by Pastor Doug Kings

This week the ELCA Churchwide Assembly is meeting in Columbus, Ohio. It is the principle governing body of the ELCA, which meets every three years. Frankly, I’m no longer in the loop on what has been happening at the national church level. So it came as a surprise to learn that the natives are restless, and this year’s assembly could be a tense one.

What’s the bee in people’s bonnets? The growing belief that the ELCA needs a major organizational overhaul. I learned of this by reading an opinion piece on Facebook by my former Chicago bishop, Rev. Wayne Miller (now retired). He bluntly lays out the most obvious reason for reorganization.

[A]t 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 with the synergy and capacity brought to us through the merger. 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 5–8-million-member body. Now, however, we know that we are a 3.5-million-member denomination, probably on our way to becoming a 2-million-member denomination. And the structures of support, challenge and resourcing are so top-heavy that they comprise an impossible load structure that is more an impediment than an asset for congregational mission.

Several synods apparently have submitted resolutions urging a serious reevaluation of the ELCA’s organization. The ELCA’s Chicago-based bureaucracy has pushed back on this somewhat, saying most of the expressed concerns are already being addressed. Not surprisingly, this has only riled people even more.

The general tenor of this “movement” is an awareness that the ELCA appears to be floundering, unable to generate new ministry and mission efforts in response to our rapidly changing culture. There is too much concern to preserve the institution and not enough willingness to take risks and set out into uncharted waters. There is frustration especially that the denomination has failed miserably at achieving the diversity goals it set for itself when it was created 35 years ago.

Interestingly, the rest of Miller’s essay, while recognizing the need for change, urges caution at the prospect of a massive organizational overhaul. His concern is that such an expensive and time-consuming project won’t necessarily result in the ministry innovation and energy the church needs.

Which is ironic because that was the main argument against the formation of the ELCA in the first place. Initially, ALC Presiding Bishop David Preus opposed the proposed merger, saying it would divert the church for a decade from the work of missional outreach. He eventually gave in, but his prediction was basically correct.

Midway through the merger process (and just as I was starting ministry), I concluded that the merger was a mistake. It arose from a “bigger is better” mentality, prompted by anxiety over the declining memberships of the merging Lutheran church bodies. Forming the ELCA did nothing to stop or even slow that shrinkage. And, of course, nearly every other denomination in the US has been going to through the same experience, now accelerated by the pandemic.

Miller says that more could be done within the existing system to encourage local and regional innovation in mission and ministry. He may be correct that it could be done but I don’t see it happening, now or in the future.

When I was in my first call, I attended a workshop on reaching out to church members who had become inactive. During a break, I asked the leader (who worked with churches of many denominations) if he saw any groups who were making progress in reversing church membership decline. I still remember his response, decades later. “No, I’m afraid not,” he said. “There’s just a lot of ‘If it doesn’t work, do more of it.’” Real change is hard.

When I was a seminary student, our school sponsored a conference on the proposal to form a new Lutheran church. Generally, attitudes were positive but there was also doubt about what it would accomplish. The concern of one speaker was that it might simply be “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.” I suspect an overhaul of the ELCA now would end up being just that.

It’s said in AA that a drunk often needs to “hit bottom” before they will make the choices necessary for recovery. Frankly, I don’t think the ELCA is suffering enough yet to make the changes that need to be made.

In the US (and elsewhere), churches of all types are experiencing major upheaval. Everywhere congregations are getting older and smaller. No one knows where this will lead. Yet there continues to be evidence of spiritual curiosity and involvement by all types of people—but increasingly outside the church.

Churches inevitably identify their ministries with their institutional forms. Thus, however much they may recognize the need to change, preserving the institution will always be a priority.  (It was said that when it came to really making the ELCA happen, the biggest obstacle was getting agreement on how to merge the pension plans!) In the discussions I’ve read recently, those institutional concerns have already appeared.

The church will come through this crisis, but it will be very different from what we know now. And it needs to be! There have been rumblings beneath the surface for the past century, at least, that the church has not made the transition needed to genuinely be a part of the modern world. (And see the nonsense that went on at the recent Lambeth Conference in England for evidence of that in the global Anglican Communion.)

Jesus says in John that a wheat grain must fall to the ground and “die” before it will sprout and grow and bear fruit. For better or for worse, I’m afraid that the church needs to do a little more dying for new life to appear.

Blessings in your life and ministry.