Models of Oversight: A Paper for a Joint Meeting of Convocation of Teaching Theologians and Bishops’ Academy

[1] This good occasion brings together two groups that divide the magisterial responsibilities that belonged to the Wittenberg faculty in the early decades of Lutheranism. Luther functioned well because he was surrounded by a gifted group of theologians who worked together, sharing the task and compensating for each other’s weak points. Many in that circle were not only fine interpreters of the gospel, but also good at managing practical affairs, such as the Wittenberg pastor John Bugenhagen who played such a strong role in the institutionalization of the Lutheran movement throughout Northern Europe. This paper explores how the office of bishop is understood in our church, and offers suggestions for the future that will include more frequent contact and greater collaboration between teaching theologians of the Luther/Melanchthon line and teaching bishops of the Luther/Bugenhagen line.

I. Methodological Choices

[2] Lutherans face special challenges when they set out to develop a theology of the episcopate. Our normal procedure would be to start either with biblical materials or with the witness of the confessions. But each of these presents some problems in regard to this particular topic. While bishops are mentioned a few times in the New Testament, this material does not present a developed and consistent picture, but rather snapshots of a structure that is still developing. The Pauline literature especially seems to give evidence of the Apostle and his successors improvising about local leadership, using both Jewish and Hellenistic materials as circumstances dictated. It is hard to get beyond our own current commitments in reading this material-which may be seen alternately as the salutary development of the episcopal office or as the betrayal of the apostolic freedom.1

[3] The Lutheran confessions are also full of comments about bishops, and much can be gained from this study. But it is difficult to move directly from that material to our own time, given the very particular situation of bishops in the 16th century-quite different in many respects from our own time.2 In fact our reading of the confessions is strongly influenced by our differing operative ecclesiologies, as is shown in the diverse ways that we interpret not only Article XXVIII of the Augsburg Confession, but also in the varying assessments made of Luther’s experiment with installing his friend Amsdorf as the Bishop in Naumberg. It is also possible to take an historical / comparative approach to see what can be learned from the history of Lutheran churches and other churches about the office of bishop. This approach has great merit, but the models are strikingly diverse, and a fair study must take sufficient account of the great vitality of some churches that do not have bishops at all.

[4] In this short paper I’m going to begin descriptively, sharing my impressions of five models of bishop that are present to varying degrees in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. All bishops must to some extent embody some part of each of these five, but there is diversity in our church as to which of these should be the central thrust. I will then propose a sixth (emerging) possibility and examine that model both strategically in terms of our context, and theologically, in terms of the deep commitments of our ecclesiology. There the biblical and theological materials must come back into play, even though they need not always be our starting point in issues of structuring the church.

II. Five Models of a Lutheran Bishop Today

[5] In his 1959 Yale Beecher Lectures on preaching Joseph Sittler coined the phrase “The Maceration of the Minister” to describe the modern tendency of diverse pressures to chop up the local pastor into small pieces. 3 Bishops are pastors with a special vulnerability to such chopping. The Constitution of the ELCA sets out a dozen responsibilities for the synodical bishop, a list so long as to virtually guarantee that any holder of the office will be frustrated by what is left undone. There are so many tasks that every bishop must actually practice triage, making shrewd decisions about what will be left undone and hoping that what is essential gets done.

[6] But among these multiple claims five lead images seem to stand out as models of what stands at the heart of a bishop’s work. 4

[7] a) Bishop as Regional President. This was the understanding of episcope for much of the 20th century in the churches that came to form the ELCA in 1987. The person we now call bishop was once a president, not only presiding over church conventions, but also providing leadership to churches in a region. There were variations in how this was conceived in different regions and different Lutheran bodies, but common responsibilities included leading conventions and other meetings, administering a budget, working with boards and committees, promoting regional institutions, and sometimes collecting funds for the national denomination.

[8] Much of this work remains despite the change in terminology from president to bishop, as does the reality of political skills needed to get local congregations in the American context to see that they have work to do in common as well as locally. The fact that ELCA bishops are elected (and stand for reelection-sometimes with term limits) testifies to the ongoing power of this image of episcope or oversight as regional public leadership.

[9] b) Bishop as Pastor to Pastors and Congregations. The change to the title “bishop” in the LCA and ALC in the late 1970s came partly from a changed ecumenical climate (in which Lutherans were less afraid of sounding “too catholic”), but even more from a widespread desire to see this office pastorally. Both congregations and pastors often found themselves wanting support and care in the changing religious climate of the latter part of the 20th century. Bishops who are able to structure their time to be with congregations and pastors, not only in crisis, but also in celebration, and in the placement of new pastoral leadership generally find that presence much appreciated.

[10] For all the positive feelings about this model, both on the part of bishops and of the church generally, there are obstacles. Many other responsibilities compete with the time needed for such visitation. In some synods the geographical spread puts an enormous additional time burden on a bishop who wants to be present in this way. The average synod in the ELCA has 166 congregations, and considerably more pastors. It is probably not realistic for a single bishop to provide all the care needed by such numbers. The provision of staff-Assistants to the Bishop-may help here, although my sense is that the satisfaction with this arrangement varies greatly. Even when it works well there is often a continuing desire to see or be visited by the bishop personally.

[11] c) Bishop as Regional Manager for Denomination. One of the major factors competing for the Bishop’s time is the role that he or she inevitably plays as the regional leader and interpreter of the mission and program of the ELCA.5 This denomination has a strong national program that requires regional and local implementation. The church has major commitments in global mission, outreach, social justice, ecumenism, for multi-cultural ministry, for women, and in maintaining a national ministerial roster. Taken together, these and other ELCA program thrusts constitute almost full-time work for bishops who take these areas seriously. This is likely to be the case even when specialized staff help is available in outreach or in ministry. The recent decision to have a four-year study of homosexuality is likely to continue to keep bishops very occupied with “matters coming out of Chicago.”

[12] This responsibility is often the focus of frustration for bishops that I know, especially with the mountains of paper and number of reports that such “branch management” requires. One can seem caught in a system not of one’s own making. Synods increasingly have wanted to have their own programs, and to have the bishop busy with the promotion of these. There may be ways to simplify this structure in the future, but the weight of these commitments is not easily shaken off, and simply staying informed about what a complex organization like the ELCA is doing becomes a major responsibility and source of many meetings.

[13] d) Bishop as Teaching Theologian. The Lutheran church has held together through the centuries in no small part by its passion for the Word and a common confession of faith as articulated in creeds and confessions of the “Book of Concord”. The great Lutheran themes-grace, justification, Christian freedom, theology of the cross, word and sacrament working together, even vocation of all Christians-have been largely ignored in American religious culture. Therefore it is not surprising that many have called for the bishop to be the chief teacher of the synod-one who embodies commitment to and passion for the distinctive Lutheran version of the Christian faith.

[14] Some bishops have seen their own work in this way, sometimes because they were pastors with advanced theological training, sometimes because their own strategic analysis called for the bishop to play this role. Many others would plead a lack of qualification for this role, and others would see such focused teaching as practically impossible given the time demands of other mandated responsibilities.

[15] e) Bishop as Missional Director. In recent years many have argued that learning to be a church in mission is the fundamental task before the ELCA at every level. Bishops who have come to believe this in a deep and passionate way have often been frustrated by the disparate nature of their responsibilities. Many have begun to speak of this missional challenge as their major theme and a few have restructured their work and their synods to try to maximize the encouragement of churches toward outreach, witness, and service.

[16] Yet there are obstacles to this change, including constitutional responsibilities not easily assigned to others. While an increasing number of congregations share this passion for mission, many-perhaps the majority-are still quite comfortable as they are. They may well welcome new members (although even this is not universal) but do not have this external thrust as central of their task. In contrast, some of the most enthusiastic missional congregations are skeptical of the outreach commitment of both the ELCA and of their synods and may not initially trust or even welcome such a new understanding from synodical leadership.

III. An Emerging Possibility: Bishop as Public Representative

[17] The strong role played by a number of religious leaders-including ELCA bishops-in the events of September 11, 2001 and their aftermath suggests a sixth possible model. In this time of crisis people looked not only to their local congregations, but also to religious leaders generally to provide some interpretation of the tragedy our country has experienced. There was a need for reassurance, but also for something more. People wanted credible talk about God, and positive leadership to show how people in religiously diverse America might live and work together in peace and mutual respect.

[18] In many ways this model puts together attractive aspects of models two, four and five. It shares the pastoral sense of Bishop as Pastor in a society where people are trying to measure their losses and find non-illusory comfort. It shares the teaching function of Bishop as Theologian in a society where people are learning that God is bigger and religion more complex than they had assumed. It shares the outreach thrust of Bishop as Mission Director with its recognition that the church needs to speak not only to its own members, but also to the larger society.6

[19] This attractive new model may not work equally well for all bishops or in all locations. Seizing it effectively depends in part on personal gifts for public communication; our bishops all have some ability here, but some are especially good at this part of the calling or take to it well as a matter of temperament. In some locations the Lutheran bishop is an important leader of a sizeable religious community. Thus he or she may get a hearing beyond our congregations in the various media. It other places the Lutheran bishop might have to stand in a very long line to get to speak a single word in the public arena. A major local or national crisis provides a great opportunity for this form of being a bishop, but no one wants to going around wishing for trouble or disaster in order to have opportunity to speak in the name of the church.

IV. Strategic Assessment7

[20] I am among those who agree that the chief task before our church today is learning to be a church in mission. Therefore I find the fifth and sixth models very attractive when I think of how I hope a bishop might structure her or his ministry today. Even the ecumenical agreements, which have seemed to me to be important opportunities for the ELCA, are so in my view largely because they could potentially draw us out of ourselves into engagement with the issues and opportunities of the larger society. I view mission as our great calling, and preoccupation with internal Lutheran disputes as our chief danger, at every level in this church’s life.

[21] The bishop as public representative or public theologian has a special opportunity in this context. In our society many of those outside the church-perhaps even a majority-are not so much unchurched as formerly churched. These are people who have been part of the Christian community in the past, but have often had negative experiences. Many of them have choked on law-oriented Christianity; few of them have experienced a church centered in grace and well aware of its own need for continuing reform.

[22] To draw such people back into the church we need to attend to the quality of life in our congregations. We need to see that there is a positive and credible message, that worship praises God and lifts the spirit, that basic teaching and equipping for discipleship is always available, and that the community is a real community, one whose members care for each other and so can credibly welcome strangers with an invitation to become part of a network of mutual support.

[23] Much of the bishop’s work may be focused on helping to insure those realities in each local ministry, especially through the placement of pastors and other rostered leaders. But changing the internal climate of our churches will not in itself bring back the skeptical former-Christians, at least not very quickly or in very large numbers. We need to challenge members to be evangelists, to share their faith in their daily life context in an articulate and non-manipulative way. But we also need to get the attention of those outside the church. This is where the bishop as public representative might play a role. His or her presence, words, and actions can occasionally ignite curiosity, getting people to reconsider their negativity about the church.

[24] Of course no bishop, even the most gifted in the most ideal media market, can have this effect alone. But by leading a public life, by being present outside the churches and within them, by showing up at surprising places and sometimes saying surprising things, a bishop can challenge pastors and other church leaders to play the same kind of public role. Where that would happen there could be a great multiplier effect, especially as the public presence of those pastors helped local members to reconsider the nature of their own discipleship. How shall we move beyond the notion that religion is simply a private concern without getting into the aggression used by so many evangelical Christians? Let all of our leaders, beginning with the bishops, challenge us to an expansive relationship with the wider community-Lutheran and ecumenical, Christian and interfaith, churched, unchurched and formerly churched.8

V. Theological Assessment

[25] So all the bishops became public theologians and the church lived happily ever after? It’s not that simple. For while the call to be a church in mission is the great challenge before the ELCA today, it is not the only thing we need to worry about. Faithful public witness depends on having in place a message in which the Gospel is the true and living heart, the Gospel richly and imaginatively articulated.

[26] You would have to be a dreamer or very out of touch to assume that the Gospel is so firmly in place in the ELCA. The assumption that it is worth continuing to have a Lutheran church in America is grounded (at least for me) in the conviction that Lutherans have something fresh and distinctive to say-especially in their enthusiasm for the great Lutheran themes mentioned earlier-grace, faith, the cross, vocation, sacramental presence, Christian liberty. At the same time that we need rousing to mission we also need reminding of who we are, of the treasures that God has committed to us that we should not squander in a desire to fit into the American religious context.9

[27] We need bishops to have a level of theological authority that both grounds and also balances their passion for outreach. Without that the theological confusion, which is already present in our church, will increase. The very thrust toward mission is a call to open up, to try new things, to articulate the message in new and more winsome ways. Unless bishops continue to play some kind of strong teaching role, and in some places take it up for the first time, there will be a strong temptation to drift off into “whatever works” in preaching, in liturgy, in Christian education, in community outreach. Bishops who lead us to greater public engagement should also remind us of what in our heritage is most worth preserving.

[28] This means, for example, having bishops who have the theological courage to challenge the virtual invisibility of the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible in our current proclamation. This means having bishops who are willing to confront those who want to de-emphasize the sacraments or multi-cultural outreach as being incompatible with church growth. This means having bishops who respect the genuine and authentic side of American patriotism which has been so strong in recent months, but who also know how to set limits to a self-congratulatory nationalism when that begins to manifest itself.10

[29] I believe that the very priority of mission and public theology calls for a secondary but very strong emphasis on teaching, on knowing the tradition, on celebrating the gifts that worldwide Lutheran Christianity has to bring to seekers in North America. This balance would be to take seriously the kind of double movement of the church that one finds in Bonhoeffer’s theology-a capacity to be deeply grounded in the faith so that one may be expansively open to the world without losing one’s way.11 That double movement is not just the path ahead for bishops, but also for pastors and church workers. As Christians become increasingly engaged with the hopes and the hurts of our society and our world, this double movement is also the path for all Christians-living grounded in the call to discipleship and free for witness and service in a world in which Christians have no privileged position.12

Conclusion. Patience, Experimentation, Collaboration

[30] In this brief paper I’ve tried to present an overview of some of the possibilities for the role of bishop as it has been developing in our church. We have moved beyond president to bishop without leaving presidential responsibilities behind. We have hoped for bishops with pastoral gifts but have given them impossibly large flocks to care for personally. We have assigned bishops at least two full time jobs-as regional bishops and regional branch managers. We have seen bishops strive to be teachers or missioners, but also to be frustrated by the extreme complexity of the task.

[31] We need to have some patience with these competing models and some restraint from imposing a single one on our church. There is an evolution at work here that may help us sort our way toward a new vision of the mission of our church without losing important secondary and past emphases. The very diversity of gifts and temperaments of those elected to the office of bishop in our church should make us wary of a “one size fits all” conclusion.

[32] Yet even in the context of unhurried development of the episcopal office among us, there is room for intentionality and focused experimentation. Just as institutions of every sort need fresh and compelling mission statements, so persons elected to major leadership positions in our church need to have their own sense of particular vocation as insurance against being simply the victim of all that crosses the desk and fills the appointment book. While we don’t need to force a single model on the whole church, we should discuss what we hope for from our bishops today. The discussion should not be just among the bishops themselves, but one joined by all who are interested in this question, including the academic teaching theologians.

[33] In such a force field I have argued for our bishops today to consider leading with a missional public presence-both within the church and beyond it. This would be a variant on the fifth type I described, but one that tries to find occasions to challenge the views of Christianity so prevalent among those outside the church. In leading in this way, the bishop would encourage all the missional energies present in the congregations and institutions of the synod. But I have also argued that she or he should balance this public presence and voice with a secondary emphasis on teaching theology, holding this church accountable to use its wonderful theological and practical gifts wisely and well in the new religious situation.

[34] I think some bishops I know and respect might say, “Lull, it’s attractive, but it isn’t me.” The lack of theological self-confidence in our church can be pretty staggering, even among the teaching theologians themselves. It’s also misplaced, since what is called for today is not technical academic theology (which has its own legitimate place, even for a church in mission), but a centered and grounded theology that is quite within the grasp of our bishops and our pastors.

[35] I wonder whether this isn’t a time to rouse ourselves beyond such defensive behavior and self-deprecatory comments about what we can’t do. The current situation challenges us all to change. Theologians, for their part, need to get over their allergy to mission and outreach talk-as if it were some sort of blight. There are small but encouraging signs that this is happening. All of us are called to leadership in the church that we pray is being reformed and renewed in our midst. None of us is ever equal to the task, but we can help each other with our work.

[36] When Luther preached and presided at Amsdorf’s installation as bishop of Naumberg on January 20, 1542, he concluded his thirty-minute sermon by calling for steadfastness from this bishop. Something new was being attempted which would generate great opposition. Difficulty was to be expected. Luther compared the church to a wagon that “doesn’t move well, since it has dirt on the wheels, rocks and stones…in the way. The wagon tends to rock from one side to the other and breaks the ox, and shakes the rider from the horse. But at the same time, it is a wagon of salvation. . . .”13

[37] As we work with this rickety wagon that is our church, academic theologians and theological bishops could help each other discern what we are called to do, to say, to teach, and to compromise in this present challenge. To do this we would have to spend a little more time together. The Wittenberg circle accomplished a substantial reform of the church because they hung together despite theological differences, diverse gifts, and radically different temperaments. In their collaboration we have a precedent, at least as long as Luther lived, for successful renewal of the church by subordinating private preferences and diverse callings to common challenges. May it be so for us in our time as well!

End Notes

1 For the critical view of the development of church order see especially Ernst Kasemann, Jesus Means Freedom (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1968).

2 Among many factors often overlooked today is that bishops most often came from noble families, at least in Germany in Luther’s time. Albrecht of Brandenburg’s predecessor as Bishop of Magdeburg was the brother of Frederick the Wise. Even Amsdorf himself fits this model as the well-connected nephew of Johann von Staupitz.

3 Joseph Sittler, The Ecology of Faith: The New Situation in Preaching (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1961), chapter 5.

4 H. Richard Niebuhr developed five types or models to describe the complex history and diversity of Christian ethics in Christ and Culture (New York: Harper, 1961). This was itself a more complex revision of Ernst Troeltsch’s three types of Christian ethics in The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches (New York: Harper,1960-a translation of the German original of 1911). Avery Dulles originally presented five competing ecclesiologies in Models of the Church (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1974) but expanded his list to six in later editions. At certain times of course the leading image will be bishop as crisis manager, but most hope for better times and a more positive self-understanding of their work.

5 This is made explicit in many ways, but constitutionally in the ELCA Constitution 10.31.a.12, which requires the bishop to “interpret and advocate the mission and theology of the whole church.”

6 The most influential call for theology to speak not only to the academy and to the church, but also in a public way is found in David Tracy, The Analogical Imagination (New York: Crossroad, 1989).

7 Other presenters are developing the context for our current discussion in papers. I am very impressed with the listing of factors challenging the church today in Douglas John Hall, Thinking the Faith (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991), especially in chapter 3. The deepest thinking about the new vocation of the Church after Christendom is found in the writings from the last period of Karl Rahner’s work, especially his Theological Investigations, Volumes XX-XXIII (New York: Crossroad, 1981-92).

8 Perhaps this sense of the public presence of the church is best anticipated in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s prison writings. He argues: “The church must share in the secular problems of ordinary human life, not dominating, but helping and serving. It must tell (men) of every calling what it means to live in Christ, to exist for others. In particular our church will have to take the field against the vices of hubris, power-worship, envy, and humbug, as the roots of all evil…It must not underestimate the importance of human example…. It is not abstract argument, but example, that gives its word emphasis and power.” Letters and Papers from Prison (New York: Macmillan, 1971 edition), pp. 382-3.

9 Theologians and publications critical of the ELCA are often dismissed for their harshness of tone, and sometimes understandably so. Yet such diverse voices as Word Alone, Lutheran Forum, and Pro Ecclesia are often very perceptive about the lack of a theological center in many expressions of this church. It is a great mistake to ignore them-as it would be never to read Kierkegaard because he is so intense and sometimes quite unfair. I am not saying that these groups and writings always reach the level of the great Dane’s critique of Lutheran Christianity in his day, but they are in my experience voices to neglect at one’s peril.

10 Another obstacle to bishops centering their work in the teaching office is negative experiences that many of us remember from predecessor churches of a kind of overly vigilant “supervision” that quenched the Spirit and suppressed the articulation of new theological formulations. The fact that something has been done poorly in the past does not excuse us from trying to do it better today. For a positive approach to teaching authority see my “Is Heresy Possible? Yes, Unfortunately”, in Word and World, Spring 1988. For striking the right balance between freedom and authority in a church with a concrete confession of faith see Karl Rahner, “Authority” in Theological Investigations XXIII (New York: Crossroad, 1992) especially the conclusion, pp. 82-3.

11 I do not think we are yet done learning from Bonhoeffer, and consider the new American Edition of his works from Fortress Press to be a splendid opportunity for those who want their missional church to have ecclesial integrity. Every stage of his life is instructive for our time, from his emphasis on the communal nature of the church in his early writings, to his insistence on discipleship and Christian practices in the late 1930s, to his expansive vision of the church of the future in his prison writings. The new edition will roughly double the amount of Bonhoeffer available in English, and some of the best is in volumes 9-16, including letters, sermons, and lectures that are largely being translated for the first time.

12 This double movement is a way to try to combine the strengths of Niebuhr’s fourth and fifth types of Christ and Culture-Christ and culture in paradox (the typical Lutheran strength) with Christ the transformer of culture (the typical Reformed emphasis). A good discussion of the possibilities can be found in Nickel and Lull, eds., A Common Calling (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1993), especially sections 4 and 5.

13 “Summary of Luther’s Sermon at Amsdorf’s Installation as Bishop” in Weimar Ausgabe, Volume 49. I am grateful to Pastor Dan Smith and Nele Smith of King of Glory Lutheran Church in Fountain Valley, California for their translation of this important document that is not included in the American Edition of Luther’s Works.