I’m in Colorado Springs, Colorado for the next three days as the male voting member to the Rocky Mountain Synod Assembly from Elim Lutheran Church in Ogden. The Assembly is the governing body for the five state, 166 congregation Rocky Mountain Synod, a geographical division of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
The Rocky Mountain Synod (RMS) was the first synod in ELCA. We actually constituted ourselves twenty-three years ago several months before the ELCA itself was constituted. I had the honor of attending that assembly also.
Since RMS was constituted, we have been led by two bishops. The first was Bishop Wayne Weisennbuehler. The second, and present, bishop is Allan Bjornberg. Once a bishop is elected, he or she serves a term of six years and may be reelected. Bishop Bjornberg has decided to step down at the end if his present term, having served eighteen years as bishop.
The words “bishop” and “seminary” mean different things to ELCA Lutherans and members of the LDS church. To the LDS, a bishop is the leader of a local congregation, or ward. To ELCA Lutherans, a bishop is the pastor elected by the Synod Assembly to be the leader of a synod of the ELCA. He or she is the ecclesiastical leader of all the pastors and lay members in the synod, and also serves as a member of the Council of Bishops, who advise the Presiding Bishop of the ELCA The oresiding bishop is elected by the National Assembly of the ELCA.
Any person on the clergy roster of ELCA may be nominated for bishop. To be on the clergy roster, one must be an ordained minister under call or on leave from call.
There are several steps involved in becoming an ordained minister under call.
Being ordained has nothing to do with holding the priesthood. All baptized Lutherans are ordained to the priesthood of all believers, usually a few minutes after they are baptized. What this means to us is that we need no intermediary to God. We may pray directly to God, confess our sins directly to God, and pray for assistance directly to God. We do not need to go through another priest for these things.
To be ordained as a member of the clergy one must complete a course of graduate level study at an institution called a seminary. This is another word which means different things to Lutherans and LDS members. To the LDS, a seminary is a high school level school where the Bible and the Book of Mormon. To Lutherans, a seminary is a graduate level school, like law school or medical school, where a person may seek masters’s and doctoral degrees with various majors. A portion of the course of study to be a pastor is to spend one year as an intern pastor under the supervision of a member of the clergy.
It is theoretically possible to become qualified to be a minster without attending seminary, but to do so is difficult and highly unusual.
After graduating from a seminary, a person is still not on the clergy roster. The next step is for the candidate is to meet with a committee made up of clergy and lay persons who decide whether the person is to be allowed to apply for and receive a call. This is not an automatic, rubber-stamp thing. I have known the committee to turn down candidates. The reasons for such a rejection are not made known to the public.
Once approved by this committee, a candidate is then able to apply to congregations for a call. A congregation in need of a new clergy person will have undergone a “self-study” with the assistance of the synod office. After this self-study, a list of possible candidates whose talents and personalities might match with that congregation are sent to them by the synod.
A call committee at the congregation studies the resumes and applications of the candidates and selects some to be interviewed. After the interview, some are invited to preside and preach at worship.
If no acceptable candidate is found, the congregation will ask the synod to send a list of additional candidates.
If an acceptable candidate is found, then the congregation must vote, by a two-thirds majority or more, to offer a call to that individual. We believe that the Holy Spirit is active in inspiring a candidate to apply, and in inspiring a congregation to vote to extend a call.
Once a call is offered and accepted, the candidate is ordained, not in the church to which he or she has been called, but in his or her home congregation. This ceremony is done by at least one bishop and other members of the clergy, who pray and lay hands on the candidate. All of these will be members of the “historic episcopate” or “apostolic succession” This means that each was ordained by someone who was in turn ordained by someone else, and so on, in an unbroken line back to the apostles who walked with Christ.
To release a person from call, the congregation must again vote to withdraw the call by a two-thirds majority. This is very seldom done. A person may resign his/her position at a church and be “on leave from call” for up to seven years. If he or she is not offered another call within that time, the process would have to begin again if they later wished to be under call. A retired person remains under call even if not serving a church.
Only persons on the clergy roster of the ELCA are eligible to be elected bishop.
The first step in the election process is to search for candidates. Forty clergy were suggested by members of the Rocky Mountain Synod as possible candidates. Seventeen of these individuals submitted their qualifications and wrote about their vision and personal feelings about being bishop.
None of these seventeen have been nominated at this point.
All voting members of the assembly (I am one), are urged to follow four practices in electing the new bishop.
The first is to pray for the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
The second is to listen carefully to what the candidates’ account of themselves.
The third is discernment, to balance the needs of the synod against the needs of our own congregations and the needs of our own selves.
The fourth is mutual conversation, to talk with other voting members and discuss the candidates and why we may feel one is the most qualified.
The first ballot for bishop is done by what is called the nominating ballot. It is an ecclesiastical ballot. Each voting member may write the name of any person on the ELCA clergy roster on this ballot. If someone receives 75% of the votes on this ballot, he or she is elected.
If not, all the names of qualified candidates are placed on the second value. On this ballot, again, a 75% majority is required for a candidate to be elected. On each subsequent ballot, some of the candidates receiving the least votes are removed, and the percentage required to elect becomes lower.
When there are three candidates (or ties) remaining, those candidates address the members of the assembly in three (or more if there are ties) groups, and answer any questions asked by the members in those groups.
If the process reaches a seventh ballot, there will be only two candidates left, and a simple majority will elect one or the other.
In the next three days, we voting members of the assembly will elect a new bishop. This the third time I have been involved in such an election, and as I have been before, I am humbled at the responsibility. I ask that you pray for the inspiration of the Holy Spirit be uponme and the other voting members of the assembly.
As soon as possible after each session, I will be sending a new blog to the Standard-Examiner. Of course, my responsibility at the Assembly is to be a voting member. Being a blogger comes at a lower priority.
But, watch this blog. You just might be among the first to learn who our new bishop will be.