By Pamela J. Nielsen
ST. LOUIS — At its meeting here Sept. 29-30, the LCMS Board for International Mission extended 10 calls to new career missionaries with assignments to the Dominican Republic, Japan, West Africa and Papua New Guinea, including six to various locations in the Asia Pacific region.
The board, together with the LCMS Office of International Mission (OIM), is taking seriously the 2013 LCMS convention mandate to double career missionaries by 2016. Well on the way toward that goal, the OIM reports that LCMS career missionaries on the field have increased by 29 percent since the convention.
With this latest round of missionary calls, 47 new career missionaries have been called to mission posts around the world in 2014.
While calling and placing missionaries are two of the most visible activities of this policy-setting board, there are many other concerns and matters for the board to manage.
At that most recent meeting, the board heard from LCMS President Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison, who provided a report on the state of Synod and took time to present his study of Synod demographics and statistics through the years. Harrison shared his concern, noting that for the Synod, the demographic/statistics trend is downward. “Boots on the ground matter,” said Harrison, asking, “Are we actually inviting people to church, are we actually planting churches?”
When challenged, Harrison further explained. “It’s unconscionable that [there are] congregations who have no adult class, no attempt at outreach … that the LCMS is declining,” he said. “I know that numbers are not the end. But the Lord has hidden answers to questions of election in Himself,” Harrison continued, as he emphatically concluded, “He has given us the means to reach out. Are we doing it? As matter of the law, we can do far better at it.”
Synod the ‘Only Sending Agency’
Synod Secretary Rev. Dr. Raymond L. Hartwig was on hand for the board meeting to present and explain the recent ruling by the LCMS Commission on Constitutional Matters regarding the intent and scope of LCMS Bylaw 3.8.3 “Synod as the Only Sending Agency.” That bylaw declares the Synod as the “the only sending agency through which workers and funds are sent to the foreign areas of the Synod, including the calling, appointing, assigning, withdrawing and releasing of missionaries (ministers of religion—ordained and ministers of religion—commissioned) and other workers for the ministries in foreign areas” (2013 Handbook, p. 144). Click here for a Reporter Online story about that ruling.
The ruling, read aloud by Hartwig, included the following about history of the bylaw: “Bylaw 3.8.3 is a reiteration of much of the content of the 2007 Bylaw 126.96.36.199.2, which was a compilation of a number of actions taken by the Synod over the years to provide and maintain good order in the area of foreign mission work.”
Several board members expressed concerns that the bylaw may be used as a “hammer” to stop districts and congregations from involvement in any type of mission work.
“It’s not intended, nor should it be a hammer,” said Hartwig. “It’s going to take some time. This board will be very much involved in creating how this can happen along with the best-practices document,” said Hartwig, referring to a document the board has been working with that outlines the most effective ways for congregations and districts to involve themselves in foreign mission work. “It needs to be evangelically applied,” Hartwig emphasized.
Board member Rev. John Temple concurred, saying, “It could be seen as a hammer, but I don’t see it as a hammer. The ones who think it is a hammer are those who are not walking together. That’s all our responsibility. We need guidelines.”
Challenges on the field
The board heard examples of situations wherein congregations or districts entered the foreign mission field without any knowledge by the Office of International Mission and in some cases, without notifying the partner-church officials before they commenced work and distributed dollars.
The Rev. Bishop Christian Ekong of the Lutheran Church of Nigeria (LCN), a BIM-meeting guest, was asked to share his own experience of an LCMS district that unwittingly became involved with a Pentecostal church.
“I had to contact LCMS Director of Church Relations Rev. Dr. Al Collver III and the district president,” said Ekong. “We saw that district’s great support of the church’s evangelism efforts. It was a big challenge — Lutheran brothers supporting Pentecostal work,” explained Ekong, who said he had no prior word that the district was sending people to his country, hearing about it first on the local Nigerian news.
The board discussed how this ruling would impact the many short-term mission teams LCMS congregations send each year and were assured by OIM staff members that there is no desire to limit or curtail short-term mission trips.
“The more significant challenge is when some of these short-term trips turn into long-term projects,” said Collver. He cited a situation in Asia where “a congregation has begun a project and the church body has said, ‘We don’t want this project’ and [the LCMS] congregation is saying they are going to do it anyway.”
Collver also spoke of congregations calling missionaries and sending them overseas on their own, precipitating the need for greater collaboration and coordination for the sake of the entire church.
In addition, Collver expressed concern over projects that are initially begun with great zeal and funding by a congregation or district, but are not fully completed or are abandoned without provision for ongoing sustainability.
He explained what happens in LCMS partner churches when a congregation connects with a person who is not the partner-church leader, with the congregation providing significant money for the project. “This makes the church-body leader irrelevant,” said Collver, who continued that “this has, in a number of cases, split the church as the guy getting the money becomes the defacto leader.”
Board members continued to discuss next steps in developing policy and directives in line with the bylaw that will enhance collective efforts to plant, sustain and revitalize churches, while also supporting LCMS partner churches.
The board worked through results of a survey that members took to help gauge their satisfaction in work as a board and in their dealings with Synod staff in that work.
Harrison, responding to past concerns about lack of information coming to the board, said, “My way is to be totally transparent and I know that was not happening and I have taken steps to remedy that. If it’s not happening, I want to know.”
Several board members expressed pleasure at the positive forward movement of the board, its leadership and Synod staff.
Interim Chief Mission Officer Rev. Bart Day addressed the group about recent changes in the funding and benefits offered to career missionaries.
Day also shared how he is working with the chief administrative officer to review all LCMS international properties and entities and the legal structures surrounding them.
“Great things are happening,” said Day. “Internal changes are putting us in a better position to double missionaries. … The present internal staff is very lean; we are going to need additional skilled staff to help support greater numbers in the field,” he said. “We also need more dollars. We’ll [eventually] reach a number of missionaries where it crosses our ability to fund the programs they are to engage in,” said Day. “We have to push for an increase in numbers, but need to prepare for the outcome of the growth.”
Collver gave his report as the LCMS director for Church Relations, noting recent travel to Brazil, Turkey, Rome and Ethiopia (where he attended a meeting of church leaders). He said that Ethiopian church leaders desire more discussions with the LCMS.
Regional Director for Asia Pacific and Southern Asia Darin Storkson gave a detailed report on the state of the church and efforts in Northern Asia.
“You have heard a lot about consolidation as a theme for the OIM and it applies well for Northern Asia,” said Storkson. He soberly described the situation with a number of partner churches — nearly all of them former mission fields who are struggling today and so need the Synod’s help and support.
Storkson explained the need to focus on these partners, to strengthen and shore them up. “I have a concern about spreading to a new field if we are losing a daughter where we invested for decades. What are we really gaining?” Storkson asked. “So there is a need to consolidate to have some mature stable churches which can carry forward the Gospel in the future.”
Storkson shared his strategy and priorities for each of the countries in his region.
Ekong asks for help, expresses gratitude
LCN Bishop Ekong addressed the board after its action to call 10 new career missionaries.
Referring to LCMS mission work begun in Nigeria in 1938, Ekong pointed out that “what started very small has led to 438 congregations.” He continued by recounting the highs and lows of his church body through the years.
Focusing on seminary education, Ekong said, “The seminary is doing very well, but we have some deficiencies. We don’t have ‘capable hands’ to handle various fields of theology.” He referred to the core areas of seminary study: exegetical, systematic, historical and pastoral practice.
“I thank you for the Global Seminary Initiative,” said Ekong, who said that his church is pleading for the BIM to send pastors with advanced degrees who can teach in the Nigerian seminary. He explained that a faculty with advanced degrees would set the LCN seminary apart and place it in a respected position both theologically and politically.
In all of Africa, only two Lutheran seminaries are currently accredited.
“Did you say one of the most important things the LCMS can do for Africa is theological education?” asked Collver.
“Yes,” said Ekong, “that’s it.”
He didn’t stop with that. “We also need missionaries in the field,” Ekong stated boldly, sharing his plan to focus on the western half of Nigeria.
The board listened intently as Ekong described the state of his church body and the effects of radical Muslim terrorism and reports about Ebola.
“Terrorism is strong in some areas,” said Ekong, who added that the NLC would not bring guest missionaries to areas where there is trouble.
“The safety of LCMS missionaries is a priority and concern,” he assured the board.
“If anyone is ready to serve as a missionary [in Nigeria],” said Ekong, “I am ready.”
Ekong thanked the BIM for its support — not only of Nigeria, but also with other African partners. “I wanted to say how we feel, when after years of no support, now in the last few years you have revived us,” said Ekong, who continued, “We were like a child abandoned.”
“Thank you so much,” said Ekong. “Thank you for all you have done for us, in partnership with us.”
Chairman Seter’s summary
BIM Chairman Rev. Bernard M. Seter provided Reporter with his summary of and thoughts on the board’s Sept. 29-30 meeting, as follows:
“This was a fascinating and very productive board meeting, in that it brought that focus that we have been seeking for a long time.
“There is actually a strategic plan that we can develop policies around so that we are not just recruiting missionaries and sending them hither and yon to ‘do something.’ There is a strategy for where they are going and why.
“There needs to be a plan to support them and support them well, and that is in place.
“There is a strategy in identifying, cultivating and caring for candidates before they are called; when they receive the call; when they enter the call; when laboring in their call; and finally, when they come home.
“A mandate by [the 2013 Synod] convention to double the number of missionaries could be really silly without the strategic plan to use them and use them well.
“The discussion around Bylaw 3.8.3 helped focus on the serious nature of sending personnel and funds to foreign fields and the responsibility we have to do it well. The love for mission work by individuals and congregations and districts is not something that we have to [cook] up. It exists and it is palpable. Our responsibility is to help everyone see that what we can do together in a coordinated way is better than the sum of all of our parts.
“Bishop Ekong eloquently showed what happens when any of us try and ‘go it alone.’ The bishop also showed how starting something in ‘mission’ without a clear plan of where that something goes can be damaging and policies need to be in place to help direct and sustain work.
“Other presentations showed what happens when missions become ends in themselves. Endeavors that start out witnessing to Christ in word and deed can over time lose sight of their first love and simply exist to perpetuate themselves.
“The board heard ample testimony that we ourselves are a mission field here in the U.S., because sometimes churches see themselves as the mission and witness to the rest of society has been forgotten or ignored.
“We have worked on a convention-mandated theological statement for mission that has been discussed and gives the theological impetus and underpinning that we need.
“We have the support of other partners like the Lutheran Women’s Missionary League, Lutheran Laymen’s League and Concordia Publishing House to facilitate and help.
“All of that came together at this meeting.”
Deaconess Pamela J. Nielsen serves as associate executive director of LCMS Communications.
Posted Oct. 28, 2014 / Updated Oct. 30, 2014