How Full Communion
with the Episcopal Church
Hurts Lutheran Congregations


The Blind Leading the Blind?

I read with interest recently a long and scholarly review of the decline in The Episcopal Church. There is a second part.


The article by the Rev. George Clifford presents a common church problem from a management perspective.

  • What are the best uses of church resources for the overall mission of the Church?
  • How can we solve the problems of small churches while satisfying professional leaders and their personal career goals?


The article discusses

  • The cost of maintaining church property
  • The career desires of clergy
  • The payment and lifestyle expectations of clergy
  • The efficiency of church size

Missing from the discussion is sense of what church life means to the faithful and how this alone is an asset to the Church.


Church leaders persist in their belief that all congregations with a qualified pastor and following the prescribed liturgies are equal.


The attitude:

Go ahead. Close small churches. Members can easily find another church to attend.

Except they won’t. Statistically, most members of congregations forced into closure become unchurched.


Lay people look for more in a church than a place to sit on Sunday morning.


Church managers, out of compassion if nothing more, should consider the effect on existing Christians.


Such a discussion would likely include:

  • A sense of betrayal
  • A feeling of being used and discarded
  • Profound disrespect
  • A sense of abandonment
  • Challenges of faith
  • A sense of being useful to the kingdom only for what we contribute, while having little control over the use of our contributions.


The advice of clergy to “join another church of the same denomination” is to clergy a problem solved.


To laity it is a problem (or problems) created.


Congregations are communities. There are reasons why people affiliate with smaller churches (and most churches are small). These come under the umbrella of “belonging.” Small churches are places where individuals can have an influence, where they can be known for their skills and not just as an offering or attendance statistic. They can feel acceptance among few when they would feel lost among many.


The Promise of Practical Solutions

The second part of the essay promises practical solutions for reversing decline. It actually assumes that facilitating the demise of small congregations is the solution. It references a blog post about downsizing—but applies the concepts of downsizing to parishicide. The ideas about downsizing might actually apply without the death sentence attached!


The article correctly identifies that the major challenge of small churches:

  • to stay connected to their changing neighborhoods or
  • to rebuild the connections that were probably lost during extended periods of time following leadership that failed to address the disconnect while it was happening.

In other words congregations have to make up for lost time. They must find leadership that may not exist among clergy who are hellbent on helping churches die, supposedly to protect resources. The Church as a whole is losing resources that might needed to reach “the world.” This includes people as well as property!

The author then correctly identifies pastors as important agents of change as compared to regional staffs. It goes no further. It totally overlooks laity.

This is where TEC’s relationship with ELCA Lutherans could benefit them. Theoretically, Lutherans value lay leadership. Theoretically.


How the Problems of the Episcopal Church Are Influencing Lutheran Tradition

Lutherans now consider themselves in full communion with The Episcopal Church—despite a full page of disclaimers at the end of the document that outlines the union. There are three problems with the implementation of full communion.

  • Lutherans come to full communion with a congregational polity. Congregations own their property. The Episcopal tradition follows the Catholic tradition of diocesan ownership.
  • Full communion means next to nothing to laity, most of whom are inclined to get along with neighborhood churches without permission of church leaders.
  • Those disclaimers are never read.


What does Full Communion with The Episcopal Church Mean to Most Lutherans?

Very little to lay people. A great deal to clergy.


Clergy gain a deeper pool of churches from which to catch the next call.


But the leadership style is very different from Lutheran tradition—and that waning tradition is actually a Lutheran strength. The Lutheran tradition empowers laity in mission. It also is foundational to fostering a clergy that is empowered to speak up within the Church when they see wrong-doing.


This article avoids any discussion of laity as being involved in any way but submitting to prescribe failure.


The Battlefield Is Property Ownership

The differences in leadership styles is incompatible with the Lutheran view of property. Remember, Lutheran congregations own their properties. Episcopal congregations generally do not. Property equals power.


The divergent polity regarding property ownership could resolve in one of two ways.

  1. Episcopal polity could change to give laity more control over their property and mission. Not likely. Those with power don’t give up power willingly.
  2. Lutheran polity could change to give the regional expression more control over property. This is against the founding documents of the ELCA but it is a huge temptation.


In fact, this is part of the emerging mission strategies of some Lutheran regional leaders, who are taking advantage of “full communion” status. Unsuspecting lay people think they are still Lutheran—that they still own and manage their congregations. They may have been duped into giving away their traditional rights.


Here are a few of the strategies being employed by some ELCA synods. 2×2’s parent church, Redeemer Lutheran Church in East Falls, Philadelphia experienced each of these in the last 15 years. 


  • The regional body will innocently suggest to a small church that they accept mission status. If congregational leaders are not familiar with Lutheran polity, they will be tempted to accept financial help, not realizing that they have given the regional body control of their property—forever—even after outside help is no longer needed.
  • The regional body with equal innocence, will suggest that the existing church close so that it can reopen. They will tell the congregation that this will allow a fresh start in their neighborhood. They won’t mention that it also puts the property under regional control and removes any vote or say of the existing congregants. The existing members with their knowledge of Lutheran polity will magically evaporate in the regional body’s eyes. They will find new people to work with—people who don’t know Lutheran polity.
  • The regional body will tweak their constitutions, which limits the ability of synod leaders to intrude into congregational governance. Tweak by tweak, the constitutions will be rewritten in violation of the founding agreements between the synod and congregations. They will claim rights to property under circumstances that they alone define and assess. Without an outspoken clergy and laity, this strategy will succeed. There is no mechanism in the ELCA to check the power of regional leaders. Secular courts refuse to get involved in church issues.
  • One final step. If congregational leaders do not immediately comply with the demands of the regional body or bishop, they will be removed from their positions—not by the congregations that elected them but by the regional bishop who doesn’t have that authority—but who is not likely to be challenged. This may be accompanied by removing the congregation’s voice and vote within the Synod Assembly—wholly unconstitutional, but likely to work. The only prescribed avenue for redress of any grievance is controlled by the bishop.


These strategies seem to have started with the acceptance of “full communion” with The Episcopal Church. Lutheran leaders naturally crave the powers enjoyed by their new peers.


Faced with similar challenges, Lutheran leaders are tempted to practice the same autonomy of the Episcopal tradition—a tradition foreign to the most of the people they serve and who support them.


Let them read this article. They will notice that the Episcopal tradition doesn’t necessarily have answers despite their greater power. Lutherans are ceding their strength—an informed and active laity/clergy—for the trappings of power that no longer work.


The blind leading the blind?