ELCA Churchwide Organization — Governance May Change

by Betsy Carlson (Editor, WordAlone Network)

October 8, 2004


photo of Betsy Carlson

In true Lutheran form, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) is in a process of reforming itself, well, at least its structures and governance. Some may feel the changes go too far or are not needed at all. Others, many in the WordAlone Network (WA), will feel they haven’t gone far enough in some areas but, maybe, too far in others.

The plans for restructuring the bureaucacy were issued in “draft” form in late August by Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson. Changes proposed for governance were made public at the same time by the Church Council’s executive committee.

Comments on the governance ideas were being accepted through Oct. 4, 2004, and on the bishop’s new restructuring proposals until Oct. 17. They could be viewed at www.elca.org/planning.

Both documents for restructuring and governance change will be submitted to the Church Council when it meets Nov. 11-14.

A notable governance change would give synod assemblies the power to nominate candidates for the ELCA Church Council—rather than having it done by the nominating comittee of the Churchwide Assembly (CWA). This move at least would let another “expression” of the ELCA than churchwide have a say in selecting the council. Can we count this as a foot in the door for true representation—in response to the work of WordAlone—not representation solely by quotas for men, women and people of color? The Churchwide Assembly will continue to elect the Church Council.

(In its constitution, the ELCA is said to have three expressions: churchwide, synods and congregations.)

One proposal, perhaps another slight nod to WA efforts to obtain checks and balances among various ELCA expressions, gives synod assemblies the opportunity to preview and comment on major matters coming to future Churchwide Assemblies.

Another seemingly simple, yet probably far-reaching change, takes away governing authority from boards and steering committees of the units of the churchwide organization. This move looks as if it would eliminate an unrecognized, yet fully constitutional and duly elected, legislative branch of ELCA governance.

This move, if approved, may reduce the chances of the Conference of Bishops’ or others’ being surprised or upset because a churchwide unit or its board set policy. Two instances that occurred in the past couple of years come to mind:

  • The Division for Outreach and its board “acknowledged” a formal relationship to Lutherans Concerned/North America, a self-described “Christian ministry affirming God’s love for people of all sexual orientations and gender identities.”
  • The Lutheran Office for Governmental Affairs (LOGA) signed a statement with several religious organizations opposing a proposed Federal Marriage Amendment, which defines marriage as being between one man and one woman, while the ELCA is in the middle of a major study on questions concerning homosexuality and whether or not to bless the relationships of practicing gays or to ordain them. Those issues are expected to come to a vote at the 2005 Churchwide Assembly next August in Orlando, Fla.

Homosexuality isn’t the only major piece of business for the 2005 Churchwide Assembly. It will also be facing proposed new liturgies and a hymnal as well as the governance changes and restructuring discussed here and acted upon by the Church Council this fall.

Under the presently proposed restructuring of churchwide units, a significant revision is the establishment of a Multicultural Ministries program unit with staffing and review authority over the work of the other program units. Divisions will be called program units; their titles are being changed and their work reorganized along functional lines.

The other program units under the 2004 draft proposal are: Congregational Mission and Evangelical Outreach; Vocation and Education; Global Mission and, finally, Public Witness. The divisions now are: Congregational Ministries; Ministry; Outreach; Higher Education and Schools; Church in Society; and Global Mission.

This is Hanson’s second round of restructuring proposals. The first proposals came in September 2003 after the 2003 CWA adopted “Faithful Yet Changing: The Plan for Mission in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America” and authorized Hanson to come back with recommendations to implement it including possible constitution and bylaw amendments for the 2005 CWA to act upon.

The presiding bishop’s first round of proposals was withdrawn after being roundly and very publicly criticized, especially by some of the boards and committees. The Church Council stepped in at its November meeting in 2003 and came up with a yearlong process for studying and proposing changes in the structure of the churchwide organization.

The council also asked its executive committee to suggest changes in the ELCA’s governance set-up.

The process and other long range planning work involved two questionnaires sent out by the ELCA’s Department for Research and Evaluation, meetings of various panels, including current churchwide officials, and “roundtables” made up of 35 individuals each who proposed outcomes for the work of ministies of the ELCA. Some of the new proposals are said also to be necessary due to budgetary restraints caused by falling ELCA mission income.

Under this year’s restructuring proposal, the multicultural ministries unit will have the authority to “review and monitor all churchwide programs to maintain and enhance the ELCA’s central commitment to multicultural ministries,” according to the draft document.

Calling the commitment to multicultural ministries “central” brings to the forefront one design element of architects of the merger that formed the ELCA in the late 1980s—making the church more diverse and not so visibly northern European, which is its heritage.

Reading between the lines in some reports on ELCA planning web pages, it appears as if a tug of war occurred amongst church leaders over the direction of the church, whether to use the churchwide organization as a means for social change or to use it to support the local ministries and social issues chosen by synods and congregations.

In an April 19, 2004 report Kenneth Inskeep, director of the the ELCA’s research department, wrote: “Many churchwide staff, those who serve on boards and steering committees and the immediate and active constituencies (churchwide-based networks) of the churchwide organization have found it very difficult to abandon their hopes and expectations about what can be accomplished using the churchwide organization as a means.

“To these people, more local control will likely mean that important issues related to the full participation of women, people of color and language other than English, poor people, or other marginalized groups, simply will not be addressed.” (P. 13)

Inskeep further wrote that some in the ELCA think the churchwide organization should “confront the scandalous realities of racial, ethnic, religious, age, gender, familial, sexual, physical and personal barriers” that often manifest themselves in exclusion and poverty. Some, on the other hand, feel such a commitment would be divisive and take away from other important churchwide work.

Inskeep said the ELCA needed to talk about the matter and either truly honor or limit commitments in that area.

My observation is that it looks as if honoring the commitment to diversity was chosen, although Inskeep wrote that the conversations in early 2004 showed the majority of those consulted were “ambivalent” about such issues.

The conversations that have been part of this whole planing process included several synod councils, 20 synod bishops, members of several ELCA networks and groups outside the churchwide organization, all steering committees and boards of churchwide units, plus most of the churchwide staff.

Creating a multicultural ministries unit certainly is a long way from Hanson’s 2003 restructuring proposal that eliminated the ELCA’s current Commission for Multicultural Ministries, as well as the Commission for Women, and brought the two executive directors into the presiding bishop’s office. Multicultural ministry staff then was to have been shifted to work in a department for congregational life and outreach.

Now, according to the 2004 draft statement, “All churchwide units have responsibility for multicultural ministry; however, this unit’s [multicultural ministry] staff will nurture and teach an alliance of people from all units who share responsibilities for multicultural ministry in the churchwide organization.”

Under Hanson’s 2004 proposal, the multicultural unit’s executive is to be given constitutional authority to convene and guide such an internal, churchwide multicultural ministry alliance. In addition, a new executive position for “racial justice ministries” is being proposed for the office of bishop. Responsibility for worship is being reassigned to the presiding bishop’s office from the current Division for Congregational Ministries. Ecumenical affairs, now under the bishop’s office, will become ecumenical and inter-religious relations.

The work of the former Commission for Women is to be put in the new program unit for public witness by placing a full-time director, with an executive level position, in that unit. A consulting committee to work with that person is to be created under the draft proposal.

The item that generated the most heat in the 2003 restructuring proposal was disbanding steering committees and advisory boards of the divisions and departments. In this year’s proposal, Hanson does not seem to address the roles of boards or committees of churchwide units.

Under the ELCA’s current constitution, Chap. 11.34.—the churchwide organization carries out its work through units known by names such as offices, divisions and departments. And, under Chap. 11.35.—each unit is governed by a board, an advisory committee, a steering committee or a committee of the Church Council.

In his 2004 proposals, Hanson states clearly that program units are responsible for progams and offers the idea of creating a new executive position in his office that would be responsible for making sure the churchwide organization complies with various principles and policies of the constitution, Church Council and Churchwide Assembly.

I wonder if the new executive will take over the governing function of the committees and boards? From reading most of the documents on the ELCA web page, I couldn’t tell.

While Hanson steers clears of discussing who is governing the churchwide units, the executive committee of the Church Council makes very clear in its draft proposals that the role of these committees and boards is to be advisory only. They are to be called “program committees.”

I will be watching to see how much of a constitutional rewrite these apparently simple changes will require.

Under the currect constitution, policy-making power appears to be given not only to the Church Council, but also to the Churchwide Assembly and the churchwide organization. For instance, in Chap. 11.41.—the council is given responsibility for fiscal policies, and in 14.21.01.—authority to act upon policies proposed by churchwide units subject to review by the CWA, in 14.21.05. responsibility for policies for relationships with other Lutheran organizations, in 14.21.07.—for personnel policies and in 14.21.09.—for policies in accord with the constitution, etc. In Chap. 12.21.d.—the Churchwide Assembly is told to establish churchwide policy.

And the churchwide organization, in Chap 11.12.—is to develop churchwide policy, in 11.21.c.—to support and establish policy for this church’s mission, in 11.21.g.—given responsibility for policies for relationships with seminaries, colleges and other education endeavors, in 11.21.i.—for policies for relationships to social ministry organizations, and in 11.21.j.—for policies for relationships to governments.

In my opinion, it’s no wonder people got confused about ELCA governance; and those reordering it said they want it to be “transparent.”

In its draft proposal, the council executive committee states explicitly: “This proposed system clarifies the distinct roles of and relationships between the program committtees, which are advisory to the program units, and the Church Council, which is the board of directors of this church. The Church Council has the responsibility for policy, and the program committees help program units carry out that policy by providing expert advice and a variety of viewpoints. The new constitutional language would make this clear (boldface and italics by the ELCA).”

Two-thirds of the nominees for most boards and committees, except the multicultural ministries committee, will be submitted by synod assemblies. One-third of all committees’ nominees will come from the CWA nominating committee. Other multicultural ministries nominees will be at least two persons each from seven specified ethnic communities. All committees will be elected by the CWA.

Under the new system, the presiding bishop will nominate the heads of program units after consultation with program committees. The program unit heads will be confirmed by the Church Council. Apparently, executives of divisions now are selected by the boards and steering committees of the units.

After the Church Council and CWA review and act upon these various proposals, an implementation plan will be started and outcomes will be written. Some of the input for the outcomes will come from the roundtable groups that met in the fall of 2003.

No outcomes have been officially adopted.

An evangelical outreach roundtable suggested that by 2012, 50% of ELCA members will be able to report they have talked to an unchurched person about Jesus Christ and extended an invitation and from 2005 to 2012, the ELCA will have an increase of 10% per year in the number of persons participating in Bible study and or prayer ministry. The roundtable also offered that by 2007, 50% of all new ministry starts will be among people of color so that ELCA congregations will reflect their various contexts.

I believe that the most controversial of the evangelical outreach roundtable suggestions is that by 2012, “recognizing that we meet Christ in community, we, the ELCA, will deepen our commitment to evangelical outreach by partnering with ‘sexual minority’ communities (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender).” Some measurement indicators the roundtable gave are:

  • Augsburg-Fortress has a confirmation curriculum that unites faith and sexuality;
  • seminaries will be welcoming places to train “sexual minority” clergy;
  • one staff position at the churchwide offices in the area of youth will be a “sexual minority.”

A global, ecumenical and interfaith relations roundtable said that by 2012 the ELCA might refocus its understanding of ecumenical engagement on increased local participation in justice and peace networks and action groups with Lutheran and ecumenical partners. Measurement indicators they give are:

  • by 2012 50% of participants in ecumenical activities will be women and people of color/primary language other than English;
  • by 2012 40% of resources for ecumenical work, both human and financial, will support the commitments for increasing ecumenical engagement at the local level.
  • by 2012 the decision-making and leadership structures of the ELCA will be 25% men and women of color or whose primary language is other than English.

I wonder: Do people who are members of minority groups want to be recognized for leadership just to fill quotas or for their leadership qualities?

A leadership roundtable submitted the idea that by 2012 the people of the ELCA might have a “renewed understanding of vocation as vital to their lives, as significant in all arenas of life, and as encompassing both affirmation of the abundant goodness of God’s creation and involvement in efforts to address brokenness and evil.”

The leadership roundtable also suggested that by 2012 the congregations and other institutions of the ELCA will identify, form and mentor people with “gifts for leadership in the church by creative and innovative programs that recognize the abundance of the Spirit’s gifts for our multicultural context and cultivate excellence of practice.”

Where do you suppose this is heading? I think that the suggested measurement standard gives it away and appears to anticipate an action some would like the 2005 Churchwide Assembly to take: with appropriate provisional approval, 10 “ordinations to place” will have taken place by 2006 as a pilot program. I predict that many of these “ordinations to place,” if not all, would be ordinations of non-celibate gays.

A congregations roundtable submitted proposals that by 2012 all ELCA congregations will intentionally engage in and develop anti-racist multicultural relationships so that ELCA Lutherans will be transformed by meeting “the Christ” in our neighbor and that by 2012 children, youth, young adults and adults (both inside and outside church walls) will be transformed by God’s grace so that discipleship increases and deepens.

A public church in public life roundtable suggests that by 2012 we will deepen our understanding of the root causes of injustice and our participation in God’s work of justice and love for the world.

I remember when those “root causes” had another name in church circles—“sin.”

The public church roundtable also listed an outcome of denouncing injustice and pursuing justice and said that by 2012 the ELCA (all expressions) will be a national political presence/player/shaper of public policy so that the ELCA has a real, measurable influence on all levels of the political/social process that results in “Reformation-like” change.

Reformation-like change will require more than being a player on the national playing field of public policy. It will take what the Reformation had: the power of God and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

Come Holy Spirit!