Structural Engineering the ELCA

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) has announced a planned restructuring, or as the press release put it “a new design for the churchwide organization.” Budget realities have particularly forced the hand of the ELCA’s leadership here, with approximately 18% of ELCA churchwide staff losing jobs. Seeing people lose jobs is never good, but unfortunately financial considerations may not leave much choice for the ELCA.

Many will advance theories as to why this has come, and why this comes now. Not a few such theories will be highly charged, given the ELCA’s recent policy changes on clergy and same-sex relationships. It cannot be denied that those decisions at the 2009 Churchwide Assembly (CWA) have some impact. Somewhere around 250 congregations have completed the voting procedures to leave the ELCA (which is around 2% of congregations in the church body). There have been other congregations which have stopped sending monetary support toward the synod and churchwide organization budgets. And there have been individuals leaving or decreasing their offerings as well. Some may well claim that this is the primary cause. But coincidence is never itself reason to suggest causation. And since there are other reasons for a decline in giving, and the number of congregations leaving the denomination has so far been quite small, I do think looking elsewhere is in order. The general situation of our continuing economic doldrums is probably the single largest factor, especially since this time has been the deepest and one of the longest periods of economic decline since the Great Depression. This is superimposed upon a long term trend of declining giving evident the ELCA, and indeed in mainline denominations in general.

A Model Problem

There is another factor in the restructuring and unfortunate layoffs that should also be considered. This is one in a string of changes in structure and job losses in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s offices. I’d like to suggest that the downward trend in giving to denominational budgets and the economic turmoils exacerbate the root problem: the ELCA (and other denominations) has been overstaffed from the beginning. Indeed, this may be a problem going back to the churches before the formation of the ELCA in 1988. During the 20th century, there has been a tendency to professionalize the church, resulting in a large staff instead of a host of parish pastors and lay members being the primary functionaries of the process of governing, administering, and carrying out the work of the church body even on a non-local level. What we may be seeing is the consequences, brought to bear by significant circumstances and trends, of an unsustainable organizational structure.
Do we, for example, really need a staff of multiple people devoted to worship in our denominational offices? I’m not so sure. Now, I place a very high value on the church’s worship life, and on our liturgies. Worship and music should be planned and executed with great care. I also have nothing against the work that the churchwide worship staff has done. But we do have teachers in our seminaries and colleges, skilled staff in the publishing house, and talented pastors and musicians in our parishes that can provide guidance on worship matters, plan worship at denominational events, and provide resources for worship. Certainly, when in the midst of a major project like creating a new hymnal, a staff dedicated to that work makes sense. But on an ongoing basis? I’m not so sure. Yet that is precisely what we have. (It should be noted that I have no knowledge of the disposition of the ELCA worship staff in this restructuring, nor am I trying to pick on this particular area. It seems like a good illustration in which the church has abundant resources in many places.)

Now might be a great time to make a significant correction in the model of how a denomination, and in particular the ELCA, functions. Now might offer a real opportunity to move toward a greater reliance on the members of this church, both lay and clergy, to do things from creating and maintaining programs and useful materials to more mundane and routine governance and record keeping tasks. Alas, I fear that instead of changing our model, we will continue to see the current model shrink and concentrate.

A Deep Design Flaw

Whichever direction the ELCA may go and whatever model it might follow, I find significant flaws in the proposed structure for the ELCA’s churchwide offices. It gives short shrift to a couple of significant functions of the ELCA as a denominational entity (including one that I would consider an essential and core function of a denominational structure). It seems out of step with the ELCA’s stated priorities. And it brings a couple of types of functions together under one umbrella that could potentially raise issues of the purpose and actual or perceived integrity of those tasks.

Besides making the connections of individual Christians and local congregations concrete (for I would say that neither individuals nor congregations can truly be church independently without real, concrete, and organic connections in and to communities beyond themselves), perhaps the two most central functions and purposes for creating church bodies is to provide for mission toward the wider world and for pastoral ministry and the preparation of pastors. The first of those is maintained at a key and significant level in the new ELCA structure, for a Global Mission unit survives as part of that plan. But the second gets swallowed up in a wash of other categories and does not have its own structurally significant placement immediately below the bishop. The plan de-emphasizes this essential task, and I find that troubling.

Oversight of ministry, the seminaries, and the candidacy process certainly isn’t going to go away. The description of the Congregational and Synodical Mission unit speaks of “leadership development” and “fostering relationships with educational partners.” But neither of these necessarily means pastors and seminaries.
“Leadership development” could mean just about anything and might even be thought of as not really dealing with pastoral ministry itself at all, but looking toward developing lay leaders within congregations and synods. There isn’t anything wrong with that. Indeed, it could well be considered something many of our congregations, and the ELCA as a whole, very much needs. Further, if this rubric includes matters of pastoral leadership and support for pastors, I’m leery of the language. We’ve had a tendency to speak of pastors as “ordained leaders” or providing “pastoral leadership.” We certainly need pastors to be leaders, but we need them to be pastors first. When we start to speak of them primarily as “leaders” and what they do mostly as “leadership” we start to approach their role in a mostly secular frame that happens to be placed within a religious context or works with religious content. Instead of such a framework, we should remember that pastors are ordained for ministry, specifically the public ministry of Word and Sacrament. We need pastors to preach and teach the Word and to administer the sacraments (in all that entails, broadly, in the life of the church). And we need that to be held as a matter of great importance. Further, if we are to have pastors, we need to prepare them for ministry. This is why we have seminaries and it is important to have denominational oversight and coordination of this preparation. But here seminaries (and our colleges as well) are relegated to being called “educational partners” as if they were not integral and necessary aspects of the church, but something to which the church is only loosely connected.

If budgets give clues to what is of primary value for an organization, structures and the language we use to describe them do too. And here we have a structure that does not hold that central ministry of Word and Sacrament as one of the matters of highest importance, removing it from that top level and deflecting it downward. It becomes one of many tasks, most of which are things that really get done not by staff at a denominational office but by congregations. And, it should be noted, that these things get done by ordained ministers of Word and Sacrament and those who are fed by that very ministry. Denominational staff will not enhance discipleship themselves. But pastors and the congregations they serve will. A churchwide unit won’t revitalize congregations, but pastors and the local lay leaders they work with will. Yet nothing is specifically said about developing pastoral ministry, preparing our future pastors, and supporting pastors and their needs so that the central task of the church, to feed God’s people by Word and Sacrament that we all might reflect God’s love into the world around us. There is something seriously skewed in this sort of structure.

Church in Society

A second significant function that comes up short in the new structure is the work of what was once done by the Division for Church in Society. This too gets deflected downward. At least this activity does get some specific mention by the ELCA’s press release on the restructuring plan. It notes that the Congregational and Synodical Mission unit will facilitate “the engagement of this church in advocacy.

Still, Bishop Hanson suggested that there were two churchwide organization priorities at the heart of the structural design process. One of them was “building the ELCA’s capacity for evangelical witness and service in the world to alleviate poverty, and the work for justice and peace.” This is exactly the work that has fallen under the Church in Society banner in the past. It is no surprise that this should remain one if the denominational priorities, as one of the hallmarks of Bishop Hanson’s tenure in the Presiding Bishop’s office has been his concern for what he calls the “public church” engaging the world, especially around matters of justice, peace, and poverty. This is no misplaced priority. Yet it is curious, to say the least, that one of the two identified priorities of the church should find itself not in an equivalent place in the church’s structure, but as one function out of many. One wonders if this really is one of the priorities in designing the new structure. In any case, the new structure isn’t giving any testimony to the stated importance of these matters within the ELCA.

Mission Advancement

My final concern is about the various functions that fall within the Mission Advancement unit. This unit will bring together both fundraising and various communications matters. I really think that these should be separate functions and teams. Since “advancement” is a common word used for an organization’s fundraising efforts, this configuration could raise some concern that church communications can be practiced with an eye toward funding and receipts. It already seems to me that the communications office is very interested in promoting good news (and some of that is a good thing to do, certainly) but not so interested in honestly and bluntly sharing problematic information without varnish. That is, they see their task as providing PR; as primarily about marketing and creating good public relations, rather than about simply communicating what is going on in the ELCA, warts and all. The Lutheran is better at this, but it could still use improvement on this score. Both the Lutheran, and especially the communications office would benefit from more frequently committing journalism.

I’m especially concerned with the placement of The Lutheran under the oversight of the Mission Advancement unit. It should be and remain largely independent within the ELCA, reporting to the Church Council or even directly to the Churchwide Assembly. How likely is it to be co-opted into a mere public relations tool? It’s hard to say, but placing it under this “advancement” umbrella makes it much more likely. It’s a danger, even if remote, that is best avoided.

Structure, Budget, and Priorities

“But,” you might be saying, “cuts needed to be made because the resources aren’t there to sustain the current configuration.” And you’d be correct. The unfortunately reality is that the budget and staff of the ELCA needs to be trimmed. And that will almost certainly mean changes in structure. That isn’t the source of my disappointment and concern. Yet it should be remembered that there is nothing that makes having 2 or 3 units instead of just one inherently more expensive, or one unit inherently more cost effective, for they can still have the same staffing and the same budget allocations as individual units as they might as part of a larger conglomerate unit.

Structure is actually important, because it says something about the priorities and importance certain tasks have. Work that falls deeper into the structure seems less important, and in time can seem less essential. Additionally, without a clear advocate in the right levels of the organization, some of these tasks could be shorted even more in the future because leadership on the unit level comes to focus on certain functions at the expense of others, despite the critical nature of those functions to the whole church or its particular goals. The priorities of the structure should reflect the importance of those tasks at the denominational level. I don’t think that the new structure does that.

Perhaps the explanation for that lies in a confusion of what sort of importance and priorities are being considered here. It seems that the structural design is applying a principle of what the church needs to be doing, meaning what the people of God in congregations need to be doing. This applies the wrong criteria in the wrong context. It must be acknowledged that what is very important for the church in that context does not necessarily mean that it is also important for the denominational offices to be working on those very things. And this is perhaps the broad problem with the plan for the ELCA churchwide organization. It reflects a continuation of a problematic model for the church, which has lead to the unsustainable structure and levels of staffing in the first place, rather than more fundamentally addressing the issue. The plan means more of the same, only on a smaller scale. There are certainly alternatives that don’t require us to throw out the denominational baby with the bathwater of unsustainable staffs and structures. And some of those alternatives may actually serve the church better and foster greater engagement with the church body among the members of the ELCA.


7 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. Bill Strehlow #

    This is very good input Mark.

    The Committee on the New Lutheran Church gave (CNLC) did over staff the ELCA…compromises between the church bodies that were merging ended up making the elca…everything LCA. A top down church that weakened what was the structure of the ALC, AELC.

    Leadership has been around the ElCA since day one…such leadership differentiates pastors from others in a priesthood of all believers that I never have liked.

    So thanks for the insight…

    If this vision of Hanson is followed who and what will perish…

  2. 2

    “The plan means more of the same, only on a smaller scale.”
    I think you’re right on the money here, Mark. But if I may say so, it strikes me that your suggestions fall into that same trap. The temptation is to redecorate when what we really need to do is remodel–or even tear down and start over. I’ll be honest and say that I thought the ELCA’s formation was a mistake (I was a fairly new LCA pastor at the time of the merger) and intervening events have only re-affirmed my judgment. Frankly, I think we need to go back to the drawing board, start over, and QUESTION EVERYTHING.

    • restenergy #

      Thank you for your comment, Doug. But to be honest, the aim of my essay was to identify two primary problems I see with the ELCA’s new structural plan. To try to state them succinctly: 1) we are too reliant on a churchwide staff and underutilize the many resources found in our church; 2) the structure that is proposed is wanting because it significantly de-emphasizes some tasks and concerns of primary importance or identified as priorities for the church. That second issue is one that can be raised independently of by whom and how the work of the church body is done. Even with a radically different way of working and living together as a church body, the question of structure, priorities, and holding certain aspects of our organizational life important applies. The first point was aiming toward a need to remodel rather than redecorate, to use your felicitous metaphor. What I wasn’t really concerned about here was any particular proposals for how the church might live and work as a church body given my critique of the announced reorganization. I might do so in a follow-up post. Time will tell.

  3. 4

    what seems to be missing from this analysis is an appreciation of the unique role of the churchwide offices. we are, and I hope remain, a three expression church. an appreciation of the unique contribution of each expression would be helpful in this analysis of the reductions. It saddens me, for example, that there is currently no one at the churchwide staff who is is concerned about congregational Christian education. The unique role of a churchwide staff person addressing congregational faith formation would be a beneficial partner for seminaries, publishing house, and congregations, trying to educate in the faith.

    • Mark Christianson #

      Paul, It seems to me that your comment makes the churchwide expression of the ELCA synonymous with the staff of the churchwide offices. It is a mistake to make such an equation. I do agree that it is beneficial for the ELCA churchwide organization to address a variety of matters like worship, Christian education, evangelism, stewardship, and more. But the question is how. As I wrote, the church has been over-professionalized during the last century. Is it really necessary that we have staff dedicated to each of those areas? How effective is the staff-directed model, really? I’m not sure what unique role and value having a staff person addressing faith formation, to use your example, might have over other ways we addressing the subject on a churchwide level. Might it not be more beneficial to approach such matters collectively with those having expertise in an area (from seminaries, publishing house, and congregations) working together to provide resources and guidance for the ELCA at all of its levels? It seems to me that this would tap more broadly into the church, and be an approach more in keeping with what the church actually is, the body of God’s people. Plus I have the sneaking suspicion that such a member-driven rather than staff-directed approach may result in a churchwide organization with a slightly increased presence that is ignored a bit less.

  4. Marnie Rourke #

    One more way of looking at the problems of how restructuring is being handled at churchwide… The need for calling, equipping, and encouraging pastors for the church of even the near future has been ignored or at best reduced to to a sound bite. …this will never help us grow the church as biblically based, called to serve the poor and marginalized, proclaiming the truth in God’s holy Word, and sustaining believers with holy food that expresses the real presence of Christ. Perhaps the ELCA needs to find a better way of looking like the church of the apostles.

  5. Davd L. Miller #

    Thanks for your analysis. The movement toward professionalization of the churchwide sturcture has existed since the beginning of the ELCA–and well before, I am sure. This move has sped up during the leadership of the present bishop. The result has been a structure that, of necessity, drifts further from the needs and concerns of most congregations and pastors.
    Still, those congregations have always sought and found ways to support those churchwide functions they most valued, such as hunger, global mission, new mission starts and theological education. Overall mission support to Lutheran denominational structures peaked around 1963/4. Work by members of the ELCA Department for Research and Evaluation established this nearly 10 years ago. Since 1963/4, support sent to Lutheran denominational structures has been decreasing in inflation adjusted dollars. There have been brief plateaus in this decline, but the general trend is steadily downward. Analysis of what is happening now needs to consider a wide array of social and economic forces as well as political changes that have shook the foundations of many institutions during that time.
    One other comment: Subtle and not-so-subtle pressure to ‘rein in’ The Lutheran have also been there from the beginning, and the editors often with considerable success resisted those pressures. We were often accused of printing too much bad news: Keep the sexual abuse problem quiet. Downplay the struggles and missteps of the churchwide unit and other individuals and structures. Use a soft touch on financial stories. Don’t get involved in issues of war and peace or editorialize about them. Don’t emphasize the differences and conflicts within the church. Don’t tell my parishoners what is happening with the abortion or human sexuality task forces or I’ll cancel my subscription. The list is long and easily continued. We heard it all, always seeking to be sensitive to legitimate critique while seeking to ignore those who simply didn’t want the periodical to have an independent editorial voice, which it has by virture of the ELCA Constitution.
    The move to make the magazine a PR/marketing piece got a major push during a previous restructuring move, also under Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson, when a largely failed attempt was made to append the periodical to the communication unit and have the elected editor answer (in some vague, poorly defined way) to the appointed and bishop-approved head of commuications. For the most part, the magazine staff held its nose, played along but pretty much ignored what they knew would be a failed attempt to “streamline” the structure.

    David L. Miller
    Editor of The Lutheran 1999-2005
    Senior editor of The Lutheran 1987-1999