Hope Does Not Disappoint

Dear Saints of the Oregon Synod,

Blessings! As the weather changes this fall, bringing wind, wildfires, smoke and cooler weather to the region, I pray you are safe and finding “flowers in the mud,” wherever you are. Although the fall often means renewed life, and life abundant, for the Body of Christ as we reunite for the program year, this year’s post-pandemic challenges are great. We are all still and perhaps always will be in transition – adapting to unprecedented changes: COVID, climate change related disasters, racial reckoning and more.  We know in our bones there’s no “going back to normal” but instead, there’s only walking forward, into the ever surprising and ever unfolding future, in faith.

Thus, I am writing to you today with some difficult news: the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is facing a severe shortage of ordained leaders. As you probably know, these shortages are not affecting ministry alone – nurses, teachers, therapists and others are also in short supply these days. 22% of our rostered leaders have left ordained ministry in the last year, compared with 11% per year or so in years before. The predicted wave of retirements by the Baby Boom generation of pastors and deacons is one piece of the story. Compounding these losses, younger ordained leaders are resigning in record numbers to discern new vocations entirely. Their reasons include the intense stress of public leadership, political polarization in the parish, church conflict (often around masking or not masking), loneliness and isolation, church decline in finances, capacity, and energy, and the challenge of managing increased technological expectations during the pandemic.

This moment has been overwhelming for the Oregon Synod and most synods in the ELCA. One of my ELCA bishop colleagues shared with me, with a heavy sigh, that during any given year he would typically see 3-5 deacons or pastors leave to seek a calling in another field. In 2021, 24 deacons and pastors left their calls for other work in his synod alone.

Here in Oregon, congregations discerning a new deacon or pastor are waiting longer than any of us would like. If your church is in this situation, this is not my hope for you! It is not your interim pastor’s hope for you! Finding qualified interim pastors (and full-time calls to support the interim pastors we have in our synod) has been a challenge as well. I realize how completely exhausting this is for everyone – it only increases the stress and concern within your congregations, lay leaders and rostered leaders. Adding to this: though we can claim a robust and gifted group of seminarians from our synod, fewer and fewer students are experiencing a call to ordained ministry and fewer are graduating from divinity schools and seminaries across the country. 

That’s the challenging news. The hope? As Paul’s letter to the Romans reminds us, we know that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” And hope “will not disappoint us, because of the Holy Spirit who has been poured out upon us through Jesus Christ.” These times really might help us grow into stronger, more supple, more creative and more faithful disciples.

And, none of us is alone. We walk together (syn-odos) with God’s Spirit to guide us, and with the rich diversity of our siblings in Christ by our side. In my own experience, I am often only creative and theologically imaginative when I HAVE to be. Sometimes we only develop deep and abiding spiritual or prayer practices when life becomes so painful we feel we have no choice but to resort to prayer. For example, back in 1986 the members of the church I served in Beaverton, Spirit of Grace, would probably not have dreamed of blending their lives with their Catholic neighbors until they HAD to financially, and then as they took each brave step into deep and honest relationship, Spirit broke free and they discovered that little could stop them!

We in the Bishop’s Office want to walk with you. We would love to help Spirit unleash our collective imaginations, courage and capacity for ministry. New, creative ministries may involve partnerships with neighboring churches, joining in mission and ministry with nearby non-profits, or walking together into something else beautiful and entirely unexpected. Given our current situation, we all may have to transform more than we’d like. And in that, we may ultimately be blessed more than we expect. As I read scripture, that’s not just us, here in Oregon, in 2022. That’s also the Jewish midwives in Egypt, Israel in the wilderness, Esther in the temple, Peter with Cornelius, and God’s faithful people over and over and over again.

Saints of Oregon, may we be surprised by a God, our Loving God, who is able, through the mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might dare ask or imagine. As we walk this untrodden path together, through perils unknown, I invite you to be open, patient and kind with yourselves and with one another. I invite you to listen for the breath of God. I invite you to remember that we walk together on this path of faith.

Blessed to be your bishop,

Bishop Laurie Larson Caesar