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Keep the numbers in perspective

by Mark Chavez (Director, WordAlone Network)

June 12, 2007

photo of Pastor Mark ChavezThere is some excitement over the votes in synod assemblies this year on whether or not the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America should move forward to allowing persons in homosexual relationships to be ordained or serve as ministers. All but seven of the 65 assemblies have met and so far more than 15 have taken stands in favor of approving non-celibate homosexual leaders and not quite an equal number opposed. At least three synods had mixed results, about a dozen (most of which have opposed changes in the ELCA ordination standards in the past) did not discuss or vote on the sexuality issues and results from several are not yet available.

The votes must be kept in proper perspective. They might not reflect what a majority of ELCA members believe - the Bible is clear and consistent that there is to be no sex outside of the lifelong marriage of one man and woman.

In the responses to the second ELCA sexuality study in 2004, only 22.1 % favored the blessing of same-sex unions and the ordination of non-celibate homosexuals, while 57% were opposed. Yet only about a third of the synods in 2005 took stands consistent with the view expressed by 57% of the respondents. Only 51% of the 2005 churchwide assembly voted against the third recommendation, which would have allowed for exceptions to the ordination standards. Why the discrepancy?

I have personally heard from a number of ELCA churches that are so discouraged with the persistent agenda in the ELCA that runs counter to God's Word that they don't bother to send people to the assemblies. I suspect this is one reason why synod assembly results didn't track with the study results. If those churches don't attend synod assemblies then it is less likely that people who share their views will be elected to the churchwide assembly.

I wonder if there is another reason for the discrepancy. Let's assume that every ELCA church were sending as many people as they possibly could to their synod assemblies. The votes of synod assemblies (and churchwide assemblies, synod councils and the ELCA Church Council) still might not represent what a majority of ELCA members believe. All these bodies must have 60% lay members and 40% clergy members. It may be that the 40% skews the votes.

The total baptized membership of the ELCA was 4,836,518 as of Aug. 1, 2006. Pastors account for 17,646 of the baptized. That figure includes 6,119 retired pastors, 693 on leave from call, 50 on leave doing graduate study and 213 on continuing disability.

All pastors account for just 0.36% of the total baptized membership of the ELCA and yet have 40% representation at all decision-making bodies.

This fact alone might mean that assembly votes in the ELCA are skewed toward pastoral influence. Lutheran pastors as a group are out of step with the laity on political issues – twice as many pastors say they are liberal than laypersons ("While 29 percent of all Lutheran clergy are politically liberal, only 14 percent of laity describe themselves in this manner," see What if pastors are out of step on sexuality issues too? Our synod contacts report that the effort to change the ELCA's ordination standards is led by clergy at assemblies.

My purpose in calling attention to the assembly votes is not to call for a change in the 60-40 split at assemblies. My purpose is to keep the vote counts in perspective. The votes of synod assemblies on sexuality issues may not be an accurate indication of what ELCA members believe.

If you're a churchwide or synodical leader, or a pastor or anyone else who is eagerly pressing the ELCA to change its ordination standards, even if you were to get a majority of synod assemblies to agree with you (which you are nowhere close to getting) or a majority at a churchwide assembly, keep the votes in perspective. They may be misleading. Continue pressing for change and you may very likely drive the denomination to the same precipice as our full communion partners in the United Church of Christ, The Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church USA.

If you're an ELCA member who knows the Bible speaks clearly and consistently about sexual relationships, and you are disturbed by the assembly votes, keep them in perspective. They may be misleading about the number of ELCA members pushing for changes in ordination standards.