Reorganizing the ELCA…Again

The ELCA Church Council has approved a new design for the future work of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can read about it in the official news release here — https://www.elca.org/News-and-Events/8083. I’m quite curious about this latest effort and deeply skeptical of its usefulness, given the history of past reorganizations. The initial information is going to receive a fair bit of critique — much of it justified, I suspect. In fairness, I must applaud up front the proposal to have innovation (research and development) as a major focus on the revised structure. I find that encouraging.

This post will have a sort of “inside baseball” flavor for non-ELCA folks, so I apologize in advance for that. I’ve spent my adult life loving and hating and loving this institution. I’d like to think I was part of something that matters. Of course, I don’t equate the “Church” with the ELCA. I have no worries about whether the church of Jesus Christ will continue. That’s not up to us. My home denomination — that’s another matter entirely.

The ELCA was conceived in the “original sin” of reorganization in 1988. I use that language humorously, because I don’t think the merger of the three predecessor church bodies (The Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches, the Lutheran Church in America, and the American Lutheran Church, for those who may not quite remember) was more or less sinful than any actions taken by the institutional church as a human organization. It was, in fact, a necessary and prudent action taken by faithful leaders.

I do remember what I found most troubling in that experience — the absolute prohibition on calling this union a “merger.” After all, we were to be a “new” church, like nothing we Lutherans in North America had seen before. Even to mention any of the predecessor church bodies in certain settings was to feel like one had passed gas at the prom. Having committed all of the above transgressions, I know whereof I speak.

We got over the conceit of “newness” after a while. Even those in charge of the denomination could eventually refer to the union of 1988 as a merger. In fact, it was the first reorganization in a long line of reshufflings, realignments, reboots and re-starts. The reorganizing began almost before the ELCA hit the ground, as those in charge realized that the funding for all the grand plans was simply not going to materialize. The descending curve in denominational funding had driven the original merger. It has continued to drive the cycle of reorganization throughout the past thirty years.

I want to say clearly that in spite of downward trends in attendance, membership, participation and funding, the ELCA as denomination, judicatories, congregations and social ministry organizations has done some magnificent ministry. The creativity, the drive, the faithfulness, and the expertise offered in service of the gospel through this church has been and continues to be admirable and impressive. But none of that has interrupted the organizational descent and decline.

The ELCA is not an outlier in this regard. Christian denominations of every stripe have suffered humiliation and decay in North America in the last thirty years. The brief flourishing of some so-called “conservative” denominations was simply a re-circulation of disaffected members from so-called “mainline” denominations. That re-circulation has ceased to matter.

The various denominations have made policy and practice decisions that accelerated these trends. For the ELCA, intercommunion agreements were the first excuse for abandoning ship. The 2009 vote for inclusivity of LGBTQA+ people (in my book, absolutely the right decision) provided another excuse for the disaffected. In our current time, the racist (and other “-ist”) histories and agendas of many denominations are creating further rationales for leaving those institutional churches. Reorganization is, to coin a phrase, “pandemic” among American Protestant denominations.

For the ELCA, the concern is acute. Our own Office of Research and Evaluation (in my view, one of the unsung heroes of our denominational life — thank you, Ken Inskeep) projected in 2019 that the ELCA would for all intents and purposes cease to exist by 2050 (See “Will the ELCA Be Gone in 30 Years?” at https://faithlead.luthersem.edu/decline/). The author of the article, Dwight J. Zscheile, notes that efforts at more effective ministry have not succeeded in addressing the issue — not because they were bad efforts but because they tend to address the wrong problems. He writes,

For all the energy spent on trying to turn things around over the past 40 years, there is little to show. That is because the cultural shifts underpinning this decline are largely beyond our control. To the extent to which we’ve tried to fix the church, we’ve failed. I know a lot of really smart, faithful leaders who have poured their lives into this effort. It’s not their fault. The forces dismantling the established congregational and denominational system are much bigger. Something deeper is at stake.

The “something deeper” is the essential de-Christianization of North America and Western Europe that has been taking place for at least the last one hundred years. Some may protest that the United States does not currently look de-Christianized, given the political power of certain “Christian” groups and leaders. I would suggest that these elements represent a Gnostic, white-supremacist, neo-liberal last gasp of established Christianity in this country. This pathological nostalgia will not go quietly. But in the end it will go.

Dwight Zscheile concludes that reorganization, revitalization, and renewal are not going to derail this descending train.

The dismantling of the inherited congregational and denominational structures may be the work of the Holy Spirit, the work of the devil, or just the byproduct of the end of the Age of Mobilization (when Americans organized themselves into voluntary societies to get things done) and the rise of the Age of Authenticity (when Americans looked inward to discover and express their true self). Trying to reverse it is pointless. It is better to get clear on what God’s promises in Christ are for us and for our neighbors and find simple ways to make those promises come alive for ordinary people in ways they can understand and embody.

I don’t know if his proposed solutions make any sense, but they are worth reading. Diagnosis is infinitely easier than either treatment or “cure.” I do believe that reorganization is a necessary and perhaps even faithful action in the short run for the ELCA. But it will not have much long-term effect.

I don’t think the current proposal goes far enough, even in the short run. I would encourage the reduction of the number of ELCA synods by half, for example. I would encourage the merger of ELCA seminaries with other seminaries or colleges until we have no more than three free-standing seminaries. I would encourage that we assist congregations in divesting themselves of expensive physical plants before the last member dies and forgets to turn out the lights. I would encourage us to see bi-vocational ministry as the norm for congregational leadership rather than a concession to necessity. But those are easy ideas, just rearranging the deck chairs after the iceberg has gashed the hull.

The ELCA may be on a glide path to oblivion. In the meantime, I hope realizing that fact might free us to do the things that would have made a difference forty years ago. If our congregations won’t serve the neighborhoods where they live, then some of us will move to congregations that do — led by BIPOC pastors. We will sit in the back rows and be good, supportive members. If we divest ourselves of our aging physical assets, a third of the proceeds should go toward reparations to the Black community in this country and a third of the proceeds should go toward reparations to the Native American communities whose lands we have stolen. The balance can pay off debts and fund hunger and disaster relief efforts.

Freed from maintaining institutions in order to pay the utilities, let us then focus on the ministry of reconciliation. That means racial reconciliation. That means class reconciliation. That means serving the underserved in our increasingly stratified and feudal economy. And it means serving the function for which Lutherans were designed — to be a movement in the church catholic that brings all Christians together in a common confession of Jesus as Lord in a world hostile to such a confession. The theology of Martin Luther is the perfect vehicle for such reconciliation — if only we’d give it a try some time.

Well, what do I know? Typing is easy. But there you have it.