By Joe Isenhower Jr.
SAN ANTONIO — God’s gift of grace was the key topic that numerous speakers put before the nearly 650 participants at Lutheran Church Extension Fund’s (LCEF) 2013 Fall Leadership Conference here Nov. 22-24.
The conference theme was “Receive His Gifts,” based on John 1:16 —“For from His fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.”
“When we chose our theme,” LCEF President and CEO Richard “Rich” Robertson said in his keynote address for the opening session, “we knew we could have decorated the walls of this entire room with lists upon lists of the good and gracious gifts that God provides for us in our lives. … Clearly, we know that all of God’s gifts are wrapped up in the all-encompassing gift of grace — the gift that wipes out all of our sin and unworthiness, bringing us into fellowship with God and into eternal life in heaven.”
The “room” that Robertson referenced was a convention-size combination of banquet halls at the Marriott Rivercenter Hotel.
Other conference plenary speakers included:
- LCMS President Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison.
- John O’Leary of St. Louis, another keynoter who credits God’s grace for his surviving what was assumed to be fatal burns when he was 11 years old.
- LCMS Minnesota South District President Rev. Dr. Dean W. Nadasdy.
- LCMS Texas District President Rev. Kenneth M. Hennings, the conference chaplain who delivered the sermon for Sunday’s worship.
- Tammy Trent, a Christian singer and speaker for the women’s luncheon on Saturday.
- The Rev. Ingo R. Dutzmann, pastor of First Lutheran Church, Boston, and New England District LCEF vice-president.
- The Rev. John Kieschnick of League City, Texas, who gave the benediction at the end of the conference.
In addition to attending plenary sessions, fall conference participants:
- worked at a servant event to finish assembling and packaging 200 blankets and faith messages for the LCMS Texas District’s San Antonio LINC (Lutheran Inner-City Network Coalition) to distribute among the needy.
- attended eight workshops on a variety of ministry-related topics.
- got to know each other better at meals and a first-time president’s dessert reception that featured the artistry of a classical-music ensemble from Concordia University Texas, Austin.
- heard updates on the business of LCEF during its 2013 annual meeting, when delegates elected several officers.
For his keynote address, Robertson reviewed “through the eyes of children” events and developments since the 2012 Fall Leadership Conference.
He started with tragedies and disasters — the shooting deaths at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.; the Boston Marathon bombing; Colorado flooding; the Moore, Okla., tornado; the deaths of 19 elite firefighters in Arizona; the conflict in Syria; and Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.
Robertson then reviewed “many issues in our world that shape the future of our children” — such as choices about guns, gay marriage, contraception and abortion, government shutdowns and health-care reform.
“How can we share God’s grace with children as they face these challenges and realities for the future?” he asked, and then, “How are we sharing God’s grace with children as they rejoice in God’s blessings?”
He added that all of this impacts “what we do at LCEF.”
“Even as the uncertainties and challenges in our nation’s economy remain high, LCEF continues to be blessed with investors, borrowers, ministry-support partners, donors and prayer partners who are passionate about sharing the Gospel and committed to embracing the [LCMS] and the work of all the saints supporting ministry throughout the world,” Robertson said.
He pointed out that LCEF has identified initiatives to serve as “a catalyst for creative ideas to advance ministry.” Robertson continued, “We will step outside the proverbial box to provide leadership and fill the role as a catalyst to put ministry in motion.”
Robertson also noted that LCEF has developed its new Young Investor Club (or “Y.I. Club”) “to create greater awareness of our ministry and attract younger investors.”
In fact, LCEF staffers were busy throughout the conference helping participants sign up young investors through family members and friends for the Y.I. Club.
Speaking about declines in the number of schools operated by LCMS congregations in recent years, Robertson urged conference attendees to “be active in school ministry in whatever way you are able. It is a lifeline for our church that needs all of our attention and participation.
“Let us receive His gift of grace and share that with others, particularly our young people, who can better understand unconditional grace better than many of us,” Robertson said.
“It’s in the bag [and] time for us to up our game in bringing mercy” to a world in dire need of it, Synod President Harrison told the conference audience Nov. 23.
Harrison used the image of an “empty bag” symbolizing the sinners’ emptiness — an idea that goes back to Martin Luther. He said that as sinners confess their sins and have them absolved, and then receive God’s Word and Sacraments, God fills those empty bags with His gifts of grace and mercy.
“You go out into the world, open your bag and say, ‘I’ve received gifts,’ ” Harrison said. “You serve others, you love them, you speak Jesus. It’s a beautiful way to live.
“We need those gifts today,” Harrison emphasized, “to face the brutal facts” of America’s increasing religious decline and “the animus that has been unleashed on the Christian church.” For example, he mentioned the Health and Human Services mandate that “defines the First Amendment as the right to assemble, not the free exercise of religion.” He also spoke of churches’ nonexempt tax status being questioned and the growing number of states approving gay marriage.
Asking “what do we do?,” Harrison suggested that Lutherans today follow the lead of church fathers such as Herman Sasse and Martin Luther, who once said the “German necks don’t bend very easily.”
“My friends, it’s time for a stiff neck,” Harrison proclaimed.
“It’s time to up our game,” he said — in the “craft of preaching,” reaching out with the Gospel, “to up our game for mercy in congregations … and in care for our church workers.”
“It’s time for us to resolve long-standing issues that have divided us in the Synod for decades” and “to have a presence in Washington, D.C.”
Harrison also spoke of the “global situation that is absolutely teeming with opportunities,” particularly as African churches seek closer relationships with the Synod.
He told the audience that he is “excited about LCEF. … What great leadership you have for … difficult moments.”
“The moment is prepared,” Harrison said in closing. “We know what the good works are. Let’s go do it, and be stiff-necked in the task.”
O’Leary told the story of his suffering third-degree burns over 98 percent of his body after a gas can exploded in his arms as he tried to imitate what other kids in his neighborhood were doing — to create a trail of fire on the floor of the family’s garage.
He recalled those instrumental in his survival — including siblings who instinctively (and out of love) helped extinguish the flames and his parents who nurtured his will to live.
Then there was St. Louis Cardinals broadcast legend Jack Buck, who repeatedly visited him in the hospital, gave him baseballs from his own memorabilia collection, and promised him a “John O’Leary day at the ballpark” — which happened after John was proclaimed “a living miracle” by St. Louis doctors as he left the hospital for home.
When O’Leary graduated from college, he said, Buck gave him the crystal baseball he received upon being inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Accompanying it was a note that read, “How can I be faithful in love, faith and hope for those around me?”
He remembers that Buck said of that crystal baseball, “This means a lot to me, and I hope someday it means a lot to you. Enjoy.”
‘… coming from a cross’
O’Leary then suggested to the assembly, “When you hear it this time, imagine it coming from a cross. ‘This means a lot to me. I hope someday it means a lot to you. Enjoy.’ ”
O’Leary wove into his story three “pieces of grace” — love, faith and hope.
He ended his remarks by posing the question, “What more can I do as I try to live out the life of Christ through faith, hope and love?”
Before leaving the stage, he introduced his wife, Beth, and showed slides of their children. It was the couple’s 10th anniversary that day. He then played “Amazing Grace” on the piano before signing autographs in attendees’ copies of the book his parents wrote about their experiences — titled Overwhelming Odds.
Nadasdy referred to the conference grace-theme text as “amazing.”
He told of reading that C.S. Lewis once answered “that’s easy, it’s grace” when he was at a seminar “trying to decide the unique contributions of Christianity to world religions.”
“Nobody sings ‘Amazing Grace’ like us Lutherans,” Nadasdy said. “We live and breathe the grace of God. That is to say we are what we are because of grace. It’s that simple. We are dead men and dead women walking without it.”
He listed several “qualities of graceful leadership:”
- “Graceful leaders know that they are inanimate and depend on God.”
- “We leaders can still be wowed by the grace and glory of God.”
- “Graceful leaders are Christ-like leaders.”
- “Christ-like leaders take initiative. Grace serves and sacrifices before it’s asked.”
- “Grace takes risks. It’s bold. It’s decisive. It seeks out new life.”
- “Graceful leaders are extravagant. They give others more than they expect.”
- “Like Christ, graceful leaders leave people blessed.”
- “Graceful leaders, like Christ, lead people better.”
- “Graceful people, like Jesus Christ, value relationships over everything.”
- “Graceful leaders embody the truth.”
Nadasdy ended his remarks telling of how he once got lost in the Cascade Mountain Range of Oregon while on a quest to find “the perfect Christmas tree.”
He said a lay leader of the congregation where he was pastor unexpectedly appeared on the trail, put his hand on his shoulder, and led him down the right path to his vehicle.
“The best, the most effective among us who lead will always be those who know how to follow,” Nadasdy said. “As we follow this One — Jesus Christ — there will be fullness. There will be grace upon grace.”
Hennings, in his sermon for that last Sunday of the church year, told how it also became known as Christ the King Sunday in the mid-1920s, to offset negativity over repressive European governments.
“So, it’s nothing new, what we’re going through in our nation and world,” he said, “because we know the evil one is so active among us, trying to take away any reference to Jesus and His kingship.
“As good Lutherans,” he continued, “we need to ask, ‘What kind of king is Jesus?’ ”
For the answer to that, he turned to the Gospel lesson for the day — the account of Jesus’ Crucifixion, flanked by the two criminals, one of whom asked Jesus to remember him in His kingdom. Jesus replied, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Hennings told the worshipers that “Luther called us ‘like beggars, holding out their hands to God and asking for forgiveness. In other words, like that thief on the cross who recognize what we deserve — death — and cry to the King to remember us when He comes into His kingdom. We also, like the thief, hear the words of our King, ‘Surely, today you will be with me in paradise.
“It is this King who we love,” he said.
At the Women’s Luncheon, Tammy Trent told her life’s story, including the tragic death of her husband in 2001. She shared God’s goodness throughout the heartbreak and loneliness she experienced after his death.
She encouraged attendees to persevere through life’s tragedies because, “God can handle anything,” she said.
Shirley Bentson, an LCEF delegate and staff member of the Northwest District, said Trent’s traumatic experience was God “showing [her] to rely only on Him.
Bentson said that she was taking away from the luncheon that “We have to look for the good in the bad. We need to keep praising God in the bad. That is not easy to do and sometimes takes us years before we really see it.”
Trent has been a featured presenter with Women of Faith and the organization’s “The Revolve Tour” for teen girls. She speaks and sings at women’s events worldwide. In 2009, she was honored by the Christian Music Hall of Fame with the Inspirational Female Vocalist of the Year award.
Dutzmann’s church in Boston is just four blocks from the site of the Boston Marathon bombing of last year. For a Reporter story about the congregation’s Christian witness after the bombing, click here http://blogs.lcms.org/2013/boston-lutherans-offer-comfort.
‘Addendum’ to grace
Speaking of the “grace upon grace” theme, Dutzmann told the LCMS audience that his “addendum” to that is “Lord, lead me.”
“I don’t hear voices, but I sure feel a calling to do what I’m supposed to do when I say ‘Lord, lead me,’ because often it’s a time when I don’t have answers,” he said.
“How do you deal with this in the church, and at the same time, how do you empower, encourage, enliven and enlighten a group like this?” Dutzmann asked. “You are the best and the brightest.”
He told of once asking former LCEF Vice-President of Marketing Vic Bryant, “What makes LCEF special?
“And what he said was so profound,” he said of Bryant’s reply. “He said with a little smile, ‘We know who we are.’ And I think, wow, you could transfer that to the whole church, right?
“I don’t know where God has placed you,” Dutzmann said to the assembly, “but where He has placed you, He expects you to bloom and … to be such a fragrant aroma that people will be drawn to who you are, what you say and what you do. They will see Jesus in you … and hear Jesus from you. You are Jesus in that place.”
Each year, LCEF presents awards during its Fall Leadership Conference. For 2013, those awards and their recipients are:
- District Awards — to the Wyoming District, the New England District and the Rocky Mountain District.
Becca Jones, senior vice-president, Marketing and Customer Support for LCEF, explained that those districts were being honored “for the dedicated service they provide to congregations, schools and other ministries.”
- The Fred E. Lietz Mission Project Award — to the Atlantic District Disaster Relief Coalition of the Willing.
Formed after Superstorm Sandy in 2012, the coalition initially assessed urgent post-storm needs and delivered what Jones termed “practical and spiritual care and supplies. Now the coalition has moved forward as it continues that aid, and is focusing on meeting the long-term needs of the area.” That includes planning a permanent mercy center.
As is the case for the Lietz Mission Project Award recipient each year, the coalition received the offering from the Sunday conference service, matched by LCEF. That totaled $14,230.
- The Fred E. Lietz Individual Ministry Award — to Pauline Wiemann of Arlington, Minn. Jones noted that Wiemann, a retired teacher, “uses her skills to LCEF’s benefit” — training other volunteers and encouraging church and school leaders to become LCEF advocates.
- The Making a Real Difference Award — to the Rev. Dr. Terry Dittmer, director of Youth Ministry with the LCMS Office of National Mission in St. Louis.
Robertson presented the award to Dittmer, who was song leader for this conference and a number of previous ones. Robertson noted that the award is “given to individuals who have truly made a difference and continue to make a difference within our church body and certainly with LCEF.”
Several of those attending the 2013 LCEF Fall Leadership Conference shared with Reporter via email their impressions of the conference.
Cynthia Tillman, director of Peace Early Learning Center in Naples, Fla., was a voting delegate for the Florida-Georgia District. This was her first such conference.
“I was really impressed,” Tillman wrote about the conference. “I thought it was well-planned and organized. The workshops also shared great information. The Women’s Luncheon was very inspirational and I always enjoy the worship service at [church] conferences. I am always inspired by the speakers and glad to fellowship with [other] workers in ministry. I was glad to be educated about what LCEF could help us do. … I was honored to be chosen to represent our district and look forward to returning to another conference.”
Pacific Southwest District LCEF Vice-President Gary Spencer of Aliso Viejo, Calif., told Reporter that this was his 10th LCEF Fall Leadership Conference.
He wrote that he always finds them to be “so well-done and stimulating. I enjoyed it very much, especially the speakers. The presentation by John O’Leary was inspiring.”
Spencer wrote that he considers “the ministry focus and the willingness to change” to be among “the best things about LCEF.”
“The conference is a wonderful opportunity for fellowship with people who I only see once a year,” he wrote.
He added that he also appreciates that LCEF conferences are “pretty much void of church politics, instead concentrating on the ministry and mission that God has laid before us.”
At the annual meeting
During LCEF’s annual meeting, delegates elected three individuals to the LCEF Board of Directors:
- the Rev. Max A. Phillips of Woodward, Iowa, to an at-large position for ordained or commissioned ministers on the board.
- Linda Barnes, Lakeland, Tenn., at-large lay member.
- Mark L. Pieper of Plymouth, Minn., who was elected to represent the West Central Region of LCEF on the board, filling a vacancy in that position.
Also, delegates re-elected five individuals to the nominating committee.
In other action during the business meeting, delegates approved two changes to LCEF’s Bylaws to be in conformance with a resolution adopted by the 2013 LCMS convention. The bylaw changes have to do with provisions for removal of LCEF Board of Directors members.
Robertson reported during the annual meeting that for its fiscal year that ended June 30, 2012, LCEF’s total assets were “just shy” of $1.8 billion, which he said was “very strong, in terms of size.” Operating income through June 30 stood at $12 million and net assets were $176 million.
He added that as a result of the strong performance, more than $1.62 million in earnings were distributed to the 28 LCEF-member districts and to the LCMS in October.
Robertson also shared at the annual meeting about LCEF’s plans to sponsor establishing a credit union for LCMS congregations and their members, as well as other LCMS-related entities and people. For details, see the related story about the LCMS Board of Directors meeting here.