Monday, December 12, 2016

Losing faith in my denomination, inch by inch

Back in August, when a beloved long-standing staff-person at the ELCA was let go suddenly and with no notice, a large group of ELCA clergy and members (over 500) put together a petition which we then sent to the presiding bishop of the ELCA. You can read the petition here.

We sent it to the presiding bishop on August 13th. When we did not get a timely response, we expanded the recipient list of the petition to include the whole of the ELCA Church Council. Two days later, on October 13th (!), we received this response.
Dear Pastor Schnekloth,
Thank you for your statement and petition regarding the personnel policies and practices of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Regarding the churchwide organization, we are grateful that the ELCA Church Council ensures that our personnel policies are congruent with ELCA Social Statements. As a matter of policy and privacy, we do not publicly discuss personnel decisions regarding individual employees.
God’s peace,
Elizabeth A. Eaton
In other words, "It's none of your business."

On October 14th, we sent the following response to Bishop Eaton and the ELCA Church Council. It seemed clear that some of our questions and concerns had not been heard, and we weren't entirely sure from her response whether the full petition and comments had even been read.

Dear Bishop Eaton, 

Thank you for your response. 

We do not believe the employment policies and practices of the ELCA—across all its expressions—are congruent with the ELCA Social Statements. We are concerned about wage gaps between men and women. We are concerned about the lack of a safety net for ELCA employees due to the ELCA’s decision to not voluntarily pay into unemployment. We are concerned about the length of time pastors who are LGBTQ or people of color go without calls, even in the face of a “clergy shortage.” We are concerned about the future directions of the ELCA, an effort which has, so far, been cast in the language of scarcity and anxiety.

We are hopeful that the ELCA can live up to its 1999 social statement and be a model of just and equitable employment practices in a time when non-anxious, hope-filled employers are hard to find.  We believe that, even when difficult decisions about end of employment are made, they can be carried out in a way that reflects the love of God. We give thanks for the work of the conference of bishops on redesigning the call process. We know that many of our concerns and hopes are your concerns and hopes, too, and that this is not news to you. But your response leaves us with these questions: 

**When will the church council have an opportunity to read the comments made by the 500+ signatories of the petition, and consider the issues they raise?
**What issues related to employment policies and practices is the church council already considering and working on? Is there a way to share that word of that work with the church?
**What do you see as the most important issues facing the ELCA related to the recruiting, training, equipping and supporting of our leaders, both rostered and lay? How can we as a church engage positively in this conversation (and work) together?
**What is the best way for people who have specific concerns related to ELCA employment practices to convey those to leadership, especially when they relate not just to their congregation or synod, but to the system as a whole? Is there a role in the ELCA for an ombudsman? 

Thank you for your attention to these questions! We plan to forward the response you sent us to the signatories of the petition, and encourage them to be in contact with the church council with any further concerns they have. If there is a better route for those concerns, please let us know!

attached: Three documents, the petition, the signatories, and a comments document

Once a month, we sent very brief follow-up e-mails asking, essentially, "When can we anticipate a response to this second letter?" None of the ELCA Church Council responded directly, with one notable exception with whom we were able to have a video chat conference.

Finally, today, December 12th, we received the following response from Bishop Eaton.

Thank you for writing. I pray you are experiencing peace, hope, joy and love this Advent.

In my last response to you, I shared that the personnel policies and practices of the churchwide organization are reviewed and adopted by the ELCA Church Council in accordance with the Constitutions, Bylaws, and Continuing Resolutions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  That occurred most recently just two years ago.  Nevertheless, during the Church Council’s meeting in November, a member requested that the council enter into executive session to discuss personnel matters, including those raised by your internet petition, and that discussion proceeded as requested.  Although this should be clear, it is important to remember that in this church, the personnel practices and decisions of congregations, synods, seminaries, schools, and other affiliated institutions and agencies, cannot be dictated or enforced by this office.

You have also expressed concern about the issues facing the ELCA related to the “recruiting, training, equipping and supporting of our leaders, both rostered and lay.”  Of course, this has been, and continues to be, one of the primary areas being addressed by the Church Council during its recent meetings and is the subject of in-depth studies across this church, especially in seminaries and within the Theological Education Advisory Committee of the Church Council.  Milestones during the course of this important work are regularly reported here:

Finally, your October 14th letter raises numerous other issues of concern that are broader questions for the whole church in all of its expressions.  As you are aware, this entire church engaged in a yearlong process to discern what God is calling the ELCA to be and do as we approach the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.  Both the Church Council and Conference of Bishops have embraced the future directions, goals and priorities of this church. We encourage everyone across this church to embrace these directions, goals and priorities. You will soon be able to download the statement, Called Forward Together in Christ Strategic Directions 2025, on the ELCA website:  Many of the hopes you identified in your response are named as goals and priorities in the statement. Also, during this season of giving, please remember that this church’s ability to maintain and expand the many ministries you and others care about most deeply depends increasingly on strong mission support.

This church, in faithfulness to the Gospel, seeks to exhibit the inclusive unity that is God’s will for the Church. Thank you for your faithful witness to the Gospel.

God’s peace,

Elizabeth A. Eaton

In other words, "Read the press releases, and none of your business, and maybe you can make a donation."

So now, we're stuck. There's no clear path forward to address the concerns raised by the authors of the petition, and basically no resolution. Notice in particular how none of the asterisks points we raised in our second letter are addressed at all in the bishop's response. I can think of a hundred ways that the bishop's letters to us could have been more engaging and receptive, opening a conversation rather than dismissing our concerns. None of those hundred ways are operative in these letters.

We don't know how to move forward at this point. I confess that personally, I find this whole dialogue disheartening and disillusioning in the extreme. I have a feeling that if we are going to make real change in our denomination, we're all going to need to get a lot more noisy rather than less noisy, and we're going to have to try and push through very entrenched power systems and structures that can basically wait us out only to then say, "Get off our lawn."


  1. Back door "discipline" for no other apparent reason than "management problem" (questioning the system) has become standard practice. The Bishops run the ELCA and, as th A-OK Bishop told me, law is more important than Gospel in church administration.

  2. I'm curious where any credible information is regarding a "pastor shortage"? It was brought up at a recent symposium I attended, where someone made an interesting statement. She said, "How do we continue to graduate pastors from seminaries at the same rate as a decade ago, yet churches are closing, and congregations are generally getting smaller." I thought it was interesting, since I also hear the words "pastor shortage" thrown around frequently. So how do we obtain this information? I know rurally, pastors are hard to come by, but is that only because many pastors(especially ELCA pastors) want to be in more 'progressive' cities, and not in rural areas? I was also under the impression that the ELCA sexuality statement left it in the hands of congregations whether or not they feel calling an LGBTQ pastor was a good fit for them. Is this not correct? A congregation calls a pastor, a pastor isn't assigned a congregation as in the Catholic correct?

  3. The statistics on pastoral supply have been numerous. The front wave of the Baby Boomers is now 70 yrs old. Retirement "rates" are not high but the actual numbers are staggeringly high compared to the actual number of sem grads. An average of 200 more pastors are needed each yr (2015-2020) than are projected to graduate from seminaries. That's 1,000 less clergy over the next 5 yrs, for about 9,000 congregations. Problem is that only about 6,800 of those congregations will be able to afford a full-tim, first call salary level pastor. Number of pastors serving congregations will go from about 6,800 to 5,800 to serve 9,000 congregtions of which only 6,800 will be able to afford a full-time first call level pastor. Total pastors avaliable 2020 will only be about 5,800 which leaves 1,000 congregations who not only won't be able to afford a pastor but there will also be no pastor to serve that bundle of 1,000 congregations at any price. E-mail me at & I will provide you with charts & tables covering these numbers for 2010 - 2020.

  4. We want our church to be compassionate. We want our church to be Christ to us as it strives to be church to the world. Many denominations have funds for pastor's beteeen calls and retired pastors. Giving up everything to follow the gospel shouldn't impoverish God's servants. And yet it does. We are left alone, cut off from each other and denied the calling we have given so much to. A church that sits on millions and doesn't give to its own doesn't not reflect the generosity the church is called to. That is not of Christ. Lord have mercy.

  5. State synods have separate budgets than church-wide. Church-wide has enormous power and, Bishops make personnel cuts in lieu of budget needs all the time. It's nothing personal. Positions are created. Some are kept. Some are eliminated. It's not unusual or inhumane. It's part of the fluidity of a denomination in generational and ethnic transition. Why weren't we doing the outreach we set as goals 20 years ago? We are reaping the fruits of past failed leadership to plan for the future. Note this distinction.