If I had to use one word to sum up my experience of serving as vice-president for the past two years, the word would be rollercoaster. A steep learning curve, followed by lots of twists and turns, highs and lows, almost all of them unexpected. Most of these you already know about: Secretary Bob Granke’s departure for Geneva; the financial difficulties that have forced us to make major cuts to the national budget two years in a row; Cindy Halmarson’s election as Bishop of Saskatachewan which necessitated her leaving the National Office; Bishop Ray’s heart attack and his journey of recovery; and other staff changes in the National Office. It has felt like the only thing that has remained constant is constant change!
I have to confess to you that I have never been particularly fond of rollercoasters—but I am learning to get used to them! In the midst of all of the changes and the stress that has accompanied them I have received much help and support. So thanks to Bishop Ray for his ability to smile and remain positive. Thanks for the hard work and encouragement of my fellow officers, Don Storch and Doreen Lecuyer. Thanks to the National Church Council for their commitment and willingness to roll up their sleeves. Thanks to Rhonda Lorch and all of the staff in the National Office. Thanks to all of you for your prayers for our church.
It has been my honour and pleasure to serve as an advisor to the Lutheran World Federation Council on the Standing Committee for Ecumenical Affairs for the past five years. It has been a time of amazing learning and growth and a chance to build relationships with individuals and churches from around the world. One of the things we have not done well as a National Church is to help communicate about the work that we do as part of the Lutheran World Federation.
Sometimes we feel like we are part of a very small church here in Canada. But as part of the Lutheran World Federation we are one of 133 member churches in 73 countries, representing over 60.5 million of the 64.3 million Lutherans worldwide. Together we operate in more than thirty-one countries and address issues like the environment, land mines, refugees, as well as disaster relief. We work with other member churches to support ministries in areas of mission, communication and development. We study contemporary theological issues. We address social and economic justice issues and work to uphold human rights. We strive for Christian unity and are involved in bilateral dialogues with other churches. The list could go on and on.
This isn’t just work that we are nominally a part of. This is work we do together with the other member churches of the LWF with the guidance and assistance of the staff in Geneva as well as deployed staff around the world. We do this work through our financial contributions and membership fees. We do this work through the many capable members of our church who have served, and are serving, as staff with the LWF. We do this through our individual members who participate in special studies and regional consultations. And this year, we contribute in a big way by hosting the Tenth Assembly, For the Healing of the World, in Winnipeg, July 21–31, 2003.
Hosting the assembly is no small feat for a church of our size. It has meant using a considerable amount of our resources, both people resources and financial ones. But we are doing it as a labour of love, knowing that it will contribute to the building up of the body of Christ as it is expressed through the Lutheran World Federation. We also know that as we gather with sisters and brothers from around the world for study and worship under the theme For the Healing of the World, we too will be strengthened and healed.
This is the Tenth Assembly of the Lutheran World Federation, an organization that is now 56 years old. In human terms that would see the LWF in comfortable middle age, and yet, the federation continues to struggle with birthing pains. This past year the LWF Council endorsed a proposal for an addition to the present name of the Federation, so that the acronym LWF would mean "The Lutheran World Federation—A Communion of Churches." This suggested name change is in keeping with a growing self-understanding that the LWF is indeed a communion of churches.
However, the name change also illumines a great many questions concerning our life together. What does is mean to be a communion when the size and resources of the member churches vary so much? Does each member church have an equal say? And at a time when finances are becoming more and more constrained, do the member churches who contribute the most get to choose what work gets done and what projects get funded? The member churches are from many different countries and cultures. This brings many different gifts to the communion, but also a variety of different understandings and practices. For example, there are still many member churches that do not practice the ordination of women. How do we stay as a communion, as a body, when we disagree on such significant issues?
When I was a high school music teacher, one of the most fun experiences in the band or choir room were on the days that I handed out new music. The students and I both were excited to find out how this new song would work for our class. Would we like it? Would it challenge us? Would we tire of it easily? Would we leave class humming the melody? I think I liked the excitement of learning a new piece almost as much as the joy of performing the polished product.
Some of these questions I asked about the LWF also echoes our experience in the ELCIC—limited finances, different understanding on theological and social issues. Sometimes the dissonance threatens to stop our ability to sing any song, much less a new song. And yet, if a community so diverse as the LWF with its four official languages and a variety of different cultural understandings can commit itself to singing a new song, then surely we can as well!
Still, sometimes I wonder if we are really trying to sing a new song, or if we are just trying to sing the same song but with fewer singers, with sheet music that is falling apart and without an accompanist! When I was teaching concert band I had one year where I had a full woodwind section, full percussion, but only one brass player—a trumpet. It was hard for us to find the right music for us to play given our resources. I tried to arrange and rearrange band scores. I tried to use woodwind ensemble music and add parts for trumpet and percussion. But what I really needed was new music written for the musicians that I had!
Our church has continued to reinvent itself. We have had departments, interim working groups, working groups and now program committees. We have merged the jobs of executive directors into assistants to the bishop and program staff. We have moved to volunteer officers. We have redivided and refined the responsibilities of the National Church and the synods. But is it a new song? Or is it just a scaled-down arrangement of the old song, with new backup singers in a different key?
I don’t know what the new song will be, but from time to time I catch brief snippets of its melody and harmony. Will there still be five synods? Will some functions be shared with our full-communion partner, the Anglican Church of Canada or with our sister to the south, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America? Will the role and function of National Bishop be carried out in the same way by a separate and distinct person? Will conventions need to be constituted in a different way? What structures will better help us fulfill our mission in Canada and around the world?
I’m not sure what the final song will be, but I am getting excited, just like those days when I passed out new sheet music. Maybe I’m starting to like rollercoasters after all.
Yours in Christ,
Rev Susan C. Johnson