Director for Evangelical Mission Report to Synod Assembly 2018
The Rev. Gilson Waldkoenig, PhD
As I traveled across the West Virginia-Western Maryland Synod in 2017 and 2018, I heard and saw how the people of the synod bear witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. By communities of witness—congregations—you proclaim the Word and set the Table of the Lord. Thereby, God’s reconciliation in Christ comes close in local places. I’ve also heard and seen your unrelenting desire to serve God, your drive toward good works for the sake of your neighbors and God’s world.
Across this synod I have heard from people in later stages of life and those starting out; people without homes and some with wealth; people who were gay and straight; women and men; people struggling with addiction and those recovering; people of gloriously different backgrounds and descent; and people in seasons of strong belief and those walking the deserts of doubt. All, I believe, are looked upon by Christ with love, and embraced by arms as open as they were on the cross. For the West Virginia-Western Maryland Synod and its congregations it is always a work in progress to reflect that inclusive gospel of Jesus Christ, but it is a mission anchored by the accomplished work of Christ.
Thanks be to God for the amazing gift of God’s love, as resilient as Christ of the cross, and as irrepressible as Christ of the resurrection. Christ continues to meet us in both patterned and surprising ways, in means of grace and scenes of grace, in both challenges and joys.
Nine congregations in the synod grew their average worship attendance in the two previous years. One congregation increased by 22 people and another by 18 in average worship attendance between 2014 and 2016, and seven others by two to eight people. Those gains defied a trend from 2010-2015, when the synod overall declined by 12.4% in average worship attendance. Since statistics are always slightly dated, I expect that there are new gains happening as we speak. It is important to keep in mind, also, that in some places the demographics and economy are so challenging that simply maintaining attendance or having only slight decline are accomplishments in themselves.
As Director for Evangelical Mission (DEM), my role is to encourage and enable mission in the synod. ELCA Domestic Mission Unit deploys 70 DEMs across the 65 synods. One-third of the DEMs are part-time and based in another call. In my case, I am Professor of Church in Society at United Lutheran Seminary. I direct the Town and Country Church Institute (TCCI) which focuses on the church in rural, small town and Appalachian settings. TCCI is a good match for West Virginia-Western Maryland Synod which is 75% rural/small-town and completely within the Appalachian region.
Confronting Clergy Shortage
An increasing shortage of clergy faces the ELCA. The problem will be worse in rural areas than metropolitan areas. Therefore, my top goal has been to connect seminary students to West Virginia-Western Maryland Synod, that they might consider serving in this synod. We had some success with students visiting parishes in West Virginia-Western Maryland Synod for their studies in a class called Rural & Small Church Ministry. Meanwhile one student served a short residency during a pastoral absence in the summer of 2017. Some pastors from this synod have spoken to seminary classes. We helped a new internship site start in the synod, which makes a second site in this synod.
The ELCA Appalachian Assembly at Sutton, West Virginia, in November 2017, called for more education regarding the church and ministry in Appalachia. In response I will be offering a new seminary course, Appalachian Church in Society, in June 2018 and again in August 2018. I will bring groups of seminarians onto the territory of the synod and introduce them to people of this synod. In the fall, a new group of students in my course Rural & Small Church Ministries will have opportunity to make visits to congregations in this synod, as they did last year. The Stewardship of Life Institute (SOLI) awarded a grant for five students to travel into the territory of the synod to learn and discuss both mission and stewardship. That will happen this coming fall 2018.
I have an advisory role to the Synod Council and Bishop, to consult regarding the mission of the synod. I make myself available to the Synod Council and Bishop as an informed listener, a connector to ELCA and ecumenical networks and resources, and a voice of encouragement. Meanwhile, there are some things that ELCA Domestic Mission Unit asks DEMs to do, and I have opportunity to represent West Virginia-Western Maryland Synod to the Domestic Mission Unit. I have also joined others of you to represent the synod at the State of Appalachia conferences sponsored by the West Virginia Council of Churches.
Connecting to Mission of Whole Church
We’ve been able to connect some of you with ELCA networks and resources. Leaders of this synod have stepped forward for the ELCA Mission Interpreters. In its 25th year, the Mission Interpreters program aims to cross-pollinate the ELCA by sharing stories of dynamic mission and good stewardship. We have links to a range of stewardship resources from the ELCA. I continue to keep my eyes open for partnerships in Region 8 and the ELCA that would strengthen mission and interface the distinctive gifts of West Virginia-Western Maryland with others.
The mission of Christ’s church happens when we proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ through Word and Sacrament ministries. Your witness in the world happens in and through your congregation but extends further as the congregations make witness together. You are part of the synod, and the ELCA, and the Lutheran World Federation, and the world-wide ecumenical church. Together we make witness to Jesus Christ and the good news of God’s grace far beyond what any of us could do individually or in local gatherings. But the other expressions of the church also need each one of the congregations, and each one of you. Thank you for your part in the mission of the church in local and global dimensions.
Rev. Gilson Waldkoenig, PhD,
Paulssen-Hale-Maurer Professor of Church in Society, United Lutheran Seminary
& Director for Evangelical Mission, WV-WMD Synod ELCA