Organization of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
On January 1, 1988, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America ("ELCA")1 became the surviving corporation in a corporate merger involving three Lutheran church bodies (The American Lutheran Church, the Lutheran Church in America, the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches). The ELCA consists of three expressions. (See Constitution, Bylaws, and Continuing Resolutions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America ("CBCR"), 8.10. et. seq.) One expression is the "churchwide organization."2 (CBCR 8.14., 11.10. et. seq.) A second expression is the 65 area organizations known as synods, each of which is separately incorporated. (CBCR 10.01. et. seq.) The third expression is the approximately 11,000 congregations, most of which are also separately incorporated.3 (CBCR 9.11. et. seq.) The relationships between the three expressions are primarily ecclesiastical rather than legal. (CBCR 8.17.) The ecclesiastical relationships are defined by the CBCR and the corresponding required provisions of the synod and congregation constitutions. (CBCR 8.10., 9.10. - 9.90., 10.01.-10.80., 11.10. -11.40.; Constitution for Synods ("S")4; and Model Constitution for Congregations ("C").)5 The constitutions of most congregations, all synods and the churchwide organization also serve as the corporate bylaws for each organization.6
Legally, the churchwide organization, each congregation and each synod are separate and distinct from every other expression of this church. This distinction is important. The legal status of congregations, synods and the churchwide organization allow them to function in the secular world by among other things entering into contracts and owning and disposing of property. In contrast, the ecclesiastical relationships defined by the governing documents of the different expressions of the church are religious and therefore protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution from interference by the secular world and, in particular, civil courts. (CBCR 8.17.)
For a more detailed discussion of the organization of the ELCA see the Constitutions, Bylaws, and Continuing Resolutions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church America, the Constitution for Synods and the Model Constitution for Congregations, The ELCA Yearbook, and One Great Cloud of Witnesses by the Rev. Lowell G. Almen. All can be ordered from Augsburg Fortress.
1 To avoid confusion, "ELCA" will be used when referring to all three expressions of this church collectively and "churchwide organization" will be used when referring to the corporate entity.
2 The "Evangelical Lutheran Church in America" is the legal name of the Minnesota nonprofit corporation, that is the churchwide organization. (CBCR 1.01.)
3 Congregations are to incorporate whenever possible. Currently, only West Virginia prohibits incorporation of churches.
4 Required provisions in the Constitution for Synods are coded with a "†".
5 Required provisions in the Model Constitution for Congregations are coded with an "*".
6 In the ELCA, the corporate bylaws of the churchwide organization, synods and congregations are referred to as the constitution of a particular organization. This can be somewhat confusing since each organization can also adopt bylaws. The term bylaws, as used in the governing documents of the various expressions of this church, does not refer to corporate bylaws.