Saturday, October 22, 2011

Bishop Election ~ some initial and scattered thoughts

My synod is entering a process of preparing to elect a new bishop.

* pause *

I'm not sure how many of my seven readers are familiar with the intricacies of the polity of the church I'm part of, so I want to briefly explain.  I'm a pastor in the denomination known as the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America).  Our denomination is divided up into geographical areas known as synods.  (This use of the word 'synod' may cause confusion, because there are two other Lutheran denominations in this country that are known as synods.  In those cases, 'synod' is used to refer to the entire denomination.)

There is a bishop in each of the 65 synods of the ELCA.  The role of bishop is filled by a pastor who, upon election takes on the title 'Bishop'; and who, upon vacating the office of bishop (literally and ecclesiastically), takes again the title 'Pastor'. 

The only requirement to be elected bishop is that a person should be a pastor in good standing in the ELCA.


The process of electing a new bishop is, appropriately, bringing up the question, 'What kind of pastor should we elect to be bishop?' ~ which leads to, 'What role should the bishop serve?', or 'What does a bishop do?', and then, 'What functions should the office of the bishop prioritize?'

I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess that if ten Lutherans got together in a room to respond to those questions, they would probably come up with a dozen different answers.  What most of us naturally will do is to look at previous bishops we've known, consider how they functioned compared with how they could have functioned better with regard to congregational life, and look for someone to serve as bishop who would fill the roles the previous bishop did not.

I wonder, though, if it helps to look back without also looking forward.  What if, instead of finding a bishop who will be what the previous bishop was not, we look for the best bishop for the future (instead of a bishop who would have been good in the past)? 

What's going on in the world that our election of a bishop ought to take into consideration?  Among other things, the world we move through is much less hierarchical, and much more interconnected, than it was when our denominational structure was established. We seem to be suited to make this denominational shift, since our polity never allowed for a hierarchical ecclesiastical structure ~ bishops, in our tradition, really have very little 'power over' congregations.  But will we embrace a newer worldview, or will it smack us in the ecclesiastical face as we try to hold on to an old model that doesn't work practically in the midst of a newer worldview?

Then, to consider function.  I have to say that I don't believe much actual ministry happens through the synod office.  This is certainly not a critique ~ rather, it is a statement of fact, and a recognition of reality.  Synod offices ought not be trying everything they can to do ministry ~ that is best left to congregations.  The synod office would better serve the Gospel, I believe, by actively equipping congregations in their role of living the Gospel in the particular communities where they find themselves. 

What would it be like for the bishop and the office of the bishop to actually act like most of the significant ministry in our synod is happening in congregations?  What would it be like for the (office of the) bishop to function as a clearinghouse for stories of good news, a place for congregations to search for resources, and a conduit for connecting people and congregations with one another?  

In short, what if the (office of the) bishop would become a real-life, ecclesiastical combination of Google and Facebook and Twitter? 

Some initial thoughts ~ I'm sure there will be more as the election nears.


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