Rev. James Dunlop was re-elected bishop of the Lower Susquehanna Synod)LSS) of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) at the annual assembly this past weekend.
Following the announcement of his re-election to a second six-year term, Dunlop expressed gratitude to his staff, all members of the synod and his family.
Since his initial election in 2013, Dunlop said, “I’ve loved every day. This is what I feel called to do. I can only do it because of the faith given by the Holy Spirit.”
Representatives from the synod’s 230 congregations and other ministries spread throughout nine counties gathered at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg Thursday through Saturday under the theme of “Hungry for God’s Mission.”
In the ELCA, bishops’ elections proceed by a method known as the “ecclesiastical ballot.” Voters can place the name of any ordained minister in consideration on the first ballot. At this LSS assembly, 28 nominees received one or more votes.
While Dunlop received a majority of votes cast on that first ballot, 266 of 470, and had a commanding lead after every vote, his re-election did not occur until the fourth ballot.
ELCA constitutions require 75 percent majorities on initial ballots and then reduce to 60 percent, which Dunlop received on the fourth round.
The tally was 319 for Dunlop, 141 for Rev. Stephen Herr, pastor of Christ Lutheran Church in Gettysburg, and 36 for Rev. Timothy Mentzer, pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Lancaster.
The synod’s rules stipulate that after the second ballot seven finalists are given five minutes to address the assembly and set forth their vision and qualifications to serve as bishop.
Three who remain after the third ballot in what is described as a “call process” respond spontaneously to prepared questions they have not seen in advance.
In his remarks, Dunlop’s experience set him apart from the other finalists. He said in his first term he “learned a great deal” and is eager to see through a number of initiatives aimed at renewing congregations and strengthening leadership throughout the synod.
The bishop noted the number of seminarians preparing for future ministry has increased 500 percent from eight to 40 during his tenure. Four new pastors were ordained at the assembly, including the Rev. Jay Eckman who will serve as Herr’s associate.
Dunlop also noted the average time of transition for congregations whose ministers have retired or accepted another call has been cut in half. ELCA bishops assist parishes in leadership transition and recommend candidates to serve as ordained ministers or deacons.
The bishop also celebrated the synod’s completion of a major fund-raising campaign in which the initial goal of $5.5 million for synodical and churchwide ministries, including hunger relief, was surpassed by $3 million.
In addition to worshiping, praying and conducting routine business that included adoption of a budget and hearing reports from the wider ELCA and local ministries, the Harrisburg-based synod also elected two other officers and members of various committees.
Lucinda Bringman of Gettysburg was elected to a third term as the synod’s vice president. She chairs the synod council or board of directors and fulfills other important roles as the chief lay officer.
Elected as synod secretary was the Rev. Beth Schlegel, pastor of St. Peter Lutheran Church in York.
At a banquet Thursday evening, the synod paid tribute to the Rev. Thomas McKee of York, who has served as secretary for 20 years.
Dunlop and others praised McKee for his dedication and competence while working in close partnership with all four of the synod’s bishops who have served since the ELCA came into being.
Disturbing trends in
In his reports to the assembly, Dunlop summarized trends showing serious declines in most U.S. denominations, including the ELCA. By contrast, he noted, Christianity is growing rapidly in Africa and Latin America.
“In the worldwide Christian community,” said Dunlop, a stance of “making America great just doesn’t fly.” Among the contemporary church’s greatest challenges, he asserted, is “to liberate the gospel from American cultural captivity.”
Currently, there are 350,000 Christian congregations in the U.S. and half of them have fewer than 100 in attendance at their Sunday services, he said.
In the local synod, 72 percent of Lutheran churches are in that size category and are challenged to provide adequate clergy salaries, maintain large and expensive facilities, and still have resources available to serve their local communities and also support synod and churchwide ministries.
Membership decline predictably results in the church having diminished financial capacity. Dunlop pointed to sobering statistics, which reveal the synod’s congregations’ contributions to the larger church have diminished from nearly 12 percent of their income 30 years ago to 4 percent today.
Dunlop also pointed out that amidst the nation’s growing racial and ethnic diversity the ELCA remains the “whitest” of all major denominations despite its stated commitments to become more multicultural.
But all is not gloom and doom, the bishop assured. With support from the synod, many congregations in south-central Pennsylvania are showing signs of renewal and rebound.
The synod offers training to ministers and lay leaders committed to reaching out in their communities. More than 40 individuals are equipped to serve as “renewal coaches” who can assist congregations that have been declining find ways to reverse that trend.
Recognizing that traditional church ways fail to attract many members of the “millennial” generation, only 28 percent of whom claim to be Christian, the synod also supports innovative outreach in coffee shops, martial arts studios and other avant-garde contexts.
“I believe God still has a mission for us to participate in, and we can do that better together,” he said.