Two different sayings are colliding in my mind that result in two very different calls to engagement and action. The first is "throw in the towel," and the second is "throw your hat in the ring." The former means that you are giving up—quitting—and the latter means you are entering the competition. WordAlone Network has no intentions of throwing in the towel anywhere, not on the scene of institutional church reform and certainly not in the arena of theological education. We are in it for the long run if that is what the good Lord desires of us.
In establishing the WordAlone Institute for Renewing Lutheran Theology, we throw our hat into the circle at the center of the Lutheran confessional witness and we claim the wilderness expanse between the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in order to gather, teach and equip the next generation of lay leaders, pastors and professors. We have no time to waste as we move ahead with this chief endeavor for our educational ministry. As a Lutheran movement witnessing in today's confused pseudo-Christian context our institute is a must.
In the WordAlone Institute pastors and lay leaders will have a multitude of opportunities to learn and grow in their understanding of the faith either right at home using modern technology or gathered in an on-site program.
New pastors in the past six years who requested non-episcopal ordinations recognized the yoke of slavery thrust upon the ELCA as a result of the full communion agreement with the Episcopalians. Within their ranks the next generation of confessional Lutheran professors may reside and WordAlone is committed to identifying those interested and gifted for this particular ministry and equipping them to serve.
In addition, our commitment to educating the next generation of servant leaders will be extended to the international community by inviting other Lutheran churches—who continue to send their students to North America to be trained in our seminaries—to enroll their students in the WordAlone Institute in order to be assured they will receive a confessional Lutheran education.
We should also throw our hats into the ring for the many elections happening across the synods this spring and at the churchwide assembly this August. Local field teams for the Network continue the work of raising up candidates who will engage in open debate of the difficult questions facing the ELCA, and who are willing to accept the call to serve and be a witness as a council member, an assembly delegate or even bishop.
Many say that the current presiding bishop, Mark Hanson, is a shoo-in for re-election. These types of comments look more like a "towel" than a "hat." After all, is anything impossible for God? Just because incumbency is difficult to prevail against and he happens to be president of the Lutheran World Federation, we as a Network have taken on bigger obstacles in the past seven years. Last October, in an unprecedented move in the ELCA, Mark Hanson threw his hat in the ring when he used an ELCA news release to announce his intention to run for re-election.
Some may be quite happy about this, but not all in the ELCA or elsewhere. Many international Lutheran church leaders are confused and bothered by the sexuality questions being imposed on them by the Lutherans of North America. Some are willing to follow the lead of the Anglican archbishops and refuse to go along to get along. Soon the LWF may look like the Anglican Communion and it is anything but a picture of unity—all the result of valuing institutional unity over truth. In this atmosphere, why should re-election be a foregone conclusion?
One way to communicate that the current leadership enjoys no mandate for continuance would be to exercise the "ecclesiastical ballot," stretching it as far as possible. For those unaware of the balloting process, under an ecclesiastical ballot all rostered pastors of the ELCA are potential candidates to be named on the first ballot. If it were possible to organize, it would be a significant witness by all disenchanted churches and members within the ELCA to write in 1,000 different names. Let every voting member put up a different individual for election in order to send an unprecedented message to Chicago that there are many concerned about the future of the Lutheran witness here and abroad. I realize how difficult it would be to accomplish this with at least one hundred votes already committed to bishops and synod staff who are assembly delegates, but the possibility is delicious.
Perhaps it is better if a couple of acknowledged, confessional, Lutheran leaders throw their hats into the ring. These leaders must be willing to debate the current leadership, witness to the traditional Lutheran Christian teaching and unafraid of ridicule or failure. The WordAlone Network board of directors has been encouraging me to do just that since last summer. I've let that entire issue go where it rightfully belongs, into our Lord's hands. All agree that I don't look like the stereotypical bishop. I also do not value the institutional structures of human construct much when the preaching of the one Gospel is at stake and the true church is being confused with a bureaucratic system.
If I were to get enough support in the first few ballots to make a speech or entertain questions at the churchwide assembly, then at least the concerns of WordAlone will have been presented openly.
If by the grace of God and a miracle I am elected, first I will call for repentance for this slipping, sliding denomination and its wayward public witness. Then, as a matter of good stewardship, I will call for downsizing the institution and upsizing the ministry. It is time for the people in the churchwide offices to recognize themselves as support staff to the church and not the other way around. Discarding the current failed institutional paradigm, with its top-down headquarters, could produce an institution to serve ELCA Lutherans through the 21st century with just a bit of good stewardship, a dynamic imagination and a commitment to the Word of God alone as sole authority in all matters of faith and life.
But why just a couple hats tossed into the ring? Every confessional Lutheran pastor in the ELCA should be willing to throw his or her hat into the ring. Let's let Chicago know that the time for a radical change in leadership is long overdue. This reform movement isn't throwing in the towel—only its hats!