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Time for a change in leadership in the ELCA?

by Fred Seling (member of St. Paul Lutheran Church, Smithville, Ohio)

July 27, 2007

As we head towards the churchwide assembly in August I have been praying and thinking about leadership issues. Should the assembly elect a new bishop or should Bishop Hanson be retained and what criteria should be used to answer this question?

As I was mulling this question I received an e-mail ELCA news release, "ELCA Membership Drops 1.6 Percent to 4.8 Million in 2006." I read the news release. I was struck by the statement, "In the past 16 years the ELCA lost approximately 466,000 baptized members from the 5,240,739 members reported in 1990, Almen said. More than two-thirds of the decline occurred between 2002 and 2006, . . ." I wasn't sure when Bishop Hanson began his term so I did a quick search on and found that he was elected in August 2001. The two-thirds of the loss referenced above came during Bishop Hanson's tenure as highlighted by the ELCA's own news release.

I then looked at the same information in tabular form on the ELCA site. I created a spreadsheet using this information so that I could graph the information because "a picture is worth a thousand words." I created a graph (IE5+ or PDF) that shows total membership changes for five-year periods. For example the first bar shows that the ELCA lost 53,480 members from 1988 - 1992 and the last bar shows we lost 325,674 members from 2002 - 2006. I chose a five-year period because it averages some of the highs and lows that might occur in a single year. The graph shows a very disturbing trend.

I then compared the membership changes for each of the three Presiding Bishops of the ELCA. I went to the ELCA site to determine the tenures of Bishops Chilstrom and Anderson and then calculated the membership changes during their tenures. See the table below.

Bishop Tenure* Membership Change Average Chg/Year
Herbert Chilstrom 1987 - 1995 -97,559 -12,195
H. George Anderson 1996 - 2001 -90,612 -15,102
Mark Hanson 2002 - 2007 -325,674 -65,135
* Since terms began late in the year the terms were adjusted up to the next full year.

The numbers speak for themselves.

I have been reading the Bible from beginning to end for my personal devotions and I just began reading from the book of Acts. I read how God blessed his new church with an increase in numbers and I wondered about our own ELCA. What does God think about the ELCA? While it is not fair to judge someone's effectiveness solely on numbers, it is clear to me that God blesses those churches that are following Him.

People will offer many reasons why the losses in membership should not be pinned to Bishop Hanson and some of them will be good reasons. However, the numbers are overwhelming. They have to receive consideration. We lost 325,674 members between 2002 - 2006. During Bishop Hanson's tenure we have lost an average of more than 65,000 members per year. We have not seen this rate of loss during the tenures of the preceding two Presiding Bishops. In fact the average membership loss is more than five times the rate of loss during Bishop Chilstrom's tenure. The numbers show that a large number of former ELCA members are not happy with the current direction of the ELCA.

The numbers are conclusive for me. I will continue praying that God will stir up the power of the Holy Spirit at the churchwide assembly. While I do not know who God would have as the leader of the ELCA, I do know that if we follow His wishes He will bless our efforts. I do not believe that we as a church are receiving that blessing now. God wants us to spread His Word and if we are faithful in our efforts He will bless our efforts.

Please pray with me that God would lead the churchwide assembly in their selection of a new Presiding Bishop.