“Leaving the ELCA” series

What is a Careful Process for Leaving the ELCA?

graphic of people in a maze

Understand where you are going and how to get there...






The environment surrounding the process of leaving the ELCA has become increasingly charged in the months following the August 2009 churchwide assembly. ELCA officials and synod staff members have become increasingly anxious as more congregations choose to leave. The rules have been tightened across the ELCA but are being enforced differently in various synods. This means that everyone engaging in the process of voting to leave the ELCA needs to be very careful about how they do it. We have compiled a number of suggestions, cautions, and advisory notes about how a congregation should engage in the process of voting to leave the ELCA. To read more about this click HERE.

Review the Constitution

The first and most crucial step for any congregation preparing to leave the ELCA is a careful review of the constitution by a team of people. It is especially wise to include people on the team that are familiar with legal and contractual language. Team members should read the congregation’s constitution carefully, compare notes and formulate questions to be answered. If the questions are not easily answered, then the congregation should consider legal counsel to make sure that constitutional provisions for leaving the ELCA are completely understood and carefully followed.

Educating the Congregation and Preparing a Recommendation

A careful, intentional process should be followed to enable as many members of the congregation as possible to learn about the issues at stake in the decision to leave. Each congregation will develop a method that works well for them. The following steps are gleaned from a number of processes that have been successful since August 2009. We commend them for use by most congregations.

photo of blackboard showing time line

Develop a time-related plan of action

  1. Affiliation Task Force: Establish an affiliation task force. Their job is to lead the congregation in considering whether to change denominational affiliation. Often this group is appointed by the church council or is in some way formed from the leadership of the congregation. Some churches have been successful in using past presidents or council members to form this group. The key to success is to choose people trusted by the congregation.
  2. Set a Time Frame: The affiliation task force should set a time frame for their work and announce it to the congregation. This time frame should be several weeks in length to allow ample time for the task force to do their work, hold public meetings, and prepare a recommendation. It should also be respectful of seasonal travel of snowbirds.
  3. Study the Issues: The affiliation task force should meet regularly—probably weekly—to study, discuss, and learn about the issues that have given rise to the desire to leave the ELCA. It is crucial for the task force to spend time in prayer, search the Bible, study the Lutheran Confessions, and read articles about the issues from books, articles and the Internet. The group needs to spend time in conversation about what they are learning and where they think God is leading them. Sola Publishing (www.solapublishing.org) offers two Bible studies that may be helpful in addressing these issues:
    1. “We Still Believe” is a seven-session Bible study addressing key biblical doctrines that are at risk in the church today. This study would be helpful in providing a foundation for the broad theological issues at stake.
    2. “Of One Mind and Purpose” is a six-session study focusing specifically on how the Bible describes the reality of division and unity in Christ. This study would be helpful in drawing the distinction between faith and allegiance to Christ in contrast to affiliation and membership in human institutions.
  4. graphic of puzzle with happy faceRegular Communication: The task force’s work needs to be communicated regularly to all members of the congregation. Good ways to facilitate this communication include notes in the Sunday bulletin, newsletter articles, postings on the congregational website, and Sunday morning temple talks. This step is crucial in helping the congregation know what is happening and for keeping everyone together in the process.
  5. Public Meetings for Open Conversation: The affiliation task force should provide opportunity for the congregation to have open conversation about the issues that have prompted a reconsideration of denominational affiliation. This is often done with a series of two to four public meetings where representatives of the ELCA, LCMC, Lutheran CORE, and WordAlone are invited to speak and lead the congregation in conversation about the issues and possible future affiliation. Another good way to help open conversation is to hold a series of Bible studies or studies of the Lutheran Confessions that focus on salient issues at hand.
  6. Prepare a recommendation: The affiliation task force should complete their work by preparing a written recommendation stating their findings and the action they recommend the congregation take concerning the congregation’s denominational affiliation. This recommendation can be received by the church council but may require a special congregational meeting in order to take action.

Using Surveys

Care should be exercised when using surveys to take the pulse of the congregation. When done before a careful education process has taken place, some surveys have proven to be problematic. In these cases the survey itself tends to confuse and upset people by forcing them to make a response before they fully understand the issues. We recommend that surveys not be administered until there has been ample opportunity for public meetings and open conversation. This will give leaders a much better reading on where the congregation is on the issues.

We further recommend that the focus of the survey be in making sure that participants really understand the points of debate. The design of the survey should help determine that responders have had adequate opportunity to formulate their own position. Care should be taken to make sure that there is space in the survey for open comment by participants as well as structured (yes or no) responses. Leaders should review the comments carefully when making a decision about how prepared a congregation is for voting.

The First Vote

graphic of people lined up to voteThe first vote is a crucial step in the process of leaving the ELCA. It is vital to make sure that it follows in a well-timed process from public meetings and affiliation task force recommendation. The timing needs to keep momentum without rushing the process. It seems wise that the first vote should happen within a month of the last public meeting. It should be carefully publicized, not only in compliance with the constitution’s requirements for a special congregational meeting, but to make sure that all members feel invited, are aware of the recommendation, and know what will happen. Most congregations require announcement in worship over two consecutive weeks and a letter sent at least ten days prior to the meeting.

At the meeting itself the process needs to be treated seriously and in strict compliance with the constitutional mandates. It is vital to have a carefully stated policy, based on the constitution, of who is able to vote and to register each member as they are given a ballot.

The ballot itself should be carefully prepared with a full list of reasons why the congregation is moving to disaffiliate with the ELCA. (See sample ballots in resource section.) During the meeting the ballot should be carefully reviewed so that participants know what is at stake and how to mark the ballot to express their vote accurately. The first vote is usually worded as a motion to “initiate the process of disaffiliation with the ELCA.”

Discussion about the resolution should be provided with opportunity for any who wish to clearly state their perspective. Debate should be shut off only when it is no longer helpful and only by the clear calling of the question according to the rules of order. Remind everyone as they are marking their ballots that it is not possible to abstain in this vote. Unmarked ballots will be counted as a “no” against the resolution to leave.

Make sure that all ballots are handled carefully for the tally process. Ballots should be handled openly and not taken out of general visibility of multiple witnesses representing differing perspectives in the process. Synod representatives should be welcomed and accorded careful consideration to make sure that they are able to directly observe every part of the tally process. Remember that the number of ballots collected and counted must match up exactly with the number of registered voters. We recommend that all present be warned to not respond in any outward way as the results are announced, to promote a better spirit and general impression about the process.

Following the vote, a registered letter should be sent to the synod office to inform the synod bishop of the vote. This letter must be sent within ten days of the meeting.

The Bishop's Consultation

photo of speakerFor the most part ELCA bishops have been careful and considerate participants in this process. Their job is to make sure that the process of disaffiliation is being followed properly and that all parties are aware of the ramifications of this decision. Congregations that have done a careful job of studying the issues and preparing the membership should be well prepared for the bishop’s consultation.

There are a couple of things for which to watch. First, bishops naturally tend to assume a pastoral relationship with a congregation. In normal circumstances this is helpful, but in the case of disaffiliation it can become quite problematic. Lay leaders must make sure that the bishop does not supplant the congregation’s clergy in a pastoral role. If the bishop preaches, teaches, or provides pastoral care in the congregation during the 90-day period, the danger of confusion over pastoral leadership arises. Certainly, neither the bishop nor the synod office should take any role in publicizing congregational meetings or events.

Secondly, some ELCA bishops have instituted their own non-constitutional policies and procedures regarding the "consultation" process required of congregations that have taken their first vote to leave the ELCA. In a heavy-handed attempt to control the process of disaffiliating with the ELCA, they are subjecting congregations to pressure from multiple individuals (synod staff or conference representatives) and are misleading congregations to act contrary to their local constitutions by forcing them to meet with a panel of consultants.

Congregational leaders should be aware that the ELCA's Model Constitution for Congregations—and most local constitutions—state:

"C6.05. c. The bishop of the synod shall consult with this congregation during a period of at least 90 days."

The constitution does not say "consult with the synod" or "synod staff" or "consultation committee" or "conference representatives." Every congregation that submits to a bishop's consultation has the right to insist that it be just that: a consultation from the bishop, and the bishop alone. Anything more than this goes beyond the legal provisions of the constitution and is not required. It is reasonable and advisable, however, to allow the bishop to be accompanied by a witness or personal secretary; this person would be present to take notes but not to address the meeting.

Note: In cases where congregations are forced by their bishop to violate the requirements of their own local constitution, the pastor and/or council president should make the congregation aware of this misconduct on the part of synod officials prior to meeting with any synod representative. We also recommend copies be retained of all written correspondence (both email and postal) that "require" unconstitutional meetings, along with the text of any recently created "synod consultation policies" for evidence in subsequent legal proceedings.

Seeking a New Affiliation

It is vital that congregations leaving the ELCA be ready to affiliate with another Lutheran church body. Normally this is a provision required by the constitution in order for the congregation to maintain ownership of its property.

At some point prior to the second vote of the congregation, it is necessary to establish with which Lutheran church body the congregation will become affiliated. Some congregations have chosen to take the vote to join a new body along with their first vote to disaffiliate with the ELCA; others have established their new affiliation at the time of their second vote.

It should be noted that ELCA officials recommend taking the vote to affiliate with a new church body in conjunction with the second vote, because they want to avoid situations of “dual membership.” However, since the constitution requires congregations to join a new church body as a requirement for maintaining its property and assets, it is prudent for a congregation to establish its new affiliation PRIOR to the second vote. Contrary to what may be stated by synod officials, a congregation has the right to take such action at any time within the process and is NOT required to wait until after the second vote.

Note for pastors: It is important that pastors do NOT change their ELCA roster status until after the second vote, to avoid the synod declaring a “pastoral vacancy” in the parish. However, during the weeks prior to the second vote, it is recommended that pastors who intend to transfer to a new church body make contact with the appropriate representatives and initiate the certification process required to be received on the roster of that new body.

Second Vote

The second vote should carefully follow the same patterns used in the first vote. Remember that an announcement is required in worship over two consecutive weeks and a letter must be sent at least ten days prior to the meeting. In most cases, the constitution requires a representative of the synod to be present at the second vote.

The only difference from the first vote to the second vote is that any changes in the resolution should be carefully explained. Whereas the first vote was a motion to “initiate the process of disaffiliation with the ELCA”, the second vote is to “disaffiliate with the ELCA.”

Following the vote, a registered letter should be sent to the synod office to inform the synod bishop of the vote. This letter must be sent within ten days of the meeting.

Follow-up processes

Following a successful vote to leave, the follow-up process is determined by the predecessor church body of the congregations.

Former ALC congregations are automatically disaffiliated from ELCA by a second successful vote to leave. However, there is paperwork that needs to be filed with the synod office and official release is not recognized by the ELCA until the departure is published in The Lutheran magazine.

Former LCA congregation and ELCA mission starts have to go through an additional step to be released by the synod council. For the most part these releases have been routinely given; however, there have been exceptions that leave congregations in an odd kind of limbo about the departure. It is still unclear how these situations for congregations not released by their synods will be worked out.

photo of speaker

Note: Be aware that congregations who received mission support grants from the ELCA at any time in their history will be asked by the ELCA to repay these grants upon being released from the ELCA. The congregation should seek legal advise on how to respond to such requests, and what possible actions they may choose to take.

Rostering in New Church Body

As stated above, it is vital that congregations leaving the ELCA be ready to affiliate with another Lutheran church body. The process for affiliating is established by the new Lutheran church body the congregation is joining, and active participation in events of this new body should be encouraged.

After the second vote of the congregation establishing its disaffiliation, pastors will need to inform their synod if they wish to remain on the roster of the ELCA (resigning from their congregation) or transfer to the roster of the new church body (moving with their congregation). It is only after the second vote of the congregation that pastors should transfer their roster status and make any changes in their pension fund (i.e. either maintaining their fund in the ELCA Board of Pensions or “rolling over” their pension into the program of their new church body.)

Constitutional Changes

Revisions to the constitution will need to be carefully written that eliminate references to the ELCA and insert appropriate references to the new church body. These revisions will also need to be ratified by the congregation in the manner required by the constitution itself.

This process may take some time, given that most congregations require votes over two consecutive congregational meetings. Congregations may choose to do this work as a part of the business of their regular annual or semi-annual meetings.