An Alternative Path


The way forward embodied in the proposed revisions to the candidacy process that will be considered this weekend by the ELCA Church Council is a ‘preserve the status quo’ option. It maintains, at least officially, the unity of the ELCA ministerium and treats the crisis created by the action of the Churchwide Assembly as a passing cloud. The concessions to bound conscience are less even than those granted to opponents of the agreement with the Episcopal Church that committed the ELCA to enter episcopal succession. Candidates opposed to episcopal succession can, in certain cases, be ordained in a way that contradicts Assembly-adopted policy. In our present case, individuals involved in decision making within the candidacy process can remove themselves from participation, but no decision is to utilize sexuality standards other than those approved by national policy.

What would an alternative look like, an alternative that embodies the promise of the Task Force to respect the consciences of synods, bishops, candidacy committees, etc.? It would not be pretty. It would severely compromise the unity of the ELCA ministerium; the ELCA would cease to be a single church in the traditional sense. But that result was built into the Report and Recommendations of the Task Force, as is discussed in the paper to the right (here). That Report was never repudiated by the church leadership. It is late in the day now to say “Oh, those results would be too radical.”

An alternative that avoids chaos as much as possible might look like this:

1. Synods are ‘church’ in the ELCA ecclesiology. They have ecclesial standing and can make corporate decisions. The synod assembly is the appropriate place for that to happen. Synod assemblies should be permitted to pass, by a simple majority, a resolution that would:
a. direct the synodical candidacy committee not to entrance, endorse, or approve for rostering any person in a same-sex relationship,
b. direct the bishop not to sign the attestation of call to any pastor or rostered person in a same-sex relationship.
c. direct the synod staff not to receive the mobility papers of any rostered person in a same-sex relationship.
Without such an action, the acceptance of persons in such relations would be the default policy, but individuals with responsibilities in the candidacy and call process are expected to act out of their own consciences, whether to accept or reject persons in such relations.

2. No congregation or pastor should be expected to register the candidacy of a person in a same-sex relationship if that candidacy violates their conscience.

3. Seminary faculty members would be expected to vote in line with their consciences on the approval of partnered gay or lesbian candidates for ordination or rostering. No one is expected to abstain simply because their conscience is not in line with the Assembly action.

4. Seminary Boards can make a decision not to rent campus housing to gay or lesbian couples. Without such a decision, the default position is that campus housing is open to such students.

I am not a canon or civil lawyer and this alternative is only a suggestion. The details would need to be worked out. If the Report and Recommendations that the Assembly had in its hands are taken seriously, however, something along these lines needs to be on the table.

Michael Root

13 Responses to “An Alternative Path”

  1. Pastor Keith A. Hunsinger Says:

    Please know that I will take these ideas as well as others voiced in this forum with me to the meeting in Chicago. The cynic in me expects very little positive result but I will try to rein that in for the sake of the work we have to do.

    One of the things, I keep reading about Lutheran Core is their stated desire to be an umbrella for a variety of expressions of Lutheranism in North America. Organizations like LCMC and the Seven Mark Society suggest radically different ecclesiologies yet a basic profession of faith. Why can’t the ELCA be that umbrella? In a number of our full communion partners, rosters are held at a lower adjudicatory level than the national Church. Why not with us?

    Allowing a variety of rosters and governing processes may be the only way for the big tent of Lutheranism to survive in America?!

  2. Conrad Derrick Says:

    Your proposal would potentially create a very disparate handling of ministerial candidates by congregations, synods, seminaries, candidacy committees, etc. One interesting point you made suggests that Synod Assemblies could adopt policies that would apply synodwide. I find it interesting that the S.C Synod Assembly in May 2009 passed memorials expressing the Assembly’s disagreement with both the adoption of the Human Sexuality Social Statement and the Ministerial Policy changes. However, our Bishop reported that he personally voted at the CWA in favor of adopting the Social Statement, but against implementation of the Ministerial Policy changes. Are elected synodical officers going to be bound by the expressions of the Synod Assemblies or should they have freedom to implement policies based upon their own personal feelings of bound conscience? I suspect that our Bishop’s opinions and vote may have influenced how other members of the S.C. Synod’s delegation to the CWA voted. It is disturbing to me that delegates from a Synod would not be bound to vote consistently with the expressions of their respective Assemblies.

  3. Conrad Derrick Says:

    Another potential problem with what you are proposing as it relates to seminaries could potentially develop if a Seminary Board of Trustees voted to refuse same sex couples admission to seminary housing, or for that matter, to instruct the admissions committee not to grant admission to applicants who are in same sex relationships. At LTSS is appears that the faculty is greatly divided on these issues, how are they going to react to such instructions. You suggest that, if same sex couples are allowed into the seminaries, then endorsement for ordination by the faculty would be left up to the individual consciences of the faculty members and how they feel about this issue. This “structured flexibility” stuff sounds like it is a can of worms in practice.

  4. Kurt Strause Says:

    Michael Root wrote: “1. Synods are ‘church’ in the ELCA ecclesiology. They have ecclesial standing and can make corporate decisions.”

    Yes and it now time, after 20 years of the ELCA’s existence, to test decisively this truth. The question for the Church will always be, “where do we locate final authoritative interpretation of the Word of God?” The ELCA says, “in the CWA.” Absent a truly international Lutheran church with decisive decision-making structures, we will necessarily look to some smaller unit. The Bible recognizes no such national political boundaries. Besides, the regional Church (synods, dioceses, whatever you want to call them) is ecumenically more compelling than a national body.

  5. Dan Says:

    Yes, why is a national body or umbrella so important? I grew up Southern Baptist. The only real purpose of the SBC- the national body- was to offer a cooperative program for missions and a central Sunday School board to publish books. Most of the seminaries were also supported by the SBC although some were independent.

    The ELCA has virtually no mission program (or either its a really well kept secret). It has a publishing house that is the 3rd or fourth choice for many ELCA churches. The seminaries are supported by the synods aren’t they? So what is the purpose of this national body?

    Why not let smaller groups of essentially like-minded Lutherans just make their own way? I’m confident that a more orthodox group freed from the baggage of the ELCA could be wildly successful. I’m even more confident that staying with the ELCA is a recipe for a slow death. People can’t get excited about a church that isn’t willing to stand on principle. They may continue to be members, but without excitement they won’t invite friends (why would they?) they won’t give as much and they won’t work as much. Eventually they’ll just stop showing up. And these are mostly the people with kids.

  6. Pastor Randy Palm Says:

    What would happen per your option, in a case where an individual congregation wished to call a pastor in a same sex relationship, in a synod whose Assembly passed a resolution directing the Bishop not to sign the attestation of call to any pastor or rostered person in a same-sex relationship? I assume the Synod’s Assembly resolution would outweigh an individual congregation’s bound conscience decision to call such a person. Those congregations might then decide to form a “free standing” synodical structure that would endorse pastors in same sex relationships. I see a level of convolution that will lead to the complete fracture of the ELCA. I am not a “pessimist” as much as a realist; the direction the ELCA has decided to walk, right or wrong, means that a number of folks will be compelled by their understanding of the Gospel to walk in a different direction. I think the opportunity for compromise has passed; I fear there is no longer any serious intention or desire to do the painfully difficult work that would be required to seek true compromise and co-existence.

    • Michael Root Says:

      Let me be clear: the alternative path outlined in this comment is, abstractly considered, a bad idea. I believe that conscience clauses are generally a mistake; I opposed and still oppose the conscience clause adopted in relation to episcopal presidency at ordinations. But the avoidance of conscience clauses puts a burden on the church. One should seek something approaching a common mind before making a significant decision. The agreement with the Episcopal Church was debated for seven years before it was adopted; the concrete proposal that was finally adopted was worked out in great detail and released in April 1998, well over a year in advance of the final vote. A two-thirds majority was required. (And yes, the rules were changed after the game had started; the two-thirds requirement for full-communion proposals was adopted after the publication of the Concordat of Agreement in 1991).
      The provision of significant room for conscience in the present case has two justifications:
      1) Some such provision needs to be made to keep faith with the Report and Recommendations of the Task Force. The actual resolution was altered by the Church Council, but the significance of that alteration was not made clear to the Assembly, which still had the Report before it and assumed that the Report explained the meaning of the Recommendations.
      2) The action of the Churchwide Assembly lacks a fundamental ecclesial legitimacy. The proposal was make only in February of this year, six months before the Assembly. The details of the proposal were not developed (hence the present debate). The Report itself was confusing; its implications were not clear. The requirement of a simple majority for such a decision was inappropriate, regardless of arguments about legislative niceties.
      In this situation, some provision for bodies such as synods to exercise their ‘bound conscience’ is appropriate.
      Michael Root

  7. Jerry Kliner Says:

    The question being raised, indirectly at least, by the CWA and the subsequent discussions and proposals, is what exactly is the nature and necessity of a ministerium? It seems to me that any sense of ministerium in the ELCA has been under increasing stress and may no longer be feasible. Certainly issues of “functional” vs. a “psuedo-ontological” view of Ordination, “Church Growth” (ie. mega-Church, multiple staff and campus parishes), and now sexual ethics has placed a unified ministerium under greater and greater strain. Can we any longer claim to have a single ministerium (as opposed to a “roster”) in the ELCA? Should we?

    Certainly, as one comment alludes to above, other denominations and traditions do not have a ministerium nor do they seem overly troubled by a lack of one. The Baptists, as a whole, do not have a sense of ministerium; each pastor/preacher being an “independant” contractor. The Episcopalians have not shared a common sense of ministerium across the Episcopal Church; each diocese functioning as a semi-autocephalous entity, determining in large part it’s own requirements for ordination. Of course, we have also seen the shortcomings of this approach. And, it must be noted, that neither the Baptist nor the Episcopalian ecclesiology are particularly easy to reconcile with the Lutheran Confessions.

    I, for one, lament that the ministerium of the ELCA has been (in my view) broken. It should be lamented that no longer can I, as a Pastor in one Synod, be automatically and without scrutiny accepted to serve in another Synod. Up to this point in history, my seminary education (I am a graduate of Wartburg Theological Seminary) did not need to be scrutinized or criticized, though doubtlessly seminary competition did exist. But that sense that, ontologically at least, all Pastors within the ELCA’s ministerium, vis-a-vis our common Ordination, are equal and equally acceptable for service in all Synods, can no longer be assumed.

    What’s more, I fear for what seems to be taking the place of the now dead ministerium. In place of a ministerium, centralized control seems like it is becoming established. One can (and perhaps should) wonder how long individual Seminary boards and faculties will be allowed to excercise independent decision making like you propose. The roster is now kept, not by individual Synods, but by the Secretary of the ELCA. I fear for the future of the Seminaries if this trend towards central authority extends to them as well. In place of the virtues of respect and mutuality that marked the ministerium, a sense of centralized control and “top down” authority seems to be growing.

    I pray I am wrong, but the loss of the common ministerium and what might replace it, seems to me to be a foregone conclusion.

    • Kris Says:

      Pastor Kliner,
      I would like to respectfully challenge a presumption I find in your third paragraph: that until now there has been a whole and complete ministerium of the ELCA. First, please forgive me if I am misreading your comments. Certainly the CWA decisions bring the reality of any unified ministerium into question, but I believe in practice that we have always had — at minimum — fissures within this ministerium.

      Most noticeably is the fissure in regards to the ordination of women. I’ve spoken with numerous female clergy who have learned from experience that it is easier to work with certain synods than others. Granted, all synods have female clergy (I assume), but not all synods have been as forthcoming as others in finding calls for these leaders. One pastor has only been given the names of three congregations for interviews, and this process began for her well over a year ago. I highly doubt that is how the synod operates with all of its rostered leaders seeking calls. Admittedly, this doesn’t prove that synods operate outside the practice of equal acceptance of the common ordination.

      However, there are congregations who refuse to call female clergy, which does call into question whether we can claim to equally accept all ordinations. In fact, one call-committee president said to me that he told his synod not to give the committee the names of any females. The synod’s response to that committee president was simply, “Okay.” How then was that congregation and the synod not already operating under the auspices of bound conscience in recognizing the legitimacy of females’ ordinations? Fissures, at minimum, have already been a part of this ministerium.

      I’m sure that at one point in time this same practice of “unspoken bound conscience” took place within our predecessor bodies in regards to the calling of divorced clergy members. In fact, I wouldn’t be shocked if this still takes place today, even though I would imagine this is not a request synods typically hear from call committee presidents.

      So, I return to your questions raised in your first paragraph, “Can we any longer claim to have a single ministerium (as opposed to a ‘roster’) in the ELCA? Should we?” I am not attempting to answer your second question with this post. However, in response to your first question, I must pose the question, “Did we even have a single ministerium?” I do have to wonder if some of our issues with the “bound conscience” clause is not so much because it raises dirty ecclesiastical questions, but because it now will force us to confront the ecclesiastical dirt that has always been there (at least since 1988) but was never spoken of because we kept it under the rug.

      Kris Litman-Koon

  8. Erich Heim Says:

    Such a proposal looks like a rendition of the game known as “Twister”–amusing perhaps, but utterly pointless. Really, what is the point of trying to stay together under such a fascade with completely untennable and conditions? Pensions/Benefits plans?

    • Marshall Hahn Says:

      The point is not so much trying to stay together with the ELCA, but trying to stay together as a synod. The point would be to maintain a unified ministerium within the synod that was faithful to the witness of Scripture for living a holy life before the Lord. The point would also be to present a united witness within the synod to the whole of the ELCA in calling upon the ELCA to repent of the actions taken at the Churchwide Assembly.

      Marshall Hahn

  9. Pastor Randy Palm Says:

    I guess my point in commenting was to say that I think a lot of intellectual, theological, and emotive time and energy is being spent to beat a dead horse, so to speak. The ELCA leadership, IMHO, has NO intention of accomodating those who dissent. I have seen and heard NO evidence of the ELCA leadership making an exerted effort to work on reconciliation at synodical or national levels to date. (I would appreciate examples of this actually happening, if folks have them) I believe the leadership is in a “hunker down” mode, and will ride out the storm, until all those who will not accept the current revisions have left, and then will move forward with a long range goal of merger with what is left of the Episcopal Church, and possibly (less likely) what remains of the UCC, as these 3 bodies, purged of the right and many centrists, now represent the far left, theologically and politically, of Christianity. I think the message is clear; the train is leaving the station, get on board, or wait for another ride. I believe, sadly, it is a waste of time to search for ways to stay together when there is no real desire on the part of the ELCA for a partnership with those who disagree with their ideological and theological vision of the church. Like a divorce, sometimes it is best for everyone concerned, (to avoid bitter long term animosity) to admit that a relationship is irretrievably broken, and in the best interests for all concerned for both parties to go their separate ways. I believe that time has come for the ELCA. Just my opinion.

  10. Pastor Travis Norton Says:

    People take the path of least resistance. Staying in the ELCA and just ignoring the larger church is the default strategy. When you don’t feel like you have any voice or any influence in the larger church you just try to ignore it and do what you think is right in your current context. I think many of us pastors who are upset with the direction of the ELCA won’t make any major changes within our current context(because it’s too hard and costs more than it’s worth), but we will likely make our change/switch when we take our next call.

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