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ELCA confronts “fallout” from progress on same-sex relationships

ELCA confronts “fallout” from progress on same-sex relationships

By Jeffrey Shy

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), a full communion partner of The Episcopal Church (TEC) met this past week in Orlando, Florida for its biennial Churchwide Assembly (CWA). The CWA is the ELCA counterpart to TEC’s General Convention. One of the centerpieces in this year’s meeting was a complex report and set of recommendations titled, “Living Into the Future Together – Renewing the Ecology of the ELCA,” usually abbreviated as LIFT.

As a mainstream Protestant church, the ELCA is facing many of the same problems as those confronting TEC: declining membership, financial difficulties, concerns about national structure and its relationship to the church’s mission locally and globally and an ongoing controversy over issues of human sexuality. The purpose of this study was “to recognize the evolving societal and economic changes of the twenty years since the formation of this church [the ELCA having formed in 1987 from a union of The Lutheran Church in America, The American Lutheran Church and The Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches] and to evaluate the organization, governance and interrelationships among this church’s expressions in the light of those changes. The intended result of the Ecology Study Task Force’s work is a report and recommendations that will position this church for the future and explore new possibilities for participating in God’s mission.” (LIFT, p. 4) In its 100 pages including addenda in its PDF form, a variety of challenges to the ongoing mission and ministry of the ELCA are addressed with implementing recommendations for a host of changes from the level of the individual congregation to the church as a whole.

Of particular interest to those of us in TEC are portions that deal with the effects of and response to the ELCA CWA 2009’s adoption of the social statement on sexuality, “Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust” and its new policy permitting clergy to live in same-gender committed relationships. Tucked away in one of the appendices to the LIFT report were the results of a survey at multiple levels from individuals up to higher-level organizations within ELCA on a variety of topics including those things perceived as having had a negative impact on local congregations.

Responders at the individual level identified a number of factors having a negative impact on congregations, and leading these were: economic changes in the local community, changes in the culture of American society and changes in the religious climate or culture of American society. These were perceived as negative impacts on congregations by about a 2/3 majority of clergy, lay leaders and open responders (presumably mostly laity, although clergy were not excluded). Coming in fifth was the CWA’s actions in 2009 on human sexuality perceived as having a negative impact by 53% of clergy, 61% of lay leaders and 45% of the “open” category. On further analysis of the “open” responder group, it was clear that age was a major factor in how one responded. For those 44 or younger, the sexuality actions and social statement were perceived as positive by 31% and having had no impact by 34% (a sum of 65% positive and 35% negative). Among persons 45 or older, the reaction was 49% negative, a substantial difference.

In what might be seen as a backlash provoked by the 2009 actions, the LIFT report drafters recommended against bringing any new “social statements to Churchwide Assemblies until a review of the process for addressing social concerns based on a spirit of communal discernment is completed,” (2011 Pre-Assembly Report: Recommendations on Living into the Future Together (LIFT), Section IV, page 29) suggesting a desire to slow the process of consideration of contentious social issues. The LIFT recommendations were adopted and a further action of the assembly authorized “the ELCA Church Council, in consultation with the Conference of Bishops and Communal Discernment Task force, to establish a review process of current procedures for the development and adoption of social statements,” (2011 Pre-Assembly Report: Recommendations on Social Statements, Section IV, page 2). One of the reasons cited in the rationale for this recommendation was that “some in this church have described feeling burdened by the rapid succession, overlapping time lines, and controversial aspects of developing documents [i.e. social statements]. (2011 Pre-Assembly Report: Recommendations of Social Statements, Section IV, page 1). What will be the recommendations of this review process will likely not be known for some time. Following the 2009 assembly, the ELCA has seen the secession of more than 600 congregations and the formation of a schismatic new church, the NALC (the North American Lutheran Church).

For those of us looking forward to General Convention 2012 and the initial report of the Standing Commission on Liturgy on resources for same-sex blessings and well as the ongoing conflicts around the proposed Anglican Covenant, it may be wondered if TEC might face similar expressions of a need to slow down for a time on the contentious issues of sexuality.

Should TEC “pull back” and “let the world catch up” or move forward with the next General Convention?

Jeffrey L. Shy, M.D. is a neurologist in clinical practice in Mesa, Arizona and a parish member of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Phoenix.


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Troy Haliwell

I am not sure if we should slow down.

Would Jesus slow down if He was asked to ease up on the earth shattering preaching He was doing because he was upsetting the apple cart?

Would St. John have slowed down his baptizing of Jews if he was asked?

These are but two examples where our God and his servant were running a liberal charge against the existing conservative organization and leading the call for change. They would not have slowed down; if anything, they would have leveled it up.

This issue facing us in the TEC is no different than the ordination of women. In both cases, it is changing the long-established dogma of man. Christ himself told us that we were to love our neighbor as ourselves–in fact made that one of his greatest commandments to us. Keeping our LGBT parishioners out of the bosom of God under marriage is not loving our neighbors as ourselves.

Samuel Brannon

“For those 44 or younger, the sexuality actions and social statement were perceived as positive by 31% and having had no impact by 34% (a sum of 65% positive and 35% negative). Among persons 45 or older, the reaction was 49% negative, a substantial difference.”

Yes, the mainline will contract with the death of the WW2 gen and the schismatic effects of our current cultural context, but these numbers offer hope in a new generation of faithful disciples of Christ. There will be many other questions as time goes by but we’ll do just fine.

Lelanda Lee

I am the elected ecumenical partner from The Episcopal Church’s (TEC) Executive Council to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s (ELCA) Church Council. I have sat through the committee and Council discussions of the LIFT document and its recommendations.

It is important to note that the recommendation to “slow down” the process of bringing new Social Statements to the ELCA Churchwide Assembly arises out of a different polity context and a current major restructuring in the ELCA than exists in TEC.

The ELCA’s process for raising up Social Statements includes every expression (level) of their church, with the development of a study paper and discussions held at the congregational and synod (comparable to TEC’s provinces) levels as well as in committees (similar to TEC’s CCABs – General Convention’s (GC) commissions, committees, agencies and boards). The process is comprehensively churchwide and exhaustive, requiring a great deal of time and resource commitment for each Social Statement under consideration.

The only recent experience we in TEC have of this type of churchwide study and discussion effort is around the proposed Anglican Covenant when Executive Council asked dioceses and congregations to study the proposed Covenant and give feedback, which, incidentally, occurred in a small number of cases relative to the number of dioceses and congregations in TEC. We in TEC do not have a habit of this type of churchwide communal study and discussion, which is a hallmark of the ELCA’s brand of Lutheranism.

What I heard from the ELCA bishops, in particular, and many ELCA Church Council members, is that they needed some time to tend to “regular/routine” church business in the face of declining membership and revenues, a major churchwide reorganization effort that has been introduced in 2010/2011 to respond to those declines, and the logistical ramifications of the departure of a large number of congregations and of managing the voting process that takes place as many other congregations are discerning whether or not to leave the ELCA. The “slowing down” of Social Statements just made sense to ELCA leaders in the face of the other important church work facing them.

It should also be noted that many Council members agonized over the decision to recommend such a “slow down.” There was great heartfelt and difficult debate around whether or not to hold back the Genetics Social Statement, representing a decade of study, discussion and work, which ended up being brought forward to the Churchwide Assembly and was adopted just a few days ago. (Several of TEC’s CCABs, including Executive Council’s Standing Committee on Advocacy & Networking for Mission, on which I serve, are studying that Genetics Social Statement to help inform our discussions on subjects such as Genetically Modified Organisms and Seed Sharing issues. We are exceedingly grateful to our ELCA sisters and brothers for the excellent work and leadership that they have contributed to this important subject. The ELCA Social Statements are fine theological statements, and their preceding study guides are equally excellent.)

Additionally, Council members also agonized over the delay that such a “slow down” would mean to bringing forward a long-promised Social Statement on the subject of Women’s Ministries, covering everything from women in ministry to ministries to and for women. But it was finally decided that as leaders, Council was listening to the groans of their church members who were requesting recognition and accommodation for their ministry work in the current context, and the recommendation to “slow down” was approved as part of the overall LIFT recommendations.

Lauren Gough

As one who served an ELCA parish for several years I was known as a ‘Luth-Episk’–a title only a Norwegian could love. I was the only ‘out’ pastor in the synod.

Such statistics do not relate what is happening in the pew. My parish grew while I was there and lost when I left. It had less to do with my ministry there than it was about whether we could focus on the needs of our community or not.

It isn’t social issues that are causing the leaking of membership. It may be the excuse people are giving but they are not the real reason. It has to do with the whether the people in the parish are willing to look at differences as asset or liability.

If we allow ourselves to be informed by the works of Tribble, Butler-Bass and McLaren, we are seeing a major sea-change in all church-going in western society. We are seeing a new Reformation going on in all denominations–Catholic or Reformed. We are coming to new ways of counting our faithfulness–not by numbers, not by which social issues we espouse but by the way we live out the message of Christ.

I presently live in one of the dioceses that has been greatly affected by the ‘recent unpleasantness’. What has risen from the ashes of this diocese is a faith more concerned with living out the message of Christ than with counting noses. There is a vibrant renewal going on that is not about preserving buildings or instituting programs. It isn’t about liberal or conservative agendas. It has to do with how are we going to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly (as Texans can) with their God.


To the question that ends the report, in my opinion TEC proceeds of course. Remember there are two churches: church, the body of Christ, and Church, the human organizations that comprise the various denominations We are blessed with both of them.

Nevertheless, we pray daily that God’s Kingdom will come here on earth. I think of that kingdom represented by at least three attributes: 1) radical eqalitarianism, 2) distributive justice, and 3) open commensality. We don’t wait for society to catch up to these attributes, we make them our mission and ministry.

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