A Consultation Paper on Future Directions of the ELCA
July 25, 2016
In 2017, together with Lutherans around the world, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America will commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Across this church we will be celebrating this event in worship, study, proclamation and witness and deeply reflecting on the precious gift of God’s liberating grace. The Reformation anniversary provides a powerful focal point for reaffirming who we are as a Lutheran church and understanding what God is calling this church to be in its ongoing reformation. And for a brief time a spotlight will be turned on Lutherans in this country and around the world. How will we use this moment to explain ourselves and renew our commitment to sharing the good news of Jesus in a world suffering through growing conflict, fear and inequality, at home and abroad?
Through Called Forward Together in Christ, we have been asking what it means to be Lutheran and how we express this in today’s world. We have learned we aren’t as good as we could be in giving a clear answer to that question. We speak about grace, about our work in advocacy, about the relief and development work we do, about our inclusiveness and diversity – though I believe these last two are more aspirational than actual – about our ecumenical and interreligious dialogues and relationships. These are true and important, yet they are not exclusively Lutheran. Thanks be to God, many religious and secular organizations are deeply committed to serving the vulnerable and working for justice and peace. So what is distinctive about being a Lutheran church, and how do we agree on and unite around priorities that are important for the whole of the ELCA?
When the ELCA Church Council and Conference of Bishops endorsed this broadly based conversational and consultative process, I was nervous about whether we would reach conclusions that had wide resonance across this church – that we would be able to say together what is most important. This directions paper shares what we heard from church leaders and members about who we are as Lutheran and our distinctiveness as a Lutheran church together for the sake of the world. It also shares what people across this church see to be our most pressing challenges and priorities. I am heartened by the congruence we see in your responses and the passion for this church that has been expressed.
The conversations and feedback tell us two things: There is broad consensus about the church we want to become, but in some of the areas that are highly important we do not have a clear or effective strategy. Becoming an inclusive, multicultural and more youthful church is on everyone’s lips, but we are so far failing as a church to achieve our aspirations. Growing discipleship and membership of this church is also an aspiration, but congregations, synods and the churchwide organization have struggled to find ways to reverse the decline in membership and participation in this church. This is weighing heavily on the hearts and minds of a majority of lay, lay rostered and ordained leaders. So how do we collectively respond to this? There are also areas identified to be important where we are enthusiastically and effectively living out God’s mission – for example in our global and domestic mission work and in our ecumenical partnerships and interfaith relationships.
We invite you into this next stage of discerning the ELCA’s future directions and priorities. Let us know what you think about the themes and directions reflected in this paper. Your input will help the ELCA’s leadership tables be courageous in interpreting God’s call and together developing an intentional strategic focus in taking that call forward.
Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton
1.1About Called Forward Together in Christ
Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, together with the ELCA Conference of Bishops and Church Council, has embarked on an ambitious process to invite people, ministries and institutions of the ELCA into a conversation about future directions of this church. Building on processes that have come before it, especially Living into the Future Together (LIFT), Called Forward Together in Christ seeks to discern future directions and priorities of the ELCA. The process started in November 2015 when the Conference of Bishops and Church Council affirmed its importance and discussed how to best engage people across the ELCA. It involves three stages in 2016.
Conversations across this church about the future (January to June).
Consultation on directions and priorities that emerged through these conversations (July to September).
Reaching decisions about where the ELCA is heading and to what it will give importance. In this paper we refer to that as a Future Directions Statement (October to November).
The 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017 offers an exciting moment in the ELCA’s journey – a time to rejoice in the life-giving, liberating power of the gospel and deepen our faith and love of Jesus. As a church always being made new, what better time to launch a shared vision and direction for the ELCA around which leaders and members can unite. What is decided by the Church Council in November will be launched as part of marking the Reformation anniversary.
Where are we in the process?
On advice of the presiding bishop, the ELCA Church Council appointed a Future Directions Table to guide the process. One of their primary tasks is to make sense of the messages and themes resonating through Called Forward Together in Christ. They met in March and June and will meet again in September to help shape a Future Directions Statement ahead of the Conference of Bishops and Church Council meetings. You can see who serves on this table on the last page of this paper.
Stage one is completed and we have heard from many people across this church:
through conversations held in congregations and at synod assemblies;
through a survey of rostered leaders, lay and ordained and a survey of youth and young adults;
through discussions and information gathered from church networks and specialized ministries (young adults, ethnic and multicultural ministries, social ministries, campus ministries, seminaries and separately incorporated ministries); and
through meetings involving the Conference of Bishops, the Church Council and the churchwide organization.
While the specific wording of questions and input mechanisms varied for different groups, we used six BIG questions to focus conversations.
What is distinctive about who we are as a Lutheran church?
What kind of church do we believe God is calling us to become?
What is God calling us to do in a world that is facing unprecedented levels of poverty, conflict and violence, interreligious tension and displacement of people?
What do we expect from our church leaders? And how do we recruit, invest in and support them to lead this church into the future?
Will our current structures serve this church well into the future? How can the ELCA maintain strong congregational participation and ownership and become more connected as one church?
We are grateful to the many individuals who participated in the process and those who led conversations. Of course we did not reach everyone. But we believe the many voices heard show there is a high degree of shared thinking on hopes about the future of this church and what is important.
This directions paper takes us into stage two. The Future Directions Table advised on and shaped the content of this paper, with writing undertaken by our consultant supporting Called Forward Together in Christ, Lyla Rogan, and input from Kenneth Inskeep. It is also informed by available ELCA research and other important discussions on the future of this church.1
The directions paper provides the platform for the next stage of consultation and engagement in the process. It summarizes the main themes coming through conversations and meetings held, survey findings and other research. And it begins to identify what these messages point to in terms of future directions and priorities. This paper is being distributed widely to get feedback on what has emerged.
Stage three moves to decision making. In November 2016, the ELCA Church Council will affirm a Future Directions Statement. The Future Directions Table, Conference of Bishops, Church Council members and leaders in the churchwide organization will contribute to shaping the statement in the lead-up to the Church Council meeting. The goal is to achieve joint ownership of the statement by the ELCA’s leadership tables and invite others to join in leading the church forward based on a shared view about what is important.
2017 and beyond – The Future Directions Statement will be launched in 2017 as part of marking the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. The process will extend well beyond 2017 as the directions are interpreted and implemented across the ELCA’s complex church ecology.