The ELCA: Too Big To Fail? . . . Or Too Wrong Not To?

[1] Since the beginning of the ELCA a relatively small number of members has worked continually to change traditional Christian teaching and practice in order to allow sexually active gays and lesbians in long-term relationships to be ordained. No matter how many votes they have lost they have persisted in their quest. They accept no biblical, theological, ethical, social scientific, or practical arguments against their goal. This August the ELCA is considering a vote to allow changes to traditional Christian teaching and practice. The Task Force for the ELCA Studies on Sexuality made a proposal, and the Church Council recommended it without significant change. Now the parliamentary maneuvers begin in earnest.

[2] Despite objections from a majority of synod bishops and at least fifteen synod councils, the August vote on this momentous change in the nearly unanimous teaching of the Christian Church since the time of Jesus is to be decided by a simple majority of voting members in a highly charged and politicized atmosphere. No congregation would vote to call a pastor or build a new sanctuary by a simple majority because we all know that such things need much more widespread support if they are to turn out well. Churchwide Assemblies are constitutionally required to seek a two-thirds majority on important matters, such as anything that would require bylaw changes and social statements. And even a two-thirds majority at the Churchwide Assembly is not necessarily indicative of broad support, since voting members to the Assembly are selected in ways that make them far less representative of the general feeling at a congregational level than synod assembly voters, for example, where every congregation has voting members. At the August Churchwide Assembly the widespread congregational opposition to the proposed changes will be seriously underrepresented.

[3] In addition to the stacked deck on this vote, little serious consideration is being given to the potential (and already occurring) financial shortfalls, as well as the inevitable loss of members and congregations that already are fed up with the repeated top-down decisions over the past twenty years that have weakened our biblical and confessional foundations, compromised our worship heritage, radically down-sized the number of long-term missionaries, failed in reaching out successfully to new immigrants with their more traditional understandings of Christian faith and life, and identified Christian activity in politics with only one ideology. For such individuals and congregations changing our official church teaching and policies on sexual morality will be the last straw.

[4] Is the ELCA the religious counterpart to AIG? Is the ELCA also “too big to fail?” The two main predecessor bodies of the ELCA (the ALC and the LCA—each about 40-50% the size of the ELCA in 1988) were able to carry out their work effectively and with integrity precisely by enabling the larger church (i.e., congregations, synods/districts, members, colleges, seminaries, task forces) to participate in much more direct ways in decision-making and governing. This not only built trust and support but helped to maintain those things most important to the Christian and Lutheran theological, ethical, missional, and worship heritage as well as Lutheran institutions generally. Challenges such as the shift to ordaining women were studied, decided on, and carried out with widespread acceptance over a surprisingly short period, for example. I think the smaller size of both bodies (ALC and LCA) helped—as did the somewhat greater shared heritage and culture within each one.

[5] Not surprisingly, these effective patterns did not carry over into the ELCA, both because of its larger size and because of its greater internal diversity. This became evident already during the first year of its existence when there was a near disastrous financial shortfall—which didn’t surprise experts on church mergers but was not anticipated by those guiding the ELCA merger. The financial problems could be overcome, but the structures mandated in the ELCA Constitution could not be. Unlike all three predecessor bodies, there were virtually no checks and balances on the churchwide leaders or divisions. Neither synods and their bishops nor congregations had any way of holding the national leaders accountable—other than by mounting large and noisy popular protests (against, for example, the 1993 Sexuality draft, some of the recommendations of the Ministry study, and the Lutheran-Episcopal full-communion proposals). In spite of these and other difficulties, the large size of the ELCA, with its momentum and complexity, helped it to muddle through. Despite losing members steadily, the lack of viable alternatives gave the ELCA an appearance of inevitability.

[6] In some cases the Conference of Bishops, which has no constitutional authority as a group, nevertheless has managed to take important leadership by the wisdom of their statements and counsel, but in the present case their counsel to require a 2/3 majority was disregarded by the Church Council. The Church Council, which could and should act as a board of directors in times of critical change, has mainly been a rubber stamp this time. Acting as if it is too big to fail, ELCA leaders push on, seemingly oblivious to potential disaster. The need they may face for a huge financial bail-out if the sexuality changes are adopted could seem like that of AIG—except without anything comparable to the federal government’s belief that they are too big to fail as well as (more critically) the government’s ability to print new money.

[7] Serious arguments have been made recently that even AIG is not too big to fail and that even if it went into bankruptcy there would be ways to help it downsize and recover because it has many healthy components. “Too big to fail” may have been only a catchy slogan to justify a very quick decision to throw a huge amount of money at a big problem in a time of panic. Perhaps in the ELCA’s case, the top-heavy national leadership has become too big (not in size but in terms of control of too many key decisions) NOT to fail. Too big—as in too far from the membership; too far from long-time devoted participants and sacrificial stewards who are tired of one train wreck after another; too deaf to hear counsel or criticism or even the ideas of others; too proud to be guided by the Bible, the Creeds and Confessions, and the faithful ethical and practical reflection of 2,000 years of Christian history; too confident that their opinions will prevail if they can just get past the majority of the membership; and too cynical not to go ahead with a major program of Bible Study in the ELCA at the same time as they press for ignoring the Bible altogether in matters of sexuality.

[8] In the earliest years of the ELCA, one of my long-time mentors, a respected LCA pastor and leader (now deceased), as he witnessed the rocky beginnings in a number of areas, predicted that after about twenty years a split would occur over such incompatible cultures. It wouldn’t be a split back into the earlier AELC, ALC, and LCA, but rather segments from each of these groups as well as newer members aligning with like-minded others to form two new groups. (Perhaps the incompatible ways of understanding scripture voiced by the Sexuality Task Force are one indication of such a split.)

[9] While such an occurrence probably isn’t anyone’s vision of what Christianity ought to be, the ELCA may have backed itself into something like this—if it adopts the sexuality recommendations regarding ordination. The losing parties will leave—officially and sooner or by cutting benevolence giving and participation and gradually drifting away either into congregationalism or to other traditions. Bigger isn’t necessarily better—or worse. Ditto for smaller. But “different” from the present system probably will become more attractive unless some new wisdom prevails very soon. Has the ELCA finally become too wrong not to fail?


© July 2009
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 9, Issue 7