-upon at frequent intervals, and the sense, I believe, is that even when policies, decisions, transitions, whatever are "good" or "right", they are handled in a way that communicates that students aren't all that important.  Just like churches that want to grow need to start asking, "If I were a visitor, how would I react to this?", Luther staff/administration needs to start asking, "If I were a student, how would I react to this?"  
  • I feel lied to.  For years, we have heard from President Bliese and others that, "Look, the economy [and the 2009 decisions] have been rough on everybody.  We're struggling, but we're making good decisions, and we're going to be okay.  We're certainly in better shape than the others."  I'm not sure whether Luther is "struggling, and not going to be okay", or whether the other 7 are already 6-feet-under, as it were.
  • This raises huge vocational questions.  What are any of us doing as pastors in the ELCA, receiving graduate education from her seminaries, when they are all barely - barely - keeping their heads above water? What is the long-term survivability of the ELCA?  And if the answer is "not much", then why are we all dragging ourselves through the torture that is candidacy?  
  • It also raises huge vocational reminders: I don't believe (or at least, I haven't heard anything that would make me think) Rick Bliese is guilty of true illegalities: fraud or embezzlement or such.  Apparently he asked forgiveness today for "poor fiscal leadership".  Mismanagement and poor leadership are not illegal, but they are sinful.  As pastors/youth leaders/professors/etc, we need to be aware that our own mismanagement and poor stewardship of what we've been given (not necessarily, or only, money) is just as sinful in the eyes of Our Lord as embezzlement. 
  • I love Luther, and I thoroughly enjoyed my time there.  (Well, most days...)  I love the faculty and staff, the administration, my fellow students.  I learned a lot of really awesome facts and ideas there, and I grew tremendously.  But I have a ton of educational debt, as do most of my fellow students.  The cafeteria is barely open anymore.  Contracts prevent students from purchasing the bookstore. And yet, certain individuals and departments spend ridiculous amounts of seminary funds on high-end coffee and cookies every day of the week.  There are flat-screen TVs in every corner of Northwestern and the OCC.  NW and OCC have both recently undergone major asthetic remodels, while the dorms and apartments battle bedbugs and mold year-round.  I understand that fundraising is not as simple as "write us a check, please, and make it out to 'cash'".  I understand that donors want to earmark their money for things that they might not realize aren't totally the top priority.  But the administration needs to realize that students notice these things, and fair or not, find statements about "concern for rising student debt" to sound rather platitudinous against the backdrop of a flatscreen TV  hanging on the wall in the lunchline. 
  • "Where there is no vision, the people perish."  Look, this isn't about Rick Bliese.  It's not really even about the economy, or about 2009 decisions that torqued off rich old ladies, or spending money on frivolities instead of necessities.  It's about the fact that much of the ELCA and many of her associated enterprises - Luther Seminary among them - has taken its eye off the ball.  We are told that we are to be missional - but missional about what?  A vast cohort of students, faculty, and staff (and therefore pastors, bishops, and synod staff) get more worked up about personal pronouns for God than personal relationships with God.  We are taught that to "want people to come to church on Sunday morning" indicates a lack of understanding that God works outside the church.  We are taught that the Church, and Word & Sacrament, are nice, you know, but so are justice and advocacy.  I spent more time in seminary learning about "family systems" than I did sacramental theology.  No, for realz.  I was assigned more papers about why we shouldn't evangelize, than about how and why we should.  I recognize that this is a huge indictment of the entire system, and I want to be clear that I do not, by any means, include anyone and everyone who is part of the system in this.  There remain many, many good and faithful students, faculty, staff, pastors, bishops, and synod staff.  But donors (and your average layperson trying to decide whether to venture out into the cold to go to church on Sunday, for that matter) don't get excited about advocacy for advocacy's sake, or "training students to reflect a baptismal approach to missionality blah blah blah", or even "buy your own hymnal!"  You know what's exciting?  Jesus.  Jesus is exciting because He forgives sins - our own, and everybody else's.  He is exciting because by the power of the resurrection, he transforms lives in the here and now.  He is exciting because he is constantly creating us anew, he promises us eternal life, he has already begun to set this upside-down world right-side-up again and one day he's going to finish the job, there's gonna be a new heaven and a new earth, where everything is going to be fixed, and how awesome is that going to be? Tell little old ladies that we're training pastors to reach out to the world around us and share the everlasting love of Jesus Christ.  Tell them that with passion, and conviction, like it's the best thing you've ever heard about (because it is - even better than sliced bread) and they'll start writing checks.  Tell them you've got students who are slogging through the economy just like the rest of us, but who are so in love with Jesus that they'd be here no matter what, come hell or high water, bedbugs or mold, learning how to spread the Good News in the 21st century just like Paul did in the 1st, and people will be fired up.   
So there you've got it - just some honest first impressions from the recent grad. Feel free to chime in with your own, or tell me I'm totally wrong.  But something's gotta be done, that's all I know.  And remember to pray for Rick Bliese.  


Anonymous said...

Good, good, good reflections.

Anonymous said...

It better not JUST be rich old ladies who are concerned about the complete trampling of the Bible that the ELCA and other mainline denominations have done! Society has pronounced that if we don't love the sin, we are not loving the sinner! Excuse me, but we don't hate the sinner just because we hate the sin!!!!!

Elizabeth of Hungary said...

Anon 2 -

Well, yes, but that wasn't the point of my post. In using "rich old ladies" as my example of people who are ticked about 2009, it was simply that - an example, especially an example of the demographic cohort that *tends* to be the big givers, and are also, on the whole, more conservative. Amongst the 100%-all-the-time ELCA cheerleaders, there is a tendency to write off these Biblical/theological concerns and proclivities as "old-fashioned", etc.

The point I'm trying to make is that the current problems go beyond the "conservative, stuck-in-the-mud, rich old ladies" who are frequently demagogued. The solution is not simply "getting them to get with the program."

It goes much deeper than that, and the lack of vision/mission I articulated here is what I believe is the root issue.

Anonymous 3 said...

As a rich old lady, this has nothing to do with rich old ladies. It is about CWA09 and all its implications.

Anonymous said...

The statistics indicate that the decline of the ELCA was already in process before 2009; however, it was accelerated by the CWA decisions whose roots are related to CCM. Inestead of learning from what happened to ECUSA, we elected leaders who decided to join them in focusing on social issues instead of relationships with Christ.

Since 1988, we've lost almost 20% of our membership. Since 2002, Mission Support to the ELCA dropped $20 Million, an average loss of $2 Millon per year, much of it associated with the 2009 decisions.

Strategically, we focus less on Lutheranism and more on "full communion partners." The ELCA Board of Pensions is now called Portico Benefit Services. Notice how the word Lutheran is absent.

AAL and LB changed their name to Thrivent (Lutheran is gone in the name, too) and clegy were told the fraternal would stay Lutheran. Now, Thrivent members are being asked to change the charter and lessen the reduce the Lutheran connection. The number of Thrivent members are declining as along with Lutheranism. In the long term, that's a recipe for a failed business model.

Hmmm...does the name change to Portico indicate a posturing for providing future benefits to "full communion partners"? Do you think our reduced mission dollars will impact our desire to put new USA mission starts in places where full communion partners are already located? Chicago has already said so. Are we being set up for merger, functionally at a minimum? Remember...that's what brought Luther-Northwestern into being.

In marketing terms, the ELCA has become associated with leftist, secular politics. Heterodoxy, relative truth and eisogesis have replaced orthodoxy, absolute truth and exegesis. Social statements are perceived as evangelism and international politics related to Israel and misquito netting in Africa are more important than growing our own churches.

With all of this going on, should we be surprised that ELCA membership and the student population at Luther and mainline seminaries is in decline?

Elizabeth of Hungary said...

^ Exactly. We've taken our eye off the ball. No doubt the 2009 decisions (which I disagree with on at least 3 different levels) had something to do with it. But anon directly above accurately notes that this started long before 2009. We have taken our eye off the ball: namely, Jesus. 2009 is a particularly headline-grabbing emblem of that, but at the end of the day, it's just one more in a series of eye-off-the-ball moves that have been happening.

Look, I don't want to run down the ELCA *too* much - God's got me here for some reason, and so, here I am, and I'm happy to be here. Really.

And besides, the more we get knotted up about whose fault it is or isn't, the more Satan can distract us from getting our eye *back on* the ball.

Elizabeth of Hungary said...

Anon 3 - My intent was not to offend rich old ladies, or anyone else for that matter. I apologize if that's what happened, because I didn't mean to. I was simply listing off an example of what are being named as *the* problems/reasons for the decline of Luther Seminary and/or the ELCA, and to counter that while all of these play a part (and I'm a ticked off-by-2009 poor young lady), none of them are the sole problem at work. Again, if you were offended, I am very, very sorry, because my intent was not at all to offend. I have the utmost respect for rich old ladies - you are some of the most faithful people I know, and I learn from your "cohort" every day... :)

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