Skip to content

President’s Message 2022


Dear esteemed pastors and delegates, members and friends of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod, Jesus’ blood bought souls, all:

The Word of the Lord endures forever! (1 Peter 1:25)

Five hundred years ago, the initials VDMA, taken from the first letters of the Latin words used in this verse, initially appeared in the court of Frederick the Wise. It was sewn on the right sleeve of prince and servant alike. The motto of the Lutheran Reformation would later be used on flags, banners, swords and uniforms in the Smalcaldic League as Lutheran lands sought to defend themselves against those who intended to destroy them from within the outward Church and the world.

Last year we did not commemorate the 1521 confessional appearance of Dr. Martin Luther before Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms because our celebration of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Bethany Lutheran Theological Seminary was delayed by a year. Our plan this year is to focus on the work of Dr. Luther in that year subsequent to his humble but firm stance upon the Word of God in the face of death.

Our 2022 theme, “Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Thy Word,” gives direction to the essay and subsequent presentation. Our essayist will focus on the outlaw Luther who five hundred years ago worked diligently while safely hidden away by his prince in the Wartburg and then came out of hiding to correct the radical reformation going on in Wittenberg. Luther did not rest after taking his stance in Worms; he pressed forward and by God’s grace kept steadfast in the Word of the Lord. Still surrounded by enemies, we intend to find lessons for us in the Lutheran Church today. During that time, Luther also began translating the Bible into the vernacular, completing the New Testament in 1522. Our Doctrine Committee will make the requested evaluative presentation on the major English translations currently available for use in our congregations and in the homes of their members.

Twenty years later Luther composed and published his well-loved hymn, “Lord Keep Us Steadfast in Thy Word,” at a time when the papacy and Islam threatened German Lutherans and princes. The second line of the hymn as we know it today, “Curb those who fain by craft and sword,” was originally written “Restrain the murderous Pope and Turk.” We may not currently feel the intensity of these particular enemies of Christ’s Church, yet the gates of hell and their allies have not ceased their many attacks.

We are in the midst of our five-year strategic plan: “Tell of Jesus and His Love” (Mark 5:19). The various offices, institutions, boards and committees of the synod assigned goals and objectives are all on track to fulfill what was set into motion last year (cf, SR 2021 pp. 170–174). We ask our Lord’s blessings upon these plans but overall as we labor, we pray: “Lord keep us steadfast in Thy Word.” But it is not just in the Word’s veracity as the eternal Truth that it is, but that we act as those who trust its power, never fearing to make use of it as we are called to do.

In my many visitations of ELS congregations this past year I have been pleased to have worshipped in consistently Christ-centered divine services from invocation to benediction, from coast to coast, from north to south. The motto developed by the ELS Flavor Committee is “Lift Up Your Hearts—Your Sins Are Forgiven.” This, the power of God unto salvation, is at work among and through us by His grace. The devil, the unbelieving world and our own sinful flesh hate this declaration. But despite their hatred and evil machinations God continues to give us strength persistently to declare it wherever He places us.

What fearful distractions have been threatening your steadfastness these days? COVID? Threats of other pandemics? Wars and rumors of wars? Weapons of mass destruction: biological, chemical, nuclear? Invasions? Destructive climate events? Economic loss and deprivations through inflation, possible recession, even depression? Social unrest? Cultural changes that are affecting the education of your children, your workplaces, and forms of entertainment? Society’s accusations that Christ’s Church is countercultural and a threat to its freedoms? Have any of these been keeping you up at night with anxious thoughts?

Within the outward Church there are voices of false christs, false teachings, pious sounding fads of theological quackery that lead away from our only Savior. According to our Lord these are nothing new. From the first generation of Christianity these were all foretold by Jesus and thereby serve as clarion calls from Him that the world is broken and we must be prepared for its divine destruction. But are you remaining steadfast in the Word? Bishop Nils Laache writes these comforting words:

No matter how long the glory of the ungodly lasts, be assured it has a miserable end. – We do not expect to see truth and justice prevail in the present course of this world. We know very well that lying will prosper, adorn itself with the name of truth, and trod the saints underfoot as enemies of happiness. Yet we have a hard time accepting this. Our heart becomes embittered and our feet grow weary from the journey of faith and patience. But God’s Word gives us light and strength. It teaches us that the visible things are temporal, but that the invisible are eternal, and that all the world’s glory is nothing compared to our fellowship with God and our heavenly salvation. … [W]hen we enter into the sanctuary of the Word, and from there look out over heaven and earth, we discern God’s will and plan enough that we become silent and rejoice. We may be trodden under, yet our justice and fortune are intact! Through suffering we learn patience; through temptation we obtain victory! So we have no reason to be troubled over those who let themselves be deceived by the devil.1

Within and without the Church there are formidable forces indeed that stand on nothing and subsequently fall for everything and use it to receive public approval living for the present moment. Therefore, we all the more seek to stand steadfast upon the unchangeable word of our Lord.

Part of the reason for asking the ELS Flavor Committee to work on a definition was to reinforce the reason the ELS continues as a separate synod in American Lutheranism. Prior to the last convention of the old Norwegian Synod which established a union with two heterodox church bodies in 1917, a Synodical Conference committee met with some of the leaders who would be part of our reorganized Norwegian Synod. Dr. Franz Pieper, president of the LCMS at the time, who served on this committee is quoted to have said to some of our founding fathers: “What I am especially interested in is that you testify. Your testimony may not bear fruit for a hundred years, but it will bear fruit.” Then it was observed by an eyewitness: “One important question was whether to continue our own Synod or to join the Missouri Synod as a district. The committee advised us to rebuild the Norwegian synod on the old foundation.”2

In 1961 when we numbered about 75 congregations, a memorial was considered in the midst of the doctrinal disagreement in the Synodical Conference that the ELS merge with the WELS. The decision was to defer such action. President Aaberg, while very likely agreeing with that resolve, expressed his hesitancy to the WELS president in regard to addressing its convention, having, in a sense, our synod reject her sister synod. President Oscar Naumann in a letter from 1963 said this:

Our Synod also once declined to be absorbed and, I believe, rightly so. There are distinct advantages to remaining an organizationally separate body. If we [ELS & WELS] were to merge, we would be one body, standing rather alone confessionally. As it is, we are two sister synods, one in doctrine and confession, mutually encouraging and strengthening one another in our common God-ordained calling.3

As mentioned in my report, next month we will have been in fellowship with the WELS for 150 years. President Naumann’s words have truly been prophetic as we can now observe that we have by God’s grace stood together side by side encouraging and strengthening one another as we seek to serve our Lord in our unique ways, historical perspectives and settings. The Lord has kept us steadfast in His Word and as was noted at the seventy-fifth anniversary of the ELS:

A church body that finds as its highest priority the correct understanding and proclamation of the saving Gospel will never be a failure in the Lord’s eyes whatever the outward circumstances of that church may be. The Savior’s call has ever been to faithfulness, above all, faithfulness to His word of truth.4

We have been well served by the life-long members of the ELS who formed the ELS Flavor Committee this past year: Prof. Thomas Rank (chairman), Pastors Charles Keeler, Craig Ferkenstad, Peter Faugstad and Kyle Madson. They have, with various suggestions coming from other ELS clergy and laity alike, produced a document that can take us into the next generation passing on this heritage to the glory of God and the welfare of His Church. This was observed at our fiftieth anniversary:

The Evangelical Lutheran Synod must give prime consideration to this matter as it enters a new era of synodical history. Earthly inheritances can be handed down from generation to generation more or less automatically, but not so the great heritage. Truth, as a body of doctrine, can indeed be set forth before a people by the preceding generation, but each succeeding generation must, through the Holy Spirit, make this truth its own as a part of its very faith and life before it can actually be said to possess it. There is in this sense no continuity to synodical history. Each succeeding generation must start all over again. In this way alone is a synod spared from offensive pride, dead orthodoxy, and liberalism. In this way alone is a new generation enabled to sing: “God’s Word is our great heritage.5

Its future salutary use remains to be seen, but some of those uses of the “ELS Flavor” document are suggested in my report. One of the committee members, Pastor Ferkenstad, made this observation at the 2018 Reformation Lectures:

Former ELS President George Orvick related that on occasion he would receive a telephone call from someone outside the synod seeking guidance. The individual would say that he knew something wasn’t right in his congregation but couldn’t explain exactly what was amiss. What was missing was the gospel of Jesus Christ! Although there are those individuals who have been happy to embrace the ELS, there also are those who have not been able to adjust to the culture of the ELS and the Norwegian personality.… there are those who are so accustomed to fighting for the truth of Scripture that they do not know how to live apart from skepticism and debate. They remain with the synod only a short time… Yet this does not mean that the synod should cease to have empathy for such individuals. … Sometimes, the phrase still is used of an individual being a “synod person.” This undefined term refers to an individual who has a humble appreciation for the history and culture of the synod. It can only be hoped that in the ELS, one is a “synod person” by conviction rather than convenience.6

As a further reflection on the ELS flavor this was also observed:

Whereas the Evangelical Lutheran Synod does not excel at providing Christian compassion and aid to those in physical need, she finds her focus in preaching the gospel and proclaiming the Means of Grace. The central truth of scripture that Jesus Christ, true God and true Man, by His death and resurrection has overcome sin, death, and hell, stands at the center of the ELS and colors the synod’s preaching and teaching. … As such, every sermon very specifically is to direct the hearer to the risen Christ as the fulfillment of the text and the only hope and source of forgiveness and eternal life. Former synod president George Orvick related that early in his ministry an individual spoke to him following a Sunday morning service and said: “When I go to work, my boss is mad at me. When I come home from work, my wife is mad at me. And when I come to church, you’re mad at me too.” That man wanted to hear the sweet gospel come from his pastor’s lips as God’s Word was preached from the pulpit. The law serves it place, but the gospel of forgiveness, which is “sweeter than honey” must predominate in any sermon. The ELS strives to be what her name says—“evangelical.”7

While money has nothing to do with keeping us steadfast in God’s Word (although it can cause just the opposite effect) it does help fund our work of declaring it to the world around us. It was a pleasure to see the response of God’s people last year to the work we committed ourselves to do together. We exceeded our budgeted needs by $63,000—to God alone be the glory! This excess was then given to our Bethany Lutheran College for her operation. In 2022 we are being challenged again, because the new budget is $60,000 over last year’s budget. We have the opportunity to show our college our love with additional support since anything over this new budget will once again be earmarked for her use.

With the economic forecasts looking grim at this time, we need to be wise as serpents in our use of the money our Lord gives us for the furtherance of His kingdom. Your Board of Trustees may, God forbid, need to make adjustments in our projected expenses to reflect a more austere budget while protecting those whose livelihoods would be affected by it, e.g., our home missionaries. But, of course, our Lord is not restricted by such things, it is reported that during the “Great Depression” God’s people were proportionately even more generous in the support of Christ’s Church than in recent times.8

A perennial challenge which has been and appears to be in the future is the nearly $500,000 projected operating deficit of our college. The college’s administration and Board of Regents are to be commended for their frugal management of covering that debt in the past. There are renewed efforts to reach out to alumni and friends of BLC and to grow the enrollment, which it has. However, it appears to me there also needs to be some long-range proactive measures taken to find sources beyond our normal circles. We do have a nearly $2M contingency fund, but that could easily be depleted in four years even if the economy does not falter.

In order to be noticed by benefactors outside our circles we would purposely need to let our jewel of higher education be put on prominent display. Our firm confessional Lutheranism would surely resonate pleasantly beyond our synodical boundaries. And since our college holds to traditional conservative Christian values and teaches the same, it may bring unwelcomed scrutiny by the world. Yet, no matter how uncomfortable it may become, there may be untapped secular financial resources which would gladly support what BLC offers the youth of our communities since they share many of those same values. However, we will be abundantly cautious not to go beyond our theological and moral positions and enter the realm of secular party politics. Remember our Lord calls upon us as sons of light to be as shrewd with our treasures as the sons of this world (cf. Luke 16: 8–9).

We have been blessed these past twenty-five years by having President Schmeling lead us in keeping our seminary steadfast in God’s Word. Now we enter a new phase in the life of our synod’s seminary under the leadership of President Hartwig. He has already expressed a desire to renew all recruitment efforts among young men in our parishes, our college, and even interested second career men for which I commend and encourage him. We also need to find ways to challenge ourselves by not holding back on the number of men being recruited. We need to find ways for our seminary to work together with our Board of Home Outreach to find innovative and unique ways of using any excess number of graduates to help expand work in our existing parishes and their surrounding communities. Instead of wringing our hands in worthless despair over our perceived weaknesses, may God give us the strength and courage to put our hands to the plow and not turn back.

In addition to our five-year strategic plan, the Board of Trustees has established a Commission on Congregations at Critical Mass. We have been experiencing, like all Confessional Lutheran synods in America, a decline in membership and loss of small town and rural congregations. We are not thereby to find solace but rather seek ways to mitigate this, even significantly reverse it, if God so permits. The commission will report to us next year in 2023. Its goal is to offer counsel and guidance how this trend may be thwarted in our midst, allowing even small congregations to be served with the means of grace and perhaps expand in their outreach in their communities.

Pursuing this, however, does not have as its goal to preserve the institution of our synod, but rather to find ways to fulfill the Lord’s call to preach the Gospel in all the world and thus not lose long occupied places where we may still have untapped opportunities. I remember in the 1980s it was popular to pit being faithful to the teachings of our Lord against reaching out to the world of the lost. The Church Growth movement, as it was called, originating from the evangelical based Fuller Seminary in southern California, would look upon a firm confessional stance as being detrimental to reaching out with the Gospel. That is to be expected from such a source, but it was perplexing when some of the same thoughts at times were approvingly expressed in our own circles. It is always the case that if by God’s grace we have the truth of the Good News in Christ pure and undefiled in our midst, naturally it will be shared with others. Instead of competing, these two emphases are complementary and work in tandem, just as God ordained.

So while we pray “Lord keep us steadfast in Thy Word,” we seek to do this with the ever present complementary focus to tell of Jesus and His love to our neighbors both near and far. Starting last year, our twelve circuit visitors have provided an annual report on their respective congregations at the beginning of the month that corresponds to their circuit’s number and have provided a prayer to use throughout the month. One such prayer composed by Pastor Michael Dale has been used by me often beyond his month of January. It makes a fitting way to conclude the words of this message as we review our work together as a synod. In that review we likely will be confronted with our own sins and failures. Do not despair or respond in fear, rather: “Lift up your hearts—your sins are forgiven!”

Please bow your heads in prayer with me:

Lord God, heavenly Father, we thank You for all of the blessings You have brought upon our congregations. In a time in which people have faced challenges in gathering to hear the Gospel, You have opened other doors. In a time in which the hearts of many have grown cold, in which a generation has found its greatest comfort and assurance in worldly things that have no future, You have preserved a remnant that calls upon Your Name for salvation. As we do this work to which You have commissioned us, of seeking and saving the lost through the power of Your Word and Sacraments, strengthen us in our weakness. Move our tongues to speak the truth in love. Forgive us and fortify us in the face of temptations to abandon difficult duties. Preserve Your Church in this world as it anticipates with joy Your Second Coming in power to bring to completion the salvation it already possesses through faith. Lord, keep us steadfast in Thy Word. In Christ Jesus. Amen.

Glenn R. Obenberger, president


1 Book of Family Prayer, by N. J. Laache, based on Ps. 73:23-28, Tuesday, Trinity 1, translated by Mark DeGarmeaux, p. 403.

2 Lutheran Sentinel, “Lest We Forget” by John A. Moldstad, Vol. 26, April 1943, p. 115.

3 Letter on file in the ELS Archives, from President Oscar Naumann (WELS).

4 Built On The Rock, by Herbert Larson and Juul Madson, Evangelical Lutheran Synod Book Company, 1992, p. 72

5 A City Set on a Hill, Theodore Aaberg, 1968, p. 265.

6 Lutheran Synod Quarterly, “ELS: An Introspective” by Craig Ferkenstad, Vol. 59, No. 1 (March 2019), p. 99.

7 Ibid., p. 105.


Visit Us
Follow Me