One of the first things Bishop Herbert Chilstrom did after being elected the founding spiritual leader of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America was to write himself a note: “Lord, help me to fear no one but you.”
As he prepares to retire to the northern Minnesota country where he started out in ministry 37 years ago, that note still lies beneath the inkpad on his desk.
After eight years in which he oversaw the birth and infancy of the nation’s fifth-largest Protestant denomination, he does not second-guess himself about his decision not to seek a third term of office.
“I have not even a smidgen of regret,” a relaxed Chilstrom said in an interview during the church’s biennial assembly. “I think change is appropriate at this time. … Intuitively, we all have a sense now and then that there’s a passage time.”
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America was formed in 1987 with the merger of the American Lutheran Church, Lutheran Church in America, and the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches.
Chilstrom presided over the new church in a time of decline for much of mainline Protestantism, and one of the first challenges he faced was how to cut back staff as revenues for national offices fell far below expectations.
But overall church membership fell only slightly, from 5.3 to 5.2 million, during his tenure, and in his final report he listed several achievements of the new church.
For example, he reported the denomination has started 272 new mission congregations and doubled the ELCA Mission Investment Fund from $60 million to more than $120 million.
And when it came time to pick a successor, the church chose the Rev. H. George Anderson, a gentle theologian with a reputation as a conciliator - someone a lot like Chilstrom.
In an interview, Chilstrom said early fears that the church would find itself divided based on members’ past affiliations with the merging bodies proved largely unfounded.
“I found that dissipated almost immediately,” he said.
He also promoted wider Christian unity by encouraging dialogues with other churches, and on the interfaith front the ELCA took steps toward talking with Muslims.
In his final report, he said he hoped the church was stable enough that Anderson will be able to lead it into dialogues with Muslims, Hindus and other religious groups.
“There are people of good will in all major religious groups who long for a more stable, peaceful world,” he said.
One bit of unfinished business was the development of a church social statement on sexuality. After years of emotional debate, the denomination recently decided to indefinitely postpone work on a policy statement due to its inability to reach a consensus on issues such as the ordination of gays or the blessing of same-sex unions.
Chilstrom said his own perspective has changed from thinking homosexual acts were perverted to viewing gays and lesbians as people who “are no different from us than people who are left-handed.”
While he was not outspoken as presiding bishop on the homosexuality issue, he did raise the question in his final report to church members of whether it is reasonable to assume people can change their sexual orientation.
“When tens of thousands of gay and lesbian persons tell us that they have tried to change but have not been able to do so, is it still reasonable to insist on it?” he asked.
Before he became presiding bishop, Chilstrom faced two terrifying tests of faith.
A son committed suicide in 1984. Not long afterward, the bishop discovered he had cancer.
What helped him through both experiences, he said, was the support and affirmation of members of the church community. Afterward, he was no longer easily shaken by criticism, the envy of others or other fears of disapproval.
“It makes you more courageous and more willing to stand up for what you believe in,” he said.
“You keep coming back to something that is fundamental: The only thing you have to fear is Almighty God.”
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