Monday, November 16, 2009

ELCA Church Council Meeting

The mosaic tile installation at the first floor
elevators in The Lutheran Center.

I just returned from attending a 3-day meeting of the Church Council of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) at The Lutheran Center in Chicago. The Lutheran Center is an 11-story building near O’Hare Airport with dedicated space for Church Council meetings and a chapel with organ on the first floor. The entire building is filled with religious art worthy of a separate tour.

The organ in the first floor chapel during the last day's Eucharist.

The lobby of the 9th floor of The Lutheran Center.

I’m the invited ecumenical advisor, elected from the Executive Council of The Episcopal Church (TEC), our counterpart to the ELCA Church Council. In both cases, the Councils are the governing bodies in the interim between the TEC’s triennial General Convention and the ELCA’s biennial Churchwide Assembly. Incidentally, the Lutherans generally don’t use the initials “ELCA” when referring to themselves but say “Evangelical Lutheran Church.”

The Church Council is comprised of 37 (vs. 38 in the TEC Executive Council) elected members including four presiding officers: the Presiding Bishop, a lay Vice President, a lay Secretary, and a lay Treasurer, all of whom are on staff at The Lutheran Center. Guests include synodical (diocesan in TEC lingo) bishops, and representatives from program units, advocacy organizations, and ecumenical partners.

Three interconnected rooms held approximately 120, with the Council members seated in two U-shaped tables facing the head table, the bishops and youth representatives behind them, and the guests on either side of the Council members. Although expensive to include so many advisors in Church Council meetings, the Lutheran commitment is to inclusion of all the voices of the church, particularly during small group and committee work.

The Church Council meeting room.

The bishops' seating is on the right.

Even though the ELCA is intentional and attentive to racial, ethnic, gender, youth, pastors and lay representation in its elected members (mandated quotas of 40% female, 60% male; 10% youth; 10% people of color), the room held mostly Whites, a handful of Blacks, and even fewer Hispanics/Latinos and Asians (no Asian Council members, however). I also did not see anyone who was visibly handicapped.

Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson stated that the ELCA is 97% White, and the intentionality towards diversity is very present. Their concept of “Reconciled Diversity” acknowledges our unity always in the ground of our diversity with reference to First Corinthians 12 (There are many parts, yet one body), which was referred to repeatedly as reports and resolutions were presented.

“The ELCA Church Council is committed to lead the church toward racial and gender justice and full inclusion and participation,” is a statement on the daily “Process Observation Form” which attendees complete. Process Observers reported at the close of each day’s business session as a means of addressing racism within the Council itself.

Goodsoil, a consortium of organizations working for the full inclusion of LGBT people in the ELCA, had a cadre of six to eight persons present throughout the Council meeting. They took up the entire back row of one side of the guests’ seating. A retired bishop told me that in response to his query, Goodsoil representatives said they would keep showing up for Council meetings until LGBT people are fully integrated into the sacramental and ministerial life of their church.

The Lutherans approach “ubuntu,” the theme of TEC’s General Convention this past July, through the words “interconnected,” “interdependent,” and “neighbor.” Ubuntu, a Bantu word, means “I in you and you in me,” or as Archbishop Desmond Tutu says, “you can't exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can't be human all by yourself . . . .”

From Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson to numerous pastors and lay leaders in breakout sessions, the interdependence of human beings was foundational in every discussion and in every document that was presented to the Council members and guests. Part of the Lutheran theology is that they seek to respond to God’s love through care for the neighbor, and they acknowledge a pastoral responsibility to all God’s children.

One of the challenges of serving in this liaison post is learning a whole new church vocabulary and church polity. The Lutherans are sticklers for language, especially right now as they engage the reactions to the August, 2009, adoption of their tenth Social Statement entitled “Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust.” Two concepts from the Social Statement were discussed widely during the Church Council meeting: “the bound conscience” and “publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same gender relationship.”

The bound conscience refers to the different understandings of Scripture and what constitutes responsible action that faithful people come to in their discernment of ethics and church practice. The ELCA acknowledges that consensus does not exist regarding same gender sexual relationships.

Publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same gender relationships are no longer a barrier to full inclusion in the rostered (ordained pastors) life of the ELCA in terms of church policy. How each bishop and each congregation responds (calls or doesn’t call an LGBT pastor) is a matter of bound conscience. Much discussion ensued around what “publicly accountable” means. Among the ideas raised by Council members was that a possible benchmark might be that the same gender relationship would be marked by whatever is the highest civil designation, e.g., civil union or marriage, in the relevant locale.

Many Council members were uncomfortable with the lack of clear guidelines, and it was suggested that clarity may not be possible. Presiding Bishop Hanson referenced the “Background Essay on Biblical Texts for ‘Journey Together Faithfully, Part Two: The Church and Homosexuality’” as another example of how clarity is not always possible. (Journey Together Faithfully is the Lutheran study guide that preceded the Social Statement on Human Sexuality.) The Background Essay’s authors, Arland J. Hultgren and Walter F. Taylor Jr., concluded that biblical scholars cannot be the final and only arbiter of human sexuality: “But finally their contributions are only one part of a larger discussion among those who seek the mind of Christ in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.”

One last observation is on the discipline that the Lutherans exhibited in not using the term “dissenters” to refer to those who disagree with the actions of the August, 2009, Churchwide Assembly in adopting the Social Statement on Human Sexuality and thus, removing any policy bars to full inclusion of LGBT people in rostered ministry. The theology behind this is that all are within the circle, all are full, equal and necessary members of The Body of Christ, and "dissenter" is a term that makes the neighbor into the other.

Bishop Hanson reported that a recent survey of the 65 synodical bishops indicated that out of approximately 10,400 congregations in the ELCA, 87 have held the first of two required votes to leave the ELCA of which 28 failed to reach the 2/3-majority required, and only 5 have held a second vote. He pointed out that the ELCA is at present living at the intersection of hope and fear and is committed to the proclamation of the Gospel and service to the neighbor.

I was greatly enriched and blessed to have the privilege of attending this Church Council meeting. Four highlights stand out in my experience. The first was doing Bible Study with Presiding Bishop Hanson and retired Bishop Donald McCoid. The second was "Cafe Conversations," a guided hour and a half discussion on reactions within the synods to the Social Statement on Human Sexuality. I was at a table facilitated by the deeply reflective Synodical Bishop Michael Burk, who has been spending the vast majority of his time in recent months pastoring to those who are discomfited by the actions of the Churchwide Assembly.

The third was Lutheran Evening Prayer, which turned out to be what we Episcopalians call Evensong. I thoroughly enjoyed all of the hymns from the Lutheran Worship book, which seem to somehow be more liltingly melodic than the hymns of the Episcopal Hymnal. And the fourth was an early morning (7:00 AM) breakfast meeting to learn more about the Church in Society Unit, comprised of the domestic and world mission and public policy and advocacy portfolios of the ELCA.

I was warmly welcomed and well orientated along with the new class of 13 Church Council members. I look forward to the next Church Council meeting in April, 2010.


Ida said...

Thanks for sharing your observations of the ELCA Church Council. As a former Council member, I want to make one minor correction to your blog. The Council is composed of 33 elected members and four officers, for a total membership of 37 (your blog states there are 37 elected plus the four officers.)

Thanks, too, for the pictures from the Council meeting room.

Ida Hakkarinen
alumna, ELCA Church Council Class of 2003


Many thanks, Ida, for correcting my understanding of the number of Church Council members. I've made the correction to indicate 37 elected members INCLUDING four presiding officers. ~~Lelanda

The Rev. Erma Wolf said...

I'm sorry I didn't get the opportunity to meet you during the Church Council meeting. I just wanted to say that I attended as the official observer from Lutheran CORE (Coalition for Renewal), which represents many of those in the ELCA who are not in favor of the ministry recommendations and Social Statement on Human Sexuality that were adopted at the ELCA Assembly this year. (I was also sitting in the back, behind the observers from GoodSoil.)

I was encouraged by the discussion during the council meeting, and in particular by what you also noted, the strongly stated repudiation of the use of the term "dissenters" to refer to those of us who opposed the new policies. Lutheran CORE also plans to continue to attend these meetings, to remain engaged in this process in spite of the disagreements that continue among us.

Thanks for your reflections. It is helpful to see ourselves through the eyes of our full communion partner.

Pastor Erma Wolf
Lutheran CORE, steering committee vice chair


Dear Pastor Wolf,

I shall look forward to the opportunity to meet you at the next Church Council meeting. It was unfortunate that the introductions of all in attendance got truncated, because we did not get the full flavor of the many disparate, deeply committed, voices that were present.

It is incumbent on all of us in the whole Christian community to remain engaged with one another as sister and brother members of the Body of Christ no matter how differently we receive the message of Christ's Gospel in Scripture. Our unity is in our common Baptism.

I am deeply grateful for the opportunities our denominations have to learn from one another and to share missional action and resources. Our groaning and hurting world is the mirror by which we are judged when we become distracted by our theological disagreements to the detriment of the care of the neighbors God has given us.

Your sister in Christ,


ellen said...

Thanks for your comments. I too am a former ELCA Council member, who has now left the ELCA. As a lesbian who is partnered with a former ELCA pastor removed about 10 yrs ago because of her sexual orientation, I only wish the ELCA church leadership had spent even half as much energy and concern for its LGBTQ members during the many yrs that change to include LGBT people more fully in the ELCA failed as it is now spending on those who oppose the inclusion of "PALMS."


Dear Ellen,

I grieve at the pain caused to you and to your partner by the church. I am the mother of a happily partnered lesbian daughter in law school, and I am deeply grateful that she has come out and lives at a time that is more open than it would have been in my 20s four decades ago.

I especially grieve that it is our churches that have taken so long to live into the justice and peace that Jesus exemplified.

I pray that you and your partner have found a spiritual resting place where you are fed and where you have found justice, peace and joy.

If your partner so desires, as I understand it, the Social Policy just passed by the ELCA regarding Reinstatement at, is a way to return to rostered ministry in the ELCA. The discussion at the Church Council meeting was that while there are many other resolutions to be passed to set things right, this was the important, immediate first step.


Duh-sciple Tim said...

I too am saddened by the pain suffered by LGBTQ persons. May the peace that passes human understanding and ability find everyone. Meanwhile, I do not know who "PALMS" persons are.

ellen said...

PALMS are people who are in "Publicly Accountable Lifelong Monogamous Same Gender" relationships - this phrase was used over and over again by the elca to define and make clear that they were ONLY talking about these types of "homosexual" relationships. (even though there is probably just as much need to clarify this for straight pastors it was never used for them - - I guess there is less of a problem with straight folks being in "publicly accountable life long monogamous relationships :)

Duh-sciple Tim said...

Thanks for letting me know about the meaning of "PALMS". I hear the phrase as meaning "marriage" without using the M word itself.

And yes, straight people, including married ones, struggle with being "publicly accountable and undilutedly monogamous".

And notice my made up word in the previous sentence.

May you be overwhelmed by blessing!