A New Bishop Electus for an Old Organization
Hosted by the E.E.L.K. Chicago First Congregation (E.E.L.K. Chicago Esimene Kogudus), the Evangelical Lutheran Church Eesti Synod (Eesti Evangeeliumi Luteri Usu Kirik – E.E.L.K.) held its Synod meeting on May 29-31 in Chicago.
This was my first visit to the Chicago Estonian House. Nestled amongst tall trees in the Riverwoods suburb of Chicago, there is a quiet serenity here that is palpable.
Attendees arrived on the 29th and met at the Chicago Estonian House for an exhibit and film presentation of Lennart Meri’s documentary “The Winds of the Milky Way (1977)” on loan from the Permanent Estonian Mission to the United Nations led by Estonian Ambassador to the united Nations Margus Kolga. The former Estonian head of state was fascinated by the experiences of small nations in keeping their cultures alive in spite of a colonizer speaking a foreign tongue. A line from his film resonated with me: “Our trees live longer than our people, but our people will exist longer than the forest.”
The formal portion of the Synod meetings began on Saturday. In order to understand the significance of this year’s meetings, a little background to refresh your memory. As you might recall, the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church - E.E.L.K. (Eesti Evangeeliumi Luteri Usu Kirik) was established in 1919 in Estonia and went into exile in 1944. The post-war Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church - EELK (Eesti Evangeelne Luterlik Kirik) was formally re-established under the Soviets. Note that the English names are distinguished from each other by the periods after the letters in their acronyms. The church in exile (E.E.L.K.) considers itself the rightful successor to the pre-war church.
An effort to reunite the churches was led by the former E.E.L.K. Archbishop, Andres Taul. It resulted in a vote and the signing of an “Visible Unity Confirmation Contract” by the then E.E.L.K. Archbishop Andres Taul and the then EELK Archbishop Andres Põder in Tallinn on November 13th, 2010. The former E.E.L.K. now became known as the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church Abroad Diocese with Andres Taul now its Bishop.
Disagreement, however, came from 13 congregations. Pastor Thomas Vaga of The Holy Ghost Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church (E.E.L.K. Lakewoodi Pühavaimu Kogudus) stated that “We cannot acquiesce to something that is no longer what it was when we brought it into exile.” The disagreeing congregations joined to form the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Congregations League (Eesti Evangeeliumi Luteriusu Koguduste Liit) and to investigate their options.
At a Synod meeting in April of 2013, the Chairman of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church of Los Angeles (E.E.L.K. Los Angelese Kogudus) Heino Nurmberg presented information about the E.E.L.K.’s historical background and its current status including the continuation of the church’s work. The League’s members discussed their operations and opportunities for the future and the fact that there was a need for an acting Bishop.
Such a leadership position would fall upon the shoulders of the oldest serving minister from the date of his ordination which in this case would have been the minister for the Connecticut congregation. For health reasons, Assistant Dean (ret.) Valdeko Kangro was not able to accept such responsibilities. Next in line was Dean Thomas Vaga who had been ordained for 40 years. He accepted the responsibility of organizing the future work of the congregations receiving the title of Acting Bishop. A volunteer supporting Committee was also established consisting of Lakewood Holy Ghost’s congregation chairman Valter Must, Deacon-pastor Gilda Karu, Los Angelese congregation chairman Heino Nurmberg, Deanery secretary Agu Ets, and from Canada, Jüri Silmberg and Riina Klaas from Toronto’s Vana Andres congregation.
In November of 2013 a meeting representing nine League congregations resulted in the signing of a decision to continue the existence and charitable status of the E.E.L.K. (Eesti Evangeeliumi Luteri Usu Kirik) by registering it in the State of New Jersey with the NJ government. Since the English translation of the Estonian name might cause confusion with the existing EELK church, it was decided to register the church with the English name of Evangelical Lutheran Church Eesti Synod (ELCES). It was also decided unanimously to continue working under the agreement made by Archbishop Udo Petersoo, that the ELCES (E.E.L.K.) and EELK churches are in principle one Estonian Lutheran Church, but with two distinct independent administrations. On the basis of this agreement, the doors of the ELCES (E.E.L.K.) are open to everyone and all EELK members are welcome at any of ELCES’ services and to participate in Holy Communion.
At the May 2015 Synod meeting, under discussion were E.E.L.K. congregation internal and external relationships, the development of unity, registration with the US government office of taxation IRS, contact with the EELK and its new Archbishop in Estonia, financial reports and budget, financial bequest for the education of new pastors and assistant pastors, congregation member reports, etc.
Discussions also included the needs and opportunities to update the ELCES (E.E.L.K.) Bylaws. The original Estonian version, as well as its English translation, is being reviewed to consider opportunities to provide each congregation with more self-governance and to reduce the Bishop’s administrative rule.
Having all congregations of one mind concerning the direction of the ELCES (E.E.L.K.), Thomas Vaga was nominated and unanimously duly elected to be the new Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church Eesti Synod (Eesti Evangeeliumi Luteriusu Kirik).
The Synod ended on May 31st with a church service held at the Chicago Estonian House officiated by the new Bishop electus Thomas Vaga and Deacon Pastor Gilda Karu.
As an analogy to Lennart Meri’s comment about our people existing longer than the forest, my thinking is that although our church buildings will live longer than the people of our congregations, the good works, deeds and accomplishments done today in touching the spirits and lives in church fellowship spreading the Word of God, will carry into future generations and exist carrying on longer than today’s buildings. My wish for Bishop electus Thomas Vaga is that he have many years of good work ahead in spreading the Word and to restoring and building relationships. May God use and guide him as He sees best so that Bishop Vaga may proclaim the Word of God in all places He causes his feet to tread.
To view photos from the Synod meetings and to keep abreast of the Evangelical Lutheran Church Eesti Synod (E.E.L.K.) events, please visit their website at www.eelkl.cwahi.net.