From a Bishop's Desk

A series of opinion articles and essays from bishop's of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and ecumenical partners.


Travels in Slovakia

May 03, 2024
Greetings in this Easter season, dear siblings in Christ. I love this season because it reminds me that we are, by God’s grace through the Resurrection of Jesus, an Easter people!
I recently had an opportunity to experience a little of what this means for the Church. On the Tuesday after Easter Sunday, Marianne and I left for a week-long trip to Slovakia. Not an anticipated vacation destination? It wasn’t a vacation in the typical sense. Let me explain.
Of the 65 synods that make up the ELCA, only one is non-geographical and has an ethnic identity instead: The Slovak Zion Synod. The bishop of that synod, Bishop Wilma Kucharek, lives in Connecticut and most of the congregations of that synod are in the Northeast. Her colleague bishops in Region 7 (New England, Upstate and Metro NY, New Jersey, Northeast and Southeast Pennsylvania) encouraged Bishop Kucharek to host us on a trip to her homeland.
Bishops and spouses of Region Seven at Orava Castle
The history of Slovakia and the Lutheran Church in that country is fascinating and, at least to me, mostly unknown. (I won’t go into much of the history of the country here.) One of the churches we visited, led by Pastor Ján Molcan, is celebrating more than 500 years as a Lutheran church! Because of the number of Germans living in Slovakia at the time, news of the activities of Martin Luther reached there within weeks. In a fairly short amount of time, we were told that 90% of Slovakians were Lutheran.
The chancel in the sanctuary of the Lutheran Church in Partizánska L’upca
Folk group singing for us at Luthrean Church in Partizánska L’upca.
Then, as a result of the Council of Trent (1545-1563), the Counter-Reformation of the Roman Catholic Church caused devastation and often brutal behavior to those who had separated. Churches and people who self-identified as Lutheran were forcibly brought back into the Catholic fold, or else. As we know, not everyone cooperated.
As in so many other places in Europe, this set up a tense situation in Slovakia. Finally, to come to some resolution, in 1681 Emperor Leopold I held a “congress” in which it was agreed (under Articles 25 and 26, hence “Articular churches”) that non-Catholics could build their own churches but under very restricted conditions:
  • Only two churches could be built per county, on the outskirts and not in the town.
  • They had to be made entirely of wood.
  • They could have no foundation.
  • Construction had to be completed in a year.
  • They could have no bell towers or bells.
  • The entrance had to face away from the road.


As you can see, the articles were so stated to almost ensure failure or collapse of these churches. Nonetheless (“By the grace of God,” may we say?), the churches were built and survive to this day, the oldest, in Kežmarok (which we visited and is pictured here) being three hundred years old! On the Sunday we were in Slovakia we worshipped in the articular church in Svätý Kríž. This is the Easter or resurrection spirit I mentioned at the beginning of this article.
We also had the opportunity to spend a morning in conversation with Bishop Ivan El’ko, national bishop of the Slovak Evangelical (Lutheran) Church. It was an eye-opening experience for us to hear about the state of the church. Lutherans currently make up about 5% of the population and, except for the undeniable impact of the Communist occupation of Slovakia on church attendance in the last century, much of the story Bishop El’ko told mirrors ours: many people not going to church, the burden of buildings, etc. Yet the mission continues and one congregation we visited has helped minister to 100 Ukrainian refugees.
Bishop Ivan El’ko
There is much more I could share about this learning experience, and probably will in the future, but I wanted to give you an insight into the energy of God’s Spirit, the Spirit of Resurrection, hope and new beginnings. That Spirit is present in our ministry sites, too, moving the Mission Forward!
With gratitude to be in discipleship with you, 
Bishop Paul Egensteiner