An All Saints Day Message for A Power-Driven Church

An All Saints Sunday Message for Bishop Eaton

Last year, on Reformation Day, I wrote to the newly elected Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America—the Rev. Elizabeth Eaton.


I wrote with hope and respect that new leadership would bring order to the Church and recognize obvious wrongs. I heard nothing in response. No real surprise. We have written letters to her predecessor and other national church offices and been ignored for six years. Since the Lutheran way is to ignore dissent, I’ll post this year’s letter online.


No letters would have been needed had our regional bishop been talking to us, if our regional Synod Council had done anything but follow orders, if our Synod Assembly had checked their constitution before voting on a member congregation’s property.


All dreams of true participation in the Church and its message of reconciliation evaporated early on—when our bishop first came to us with a lawyer at her right hand. The Bible warns against this pretty clearly, but . . . .


When Christian denominations turn first to lawyers they have lost their way.


I post on All Saints Sunday—a day when we can remember our Lutheran roots—we are all saints and sinners—priesthood of all believers. Remember?


It is so easy to forget in challenging times. When the road gets rough, we grasp for any methodology—constitutional or not.


Redeemer is not alone in dealing with the overstepping of clergy authority, but we may have the most experience!


In our genetically engineered minds, when threatened, we have three choices—fight, flight, or freeze. In our experience—

  • The congregation fought.
  • The clergy fled.
  • The people froze.


The Self-Destruction Superhighway

The Church is on a road to self-destruction. The challenges we face are the same challenges Jesus faced, but we have stopped learning from his example.


The response has been to rely more on hierarchical thinking. Just as like our Old Testament forefathers, in troubled times, we long for a king—or queen.


Rev. Loren Mead, founder of the Alban Institute, recently said:

It feels like we’ve been fighting a defensive war and not shifting our model to understand the power of the laity as the important part of the church. We’ve gotten more hierarchical and defensive. We’re worrying about how to survive rather than what we ought to be doing.



Laity get shoved aside.


Ignoring the laity is a bad idea. Laity hold important keys to the Church—not the door keys, although in the Lutheran Church they are supposed to hold these keys—but the keys to success. If mainline denominations are to survive another century, laity must play a larger role.


Laity are needed for more than monetary offerings. We have a great deal to offer beyond the usual choir membership and Sunday School teaching. Church-building skills were once the realm of specially trained clergy. Today, the laity have these skills. We’ve learned them on the job.  We practice them in our secular lives. We network and share our secular messages in a world that is alive with clashing cultures and customs. In the Church, the laity are held back from using their God-given gifts—if they clash with the agenda of clergy.


This has created an unnecessary schism in the church.


What Regional Bodies Don’t Want Congregations to Know

Difficult economic times affect hierarchical church structures more deeply than local churches. They are dependent on the congregations.


Yet they have the power their supporters don’t have—the power to pool resources. They don’t intend to be the first to fold! Consequently, they tend to view their supporting congregations with a critical eye—not to help those who need help the most (the Christian way) but to hasten the demise of the weak to gain control of their remaining assets. Meanwhile, they curry favor with the strongest congregations — the strongest for the time being.


Quote:From Transforming Regional Bodies

by Roy Oswald and Claire Burkat
published in 2001

You do not have the luxury of
giving everyone who asks for help
whatever time you have available.
Some tough decisions need to be made
as to where your Regional Body is going
to invest time, energy, and resources.

Thinking in terms of TRIAGE
is a most responsible thing to do at the present time.
Congregations that will die within the next ten years
should receive the least amount of time and attention.

They should receive time that assists them
to die with celebration and dignity.
Offer these congregations a ‘caretaker’ pastor
who would give them quality palliative care
until they decide to close their doors.
It is the kind of tough-minded leadership
that will be needed at the helm if your organization
is to become a Transformational Regional Body.


Threatened regional bodies criticize congregations when clergy exhibit the same symptoms. Congregations are labeled as graying. Clergy are aging, too. Many candidates for seminary are well into their second careers. Part-time work is attractive to their more settled lifestyles.  While the commitment expectations of pastors have changed, payment expectations have risen.


Consequently, congregations are encouraged to seek full time pastors from a very limited pool. Leadership is concentrated in a few richer congregations. Part-time or interim ministries become the norm while the traditional structure of church is built on the disappearing norm of long-term pastorates.


This is a crisis in leadership—and congregations pay the price.


Add to this the fact that many congregations — many of them small — have more liquid assets than their regional bodies. The regional bodies look for ways to “secure those assets for mission” (funding the regional office).


Redeemer had more resources available to them in 2006 than the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Yet we were represented as being in dire circumstances. A lie—and not the only lie.


Changing the rules is the most viable strategy for them. A tweak here and there and soon the constitutions have reversed their original intent.


The battle is being fought on a sharply tilted playing field.


Regional bodies and the national church face individual congregations—not with prayer and discernment, where the small congregations might have a chance, but in the threatening and expensive realm of court. David and Goliath.


And Then Came the Great Recession

We could have helped one another through the last difficult decade—interdependence at its best.


The return to hierarchical thinking precluded that.


Hierarchies are crumbling. Leaders in politics, business and academia have had to rethink archaic structures, while the Church reverts to what they know best—the Middle Ages.


The result: The sense of mission is more profound in congregations than in church leadership.


Redeemer’s situation is an example.


SEPA Mission Plan in East Falls

Discourage ministers from serving.

Discourage evangelism and new membership.

Lock out members. With clergy out of the way, sue selected lay members.

Claim ownership of property and endowment funds.

Allow property to sit unused for five years.

Flirt with neighborhood asking for ideas for ministry, then ignore them.

At first opportunity (when liens on the property are satisfied), sell the property for the benefit of the Synod.

Redeemer Mission Plan in East Falls

Give lay members more leadership opportunity.

Renovate the aging building to expand mission potential.

Reach out to all visitors.

Continue to stay in touch with membership, offering home worship and other worship opportunities.

Use property and endowment to create new mission opportunity.

Ask members for mission ideas. Start program to help immigrants find housing. Experiment with social media. Start neighborhood Christian day school.

Put ministry online. Visit other churches.

A Structure Doomed to Fail

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America was proud of its approach when it formed. We are “interdependent.”


The problem is that “interdependence” has been inadequately defined.


The founding documents are clear.


  • The laity have administrative control over the property and ministries.
  • The clergy are servant leaders. The concept of servant leaders and hierarchy do not mix well.


We can fix this.


Return to our roots.


The Priesthood of All Believers

Martin Luther believed in the equality of laity and clergy—separate roles, equal importance. It became a common denominator across the Protestant Church—an extension of the foundational teaching of our faith—“justification by faith through grace.”



For the first time in the modern church, laity have the same access to learning and communication. The teachings of Martin Luther can be tested among a highly learned laity.


The current reaction has been for the clergy to view the most knowledgable and active laity as competition—adversaries. Interdependence becomes a battleground.


Unlike other hierarchies, in the Lutheran Church, the top tier of leadership does not own land or control congregational assets. They exist entirely on voluntary contributions.


In feudal times, the “lord” would raise an army. Today, the church hires lawyers.


Servant leaders become bullies, protected by tradition and the First Amendment.


There is little to stop them.


When regional and national bodies pool resources of all congregations to fight individual congregations in the courtroom, the playing field is unfairly tilted.


The View from the Pew

From the congregation’s vantage, the Council of Bishops is a closed circle. A social club. They support one another — right or wrong.


This is what got the Roman Catholic Church in trouble with the sex scandals.


This is what is getting the Lutheran Church in trouble with property scandals.



The Solution

We live in one could be viewed as a magical time for the Church. Cheap, unfettered communication tools are widely available. We can lead the way, if we trust our own message, but our unnecessary dependence on hierarchical thinking cripples us.


It may be easy to rally votes to support the ways of the past. This would not be leadership.


Bishop Eaton, help us be Lutherans. Listen to laity. Uphold the original promises made to ELCA congregations. Restore order to the Church.


A first step would be to provide a forum for disputes between congregations and regional leadership. There were ombudsmen forums in previous Lutheran bodies but not in the ELCA. Bishops can do as they please unchallenged. If there was oversight that is not controlled by the bishop, bishops would be encouraged to respect their constitutions and congregations. Their bullying power would be diminished. Congregations would have a sense of that their Church truly believes in reconciliation. Bishops would think twice before exercising nebulous powers.


This is important to the survival of the entire ELCA.


We know, Bishop Eaton, that you know the clergy. The temptation will be to believe whatever they tell you. Take the time to know the laity. Build a church for tomorrow.


You may be closer than you think to presiding over a group of bishops who are proudly dangling the keys to empty churches.