Voices for Change

Advocacy ministries of the ELCA want to share stories and your voices about public policies and relevant advocacy issues that are of interest to you.

‘Metanoia’ in a polarized world

Posted on October 30, 2012 by Advocacy Ministries of the ELCA

We continue the Wisconsin installment of the ‘Advocating on the Road’ series with this piece.

Over the past 12 months of working together at The Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Eau Claire, Wis., Lead Pastor Gerd Bents has spent many moments deep in conversation with his colleague Pastor Emeritus Donald Wisner. Colleague to colleague, the two Lutheran pastors have shared thoughts on Christian witness in the world and our call to God’s justice in Scripture, all the while observing the increasing polarization and broken relationships in their state and the larger nation.

Throughout these conversations, Pastor Bents was consistently drawn back to a few important questions: How do we, as Christians, understand “justice”? How has the notion of justice changed socially, when compared to our biblical heritage? And how does our cultural understanding of “justice” encourage polarization?

Guided by these questions, Pastors Bents and Wisner worked with others to plan a public event in Eau Claire in late October 2012 that explored concepts of justice from an Old Testament perspective. The event’s purpose is reflected in its name: “Metanoia.” A Greek phrase often translated “repentance,” but Pastor Bents explains that “its root meaning is better understood as  to perceive or understand in a new way.’” “Metanoia” included symposiums and keynote presentations structured around the topics of justice, reformation and reconciliation.

“Culturally, we tend to view justice as ‘having my rights met’ or ‘getting my fair share, or my just rewards.’ Often, we speak of justice as it relates to a consequence … hopefully for someone else.” But in the Old Testament Hebrew meaning, one who sought justice was interested in restoring relationship. For example, a faithful judge would render a decision intending to restore a relationship, as opposed to a ruling that ensures someone’s individual right,” Pastor Bents says. “This is consistent with God’s justice, as God continually seeks to restore relationships. In response to this, at “Metanoia” we explored how this notion of justice can guide the church, how we can avoid allowing broken relationships to lord over us, and we can become a church and a people that are transformed to be God’s justice-bearing people in the world.”

“People of faith, always have something to say about issues of politics and government,” he adds, “It’s when we fail to discern who we are — when we lose sight of our identity as God’s people — that we step into a place where we become servants of the self, and we separate ourselves from God’s acts of justice. We don’t like disagreement; we equate it to conflict, relationship loss.”

On this point, Pastor Bents offers a new way, a “metanoia” of sorts, explaining, “Disagreement with each other does not have to lead to conflict, relationship loss, or polarization — I think it can lead us to being a closer, more effective church if we continue to collaboratively explore our identity in Christ, in baptism, and in mission; if we continue to understand God’s world in a new way.”


Stay tuned to the “Voices for Change” blog as we continue the “Advocating on the Road” series over the next week.

Listening and understanding our neighbor

Posted on October 25, 2012 by Advocacy Ministries of the ELCA

This is the second blog post in the Wisconsin installment of the “Advoating on the Road” series.


“Thanksgiving of 2011 was a very difficult day for a lot of Wisconsin families,” the Rev. Lisa Bates-Froiland of Redeemer Lutheran Church in Milwaukee says, reflecting on the recent controversies in her state regarding collective bargaining and the ensuing division the debate created. “I heard many stories about ‘bad times’ at family get-togethers. The deep polarization silenced healthy discourse and balkanized communities in Wisconsin — it impacted who people would go to coffee with, even who would remain Facebook friends,” she explained.

Pastor Lisa also serves as executive director of the Zeidler Center for Public Discussion, a nonpartisan civic-minded ministry of Redeemer Lutheran Church. Recognizing how this polarization affected her community, she said “yes” to an invitation from the Greater Milwaukee Synod of the ELCA. The Synod had recently decided to study the collective bargaining debate, which was very much impacting their members, by listening to Lutherans on all sides of the issue.

She partnered with the Rev. John Horner-Ibler of Cross of Life Lutheran in Brookfield and assembled a diverse team that designed, coordinated and implemented a series of public conversations meant to help Lutherans truly listen and begin to understand their neighbors around the controversial — and deeply personal — issue.

Guided by a method developed by the Public Conversation Project, Pastor Lisa and her colleagues facilitated four well-attended discussions in February and March 2012 held at ELCA churches in Brookfield, Milwaukee, Racine and Thiensville, Wisconsin. “We speak only for ourselves as individuals,” is one tenet that she explains about the method. “And we seek only to get to the point where one person can understand why a person holds their particular perspective. The goal is not to change minds.”

At each of the events, Pastor Lisa briefly introduced the topic and public conversation method, and then each member of the team assembled participants into smaller groups (about five people in each group). The facilitating team member asked his or her small group the first question, which called upon each person to connect personal experiences to the collective bargaining debate. “Part of what I love about the method is that the very first question is how this connects to your personal life — we put this right at the front end, we invite people to tell part of their story,” Pastor Lisa says. Posing the question was immediately followed by silence, during which small group members had time to think and write down their thoughts. The first participant then shared his or her thoughts — allowed two minutes to speak to the small group, uninterrupted — and then the group would again be silent, allowing for reflection. After this silence, the second participant shared, followed by another silence, and this pattern was repeated until all members of the small group shared their thoughts on the question. The facilitator asked other questions, and the group followed the same pattern.

“I was nervous before the first public conversation,” Pastor Lisa admits. “But as the conversations unfolded, we saw that it really was important to have a carefully facilitated conversation at this difficult time. A methodology ensuring respect and fairness made sense.”

The four public conversation events drew a crowd of people holding varying opinions on the collective bargaining debate, and the feedback of the events were extremely positive. She remembers one man, specifically, who approached her after one of the events. “He told me, ‘This seemed pretty touchy-feely at first, but now I see how important this was. Someone in my group had the opposite set of experiences. I haven’t changed my mind, but now I know someone with differing views and I appreciate her and her opinion more than I could have imagined before tonight,’” Pastor Lisa shares. “Mutual understanding and listening is crucial — it can be preliminary to goals like conflict resolution or problem-solving.”

When asked about the overall experience, Pastor Lisa says these public conversations were worthwhile on many levels. “We didn’t come up with a consensus on what the synod should do or say on the issue of collective bargaining. But we brought Lutherans together as the body of Christ to talk about a highly charged issue. People talked and people listened, but people also spent time in shared silence, and I believe we made room for the Holy Spirit in the silences,” she says.

“The public conversations put neighbor next to neighbor, and I think this close proximity was also so key to Jesus’ ministry. Jesus listened, heard and touched people who had often been pushed away. People were vulnerable in his presence. These public conversations reminded us that even in the midst of a difficult circumstance, we can share, listen and seek to understand our neighbor — and it reminded us that we can be divided on some issues and also be a unified church in Jesus.”


Stay tuned to the “Voices for Change” blog, as we continue the Wisconsin installment of the “Advocating on the Road” series over the next couple of weeks.

Common ground in the frozen tundra

Posted on October 19, 2012 by Advocacy Ministries of the ELCA

We open the Wisconsin installment of the “Advocating on the Road” blog series with this piece.

By Amy Johnson,
Director of the Lutheran Office for Public Policy in Wisconsin

The people of the great state of Wisconsin make the most of our seasons. We have the seasons of summer, winter and road construction. Autumn itself features the seasons of the Packers, the Badgers and various types of hunting. The people of this state also recognize political campaign seasons, and we take great pride in exercising our democratic right to vote.

This current campaign season has been different because this time the season began in the spring of 2011, and it has yet to end. The intense debate over state employee collective bargaining rights in February of 2011 led to a series of recall races of incumbent state senators in the summer of 2011.  Shortly afterwards the focus shifted to petition drives to hold a recall election of the governor, the lieutenant governor and four other state senators that took place in June of 2012. 
When the recall process ended on June 5, nearly $120 million had been spent to influence the outcome of 11 races.  There was no rest for the weary because it was then time for Wisconsin voters to focus on the presidential election and select a new U.S. senator.

Being in a perpetual campaign mode is in itself exhausting for voters. However, this season has been particularly wearing on Wisconsin residents, because it began as a debate over existing and specific jobs.  This debate was personal for the government employees and teachers struggling to maintain labor protections, and it was personal for the unemployed, farmers and low-wage workers who had been struggling for years without any protections.

It quickly became clear that most adults in Wisconsin had strong opinions on collective bargaining, as well as opinions on the governor and members of our state Legislature. The debate that started in Madison soon played out in all parts of the state. Intense quarrels occurred in public places and at family gatherings. It seemed that each Wisconsinite held fast to their own opinion, and any criticism of our individual views felt as if we, personally, were being attacked.

Our ELCA congregations experienced division among members who held differing opinions. This was not the first time that Lutheran Christians in Wisconsin strongly disagreed on controversial issues. At the same time, it was important for us to remember our common identity in Christ and our commitment to love and serve our neighbors. Even during the height of the debate when people feared talking with others about the state budget debate, our congregations continued to serve our neighbors and pray for our elected leaders in their weekly services.

When the large demonstrations had quieted in March 2011, and the state capitol building was easier to enter, I was finally able to meet with lawmakers and staff to explain the priorities of the Lutheran Office for Public Policy. At the conclusion of each meeting, I shared that ELCA congregations around the state prayed for them, our lawmakers, every Sunday. These public servants had been living in a pressure cooker, and many were often afraid for their safety. But this was the first time they had heard people were regularly praying for them throughout this tumult. That realization allowed them to tell their own story and share what it was like to be at the center of the debate. Those conversations were an important reminder to me that by sharing something personal and by listening to their stories, they in turn were more open to listening to me.  

Our Lutheran heritage teaches us that government can be a gift and an instrument in working for the common good. Government is not something that can be ignored, nor can its leaders be dismissed.  Rather, Lutheran Christians hold a unique perspective in this day and age that our governments are to be respected because we believe that good governments can help bring peace and justice (our baptismal calling) on all the earth.  Just as Lutherans must not abandon our government and our role as faithful citizens, we must not abandon each other, even when we disagree. We must continue to learn from and listen to our neighbor, valuing the other person’s perspective and working for deeper understanding. 

Stay tuned to the “Advocating on the Road” blog series—in the coming weeks, we will hear from advocates in Wisconsin who work to listen and find common ground.