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Who holds the legislative authority?

by Mark Chavez (Director, WordAlone Network)

November 23, 2004

photo of Pr. Mark ChavezThe 2005 Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) supposedly has at least four important issues to settle next August in Orlando, Florida—adopting proposed new worship materials and a hymnal, answering the two questions about homosexuality, accepting proposed changes in governance and approving a churchwide restructuring plan.

Regarding the last one, an ELCA news release about the November 11-15, 2004, Church Council meeting reports:

The Church Council . . . approved a final report and recommendations on restructuring the ELCA churchwide organization. It transmitted to the 2005 ELCA Churchwide Assembly the report and recommendations for final consideration. The Church Council is the ELCA’s board of directors and serves as the legislative authority of the church between churchwide assemblies. . . . The plan was presented to the church by the Rev. Mark S. Hanson, ELCA presiding bishop. Between now and the assembly, ELCA leaders will consult with many people to develop possible budgets and staffing configurations, he said. After the assembly—and assuming amendments to governing and policy documents are adopted— the churchwide organization will enter the design’s implementation phase, he said. (ELCA News Service, Nov.19, 2004, ELCA Council Approves, Transmits Churchwide Redesign Proposal) [emphasis added]

Yet, in complete contradiction to the above, the same news release also reports, “Already, the churchwide staff has begun working into the proposed structure, Hanson said. ‘The staff is not waiting for permission,’ he said.” [emphasis added]

How does the churchwide staff know that the churchwide assembly will approve the restructuring as written now? Hanson’s proposal calls for five program units: 1) Church in Society; 2) Evangelical Outreach and Congregational Mission; 3) Global Mission; 4) Vocation and Education; and 5) Multicultural Ministries. The ELCA news release reports that Hanson “defended his proposal to designate Multicultural Ministries as a program unit” in the Church Council meeting, and is quoted as saying “This church, in all of its manifestations in this [churchwide] organization needs to affirm our commitment to becoming a multicultural church.”

If there were questions in the council meeting about making multicultural ministries equivalent to evangelical outreach, global mission, and so on, then there likely will be questions at the churchwide assembly. How does the churchwide staff know that the assembly will approve of this program unit? Consider that the ELCA churchwide organization has spent millions of dollars since Jan. 1, 1988, trying to increase the percentage of members who are people of color or whose primary language is other than English from just under 3% to 10%. As of the end of 2003, the percentage was about the same as in 1988.

What if those millions of dollars had been spent since 1988 on proclaiming the Gospel to all folks, regardless of skin color, primary language or wealth? What if we, the church, viewed all people as individuals who need to be saved by Jesus Christ and loved by us, rather than as a means to the end of reaching an arbitrary quota? What if evangelicals and the multiculturalists/social justice community agreed to use the language of sin and forgiveness, law and gospel, whether talking about personal or corporate greed, which both lead to oppression of minorities? Perhaps the ELCA would not have declined in membership from 5.26 million to 4.98 million, and perhaps the percentage of people of color or with primary language other than English actually would have increased.

What if someone challenges the current assumption that the ELCA is not already a multicultural denomination? For all the “sensitivity” and “inclusivity” of the churchwide organization, from day one in the life of the ELCA, more than 97% of us have been labeled as white, northern Europeans as though we all have the same cultural background. With my Spanish and German descent, I can assure you that the many different Scandinavian cultures that I have encountered since moving to the upper Midwest from the east are not at all familiar to me.

And, on another tack, what if churchwide assembly members raise even broader questions next August? What if they ask, why we are bothering with restructuring the churchwide organization, when two fundamental problems—the disconnect between the churchwide organization and congregations and the widespread distrust of the churchwide organization—are barely addressed in any of the proposals from the Church Council?

Isn’t the fact that the churchwide staff is not waiting for the permission of the churchwide assembly next summer just a sign that those two fundamental problems exist? Is the churchwide assembly regarded as merely the automatic rubber stamp of approval for everything that comes from the churchwide staff and Church Council? ELCA churchwide officials regularly assert that the churchwide assembly is the “highest legislative authority of the churchwide organization” (ELCA Constitution 12.11).

Is it just lip service? The multiculturalists accused the church of playing lip service to their cause during the planning phase of restructuring. Seems as if the pot and the kettle both are black.