ELCA Secretary David Swartling delivered his last report as secretary to the 2013 ELCA Churchwide Assembly Aug. 15. The 952 voting members of the assembly are meeting in Pittsburgh Aug. 12-17 at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. The assembly is the highest legislative body of this church. Swartling, an attorney from Seattle, announced last fall that he would not seek another term as secretary. One of the key actions of the 2013 assembly is the election for ELCA Secretary.
Swartling said the theme for the assembly, “Always being made new” had been a source of reflection for him during the past several years. He told the assembly “three profound truths are revealed” when he considers the meaning of these 4 words. The first truth comes from knowing something about the old in order to become new. “I believe that we both need to recognize the new reality that we are becoming and understand the basics about what makes us who we are.” The second truth, Swartling notes are in the words “being made” which he says indicate “a process begun, but not yet complete.” The third truth is the realization that “you often –perhaps always – don’t know in advance what the new looks like.”
“So, you and I, and this church aren’t finished being made new, we’re in the process of being made something new, but the new is not yet fully revealed,” he said.
Swartling said that in this “newness” the church “must be grounded in the basics, the 3R’s that are the foundational elements of the ELCA.”
“We are a church of the resurrection. We are rooted in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, his life, death, and resurrection,” Swartling said. “We also are a church of the reformation. And the reformation is not only an historical event; it is a process, an ongoing process…We are a church of reconciliation. As our text for this assembly teaches us, by being made new through Christ we are entrusted with the ministry of reconciliation. The work of the ELCA and the word of hope that we can bring to the world is grounded in being a people of the resurrection, a people of the reformation, and a people of reconciliation.”
In his report, Swartling highlighted the work of the LIFT task force, “Living into the Future Together: Renewing the Ecology of the ELCA” providing examples of how the work reflects a church “always being made new.” The LIFT task force was formed to answer questions about the future identity of this church. Aspects of the task force include renewing congregations, strengthening synods, re-thinking theological education for rostered and lay leaders, raising up and supporting diverse, multi-cultural leaders, enhancing relationships with global, ecumenical and inter-faith partners. Swartling highlighted some of the recommendations of the LIFT task force as they relate to the Office of Secretary:
+ The 2011 Churchwide Assembly adopted a triennial cycle for future assemblies which will facilitate more thoughtful preparation for and implementation of churchwide assembly actions and will encourage non-legislative gatherings to take place. The next churchwide assembly is scheduled for 2016.
+ The role of the Conference of Bishops has been strengthened and its relationship to the Church Council clarified in the governing documents of this church.
+ An expanded ELCA Church Council, strengthened by additional representation based on demographics and expertise.
+The implementation of the commitment to include youth and young adults as participants in the governance of the church.
+Concrete steps to strengthen and grow relationships with ecumenical partners, as evidenced by the proposal to include full communion partners as members of the boards of trustees of separately incorporated ministries, a proposal acted upon at the 2013 assembly.
“This is important work,” Swartling said. “We cannot let the LIFT report gather dust on the shelf as we address the immediacy of other issues – the work of LIFT needs to viewed as an ongoing process to inform this church as it seeks the new that God is calling us to become,” he said.
Swartling also recalled “both the turmoil and complexity of the discussion and debate” about the ELCA social statement Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust which was adopted by the ELCA 2009 Churchwide Assembly.
“While those were difficult times for this church, I give thanks for the leadership of the Conference of Bishops and the Church Council, both in their commitment to implement the changes called for the Churchwide Assembly and their sensitivity in recognizing that ELCA Lutherans with conviction and integrity hold differing views,” said Swartling. He noted that memorials presented to the 2013 Churchwide Assembly for approval “call upon individuals and congregations to engage in conversations about how to faithfully support all families consistent with our commitment to non-discrimination, yet recognizing that not everyone in this church shares the same views,” said Swartling.
In closing, Swartling thanked his colleagues at the ELCA churchwide organization, the members of the ELCA Conference of Bishops, the ELCA Church Council, and the synod vice presidents.
Swartling offered a special “word of profound thanks and appreciation” to Presiding Bishop Hanson. “As you know, I quote you often on the road – and I want to one more time. You remind us of the importance of an ‘evangelical missional imagination,’ and the need to hold in tension the ‘navigation and agitation’ aspects of leadership. What great truths and ongoing lessons for all of leaders in this church. Thanks for your collegiality, wisdom, and friendship,” he said.
“You see, the ELCA is not an either or church. In an era of increasing polarization, we declare that the ELCA is a ‘both (slash) and church’, keeping in tension competing principles, competing ideas, competing points of view,” said Swartling. “We can say with courage, with confidence, and with credibility that this is God’s church and there is a place in this church for you and me – red state, blue state, conservative, liberal, single, married, partnered, we welcome you all. We welcome you all because we are called to be a church that is a catalyst, a convener, a bridge builder. We are called to be a ‘both (slash) and church’ in an either or world,” Swartling said.