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Published December 22 2010

11 to Watch in 2011: Area ELCA bishops put focus on faith

2011 finds the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America still touched by the aftermath of historic and controversial changes made by the Churchwide Assembly more than a year ago.

Two of the people to watch as the ELCA deals with these and other challenges are Northwestern Minnesota Bishop Larry Wohlrabe and Eastern North Dakota Bishop Bill Rindy.

The two bishops emphasize the need to focus members and congregations on what they believe to be central to the church’s mission.

“While the issues discussed in the past year and a half are not unimportant,” Rindy said, “they have often kept the discussion from what’s really important. That is the Great Commission and the Great Commandment (to love the neighbor as the self).”

Much time and energy has been spent reacting to the assembly’s decision in August 2009 to allow individuals in same-gender relationships to serve in the clergy and to adopt a much-debated human sexuality social statement.

Hundreds of the ELCA’s more than 10,000 congregations have taken votes on whether to stay in the ELCA, including dozens in Wohlrabe’s synod and a handful in the Eastern North Dakota Synod, too.

Wohlrabe describes 2010 as probably “one of the most challenging years” of his almost three decades as a pastor.

But he believes people are ready to move forward.

“What I’m hearing from most of our people is it’s time to move on, and it’s time to get excited about doing God’s work again,” he said.

Wohlrabe believes a key to carrying out that work is reaching and developing the next generation. Toward that end, the synods are working together to develop Lutheran Men in Mission. Wohlrabe noted the strong influence of fathers on their children’s faith.

The two synods will also join with other synods from the region in January for “Rebuilding the Remnant.” It’s an event designed for congregations that experienced conflict after the 2009 Churchwide Assembly and “are ready to renew their mission.”

Issues stemming from the Churchwide Assembly aren’t the only ones the synods face. There has also been some disagreement over a genetics social statement the denomination is developing and will consider at the 2011 Churchwide Assembly.

Some believed the document condemned the use of genetically modified seeds, a notion Wohlrabe and Rindy say is incorrect.

Wohlrabe believes reaction to the statement has “tapered off somewhat.” And Rindy said when people actually read the statement for themselves, it tends to “diffuse” the situation.

Neither of the bishops looks for the genetics issue to foster the kind of reaction the sexuality decisions did.

“I don’t think so,” Wohlrabe said. “For one thing, it doesn’t have the visceral, emotional response that people have to just about anything about sexuality.”

Rindy hopes 2011 will find his synod focused on what he sees as issues central to the church. But, odd though it may sound, he doesn’t want members to completely leave the much-discussed issue of sexuality behind.

“My hope is that people will always be asking the question what it means to be faithful so that that question may never die out fully,” Rindy said. “The Lutheran church is not a reformed church; it’s a reforming church.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Shane Mercer at (701) 451-5734