Wayne N. Miller
August 7, 2022
I write this on the opening day of the 2022 Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Leading up to this assembly there has been a significant movement to re-examine the entire structure and constitutional polity of the ELCA, largely motivated by a series of recent events in the Sierra Pacific Synod that have raised the possibility that the constitutive structures of the denomination are, in and of themselves, a root cause of the systemic racism that has plagued us from our origins in the mid-1980s, and are, thus inherently obstructive to the primary mission of the Church to reach out to all people of every race and culture.
As a retired ELCA synod bishop, I am acutely aware of the risks and limitations of my perspective on this or any other current leadership issue in the life of our Church. I have been on the outside of such conversations for some time, and it is possible, perhaps even probable, that there is much relevant new information of which I am simply unaware.
On the other hand, history, freedom from the pressures of present institutional responsibility, and distance from the emotional charge of the moment also yield a viewpoint that could be useful as the Church struggles with these foundational questions.
Not a New Question
I have long been in favor of the idea of re-evaluating the structure and constitutional polity of the ELCA. And in this regard, I am certainly not alone. Living and working in the “middle” leadership tier of a large institution, there is no escape from the tension of being the defender and protector of the big system on one side, and simultaneously an advocate for congregations that are trying to respond to the rapidly changing conditions of the “mission field,” and that often feel constrained by the rules of institutional structure.
The ELCA created an opportunity to look more closely at deep structural questions a little more than a decade ago, in the form of a LIFT Task Force (Living Into the Future Together). It was a fine working group, composed of some of the wisest and most gifted leaders in the Church at that time. But because it was an administrative support mechanism, accountable only to existing executive leadership, rather than being a visioning team with a strong, clear mandate from the whole denomination to re-imagine the basic structures of the Church, it was too easy to ignore, or conveniently cherry-pick its conclusions. At best, the observations, recommendations, and insights of the task force turned out to be a tepid justification for an administrative redesign of the Churchwide expression.
LIFT did not cut deep enough to adequately address the strategic and adaptive challenges crashing in on “main-line” denominational Protestantism, including the ELCA. So, even though it will be scary and disruptive, I think we are past due for a new, authentic, ground-floor-up conceptualizing of the kind of Church we are called to be here and now.
Motivation for Change
Although I applaud the effort to re-open these structural and constitutive questions, my reasons for supporting a restructuring process may be a bit different from the reasons that are motivating the current grassroots movement.
As a pastor ordained in the LCA and actively under call at the time of the formation of the ELCA, my perception was that we saw ourselves as a 5.5-million-member church body, well on our way to becoming an 8-million-member church body, propelled by the synergy and increased capacity brought to us through the merger of three smaller Lutheran churches. In the mid-1980s this was an ambitious but realistic vision. So, we organized the ELCA, structurally, to be able to support, challenge, and resource that aspirational 5–8-million-member organization. This institutional architecture included 65 regional synods, each with a full-time bishop and a staff to reduce the span of care for each staff member to an effective level. It also included the grouping of these synods into 9 regional structures, originally conceived to provide educational and program resources as well as managing professional leadership development for the regions and overseeing shared missions, like Lutheran Campus Ministries. The regions also had a small professional leadership structure of their own. But, with somewhere between 150 and 400 congregations in most of the synods, the structure had access to adequate resources to support all of this plus a generously ample Churchwide staff to support synod needs, to start new congregations, to subsidize eight seminaries, to supply a steady stream of program resources to the whole Church, and to extend the reach of congregational and synodical mission into the whole world.
Now, however, we know that we are a 3.5-million-member denomination (optimistically), probably on our way to becoming a 2-million-member denomination (or less). And the structures of support, challenge and resourcing are so top-heavy that they comprise an impossible load structure that, for all the valiant and faithful work done in those oversight tiers, is more an impediment than an asset for congregational mission. I am hoping that organizational design efficiency will be a prominent consideration as this conversation about restructuring continues.
And it is important to point out that this out-of-scale administrative load is inseparable from the present driving concern of systemic racism. The requirement of managing expensive administrative load structures always falls with disproportionate weight upon the poor. And to the degree that concentrated poverty correlates with some racial or ethnic populations, the system is inherently racist. When we expect the Alaska Synod, which covers a vast territory and serves a disproportionate population of poor Alaska Native congregations or the Caribbean Synod, which serves a disproportionate population of poor Latino congregations, to support the same administrative structure as much larger, wealthier synods in the contiguous states, this is, by definition, systemically racist. And when we structurally require congregations in poor, racially particular or ethnically specific communities to call a pastor whose minimum entry-level credential includes 8 years of matriculation in institutions of higher learning at their own expense and requires those congregations to pay a salary, provide housing, family medical benefits, and a 12% pension contribution, all in order to share word and sacrament worship every week… that IS systemic racism.
Political Context and Polity
Lutheran polity in the United States, to my eye, tends to mirror closely political sensibilities in the general culture. For example, the so-called 3-expression Church design so foundational to the ELCA’s self-understanding, is, actually, our rendition of “e pluribus unum” (from many, one). And the ELCA has been remarkable among Protestant denominations in its ability to sustain, through many divisive trials and quarrels, a profound sense of connectedness, that also permits the self-differentiated autonomy of its various regional and local entities.
But we are in a season, politically, as we all know, when the general culture is in a major re-balancing of this dialectic, in which the “pluribus” (state and local autonomy) is threatening to completely overwhelm the strength and goodness of the “unum.” We, as the political culture of the United States, have not faced this problem with this intensity since the years before the Civil War.
The same energy is rising with great power, now, in our Church. I think that when “connectedness” becomes an individuality-crushing enmeshment, mission imagination and creativity are the casualty. But I believe just as profoundly that when regional and local autonomy leads to “cutting off” from the wisdom, the experience, and the uncomfortable corrective challenge of belonging to a greater whole, the result is dangerous, unhealthy, and fundamentally unfaithful to our confession of being one holy catholic and apostolic church. Whatever other weaknesses and shortcomings may be present in ELCA polity and structure, I hope that this commitment to “one from many” will not be lost for the sake of the political expediency of easily accommodating local idiosyncrasies.
Change Process and Self-Awareness
As much as I support the idea of re-conceptualizing the ELCA, in general, it seems to me to be a very doubtful enterprise to do this in the intensely anxious and reactive environment in which we find ourselves. It is a very great, and potentially catastrophic tendency in human nature, whenever we feel anxious, afraid, angry, frustrated, threatened… to dump these unpleasant feelings in the quickest way possible by any means necessary. It is also easy, in this condition, to pick “constitution-futzing” as the most accessible means for the desired, if unconscious, anxiety dumping.
It is not a good emotional posture from which to make careful, reasoned, thoughtful, faithful decisions with permanent long-term consequences. And quick, reactive re-engineering of the constitutive structure is not necessarily even the best method for achieving the desired changes. Changes in the core structure of the institution should be a RESPONSE to changes initiated spontaneously by the dispersed creativity of the culture pushing the limits of the system and seeing how that system can or cannot stretch.
Of course, there is risk involved in pushing those limits… and changing the structure first is a way of trying to protect ourselves from that risk. But change is always a risk. Jesus did not ask Caiaphas for a permission slip to break the sabbath laws! He took the risk and paid a price. This is the way of the cross.
But we really do not need to pay that kind of price. The ELCA system has opened and adjusted many times to changing reality on the ground; i.e. Synod Authorized Ministers. Where exactly in our polity did THEY come from? And in 2007 the Churchwide Assembly passed a resolution calling on bishops to exercise “restraint in discipline” for gay and lesbian pastors out of compliance with conventional norms of conduct. By what constitutional provision is the Assembly authorized to instruct its bishops not to enforce its own rules? We may not be quite as rigidly inflexible as people think.
I would argue that congregations and synods could do much, much more to work together to create playful constructive models that color outside the lines without collapsing the whole system or putting anyone at unreasonable risk. This will advance rapid change much more effectively than coming home from a Churchwide Assembly and trying to school 3.5 million baptized members in what, “The New ELCA,” will mean for them. And, if we do it well, we can learn a lot about the structural changes we really NEED instead of just writing a new constitution that our pastors and congregations will mostly never read anyway.
So, if the ELCA decides to embark on this endeavor, I will make an appeal for slow and deliberate. There are many urgent issues before us that I realize cannot wait. But I think it will prove wiser to deal with these as best we can with the polity we have, than to rush into an “Oops, I never thought of that” constitutional albatross.
All of this, of course, is about structure and design. But what precisely do we understand to be the MISSION that we are structuring ourselves to accomplish? That question, I must save for another article.
Wayne N. Miller is the former Bishop of the Metropolitan Chicago Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, now retired.