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ELCA grapples with financial crunch

Donations to synod in NW Ohio fall 36%


Bishop Marcus Lohrmann says the financial struggles facing the northwest Ohio synod are a cross, but they may become a blessing.

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BOWLING GREEN -- Delegates to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's regional conference, now under way at Bowling Green State University, are facing some difficult decisions.

Unlike at most mainline Protestant meetings these days, however, the debates at the 2012 Northwest Ohio Synod Assembly are not about gay marriage or gay clergy. This time, the tough choices involve a different hot-button issue: money, or the lack of it.

Donations are down for a variety of reasons, while expenses, including medical insurance for clergy and staff, are on the rise.

Bishop Marcus Lohrmann said in a report to the synod Friday and in an interview with The Blade this week that the synod's budget has been shrinking for years and has reached the point where drastic changes, not just temporary fixes, are necessary.

The challenge facing the 450-some delegates who will vote on the synod's 2013 budget is to find new ways to continue the church's mission and ministries as effectively and efficiently as possible while living under new financial realities.

The financial concerns are centered in three areas, according to Bishop Lohrmann: revenue, synod staffing, and fallout from the national ELCA's 2009 vote to allow the ordination of gay clergy and the support of same-sex unions.

The local Lutheran synod has 165 congregations and nearly 90,000 members in 23 northwest Ohio counties, plus one congregation in Indiana, and the contributions from the churches to the regional headquarters have been declining for years. Giving is $967,000 less this year than in 2000, a drop of 36 percent, according to Sherry Krieger, the synod's director for administration and communication.

The synod's total income for 2012 is estimated at $1,715,000, compared with $2,682,022 in 2000. Just five years ago, before the global economic meltdown of 2008, the synod's budget was $2,552,427.

Fifty-one percent of the synod's revenue goes back to the national headquarters in Chicago, Ms. Krieger said, and the remaining 49 percent is used for administrative costs and Lutheran outreaches including the campus ministry at the University of Toledo, Trinity Seminary in Columbus, new churches such as Threshold, and funding for congregations in struggling neighborhoods, including Salem Lutheran near downtown Toledo and Redeemer Lutheran in West Toledo.

The drop in revenue has led to a review of synod spending in all areas, Bishop Lohrmann said. Work hours for the six people on staff at the synod's Findlay headquarters were reduced in February by a vote of the synod's council, and pay was cut 10 percent.

Now the synod is reducing contributions to some of its most underfunded ministries.

"Those cuts have been painful," Bishop Lohrmann said.

He attributed the drop in donations to the overall economic downturn, pointing out that northwest Ohio has been hit especially hard.

"In contrast with other parts of this church, we are experiencing greater loss," the bishop said. "Part of it is the local economy. Folks are still struggling with employment issues. A piece of that is the aging of our own denomination and the increasing cost for medical coverage for clergy, for example. Congregations are struggling with their own finances."

The budget crunch has spurred the Findlay administration to reassess and re-evaluate all aspects of its mission and organization.

"Within the past year or two, it's become clear that we need to look at different staffing patterns, different structures," Bishop Lohrmann said. "Part of me grieves at that because we've developed a highly relational model."

Since Bishop Lohrmann was first elected bishop in 1998, he's had four assistants assigned to different geographical areas. With upcoming retirements, the budget calls for having just one assistant to the bishop by the end of this year. The Rev. Marc Miller, the synod's mission director for evangelism, is paid by the ELCA's national office in Chicago.

Bishop Lohrmann hopes to continue the synod's close relationship with local pastors and congregations by appointing a minister as a dean for each of the synod's seven geographic conferences, paying them a small stipend.

"The deans will work with pastors serving in those areas and work with congregations on a much closer level. … There seems to be some enthusiasm for that model and the reality is it may actually work at giving members broader ownership," he said.

The synod also continues to adjust to the loss of congregations that voted to leave the ELCA, the largest Lutheran denomination with 4.2 million members in 10,000 congregations, after the churchwide vote in 2009 that made it possible to ordain partnered gay clergy and to bless same-gender unions.

"I grieve the loss of the 19 congregations. I pray for the unity of the church," Bishop Lohrmann said. "At the same time, a lot of congregations in the synod are excited about turning the page and doing what we're called to do in the church. So it's been a time of grief, but on the other hand I'm sensing some excitement."

Bishop Lohrmann, 61, is in his third six-year term as bishop of the synod, having been re-elected for the second time in 2010. He said that among positive trends in the synod is a growing number of young people entering the ministry. "A few years ago, we had very few under age 35. I'm very pleased at the young pastors we are receiving into the synod. … We are very hopeful for the future and there is joy and enthusiasm."

He said of the pectoral cross, the large cross that bishops wear on their chests, "I do it with some weight. The cross is a sign to many people how the church has failed them or not reached out to them. On the other hand, it's a sign of the God who has not given up on the world."

The synod's financial picture, as tough as it is, ultimately could become a blessing if it inspires the church to reassess its priorities, the bishop said.

The goal is not "to preserve an institution for its own sake," Bishop Lohrmann said, but to ensure that the church continues to do the work of Jesus.

-- David Yonke

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