Ask the Bishop, is a column that responds to the questions and topics that are important to our work together of bringing the good news of Jesus Christ to our communities in the Southeastern Iowa Synod. If you have a question you would like to have considered for a future edition of Ask the Bishop, email Minda Davison, Director for Communications at [email protected].

April 3, 2014

Q: What is the best part about being our bishop, and what is the worst?

A: If “best” refers to the aspects of this ministry that provide the most consistent delight, it is definitely the opportunity I have to be with different worshiping communities on most Sunday mornings. I love to bring greetings and words of thanks to the congregations of this synod. I am humbled by the privilege of preaching and presiding in worship. And I’m really glad that my wife, Diane enjoys traveling around with me whenever possible. We both learn so much and benefit from being with faithful people in their own place…in your own community of faith.  The welcome we receive is indeed the “best.”

If “worst” refers to the things I wish did not need doing, then it is the necessary work in conflicted situations. Sometimes it is with whole communities of faith and sometimes with individuals or small groups. This is a demanding part of a bishop’s call that goes unseen by most people – which is as it should be. Still, as much as I wish there could be little or no need for intervention/counsel from the bishop, this important work is also a humbling privilege.  I approach it with great care and when appropriate, I enlist the aid of others.

From the best to the worst, and everything in between, I am constantly aware that this is work that I am called to do on your behalf. I thank God for the opportunities and for the guidance in serving.

March 14, 2014

Q: If you are my pastor’s pastor, then who is your pastor?

A: Pastors are in a unique situation in that they/we often belong to the congregation we serve. And as much as some people might try, you can’t be your own pastor. *

As bishop, I am “pastor to the synod” (what that really means deserves it’s own explanation) and I have a pastoral relationship with the pastors who serve here. So in some aspects of your pastor’s life, I might function as their pastor. But it is important for the pastor to seek and receive pastoral guidance and support from a number of different sources…, which most healthy pastors do.

Bishops need to seek out similar pastoral relationships to meet our own needs. For me, that means there are a hand full of other bishops who I speak with frequently throughout the year, and get together with whenever possible, for purpose of mutual care and support. There are other individuals who have been “pastor” to me over the years who I have on speed dial.

The key is to be intentional and to be genuinely open to receiving care, which at it’s best, means being held accountable. I work at that deliberately. I encourage others to do the same. And I hope that the members of any given congregation take full advantage of a constructive relationship with your own local pastor. How we receive care and provide care to one another is a witness to the ways that God has gathered us into one Body of Christ.

*It is really important to note that the members of a pastor’s family find themselves in a similar situation in that it can seem they have no one to call their own pastor. A child or spouse often require the same encouragement and care to find themselves in a pastoral relationship.

February 21, 2014

Q: What kind of things do you pray about?

A: Prayer is such an important part of my life. And there’s almost no limit to what I find myself bringing to my conversations with God. But mostly, I pray about and for people. I pray for family and for the people I encounter through the week. I set aside particular times to pray specifically for the leaders of congregations and other ministries within this synod. And I pray for leaders throughout the ELCA and beyond. I pray daily for Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, and I invite you to do the same.

It’s probably not surprising that I find myself lifting up the needs of the most vulnerable…people who I know, who are sick or injured or who have lost someone they love. And I pray for many who I have never met, particularly the hungry or those who live in the midst of violence. These days I pray a lot for a dear friend far away who is dying, and for his young family. And in the praying, I realize that I am offering my own worry, my own sadness, my own self to God.

When people tell me that they pray for me, I receive it as a great gift. And more often than not, it drives me to more fervent and persistent prayer for others. Prayer is a reminder that we all belong to God.

Bishop Michael Burk

January 30, 2014

Q: How did you become Bishop?

A: I was elected bishop at the Southeastern Iowa Synod Assembly in 2008. And for me, this was one more step on a journey that began when I was young.

I was baptized and raised up in a nurturing congregation (St. John’s – Grinnell). Along the way, a number of people encouraged me to think about becoming a pastor. I didn’t take them very seriously at the time. But years later, while working at what I assumed might become my career, I was drawn deeply into the worship life of the congregation where I then belonged.

This was a different kind of encouragement. God’s saving grace proclaimed in preaching, in song and in a meal of forgiveness, seemed to tug at me relentlessly…which led to seminary…which led to ordination…which led to profound gratitude for those people who had encouraged me when I was young.

This is but part of my own call story, which continued with precious years serving congregations, followed by the privilege of directing the ministry of worship on behalf of the whole ELCA. And then, in 2008 I was blessed and humbled to be elected bishop. Called.

If the question has more to do with the process of electing a bishop, a full description is available on our website for those interested and/or preparing for the decisions to be made at this year’s assembly.

But if the question is more about how it happened to me, then it lies at the heart of how I understand my own call. I thank God that this call was extended. And I spend the better part of each day thinking about and describing how, in so many different ways and in richly different directions, God’s saving grace is tugging at us all.

Bishop Michael Burk

December 9, 2013

Q: I heard the bishop mention something called a “ready bench.” What is that?

A: Many ELCA synod bishops participate in this church’s advocacy work by being part of what is called a “ready bench.” Whether working on issues like immigration or international relations, these “benches” are dedicated to be “ready” when called upon to speak and/or advocate in their particular area of concentration.

From the time I became a bishop, I have served on the “bench” that works on issues related to people living in poverty, and in particular, matters related to hunger. On behalf of the ELCA and a broad anti-hunger coalition to which we belong, I’ve been called upon to meet with Secretary Vilsack at the USDA on a few occasions, (most federal food/hunger programs are included within the framework of the farm bill), with other executive branch staff members, and with a variety of legislators from across the country. The charge is to be an advocate for a responsible approach to meeting the needs of the most vulnerable in our society, and doing so in ways that are non-partisan.

The benches meet regularly by conference call and when we are together at meetings of the conference of bishops. About once a year, we gather in Washington, D.C. for educational briefings and for visits with the various members of the Senate and House of Representatives who serve the territory that includes our respective synods.

The work that I am privileged to do as part of this ready bench complements the Southeastern Iowa Synod’s commitment to end hunger. There is at least one thing that we can all do to further that endeavor. We can pray. Filled with the hope of Advent and a genuine expectation that the coming of Christ changes things in a saving way, please join me in accepting Presiding Bishop Eaton’s invitation to be part of a wave of prayer on December 10. Together, let us pray to end hunger. Pray believing that hope for all the world, including and especially for those who are hungry, will come.

November 4, 2013

Q: How many miles do you drive a year as the bishop, and why?

A: I think I average about 32,000 work miles in a year.

Because so much of being bishop is a ministry of “presence,” I spend a lot of time out of my office. Most of that time is spent with people within the congregations and ministry sites of this synod. Whether it is a Sunday morning visit with a worshiping congregation, an evening meeting with a council, or a presentation to a group in any number of settings, I’m driving to get to and from there (and while driving, I often take advantage of “hands free” mobile telephone to stay connected with people).

I also attend a number of board meetings throughout the year on behalf of the Southeastern Iowa Synod or on behalf of our region. A few trips to the Lutheran Center in Chicago adds to the mileage.

I am fortunate because of the geography of this synod. There are bishops who have to navigate a much larger territory, relying more heavily on air travel or spending many more hours in a car. And we are all fortunate that the size of this synod makes it possible for us to gather more easily from across our territory.

But the point isn’t the number of miles or the distance traveled. It really is about presence. While we are able to connect more readily thanks to technology, even face-to-face from a distance, there are so many reasons to be together.  And even when the reason for being together has to do with a difficulty that requires the bishop’s attention, every time it is a privilege.

And every time it is an opportunity to remind, and to be reminded, that Christ is with us. Thanks be to God.

October 21, 2013

Q: What makes Lutherans different from other Christians?

A: That’s not only a big question. That’s an increasingly important question that deserves more reflection than is available in this space. But let’s set the stage for what I hope becomes a robust conversation among the members of the Southeastern Iowa Synod.

First, let’s begin with the awareness that we have many things in common with other Christians. But we have a particular accent when we bring the Good News of Jesus Christ to expression. Our Lutheran theology is grounded in conviction that we live by grace. That we are forgiven sinners, called to forgive others. That God’s own love is active in service to the neighbor. And…

And there is so much more…shaped by what Lutherans refer to as the “theology of the cross” when we’re speaking with one another. But we have some unpacking to do – interpreting – so that others will understand what we mean.

To be sure, our shared Christian confession doesn’t change. Jesus is Lord! And we don’t have a corner on every good theological insight.

But in the face of life’s most demanding challenges – and when celebration is at hand – Lutherans have something distinctive to say, and to be.We are already

looking forward to the year 2017, the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation. Now is the time to think deeply about what it means to be Lutheran Christians today. This world is aching to hear the promises of God and the invitation into relationship with Christ in ways that are shaped, and that embody, God’s amazing grace.

October 14, 2013

Q: What is the Conference of Bishops?

A: This is a timely question since I just returned from the fall meeting of the conference in Chicago.

The Conference of Bishops is a group that includes the 65 synod bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the presiding bishop and the secretary. We meet three times a year. Two “regular meetings” are planned for addressing many and various matters facing the church. One meeting is an “academy,” which is planned to include a continuing education component of shared interest.

While the Conference of Bishops is not a legislative group, taking actions that establish policy for the ELCA, it is uniquely positioned to address many of the hopes and concerns facing the ELCA. This is the only group that when gathered, has some knowledge of and connection to every congregation and ministry of this church.

The meetings usually last a week. The days are long and demanding. But the mutual support and collegiality is a hallmark of the time when bishops are gathered. We worship daily. We pray together frequently. We receive information from our partners in Churchwide ministries and we consult with each other on many things.

The most recent meeting of the conference was unique and particularly hopeful because situation near the center of our gathering was the installation of our new presiding bishop, Elizabeth Eaton.

Bishops consult with each other when not gathered together with the help of a confidential listserv. Bishop Jessica Crist of the Montana Synod is the chair of the Conference of Bishops and I am privileged to serve as vice chair.

Thanks for the question and please pray for the ELCA Conference of Bishops.