Reconfiguration of Lutheranism. Really?

Today the conservative, traditionalist, and dissident group Lutheran CORE released it’s vision for what the group’s press release called “the reconfiguration of Lutheranism in North America.”  It calls for the establishment of a new church body with the suggested name of the North American Lutheran Church. The description of this vision can be found here:

But are they really planing for “the reconfiguration of Lutheranism in North America,” and do their plans match up with their rhetoric about the level of uproar in the ELCA over the recent decisions to allow gay and lesbian clergy in same-sex relationships to be pastors? I don’t think so, and here’s why: the plan is for a much smaller organization than such a reconfiguration would imply.

First, a regional live is allowed for, but neither established or given any significant administrative role. The vision of regional units, talked about as something that “may” form, is entirely about “assist[ing] congregations in working together for mission.” But it is the single national bishop that has a role in applying discipline, ordaining and making provisions for ordination, providing assistance in the call process, etc. There are, of course, many ways to delineate regional vs. national structures and powers, and no one solution. But usually the purpose of putting many of these duties in a regional leader or entity is to allow for a division of labor in a larger organization and to keep these activities closer to home. The proposed structure and division of authority clearly supposes a small organization rather than one of any significant size.

Second, the vision calls for an annual or semiannual convocation that serves as the new church’s decision-making body. It’s an all encompassing body which would include all the clergy on this church body’s roster and at least one lay delegate from each congregation. They anticipate an approximately equal number of lay delegates and clergy as members of the convocation, although it appears they impose no minimum or maximum numbers for either lay or clergy members (which is no surprise, since many in the Lutheran CORE movement have long complained about the “quotas” in the ELCA, especially with the requirement of at least 60% lay voting members). Large congregations would be represented by more than one lay delegate, and a formula for that representation would be established. For a small church body (at least relative to the current size of the ELCA) this sort of principle would be workable, even preferable.  It’s really not that much different than the make up of Synod Assemblies in the ELCA.  But in a body of significant size, it would quickly become a difficult place for any real direction for the church body to be hammered out.

And here’s where it seems that they are not really preparing for a “reconfiguration of Lutheranism in North America.” The ELCA has approximately 10,396 congregations (as of 2008, the last year of fully available statistics). If a quarter of those congregations were to become a part of the North American Lutheran Church, that would be about 2599 congregations. As of June 30, 2009 there were 17,652 ordained ELCA pastors. A quarter of those would be about 4413 individuals. Even is we estimated the number of clergy serving in parishes and only counted them, a quarter of ELCA clergy would still be 370o, give or take. This would mean that if a quarter of the ELCA were to join this new body, the decision-making convocation would swell to somewhere around 6300 and 7000 members! Such a body becomes unwieldy if it seeks to do much more than straight yes or no votes on proposals made to it absent any significant structure and identification of leadership within the convocation.

The ELCA’s Churchwide Assembly has a bit over 1000 voting members, and it has significant challenges doing much of anything than voting yes or no on a proposal. In fact, I’ve long wondered if the assembly is still too large. It rarely strikes out on its own direction. A notable occurrence of that was when it rejected leadership proposals to do nothing on the sexuality issues in 2001 and set-up the task force and studies that lead to the 2009 decisions and social statement on human sexuality. The Churchwide Assembly mostly simply votes to accept (or, more rarely, reject) a proposal made by church leadership. If the complaint of dissidents is partly that church leadership presents proposals (or a particular proposal) without any real input from the church at large and to satisfy it’s own agenda rather than that of the church’s membership, I can’t see how a body of several times the size could realistically do anything to direct the direction of the church body other than simple acceptance and rejection of leadership proposals.

Or maybe the point isn’t to actually give congregations directional power for the church body, merely the chance to say “no.” This might be the explanation for the proposal that any changes in the constitution or binding policies on congregations would require the ratification of 2/3 of congregations in addition to a majority of a convocation made up of all clergy and at least one lay member of each congregation. Further, I note that the intention is that the decisions of the convocation would be primarily “advisory.”  The result may well be an organization where it is a lot easier for its members to say “no” but much more difficult for it’s members to say “we should….” And an organization with plenty of local autonomy (much as the status quo in the ELCA) but a perhaps even greater concentration of actual and practical power at the top.

The vision for the organization of a new church body seems to implicitly acknowledge that, while they are calling for a “reconfiguration of Lutheranism in North America,” they are realistically going to be a relatively small church body. This isn’t just a matter of a different vision of what the proper functions of what a church body might do and what it won’t do. They simply are not planing for the challenges of administrating and governing a significantly sized organization. The proposal would actually increase those challenges if it quickly grew to significant size. It might be able to have a size of a few hundred congregations, but they don’t seem to be actually anticipating it being thousands of congregations, or the structures would be quite different.

No real “reconfiguration of Lutheranism in North America” would involve less than thousands of congregations, given the number of congregations that currently exist in the ELCA. Either they are failing to soberly and carefully plan for even a moderately sized church body, or their rhetoric is again, as it has long been, overblown.  I’m leaning toward the option of overblown rhetoric.


2 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. Timothy #

    Mark, I always appreciate your thoughts!

    Over at “pretty good lutherans” I have advised those who plan to leave and those saying farewell to those who are leaving to “be kind and vocal.”

    The other options are

    Be angry and vocal.
    Be angry and silent.
    Be kind and be silent.

    I hope that if parting is necessary we can part with words of blessing.

  2. antonio #

    Thank you for the invite. I want to read everything here.