Commentary

Participant says ELCA assembly process is “flawed”

Writer says there’s too little accountability at assemblies

I had the privilege to attend the Churchwide Assembly (CWA) of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) as a voting member from southwestern Minnesota.

The Assembly was remarkable for its consistent refusal to confront any of the serious challenges of the ELCA. Little, if anything, was said from the podium about the financial crisis afflicting the church’s publishing arm, about the dramatic decline in the number of missionaries and new church starts supported by the ELCA over the last decade, the crushing financial burden faced by seminary students, or the declining number of seminary graduates available for call to individual congregations.

But the ELCA’s problems are even deeper than these symptoms and the root of those problems goes to the heart of how the ELCA is organized and operates.

ELCA Lutherans are told that, within the ELCA, there are three primary expressions of the church — congregations, synods and the churchwide organization. But the founding documents of the ELCA “freeze out” any authority on the part of synods or congregations. Only the Churchwide Assembly can amend the constitution and synods and congregations have to live with whatever the CWA decides. Further compounding the problem is the insistence of ELCA leadership that those attending the CWA do not represent anyone. Even though they may be elected from a synod, the wishes of their synod are irrelevant.

Another problem is the absence of checks and balances. Amending the ELCA constitution without Church Council action requires approval at two separate national assemblies, a course of action almost impossible to achieve. But the Church Council can propose an amendment which becomes immediately effective after passage at one churchwide assembly. Synods and congregations are given no voice and are powerless to stop an amendment.

And who elects the Church Council? You’ve got it — the Churchwide Assembly, under the careful direction of national ELCA leadership which has, to be polite about it, very little incentive to look for candidates critical of existing leadership.

Finally, in addition to the unrepresentative nature of the church organization and the lack of any checks and balances, the process for electing national leadership can only be described as bizarre. No candidate forums are organized. No opportunities exist for congregations, synods, or individual congregational members to ask questions of potential leaders.
In fact, the rules as proposed by the church council didn’t even permit direct question-and-answer by voting members attending the ELCA Churchwide Assembly (a rule which the Assembly had the good sense to amend).

So, the ELCA has an unrepresentative body, with no check on its authority, electing leaders it knows little, if anything, about. This is, to put it mildly, not a recipe for success.

Without the consent of the governed, leadership of any organization is without legitimacy. When leadership lacks legitimacy, the governed look elsewhere for direction. Na-tional assemblies don’t preach, teach or convert the un-churched; congregations do. And when congregations conclude they have no stake or influence in the ELCA national assembly, they naturally will look elsewhere to carry out their mission. The real threat to the ELCA is that congregations will increasingly find it irrelevant and will simply ignore it.

Anderson is a member of Faith Lutheran Church (ELCA), Hutchinson, Minnesota.