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Hangin’ At the Portland Airport, Thinkin’ About the Lutheran Church-ELCA

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Gustav’s Pub & Grill, Portland Airport, Portland, OR– This morning wrapped up a regional campus ministry conference with colleagues–temporary though they be–serving as campus ministry pastors throughout the West and Northwest.  We heard from the national campus ministry coordinator, who flew in from Chicago to bring us a comforting word that the church still lives, despite “restructuring.”  Actually, the “restructuring” term is mine, and it’s a polite way to describe what recently happened to the ELCA church-wide organizational structure.  Here’s a cinematic moment that pretty well captures this “restructuring,” in the way the black knight was “restructured” :

OK, I’m kidding.  Sort of.

The ELCA has gone through a bit of down-sizing, which is in many ways congruent with the downsizing of its congregations (since I’m a card-carrying ELCA pastor, I should probably use the first person plural possessive pronoun, “ours.” So I will.)

I was somewhat surprised at the number of conference attendees who felt they were standing on ground shaky enough to consider pushing the “eject” button.

The experience also made me aware of my own shaky ground; especially considering the likelihood that several people in the gathering will likely interview for the position I’m currently serving as an interim pastor.   As I think on my own place and position, and how there is likely to be a sort of feeding frenzy when the position is posted on the ELCA website, I’m reminded of an experience I had trout fishing many years ago in New Mexico.

Early one crisp Fall morning, I found myself casting a line into Monastery Lake, a popular fishing hole about 45 minutes north of Santa Fe.   I’d heard the fishing there was outstanding, and so I joined about a dozen hearty souls who braved the chilly wind with hope of landing a few beauties from this lake adjacent to a Benedictine monastery.  I was still rubbing the sleep from my eyes as I found my place on the bank of this small lake in the Northern New Mexico mountains.  Then I cast my line into the cool, still water, plopping my white and red floater about ten yards from shore and settled in to see if I might land the Mighty Moby Trout.  Amazingly, it didn’t take long for my floater to dip underwater, then dip again, as the tugs on my line told me I’d gotten my first hungry customer to take the salmon egg I’d used to disguise my hook.  I reeled in a stubborn little trout.   The tyke was maybe half a pound, at most.  I looked at the little fella, as he looked at me with those wide little trout eyes, then I unhooked him and tossed him back into the lake.  Shoot, I’d caught and released perch bigger than this down in Texas when I was knee-high to a grasshopper.  I put another red egg on the hook and cast it back out into the water.  Moby Trout was bound to be out there.  Soon I got another bite, then hooked what turned out to be the little trout’s smaller brother.  Again, I removed the hook and tossed him back.  I’d just cast my newly-baited hook into the water again when a nearby fisherman walked over to me.  “Hey, man,” he said, “if you don’t like to eat trout, the next time you catch one, just give him to me, OK?”

“Ummm, OK.”  I looked at the guy and at the frayed and worn flannel coat he wore, and then it hit me.  These little fellas were prime catch in these parts.  I was in a beautiful location, by golly, but it was a hardscrabble location as well.  And there were hardscrabble folks just chomping at the bit to catch a mess of these little trout to bring home to their families.

These are hardscrabble times for pastors and staff in the ELCA.  Some will likely chafe at such language.  But the truth of the matter is, the ELCA has been rocked by the same seismic tremors that have shaken up the rest of our culture, and the quaking is not over by a long shot.

I’ve been keeping my powder dry, as it were, while pondering my own circumstances and options.  But now, sitting here in an airport eatery in Portland, influenced and inspired by the good group of very good campus pastors who are struggling to come to terms with the Way Things Are Becoming, and having that experience connecting with my own struggle, I’m feeling that it’s about time to add my two cents to the cacophony of those who are trying to make sense of what is happening and why.  I’ve been doing this sort of thing for a while now, but maybe it’s time to really hone in on those factors, circumstances and trends that seem to be the greatest effects upon the church I continue to love, the ELCA.     It ain’t gonna be pretty, and I’m guessing that my passion might occasionally dominate my objectivity.  But these are passionate times.  Just look at Glenn Beck….or the tear-stained face of John Boehner.    OK, maybe not the best standards of comparison, but sitting here, somewhat discombobulated in an airport in foggy Portland, and with a boarding call near at hand, it’s the best I can do.  More to come, stay tuned……

3 responses »

  1. Great post Dan. The ELCA, like so many other mainstream denominations, is being marginalized. Previously, we were part of Christendom, which tended to accommodate Empire. Perhaps we can regain our prophetic voice on the margins where the early church had to function. I agree that the process of marginalization is difficult for the church and us pastors who have made it our life. I think it is broader than the church. There is a sort of era change happening in our society and manifesting itself in the church. Some mega churches have successfully capitalized on this era change and have playing into it with the Gospel of Prosperity, Decision Theology, entertaining services, fundamentalism, etc., but I think in time this approach will be found shallow and something better will come from the margins.

  2. It’s good to have a passion. Not everyone does.

  3. Thanks for your comments. Bob, I’m reading a book that keeps connecting to our time and place, “The Forge of Christendom: The End of Days and the Epic Rise of The West,” by Tom Holland. It’s connecting me back to “The Great Emergence” and bringing on some interesting percolations about where we are now.

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