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Church Council Discusses Governance

by John Brooks (Director, (773) 380-2958 or, (

May 6, 2004


ELCA Council Discusses Church Governance, Consultations


CHICAGO (ELCA) -- The Church Council of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) heard a report on responses to a "Questionnaire on Decision-Making" in the ELCA. It also advanced planning to relate council members more closely with local expressions of the church.

The Church Council is the ELCA's board of directors and serves as the legislative authority of the church between churchwide assemblies. The council met here April 17-18. Assemblies are held every other year; the next is Aug. 8-14, 2005, in Orlando, Fla.

At its November 2003 meeting the ELCA Church Council asked its executive committee to "plan and implement a period of consultation and study on the subject of governance of the churchwide organization." It asked also that it see a report and recommendations, including any proposed changes to ELCA governing documents, no later than its November 2004 meeting.

The council's executive committee defined a process, and the Office of the Presiding Bishop prepared the Questionnaire on Decision-Making in consultation with the Department for Research and Evaluation.

The questionnaire was mailed in February to 2,706 people --pastors and congregation council members, synod bishops and officers, current and former church council members, ELCA executives, board and committee members, and presidents of ELCA social ministry organizations, seminaries, colleges and universities.

At its April meeting the Church Council voted to draft a second survey of "the same diverse field of participants" to delve deeper into what the first survey revealed and implications for "possible governance options." The second survey would be distributed around September, according to the council's action, with a final report and recommendations from its findings brought to the council's November meeting.

Dr. Kenneth W. Inskeep, director, ELCA Department for Research and Evaluation, told the council 42 percent or 1,134 of the first survey were completed and returned.

The questionnaire covered four areas of governance: synod assembly, synod council, churchwide assembly and church council. "The majority of respondents in all groups generally agreed with the current governance structure," Inskeep said in his written report, "however, the level of disagreement is considerably higher among the clergy and council presidents, particularly on items related to the representative principles."

The ELCA's representative principles charge the church council with establishing processes to ensure that the church's "assemblies, councils, committees, boards and other organizational units" are each made up of at least 60 percent lay people, half of whom are women, and 10 percent "persons of color and/or persons whose primary language is other than English."

Groups that are farther removed from the churchwide expression -- synod officers, pastors and congregational council presidents -- and groups outside of the governance structure of the churchwide organization -- social ministry organization, seminary and college presidents -- were most likely to disagree with these representative principles, Inskeep said.

"Instead of changing the ratios, it may be necessary to explain more clearly the rationale behind these representative principles," Inskeep suggested.

"Many of their comments expressed that the most qualified persons should be allowed to be voting members, and the sentiment that these representative principles were preventing certain qualified persons from participating. If the necessity for the principles were better communicated at these levels, perhaps they would be better understood and perceived less as obstacles to participation," Inskeep said.

"For all four areas of governance, the highest level of disagreement was found for selecting voting members so that 10 percent (as a goal) are persons of color or language other than English," Inskeep wrote. "There was also significant disagreement for voting conscience, as opposed to representing the majority views of the congregation or synod.

"Some disagreement was also found for selecting voting members so that 50 percent are female and 50 percent are male. Finally, many groups disagreed with the current size of the church council," Inskeep reported.

The church council is composed of the ELCA's four officers -- presiding bishop, vice president, secretary and treasurer --and 33 members, 11 elected at each churchwide assembly to serve six-year terms.

In response to questions seeking ways to achieve "more involvement, trust, ownership and support" in the ELCA's decision-making processes, "the primary opinion expressed in these comments is the feeling of a disconnect between people in congregations and the decisions being made at the churchwide level," Inskeep reported.

"Another area of potential change is the idea of voting conscience, as opposed to representing the majority views of the congregation or synod. Pastors and congregation council presidents were most likely to disagree in this area, in some cases up to 40 percent of respondents," Inskeep reported.

"As was also clear in their comments, people at the congregational level often do not feel represented at the higher levels of decision-making in the church. Perhaps if voting members became delegates and represented the views of their congregations at synod assemblies and the views of their synods at churchwide assembly, people in the pews would feel more like their voices were being heard at the higher levels of governance," Inskeep said.

At the April 2004 meeting, Church Council members discussed plans for consultations and other contacts with synods in their home areas. The council's legal and constitutional review committee reported that its work continues toward possible "changes to foster greater understanding and appropriate involvement in decision-making on the overall program of the churchwide organization."

Information on the ELCA's planning process and related documents are available at on the Web.

For information contact:

John Brooks, Director (773) 380-2958 or