ELCA pastor honored with award for work with homeless

The Rev. Violet Little, pastor of The Welcome Church  in Philadelphia, is one of seven winners of the 2013 Purpose Prize, which honors people over the age of 60 who use their experience to make a difference against social problems. Little founded The Welcome Church, a new ELCA ministry that serves people who are experiencing homelessness.

“Some have said I am a voice for the voiceless, but that’s not true,” said Little. “People experiencing homelessness have voice; the key is how we can be better listeners.”

At a Dec. 5 ceremony in Sausalito, Calif., Little will receive a $25,000 award from Encore.org, a nonprofit organization that supports people who use their life experiences to work for a society’s greater good.

Little began working with people experiencing homelessness after she got to know women who were sleeping and washing in the restrooms at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station, which she visited on her daily commute. She initially organized a drop-in center at Lutheran Church of the Holy Communion in Philadelphia’s center city, known as the Welcome Center.

“People who live on the streets are always being rousted and asked to move on,” said Little.

The Welcome Center offers community members a safe place to spend a couple of hours having tea, napping and more. Little began providing pastoral care there, including hospital visits and even presiding at a wedding. As the center grew, Little organized support from the ELCA Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod, Lutheran Church of the Holy Communion and other center city churches to form The Welcome Church, where she serves as part-time pastor along with Presbyterian and Episcopal clergy. The ELCA has a full communion relationship with the Presbyterian Church (USA) and with The Episcopal Church.

The Welcome Church is mobile — worship services will spontaneously take place in public places, including rail stations or under bridges. Many downtown churches offer Bible studies and refreshment and will provide medical care when needed.

“These are people who know they’re hungry for more than a peanut-butter and jelly sandwich,” Little said.

The Welcome Church offers help finding housing, with local churches contributing welcome home kits to help members settle into apartments. A new social enterprise called Welcome Threads is producing original T-shirts and hand-woven products and offering members job skills and the chance to earn a little money.

On Tuesdays, The Welcome Church gathers at Lutheran Church of the Holy Communion for what members call their Tuesday banquet. “Everything we do centers on the table as a symbol of home,” Little said. “Tea is out, and members bring what they can – some mint, some rescued bread, or cookies, and of course, the sacramental bread and wine.”

Little wants the Purpose Prize to amplify the voice of The Welcome Church community. Much of the award will be dedicated to an “I Have a Dream” fund, through which The Welcome Church will give grants to other congregations “to stimulate people’s imagination of how to live out (the Rev.) Martin Luther King’s vision of justice in their setting,” Little said.

“People think of this as a community of scarcity,” Little said. “But it’s really a community of great abundance, because God is at the center.”

The ELCA continues to make the start of new ministries a priority. Since the beginning of the ELCA 25 years ago, more than 470 new ministries have organized as congregations across this country. Today more than 50 percent of ELCA new congregations are emerging from diverse socio-economic groups, ethnic and multicultural communities and growing young populations.

Portico trustees announce annuity increases for 2014

At their Nov. 1-3 meeting in Minneapolis, trustees of Portico Benefit Services approved an annuity increase for members who receive ELCA Participating Annuity payments. The trustees’ action is the second consecutive increase in two years and is the highest percentage increase since 2002. The interest-crediting rate for members with bridge accounts was also approved with an increase. A ministry of the ELCA, Portico provides retirement, health and related benefits and services.

The annuity increase is calculated based upon the Funded Ratio of the ELCA Participating Annuity Investment Fund as of Sept. 30, 2013. Changes to annuity payments and the interest-crediting rate will be effective January 2014. The trustees’ action included:

• Increase ELCA Participating Annuity payments to 3.0 percent
• Establish the ELCA Participating Annuity bridge account interest-crediting rate to 7.6 percent
• Retain the dividend-eligible annuity payments at their 2013 level, and a lump-sum cash dividend of 21.7 percent to be paid out in January 2014.

The Rev. Jeffrey Thiemann, president and CEO of Portico, said the annuity adjustment of 3 percent is nearly triple the amount from last year. “The improved state of the fund allowed us to increase member payments even more this year,” he said. “We know that our members appreciate having a healthy fund that allows both an increase in payments and gives them confidence in receiving income for life.”

The annuity increase is calculated from an approved formula that distributes one-third of the surplus in the fund to members, which is represented by any excess in the Funded Ratio above 1.000. The 1.091 Funded Ratio at Sept. 30, 2013, enables the 3 percent annuity increase for 2014. Annuity payments can be adjusted up or down every year, depending on investment performance and mortality gains and losses.

Agreement reached in ELCA Board of Pensions lawsuit

According to an October 2013 news release from Portico Benefit Services, an agreement has been reached in the 3-year old lawsuit against the ELCA Board of Pensions following the judge’s finding that the vast majority of annuitants “were helped, not harmed, by [the Board’s] challenged actions and did not suffer the ‘same injury’ that Plaintiffs claim to have suffered.”

The lawsuit was filed in Hennepin County District Court in Minneapolis in December 2010 by four ELCA pastors who claimed that reduced annuity payments, attributed to major market losses sustained in the market recession of 2008 and 2009 that caused a funding shortage in the ELCA Participating Annuity Investment Fund, were improper.

“We’re pleased that our policies and practices have been upheld,” said Jeff Thiemann, president and CEO of Portico Benefit Services. The ELCA Board of Pensions became Portico Benefit Services in November 2011. “Our number one priority has always been, and will continue to be, caring for our members by fulfilling the fiduciary responsibility that we have for them.”

Thiemann added that the agreement affirms that the plaintiffs will continue to be treated in the same manner as all other annuitants.

“The decisions made by our trustees and management team on the previous annuity payment reductions have been difficult, and we recognize the impact on our members. In the long run, those tough decisions allowed the fund to become more stable, and it now enjoys fully funded status. This gave our trustees the opportunity to increase annuity payments in 2013,” said Thiemann.

Welcoming a new partner

For the first time, the board of trustees of Augsburg Fortress Publishers — the publishing ministry of the ELCA — welcomed a full communion partner to serve on the board when it met Oct. 18-19, 2013, in Minneapolis.

New board members include the Rev. Pam Smith, pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in Clearwater, Fla.; Mark Brokering, vice president of content strategy and acquisitions, Safari Books Online, Mill Valley, Calif.; and the Rev. Sharon Rader, retired bishop of the United Methodist Church. The 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly adopted a full communion agreement with the United Methodist Church, marking the ELCA’s sixth full communion relationship and the first for the United Methodist Church.

The addition of ecumenical positions to the board is in response to a number of governance amendments adopted by the 2013 Churchwide Assembly in an effort to strengthen full communion partnership relationships.

“I affirm the ELCA on being very intentional about full communion partner relationships and making sure they are not just documents on a piece paper,” said Rader. “The ELCA is leading all of us in making the words on paper a reality.”

ELCA World Hunger leaders passionate about ending hunger, poverty

Showing a passion and commitment toward eliminating hunger and poverty in the United States and around the world, ELCA members are on the front lines of this church’s efforts to raise awareness, multiply ministry and increase advocacy efforts.

At the ELCA World Hunger Leadership Gathering July 11-14 in Des Moines, Iowa, more than 70 hunger leaders from across the ELCA’s 65 synods met to share ideas and discuss ways to increase their capacity in helping to eradicate hunger and poverty.

“By sharing our ideas, the effect we can have through our volunteer network is multiplied,” said Mikka McCracken, program director for ELCA World Hunger constituent engagement and interpretation. “The work and mission of ELCA World Hunger depends on individuals, congregations and synods throughout this church. ELCA World Hunger leaders are often on the forefront of inspiring, engaging, leading and truly multiplying those efforts. We are so thankful for their tireless work and vision.”

Under the theme “Loaves and Fishes: Multiplying for Mission,” participants attended sessions geared toward enhancing hunger advocacy that is already being carried out by the leaders in their congregations and neighborhoods.

“They invite others into our common work and service together. From coordinating local food pantries and hosting hunger awareness meals to advocating for better child nutrition policies and hosting hunger education events, ELCA World Hunger leaders share the story of the ELCA’s work to eradicate hunger and poverty,” said McCracken.

Participants also had the opportunity to learn about food security and sustainable farming practices from Iowa-based scientists and researchers, including a keynote speech by Ambassador Kenneth M. Quinn, head of the World Food Prize located in Des Moines. The prize, founded by Nobel Peace Prize recipient Dr. Norman Borlaug, recognizes the accomplishments and contributions of those who improve the world food supply.

“Building a network of leaders who understand and who can communicate the work of ELCA (World) Hunger in the areas of relief, education, advocacy and development strengthens the ability of this church to respond generously and effectively to the needs of a hungry world,” said the Rev. Paul D. Ostrem, assistant to the bishop, ELCA Southeastern Iowa Synod. The synod hosted the event.

Ostrem says these opportunities are important because they “help participants understand the ways that partnerships among nonprofits, business interests, educational institutions and research entities build capacity for food production and distribution throughout the world and will give opportunities to reflect on both the opportunities and the challenges new technologies may bring to the church and the world.” 

“We were pleased to be hosted by the Southeastern Iowa Synod,” said Daniel Rift, director for ELCA World Hunger and Disaster Appeal. “In many ways the Lutheran church in this country has its roots on the farm. To see some of what is shaping the production of food and the important connection to lives and livelihoods is a gift.”

ELCA World Hunger works to address the root causes of poverty and hunger through a comprehensive approach of relief, education, advocacy and development. For more information on how to become a hunger leader or connect with a synod team, email ELCA World Hunger at hunger@elca.org.

ELCA Foundation enters into partnership with Lutheran Foundation of the Southwest

The ELCA Foundation has entered into a partnership with the Texas-based Lutheran Foundation of the Southwest, an agreement considered to be historic for enhancing the financial ministries of the ELCA.

“I’m excited for the expanded capacity this partnership will bring to both Lutheran Foundation of the Southwest and the ELCA Foundation in strengthening our ability to serve the wider church,” said Annette Shoemaker, director for the ELCA Foundation. The ELCA Foundation offers gift planning and endowment services that support the church’s partners, churchwide ministries, synods and congregations. 

“When two strong Lutheran entities combine to work together, the impact is huge for the Lutheran community,” said Mark Armstrong, interim executive director for the Lutheran Foundation of the Southwest. “It opens up endless possibilities and resources that better allow us to assist Lutherans in their dreams and goals of stewardship gifts to Lutheran agencies, which in turn allows these Lutheran agencies to further carry out their dreams of helping and assisting Lutherans through their programs and ultimately strengthening the overall church.”

With this partnership the ELCA Foundation will add a regional gift planner to the Southwest foundation staff, extending service to all three ELCA synods in the state — Northern Texas-Northern Louisiana Synod, Southwestern Texas Synod and Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod. 

“I’m excited about this new spirit of partnership. I believe this will increase our capability to grow generosity, and support synodical and churchwide ministry,” said the Rev. Michael W. Rinehart, bishop of the ELCA Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod.

“It is a very historic time in the life of Lutheran Foundation of the Southwest,” said Armstrong. “Our work has been akin to a pebble being thrown into a pond, and we watch as our work creates ripples radiating out across the pond. Now with this partnership, the ripples will be stronger, radiating out farther. The pond is now a lake.”

ELCA congregations receive Energy Star rating, honored at the White House

Four ELCA congregations were recognized this fall at the White House for their achievements in energy efficiency.

More than 25 congregations from across the country were honored, including Elim Lutheran Church in Duluth, Minn., First English Lutheran in Columbus, Ohio, First Lutheran Church in Bothell, Wash., and Reformation Lutheran Church in Media, Pa., for achieving the Energy Star designation, a nationally recognized energy performance measurement.

Both the 2009 and 2011 ELCA Churchwide Assemblies accepted proposals designed to encourage congregations to reduce their usage of carbon-based fuels and take better care of God’s creation, making energy conservation and efficiency a priority for the church.

“The four ELCA congregations honored are just a small sample of ELCA congregations doing critical work to protect God’s earth, not only through energy conservation efforts but also by planting community gardens, taking measures to protect their local air and water, and incorporating thanks and praise for God’s creation into their worship,” said Mary Minette, who serves as director for environmental education and advocacy at ELCA churchwide ministries.

The Rev. Jim Hagen, pastor of Elim Lutheran Church, was unable to attend the event but was grateful for the honor. “It was exciting,” said Hagen in an interview. “It was great to get this recognition.”

In the past six years, Elim has made a number of improvements to their building including replacing their boilers, light bulbs and roof with more energy efficient options.

“It made sense for us,”Hagensaid. “In the winter time we’ve reduced our heat bill. It’s half of what it was before.”

“There is a growing understanding that care of our neighbor, which is so rooted in our Lutheran traditions, and care of the earth are inextricably linked,” said Minette. “Energy conservation is good stewardship of both financial resources and God’s gift of creation.”

ELCA-sponsored consultation in Bogota, Colombia, examines leadership development

For the first time, leaders representing Lutheran churches, seminaries and other educational institutions across Latin American and the Caribbean gathered Aug. 7-11 in Bogota, Colombia, to explore new models of leadership development to shape the kinds of lay and ordained ministries that would strengthen the capacity for mission in the 21st century.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) sponsored this consultation, creating space for a dialogue that also addressed the changing religious landscape in Latin America and the Caribbean. Leaders from ELCA churchwide ministries, seminaries and others from the United States attended the consultation. 

According to the Rev. Raquel Rodriguez, a critical objective of the consultation was to sketch out a roadmap of some strategic directions and priorities around leadership development that would deepen Lutheran theology and practice, yet contemporize that theology to meet the new realities of churches in the region.

Theological institutions in Latin America and the Caribbean are becoming more ecumenical, witnessing an increase in the number of Pentecostal students in enrollment, for example. While this new reality is providing a valuable exchange of perspectives among the students, the responsibility of fostering a Lutheran denominational identity is falling on individual churches. 

Rodriguez, who directs the Latin America and the Caribbean desk at ELCA churchwide ministries, said that there’s a sense of urgency in which the ELCA’s companion Lutheran churches are observing different models of leadership training, particularly as congregations are looking for a more structured approach to ministries like diaconal services, liturgy and arts, church administration and more.

“I was inspired by the courageous way in which these colleagues are addressing many of the same issues we face (in the United States) in preparing leaders for the church of the 21st century,” said the Rev. Michael Cooper-White, president of Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, one of eight ELCA seminaries. “It was a privilege for me to represent the seminaries of the ELCA in this historic gathering of theological educators and Lutheran church leaders from throughout Latin America and the Caribbean,” he said. 

The consultation sets a precedent for the mutual sharing of needs, experiences, ideas and perspectives among leaders of our global companions, churches and institutions, allowing us to take seriously the unique leadership needs of our companions and to be more effective in our accompaniment, according to Tammy Jackson, who directs the International Leadership Development program at ELCA churchwide ministries.

As follow-up to the consultation, a committee was formed to assist the participants from both the Centers for Theological Formation and Lutheran churches in the region to continue the dialogue and work on specific recommendations that would hold a mutual accountability and responsibility among all in the training of leaders for ministry, said Rodriguez. The committee will also oversee the development of a concept paper by church representatives on what it means to develop a Lutheran identity in their context and to oversee the deliberations on topics such as sustainability of churches and the Centers for Theological Formation, she said. 

There are more than 20 Lutheran denominations across Latin America and the Caribbean that are members of The Lutheran World Federation — a global communion of Christian churches in the Lutheran tradition. The federation has 143 member churches in 79 countries all over the world. The ELCA is the federation’s only member church from the United States.

The Rev. Randall Lee, former ELCA executive for ecumenical relations, dies

The Rev. Randall Lee, former director for ecumenical and inter-religious relations at Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) churchwide ministries, died on July 4 at the University of Wisconsin Hospital inMadison, Wis. Lee, 56, was a member of First English Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation in Wisconsin Rapids, Wis.

Lee served as pastor at three ELCA congregations –Bethel Lutheran Church in University City, Mo.; the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Saint Luke in Chicago; and Grace Lutheran Church in Evanston, Ill. He also served at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, one of eight ELCA seminaries, and held positions at Evangelical Lutherans in Mission and Aid Association for Lutherans (now Thrivent Financial for Lutherans) before becoming executive assistant to the ELCA secretary. He was appointed director for ecumenical affairs and inter-religious relations for ELCA churchwide ministries in 2002.

“Randy Lee was a highly respected ecumenical and inter-religious colleague globally,” said the Rev. Donald McCoid, current ELCA executive for ecumenical and inter-religious relations.

“He provided great leadership in ecumenical dialogues, and he was a leader in the National Council of Churches and The Lutheran World Federation,” said McCoid. “His work in coordinating the statement on the episcopacy for The Lutheran World Federation was widely received and appreciated. He was a friend who exhibited a strong commitment to the unity of the church.”

The ELCA is the Federation’s only member church from the United States. The Lutheran World Federation also expressed gratitude for the substantial contributions Lee made to international ecumenical dialogue, particularly relations with Roman Catholics.

“Ecumenical partners always spoke very highly of Randy’s theological insights, relational sensitivities and commitment to greater expressions of unity in Christ’s church,” said the Rev. Mark S. Hanson, ELCA presiding bishop. “He exemplified graciousness in receiving ecumenical guests, always recognizing that friendships and theological dialogues are both essential to deepening unity.”

Lee is survived by his parents, Raymond and Marilyn Lee.

Funeral services were held July 9 at noon at First English Lutheran Church. A prayer service was also held July 9 at ELCA churchwide ministries in Chicago.

Exodus of undocumented immigrants comes to a halt after Supreme Court decision, says ELCA synod bishop

 Since the Supreme Court’s decision June 25 to uphold some of Arizona’s 2010 immigration law (Arizona SB 1070), the “exodus of undocumented” immigrants from the state has stopped, according to the Rev. Stephen Talmage, bishop of the ELCA Grand Canyon Synod based in Tucson, Ariz.

Leading up to and after the signing of the law, Talmage said about 200,000 of the estimated 450,000 undocumented people left Arizona from the end of 2008 to the beginning of 2010.

“As has been attested in our congregations (in ministry with) Latinos, many in those communities live under a cloud of fear,” said Talmage. “The loss of job opportunities, the political climate, and inconsistent practice among various law enforcement agencies have deeply reinforced a message that Arizona is not the place to come.”

Since the decision, “most undocumented immigrants are taking a ‘wait and see’ attitude in light of the law’s effect being dependent on a lower court’s lifting of the stay on the ‘papers please’ provision, and no one knows when that will be,” said Talmage.

“The Department of Homeland Security has directed immigration officials in Arizona not to deport undocumented persons identified through enforcement of SB 1070, unless they meet the agency’s priorities of being dangerous criminals, recent border crossers or repeat immigration violators,” he said.

“Among elected state officials, pending on what side of the debate one’s on, (some) claim victory for the state to enforce current laws and protect its border when the federal government fails, while others continue to raise the caution flag for the potential of racial profiling,” Talmage said. “All sides continue to plead for Congress to enact comprehensive immigration reform.”

At the ELCA Grand Canyon Synod’s Assembly May 30-June 1, a majority of voting members passed a resolution stating that Arizona’s SB 1070 is inconsistent with their “collective Christian belief and witness and harmful to the practical concerns and needs of Arizona.” The assembly concluded that immigration is of significant importance to its territory, which covers Arizona, Nevada andUtah, and regarded the case ofArizona vs. United States as a matter of federal law.

The action also calls upon members and congregations of the synod to encourage their leaders in the federal government to work for bipartisan immigration reform that is “comprehensive, fair, humane, compassionate, and which safeguards the unity of families.” The resolution was forwarded to the Arizona governor, the president of the Arizona Senate, the speaker of the Arizona House of Representatives and to all members of the state legislature.

To date, Talmage said his office has heard back from only a couple of elected officials.

“The debate will continue. The impact is unknown,” said Talmage. “Our synod and our state are still deeply divided on the issue. But it is hoped that recent actions can be an impetus for mobilizing leaders on both sides to work together to resolve a decades-long failure of our federal government to address a major issue that impacts communities, congregations and families.