I believe that ecumenism has intrinsic value and that it can bear fruit. I’m not sure about the source of these beliefs. I grew up in a Lutheran home, graduated from a Lutheran college, worked at a Lutheran camp, interned at two Lutheran congregations, and served as pastor of a Lutheran church in Soldier, Iowa, a town served only by a Lutheran church because it was settled almost exclusively by Norwegian Lutherans. In all of those settings collegiality among Lutherans was modeled and practiced.
ECUMENISM – THE PRINCIPLE OR AIM OF PROMOTING UNITY AMONG THE WORLD’S CHRISTIAN CHURCHES
ELCA Lutherans share ministries across the Treasure Valley (from the Oregon border over to Mountain Home, ID)–weekly lectionary text study, monthly high school youth events and Confirmation Classes, women’s gatherings, and Luther Heights Bible Camp. But I serve the only ELCA Lutheran congregation in Nampa, a city of 90,000. My congregation and I do not want me to hibernate in the church building or limit my relationships to those with ELCA colleagues in the Treasure Vally. It would be easy for us to keep to ourselves but that is not who we are.
Who are out neighbors? The LDS (Mormons) and Roman Catholic communities dominate the landscape, both the population and skyline. Non-denominational congregations are everywhere. Nampa is the home of Northwest Nazarene University so there are many Nazarene congregations. The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod and Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod congregations are bigger and more influential than I have experienced them anywhere else.
Part of my eagerness for ecumenical and interfaith relationships may simply be my personality. I love learning and even though I will not become a Mormon, non-denominational or Missouri Synod pastor, I am still interested in what those faiths can teach me and my congregation.
I have also always believed that the call of pastor is a call to the congregation but also to the denomination and entire Christian Church, which means intentionally spending time with other pastors, learning and growing together. So perhaps, with no other ELCA pastors in town, I simply turned to anyone else who wanted to talk with me and provide mutual support. Attending the monthly Nampa ministerial gatherings is simply what I should do, right?
At gatherings in Iowa, someone would inevitably remind us that the ELCA is in more full-communion relationships than any other denomination and I would think, do we really need to hear this again? What’s the big deal? (the most visible outcome being that our pastors can preside over Holy Communion at church’s belonging to a full-communion denomination) Now I take pride in our full-communion relationships. It is a physical sign that we believe there is more that unites us than divides us.
There are non-denominational congregations in the Treasure Valley that are starting to collaborate in exciting ways. I still get frustrated that they do not make the ministerial meetings a priority and I scratch my forehead trying to figure it out but I am trying to celebrate that they have discovered the joy and fruit of being together. For those of us whose denominational histories include the work of the National Council of Churches during the Civil Rights Movement, it may simply be more natural to cary that history into the present. We do not have to invent partnerships. We simply need to receive and adapt them.
Those partnerships have been so important for me during the past year on the local level, in ways no one could have anticipated. When Trinity’s leadership had to attend hearings with the Canyon County Commissioners about our tax exempt status, after creating Trinity New Hope (low-income housing), one pastor came to my office to help me process, another pastor sent encouraging emails, four pastors actually came to the hearings and signed in for the record.
So I am curious about other denominations and I value collegiality, but for me the most important reasons to build ecumenical and interfaith relationships are summed up in one of Trinity’s guiding principles: share the good news through words and actions. When churches work together, our actions can accomplish more. We have more resources to care for the least among us, those shut out by everyone else. We can also find ways to speak with a unified voice, which is good PR in a time and place when people often see Christians fighting against one another.
Local ecumenical relationships have made national ones even more natural for me. Last week I spent a morning in Chicago at the ELCA Churchwide Office with a group of people convened to create a training for interim outdoor ministry executive directors. There has been a need for this training for some time but what finally kickstarted the process was a meeting last October of people from the Outdoor Ministry Connection (OMC). (The National Council of Churches had an outdoor ministry sub-group for decades but it recently absolved. OMC has taken its place.) The thought was, why should a Lutheran camp in Washington hire a Lutheran interim director from Iowa if there is a qualified Presbyterian director down the road. So LOM took the lead but it has been an ecumenical venture. And having the director of the Episcopal Camp and Conference Center network in the room in Chicago was a reminder of that. Why would we try to do this in a silo?
Next week something kind of crazy is happening because of the local relationships. Marie Osmond is going to worship at Trinity Lutheran Church. Why was Trinity selected? Because LDS leaders who are bringing Marie to Nampa for the Tribute Concert (benefiting Idaho Food Banks) respect and like Trinity’s community garden and low-income housing ministries and they appreciate how we are part of ecumenical/interfaith relationships. Marie is not going to sing or speak during the service but she will stay for conversations after worship–more dialogue.
Part of the dialogue with other denominations and faiths is listening. I have learned so much by listening to people from other denominations and faiths. Sometimes I learn new practices but just as often, I find myself examining with new lenses aspects of my faith and tradition: preaching, testimony, social justice, prayer, music, sacraments, and ethics.
The other part of dialogue is speaking, using our words. Trinity is committed to sharing the good news through our actions but also through our words. Lutheranism brings several gifts to ecumenical relationships. Living and ministering in Nampa, I have begun to see as gifts several things I have taken for granted: the order of worship (which we share to some extent with other mainline brothers and sisters) and our proclamation of the gospel.
It is this proclamation that leads and directs us to do all of our acting and serving and giving. But something else sets the stage for the proclamation. It begins at the very beginning of our worship service, during which we confess our sins and ask for forgiveness. Every week we do this! A college student from another denomination told me, in a conversation about theology and worship, that my congregation is probably less susceptible to cheap grace (I’m forgiven so I can do whatever I want) because we practice confession and forgiveness during every worship service. After staring at her for a few seconds I think I said, “Oh, right. Not everyone does that.” Then, and this is something that I think we do particularly well, we look into the scripture passages to see what is broken in us, yes–we look at our sin again, and then we look again to see how God is healing us. Finally, back to our order of worship, we gather around the altar, receiving forgiveness once again, this time through bread and wine and the words “Given for you, for the forgiveness of sin.”
I am so very thankful for the ecumenical and interfaith relationships nurtured in Nampa. I hope that more and more people will come to the table to learn from one another and to find ways to care for every single person in our community.