An open letter to the church council

by Pastor Mark Chavez (Director, WordAlone Network)

November 9, 2004

  • Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
  • 8765 W. Higgins Road
  • Chicago, IL 60631

Dear Church Council members,

My our Lord, Jesus Christ, bless and guide you as you meet this week with a full agenda and important decisions to make for the future of the ELCA.

I am writing about one of your agenda items, churchwide governance. Thank you for taking up this matter.

I am encouraged to see that the executive committee’s proposal on governance has identified the need to clarify who sets policy for the churchwide organization. The present situation, in which the boards for the divisions and commissions can set policy with little or no accountability to the rest of the ELCA, needs to be remedied. It is probably one of the main causes of the disconnect between the churchwide organization and the rest of the ELCA. The responses to the February questionnaire revealed.that many ELCA members perceive this malfunction of governance. With such a disconnect it should be evident why many do not trust the churchwide organization.

I am also encouraged to see the amendment proposed to change the nomination process for Church Council members. It is a step in the right direction to have synods nominate candidates, instead of the nominating committee for the churchwide assembly. I strongly encourage you to take at least one more step in that same direction: have the synods elect their representatives to the Church Council. Most of the churchwide assembly members will not know the two nominees from the synods. It makes more sense to have the folks who are more likely to know the candidates elect them. Furthermore, direct election by synods would be a step toward correcting the problem of the churchwide organization lack of connection with synods and congregations. Many ELCA members believe they have no representation in the churchwide organization.

I encourage you to take the additional step toward reconnecting the churchwide organization with the rest of the ELCA, by proposing an amendment to allow ratification of churchwide assembly actions by congregations or synods. The February 2004 questionnaire points toward this step. Approximately 50% of the respondents indicated support for “a congregational or synodical system of approval of churchwide actions.” Ratification by synods or congregations would be the most effective way to reconnect the churchwide organization with synods and congregations. You could also change “voting members” to “delegates” in the constitution.

While I have cited the February 2004 questionnaire, I believe that the responses to it understate the depth of the problems of disconnection and distrust. The questionnaire was mailed to 64 bishops and to 427 people who serve at the level of the churchwide organization. That group accounts for only 0.0098% of the total ELCA membership, yet responses from that group comprised 22% of the total response to the questionnaire.

The questionnaire also was sent to the synod officers, social ministry organization presidents and seminary and college presidents (478 total) who comprise 0.0096% of the total ELCA membership. Their responses account for 19% or the total responses to the questionnaire.

In addition, the questionnaire was mailed to 1,736 pastors and congregational council presidents, of which 669 responded, 59% of the total response. Yet that group comprises more than 99% of the total ELCA membership.

The published results of the questionnaire do not indicate the total number of pastors vs. total number of congregational council presidents who received and responded to the questionnaire. Let’s assume that an equal number of pastors and presidents received and responded to the questionnaire. Given those assumptions, the overwhelming number of ELCA members who are not clergy (clergy comprise only about 0.36% of ELCA membership), and do not serve at the synodical or churchwide level, or in an ELCA related institution, accounted for only about 29% of the total response to the questionnaire.

What might the responses have been if the governance questionnaire had been mailed in proportionate numbers to the groups that do make up the ELCA’s membership?

The makeup of the sample of ELCA members who received the governance questionnaire is in itself a reflection of the disconnection between the churchwide organization and congregations, the folks in the pews. More attention needs to be paid to the people in congregations who account for virtually all of the ELCA’s membership and mission support, or else the disconnection and distrust will only grow worse.

I strongly encourage you to propose more substantive amendments to the ELCA constitution that will connect the folks in the pews with the churchwide organization and hold the churchwide organization accountable to ELCA members and congregations.

  • Yours in Christ,
  • Mark C. Chavez
  • Director, WordAlone Network