Finnish Lutherans Elect New Bishop

ELMDF Bishop Elect Juhana Pohjola.

FINLAND – The Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland (Suomen evankelisluterilainen lähetyshiippakunta -ELMDF) has elected Diocesan Dean Juhana Pohjola to serve as its new bishop.  The election was announced during the ELMDF’s Diocesan Assembly on January 23, 2021.

“I wish to express my gratitude for the great confidence you have shown in me by giving me such strong support and by electing me for this important and demanding task,” said Rev. Dr. Pohjola in a speech after the election. “I feel great weakness faced with such a great task and calling but I know that the matter has been discussed in the congregations, and that many prayers and intercessions have been said for the matter, which encourages me to look forward to this.”

In total, Dr. Pohjola received 111 votes (90.2 percent) through advance voting, while candidate Rev. Esko Murto received 12 votes. A total of 95 percent of potential delegates voted in the election.

Dr. Pohjola’s consecration as bishop is planned for August 1, 20201 at the ELMDF’s Mission Diocese Summer Festival in Loimaa, Finland. He will the third bishop in the history of Finland’s Luther Foundation, and the second for the ELMDF itself. Dr. Pohjola will succeed Bishop Risto Soramies, who has served as Bishop from 2013-2021. Matti Väisänen served as the first Finnish Bishop of the Mission Province of Sweden and Finland from 2010 until the emergence of the Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland in 2013.

Dr. Pohjola has served as Diocesan Dean of the ELMDF from 2013 until the present, and as dean of its supporting trust, Luther Foundation Finland (LFF), from 2000-2001 and 2012 to the present. He previously served as head pastor of St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Helsinki from 2000-2010, and as a visiting scholar at Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary (St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada) from 2011-2012. He holds a Master of Theology degree from the University of Helsinki (1997), a Master of Sacred Theology degree from Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana (1998), and a Doctorate of Theology from the University of Helsinki (2014).

Dean Pohjola was ordained in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland’s (ELCF) Diocese of Oulu in 1999 in order to serve the then newly founded Luther Foundation Finland. In 2004, the LFF broke fellowship with the ELCF over doctrinal differences. The ELFF found itself shunned by the ELCF but the unexpected publicity led to rapid growth in the LFF. Dean Pohjola was eventually defrocked by the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland in 2014 after the founding of the Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland.

The ELMDF and Dean Juhana Pohjola drew international attention in 2020 when Finnish police began investigating them for the 2004 publication of a booklet which defended historic Christian teaching on human sexuality. The booklet, which was written by a Finnish Member of Parliament, was published well before the 2017 legalization of same-sex marriage in Finland. Dean Pohjola was interrogated for five hours as part of an ongoing investigation which has sparked international concern over the state of religious freedom in Finland.

The Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland is a member of the International Lutheran Council, a global association of confessional Lutheran church bodies worldwide.


Adapted from an ELMDF news release. For more information, see the ELMDF’s report here.

Former Kenyan bishop enters into glory

Rt. Rev. Francis Nyamwaro Onderi

KENYA – The Rt. Rev. Francis Nyamwaro Onderi, former Chairman and Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Kenya (ELCK), entered into glory on November 17, 2020.

In 1996, Rev. Nyamwaro was installed as the first bishop of the ELCK, following a decision of the church a year prior to transition to an episcopal structure. Prior to that transition, he also served as the church’s last chairman. Rev. Nyamwaro would continue to serve as bishop until his retirement.

In a post announcing his death, the ELCK highlighted some of his accomplishments as head of the church body. “It was during his watch that the Lutheran Church grew, and reached all the then-nine provinces of the Republic of Kenya,” the church notes, including work among Somali refugees in the north-east of the country. The church also praised his work among the Borana in Marsabit and the Digo in Kwale, as well as new outreach to the Kalenjin, the Masai, Sumburu, Kamba, Kikuyu, Meru, and Embu. Work in traditionally strong Lutheran areas, like Kisii, Luoland, and amongst the Pokot, also expanded during this period.

“He was first of all a pastor and servant of God, and should be honoured as such,” the church writes.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Kenya is a member of the International Lutheran Council (ILC), a global association of confessional Lutheran church bodies.


French Lutherans elect new president

EELSF President Gleisson R. Schmidt

FRANCE – The Evangelical Lutheran Church – Synod of France (Église Évangélique Luthérienne–Synode de France – EELSF) has elected Rev. Dr. Gleisson R. Schmidt of Paris to a four-year term as president.

Originally scheduled for April 2020, the EELSF’s Synodical Convention had to be postponed as a result of coronavirus restrictions. A condensed version of the convention was ultimately held electronically on November 15.

President Schmidt succeeds Rev. Martin Jautzy, who did not stand for reelection to a second term. Born in Erechim, Brazil, President Schmidt studied theology at Concordia Institute of São Paulo, and served congregations in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Brazil (Igreja Evangélica Luterana do Brasil – IELB) from 2002-2018. Alongside his pastoring work, he also served as a professor of philosophy at Brazil’s Federal University of Technology – Paraná. In 2014, he earned his doctorate from the Federal University of Santa Catarina.

Rev. Schmidt often spent extended periods in Paris where he participated in the congregational life of St. Sauveur Evangelical Lutheran Church. He accepted a call to the congregation in 2018.

The International Lutheran Council’s (ILC) Chairman, Bishop Hans-Jörg Voigt of Germany’s Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church, sent congratulations to President Schmidt on his election. “I want to congratulate you and extend to you my wishes for God’s grace and blessing upon your election and installation into the office of President and Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church – Synod of France,” Chairman Voigt wrote. “We pray that our Lord and Saviour keep and guide you during these challenging times.”

The convention also saw the election of three other members to the EEL-SF’s board alongside President Schmidt, including Rev. Philippe Volff (Strasbourg) as Vice-President; Noëlle Boisnault (Châtenay-Malabry) as Secretary; and Béatrice Grimaldi (Châtenay-Malabry) as Treasurer.

Other business of the convention included the election of auxiliary members to assist the board, the election of members of the church’s Committee of Theological Studies, and the presentation of several reports.


Finnish Lutherans to elect a new bishop in 2021

FINLAND – The Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland (Suomen evankelisluterilainen lähetyshiippakunta – ELMDF) will hold an election for bishop in January 2021, following Bishop Risto Soramies’ request to be released from the duties of bishop.

“I turn 75 next year,” Bishop Soramies notes in an announcement to the church. “I have had the joy and privilege of serving Lutheran congregations as the bishop of our church. As a young man, I missed the chance to serve in congregations where priests know their flocks and flocks know their priests. I couldn’t even imagine being allowed to serve such congregations and pastors in my old age.”

Bishop Risto Soramies speaks at the ELMDF’s 2020 Diocesan Assembly.

“In my opinion, now is the right time for a generational change,” he said, citing Ecclesiastes 3:1—“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” He further expressed his thanks to the pastors and congregations of the ELMDF for the opportunity to serve with them.

Bishop Risto Soramies was ordained bishop of the ELMDF on May 4, 2013, shortly after the official founding of the ELMDF as an autonomous church body. Prior to his elevation to the episcopacy, Bishop Soramies served as a missionary for more than 40 years to Turkish immigrants in Germany as well as in Turkey itself. He was the founding pastor of the Istanbul Lutheran Church in Turkey.

During Bishop Soramies’ tenure, the ELMDF formed the Communion of Nordic Dioceses in 2015 along with the Mission Province in Sweden and the Evangelical Lutheran Diocese in Norway. He led the ELMDF into membership in the International Lutheran Council in 2018, and also oversaw successful fellowship talks with Lutheran Church–Canada, Germany’s Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of England, and most recently The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod.

Candidates for Bishop


ELMDF candidates for bishop: Rev. Esko Murto and Rev. Dr. Juhana Pohjola.

At a November meeting of the College of the Priests, the ELMDF’s clergy put forward two candidates for bishop: Rev. Esko Murto and Rev. Dr. Juhana Pohjola. The ELMDF’s Consistory has since examined both candidates and declared them eligible for election as bishop.

Rev. Murto was ordained in 2007, and currently serves as pastor of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Tampere. He previously served as Dean of the Luther Foundation Finland, and has served as assistant professor at Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary (St. Catharines, Ontario). Rev. Murto holds a Master of Theology from the University of Helsinki and a Master of Sacred Theology from Concordia Theological Seminary (Fort Wayne, Indiana).

Dr. Pohjola was ordained in 1999, and currently serves as Dean of the ELMDF. He previously served as Dean of the Lutheran Foundation Finland, and as a visiting researcher at Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary (St. Catharines, Ontario). Dr. Pohjola holds a Master of Theology from the University of Helsinki, a Master of Sacred Theology from Concordia Theological Seminary (Fort Wayne, Indiana), and a Doctor of Theology from the University of Helsinki.

The election of the bishop will take place January 16-18, 2021, in advance of an extraordinary diocesan meeting to be held remotely on January 23. The assembly must then confirm the results of the election. All clergy and representatives of each congregation are eligible to vote for the ELMDF’s new bishop.

The installation of the new bishop is planned for August 1, 2021.


Finnish Lutherans enter into fellowship with the LCMS

ELMDF Bishop Risto Soramies speaks on fellowship discussions with The LCMS during the Finnish church’s Diocesan Assembly.

FINLAND – On November 14, 2020, the Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland (Suomen evankelisluterilainen lähetyshiippakunta – ELMDF) unanimously declared altar and pulpit fellowship with The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS). The decision came during the ELMDF’s annual Diocesan Assembly, held this year online as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The LCMS for its part also expressed recognition of fellowship in a letter of greeting presented to the ELMDF gathering.

Bishop Risto Soramies of the ELMDF, who led the church’s dialogue with the LCMS, hailed the decision as a way of deepening connections between the two churches based on a common faith. “Now our parishioners can commune with each other, and our pastors can preach at each other’s services,” he noted. He also looked forward to closer cooperation on theological education and in the fields of mission. “It is encouraging for us to see how the Mission Diocese is recognized as a church and our work is valued,” he continued.

In a letter to the Diocesan Assembly, President Matthew Harrison of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod expressed joy at the prospect of an official declaration of fellowship. “Your hospitality, service to Christ, and commitment to Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions in the face of opposition remain an example and encouragement to me and to our entire church,” President Harrison said. “It is with special joy and thanksgiving that I write on behalf of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod humbly to extend our hand of fellowship to the Evangelical Lutheran Diocese of Finland.”

Fellowship discussions between the LCMS and the ELMDF first began in 2017. “Since that time, we have conducted substantial conversations about a variety of matters before coming to agreement that we believe, teach, and confess the same doctrine, as it is revealed by the Word of God and contained in the Lutheran Confessions,” President Harrison noted. As a result of those discussions, the LCMS’ Commission on Theology and Church Relations voted unanimously to recognize fellowship with the ELMDF, leading President Harrison to declare fellowship on behalf of the LCMS in his letter. In the LCMS, the president of synod is able to recognize fellowship immediately in situations like these, with a vote to endorse the decision to follow at the next synodical convention—in this case, in July 2021.

In a letter to President Harrison following the vote, Bishop Soramies expressed joy over the declaration of fellowship between the two churches. “The Missouri Synod has been a strong partner for many other confessional churches around the world,” he noted. “We are deeply thankful for this fellowship which is, and will certainly continue to be, a blessing for God’s people.”

The Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland and The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod are both member churches of the International Lutheran Council, a global association of confessional Lutheran church bodies.


A changing of the guard in South Africa as Dr. Winterle retires

Rev. Dr. Carlos Walter Winterle at the ILC’s 2019 World Seminaries Conference in the Philippines.

SOUTH AFRICA – Rev. Dr. Carlos Walter Winterle has announced his retirement as rector of the Lutheran Theological Seminary (LTS) in Tshwane, Pretoria in South Africa.

Dr. Winterle, who turned 70 earlier this year, said, “It is time to retire and give way to the younger generation.” Succeeding Dr. Winterle as rector of LTS is Rev. Dr. Heinz Hiestermann.

“I thank our God and Father for the opportunity” to have served as rector, Dr. Winterle continued. “It was a huge challenge!”

Dr. Winterle served as President of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Brazil (Igreja Evangelica Luterana do Brasil – IELB) from 1998-2006. He has spent the next 14 years serving throughout Africa: four years in Kenya; seven in Cape Town, South Africa; and the past three as the rector of LTS in Pretoria. He has also been heavily involved with missions and theological education in Mozambique.

While Dr. Winterle plans to retire home to Brazil when international travel permits, he still hopes to continue serving as coordinator for theological education in Mozambique. “I’m also coordinating projects and doing fundraising for Mozambique missions,” he added. “I hope that I may continue with this special ministry which is so close to my heart, as long as I am able to.”

Rev. Dr. Hans-Jörg Vogt, Chairman of the International Lutheran Council (ILC) and Bishop of Germany’s Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (Selbständige Evangelisch—Lutherische Kirche – SELK), expressed gratitude for the leadership of Dr. Winterle in Tshwane as well as elsewhere in Africa. “Many young African Lutherans have been strongly shaped by his leadership,” Chairman Voigt noted. “May the Holy Spirit also fill the heart of Dr. Heinz Hiestermann as he takes up this new task.”

Rev. Dr. Heinz Hiestermann

Dr. Winterle’s successor, Dr. Hiestermann, holds a PhD in New Testament from the University of Pretoria, and has served as a guest professor at LTS for several years. He has further served full-time as a lecturer and registrar at LTS since the beginning of this year.

“It will be a smooth transition,” Dr. Winterle notes, “as both of us had time to share our experiences and challenges. I wish him God’s blessing for this special ministry.”

The Lutheran Theological Seminary in Tshwane, Pretoria is an institution operating under the joint governance of the Lutheran Church in South Africa (LCSA); the Free Evangelical Lutheran Synod in South Africa (FELSISA); and the Bleckmar Mission, which is associated with Germany’s Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church.


Malagasy Lutherans elect new president

FLM President Elect Denis Rakotozafy. (Photo: FLM social media).

MADAGASCAR – On November 5, 2020, the Malagasy Lutheran Church (Fiangonana Loterana Malagasy – FLM) elected Rev. Dr. Denis Rakotozafy to serve as its new president. The vote came during the church’s 23rd Synodical Conference held November 4-8 in Mahajanga, which gathered under the theme: “And increase the harvest of your righteousness…” (2 Corinthians 9:10b).

“I send my warmest greetings and congratulations to Dr. Rakotozafy on his election.” said Rev. Dr. Timothy Quill, General Secretary of the International Lutheran Council (ILC). “I’ve known Denis for several years, and I’m looking forward to working with him in the years to come, as the relationship between the Malagasy Lutheran Church and the ILC continues to strengthen and deepen. May God bless the Malagasy church as it moves forward.”

Dr. Rakotozafy was elected after four rounds of voting, in a 312-163 vote. He had already secured more than fifty percent of the vote beginning with the first ballot, but the FLM requires the president of the church to be elected by a 2/3 majority vote, leading to subsequent votes as other candidates dropped from the ballot.

Dr. Rakotozafy succeeds the late Rev. Dr. David Rakotonirina, who passed away in July 2020 after contracting COVID-19.

Prior to his election, Dr. Rakotozafy was Vice President of the FLM’s Antananarivo Regional Synod, serving one term from 2012-2014 and beginning another in February 2020. He also began serving as District President of the Anosibe District in February 2020, having previously served as Vice President of the District from 2018-2020. He formerly served as President of the Mangalaza District from 1999-2000. He was ordained in 1999.

Dr. Rakotozafy has also served in various positions for the Federation of the Protestant Churches of Madagascar and the Council of Christian Churches in Madagascar.

In 2018, Dr. Rakotozafy earned a PhD in missiology from Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana. His dissertation was entitled “Missional Ecclesiology: The Mission of God and the Sending of the Church through the Fifohazana (Revival Movement) in the Fiangonana Loterana Malagasy (Malagasy Lutheran Church).” The Fifohazana revival movement has seen the FLM become one of the largest and fastest growing Lutheran churches in the world.

Since completing his PhD, Dr. Rakotozafy has gone on to teach missiology at the FLM’s Graduate School of Theology (SALT) in Ivory Avaratra, as well as at Ambatoroka’s theological institute.

The ongoing synodical gathering has also seen the election of several other officers to the FLM’s governing board, including the election of Rev. Velomahatombo as Vice President of the FLM. Prior to the election, Rev. Velomahatombo was serving as President of the FLM’s Menabe Regional Synod.

“Grace and peace to all the newly elected leaders,” said Dr. Quill. “The Lord bless you with wisdom and courage to faithfully meet the serious challenges facing the Lord’s Church, as well as the incredible opportunities to proclaim Jesus Christ and His saving Word. It all depends on the Word.”

The FLM became a member of the International Lutheran Council in 2018.


COVID-19 and ILC Churches in Bolivia and Paraguay

The Evangelical Christian Lutheran Church of Bolivia distributes food to those in need.

WORLD – Member churches of the International Lutheran Council (ILC) continue to provide spiritual and physical care to members in the midst of unprecedented challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In this post, we highlight the response of ILC member churches in Bolivia and Paraguay.


The nation of Bolivia has reported 138,695 cases of COVID-19 to date, with more than 8,300 deaths. There are currently 28,846 active cases of the coronavirus in the country. Early in March 2020, the government moved to close borders and enact quarantine measures throughout the country. Church services were restricted in Bolivia early on.

The Evangelical Christian Lutheran Church of Bolivia (Iglesia Cristiana Evangélica Luterana de Bolivia – ICEL) is working to support its members during the crisis, even as the virus affects some of its own members. ICEL President Limberth Fernandez himself fell ill with COVID-19 but has since recovered. Sadly, a staff worker of the church’s radio station in Sucre has passed away from the disease. President Fernandez further reports that “we have had many cases of members and their families affected by the virus, as well as other deaths” in the past few months.

ICEL President Limberth Fernandez provides a daily devotion via the church’s Facebook page.

In response to to the pandemic, the ICEL moved quickly to provide online devotional resources for members. The church’s pastors, vicars, and missionaries, have provided daily devotional videos via the church’s Facebook page, in both the Spanish and Quecha languages. The church has also led a national study of Luther’s Small Catechism which has been well-received.

Congregations themselves have stayed connected through the use of online platforms like Zoom.

Still, President Fernandez notes, online outreach is an imperfect solution, as many members of the ICEL do not have easy access to the internet. “It is impossible for us to reach a large number of our members who are from the countryside,” he says, “places where they do not have access to the internet or that unfortunately are not trained in the use of these technologies.”

The church has provided support for Bolivians in practical ways too, including through the distribution of basic necessities. The church continues to look for additional ways to support people.

A growing challenge for the ICEL is the financial stress that the pandemic has placed on the church. “We have received almost nothing in offerings during this time,” says President Fernandez. The church is working hard to find alternate sources of income to ensure the salaries of pastors can be maintained.


Paraguay has reported 50,344 cases of COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic, with nearly 1,100 deaths. Just under 16,500 cases remain active in the country. In early March, the government suspended school classes and other group events, with quarantine measures being introduced shortly thereafter.

IELP President Eugenio Wentzel leads online devotions.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Paraguay (Iglesia Evangélica Luterana del Paraguay – IELP) continues to serve people with practical and spiritual support in the midst of the current situation. “Our country was one of the first in the region to impost quarantine, which prevented massive infections,” notes IELP President Eugenio Wentzel. But the downside has been an increase in unemployment. For this reason, the IELP has focused on distributing basic necessities to people, including food baskets as well as health and hygiene items.

Like other churches, the IELP has relied on the internet to reach members during the pandemic. “From the beginning,” President Wentzel says, churches “have been working virtually with different platforms to carry the message of the Gospel, with biblical studies, services, and devotionals.”

Different regions of the country have different restrictions, meaning some congregations have been allowed to hold face-to-face services in groups of up to fifty; some areas have allowed gatherings of twenty; others have had to rely on virtual gatherings only.

As a result of the restrictions, the church body also held its annual National Convention assembly virtually this year.

A challenge for the church remains calling and installing pastors during the current crisis. “Our church depends on sister churches to provide candidate pastors for vacant parishes,” notes President Wentzel. The closure of borders makes it difficult to call or transfer pastors. In one specific case, he says, one pastor who has accepted a call has waited months for circumstances to allow him to move to his new parish.


For more news and information from the International Lutheran Council about the COVID-19 pandemic, click here.