If I ever return to parish ministry, one thing I would do differently is return again and again to having forums to discuss the Social Statements of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA, see links below). I would stress the differentiation between personal decision-making, faith-based agenda, the church’s statements, and the “greater common good”. For example, I would highlight that the church does not support games of chance which require using money like a game as in the lottery, bingo, or raffles. At the same time, a parishioner may actually purchase a lottery ticket, go to a Roman Catholic Church to play bingo with friends or sell raffle tickets for their child’s band trip.
Before creating policies or considering the offering plate returns, a congregation must engage the social statements of the church in this way. Under the pastor’s spiritual guidance, in careful-prayerful conversation, with compassion for the brother or sister with whom we may disagree, reading these social statements and debating their execution in the context of one’s own congregation is an important part of determining what gifts are acceptable to the Lord. Should a church accept gaming gains? Mineral rights? Foreign capital? Partnership in a real estate development group? Upon what does it make those decisions? We make those decisions through careful-prayerful interpretation and study of our social statements.
The four financial ministries of the ELCA are required to follow the Churchwide Council’s interpretation of the social statements in their investment practices and policies. For example, we use social purpose investment screens (SPI) to make our investment selections. Weeding out oil and gas industries is the latest point of discernment for the church as it considers the further implementation of the social statement on the “Care of Creation”. I expect our congregations to do likewise, understanding that context may play a vital role in the interpretation. A congregation in the Allegheny Synod whose entire congregation may work for a gas fracking company, and whose offering plate is made from the proceeds of that industry will have a harder time weeding out oil and gas money than the company in Silicon Valley or NYC. The company in Silicon Valley will have a harder time weeding out money from foreign mining interests when the products of that mining are the very goods that create and sustain the industries of the Valley. That DOES NOT excuse the church from not discussing these vital issues and debating how we can continue to strive for the greater common good. To find ways to sustain economies that do not rely upon damaging the earth and water or subjugating peoples in developing communities for our own convenience and gain is our role as God’s people. (While I have never bought a lottery ticket, I’m typing on a MacBook Air in the Allegheny Synod, lest you think these issues don’t affect me personally.)
We must learn to separate our own lives from the higher calling of the church’s role in society. The church, and by extension, our congregations, is to be “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Its role is to lay before us these issues for discernment, create a careful-prayerful model for practice and understanding, and then give us an opportunity to heed the call. “Drop your nets and follow me,” is Christ’s call to follow a new way of life. We should expect our congregations to preach this and our disciples to strive to follow, knowing we will always do it imperfectly. But imperfect discipleship which strives to be Christological is more important than dismissing the church’s point of view just because it runs counter to our own wants and needs or the conversation is difficult. That is what we must universally acknowledge and understand, even while differing with the church’s conclusions we must wrestle with them.
I like to think that my tombstone will say, “I tried,” on it rather than the dates that I tried. I’d like to leave this world knowing that I really tried to create God’s kingdom here on earth for all people. I believe that whenever we pray the lines “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” we are all acknowledging that in this prayer we are offering ourselves for action. I like to think I am part of a church that wants to do this, too. I like that the whole church discerns and carefully-prayerfully creates social statements, and then, we are called without threat of excommunication or condemnation to figure how to do it. It’s one of the lovely things Lutherans do well. We do all things with grace.
ELCA Social Statements:
- Abortion / Aborto (1991)
- Caring for creation / Medio ambiente (1993)
- Church in society / Iglesia en la sociedad (1991)
- The church and criminal justice / La iglesia y la justicia penal (2013)
- The death penalty / Pena de Muerte (1991)
- Economic life / Vida economica (1999)
- Education / Educación (2007)
- Genetics (2011)
- Health and health care / Salud y asistencia sanitaria (2003)
- Human sexuality / La sexualidad humana (2009)
- Peace / Por la paz (1995)
- Race, ethnicity and culture / Raza, etnicidad y cultura (1993)