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ELCA council says majority enough to change sexuality standards

Mark C. Chavez, vice president

November 21, 2008

photo of Pastor ChavezThe ELCA Church Council decided at its meeting Nov. 15-17 in Chicago to recommend a simple majority vote at the 2009 Churchwide Assembly on recommendations from the Task Force for ELCA Studies on Sexuality and the ELCA Church Council regarding the rostering of practicing homosexuals as pastors and ministers.

The Constitutional and Legal Committee of the Church Council had voted unanimously prior to the meeting, with some abstentions, to recommend a two-thirds vote on all resolutions or memorials that relate to the subject of the social statement on sexuality, including the rostering proposals. The committee gave four reasons for recommending a two-thirds vote:

1. It sets a clear rule for all matters and heads off potential confusion and ambiguity.

2. Since the social statement needs a two-thirds vote all matters relating to it should also require a two-thirds vote.

3. If the council wants the Churchwide Assembly to move toward communal discernment, then a two-thirds vote helps move the Churchwide Assembly in that direction.

4. The Church Council (and Churchwide Assembly) will have to deal with the rules anyway, so the committee's recommendation was a starting point for discussion.

During the council's discussion of the committee's recommendation, an amendment was offered to lower the bar from two-thirds to 60 percent, but that amendment was overwhelmingly defeated.

Next an amendment was offered to delete the two-thirds rule, thereby making it a simple majority decision. After much discussion the council approved the amendment 19-10, with one abstention.

Council member Mark Helmke, from San Antonio, Texas, then offered an amendment to restore the 2005 Churchwide Assembly two-thirds rule, which applied to changes in existing ELCA policies (the 2005 rule was narrower in scope than the two-thirds rule recommended by the Constitutional and Legal Committee).

A council member requested a written ballot (not normally used) for the vote on the Helmke amendment. The amendment was defeated 18-14 with two abstentions.

The Constitutional and Legal Committee did very good work. The committee's arguments for the two-thirds rule were articulate and logical, and the committee demonstrated great care for the well being of the ELCA.

However, a clear majority of the council wants the ELCA to approve of rostering practicing homosexuals as soon as possible -- this was stated in the discussion -- and voted for a simple majority rule even though the decision flies in the face of all the council's other priorities.

Most of the council meeting was taken up with serious matters -- how to reverse the steady decline in benevolence from congregations to the synods and churchwide organization; how to reverse the steady and accelerating loss of ELCA members; what to do about the worst ever drop in average worship attendance; how to increase the multiracial and multicultural composition of the ELCA; how to move toward communal discernment at Churchwide Assemblies so there is less vying for votes and outcomes with winners and losers; and how to strengthen ecumenical relationships.

The majority on the council that is dead set to get the ELCA to change its standards for ministry is apparently willing to sacrifice just about everything to attain its goal.

The ELCA suffered a big loss in benevolence after the fiasco in 1993 with the first draft of a social statement on human sexuality and ELCA leaders know it could happen again if the 2009 assembly approves ordaining practicing homosexuals.

The council heard a report from churchwide staff and a consultant about a possible five-year major initiative (appeal for funds) in conjunction with the ELCA's 25th anniversary. The consultant said that in working with the churchwide staff it was clear that the major initiative would need contingency plans for the possible outcomes of the 2009 assembly. He said the ELCA could be a very different church after next August, a clear reference to the decision on rostering practicing homosexuals.

Does the majority on the council not realize that by pushing its homosexual agenda it could lead the ELCA into deeper financial troubles?

Every other denomination in North America that has approved of practicing homosexuals as ministers has suffered huge membership losses -- 30 to 50 percent. Most have done nothing more than approve of the equivalent of a local or synodical option. Does the majority on the church council think that the ELCA will be the exception and not suffer a huge membership loss?

The Rev. Stephen Bouman, executive director of the Evangelical Outreach and Congregational Mission churchwide unit, told the council that the ELCA's new mission congregations have not thrived, especially those connected with ethnic strategies. He said that thus far "ethnic strategies are just words" in the ELCA. Action and results are needed.

ELCA Secretary David Swartling reported that most of the increase in the multi-racial composition of the ELCA is the result of marriages -- in other words, not drawing in new members and families who are not Caucasian.

Does the majority on the church council not know that non-Caucasian people -- Christians and people of other faiths -- overwhelmingly disapprove of homosexual behavior?

If the ELCA changes its standards for ministry it will make it all the more difficult for ELCA congregations to reach Latinos, Asians and African Americans, not to mention immigrants from Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Eastern Europe. Is the majority on the council willing to sacrifice its multicultural and multiracial goals for the sake of one narrow goal?

The Church Council is disturbed by the divisive votes of recent Churchwide Assemblies, but the surest way to increase the divisiveness is to lower the bar to a simple majority for very important decisions. The Legal and Constitutional Committee had it right -- raise the bar higher, not lower. Is the majority on the council unable to see that its decision will make assemblies even more contentious and divisive?

The Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox churches have made it very clear that their relationship with The Episcopal Church is severely ruptured because of the local option by diocese that exists in The Episcopal Church. Lutheran churches in the Lutheran World Federation in Eastern Europe, Africa, Asia and Latin America have made it very clear that if the ELCA and other Lutheran churches approve of homosexual behavior, the unity of the Lutheran World Federation is at stake.

Does the majority of the council not know that its single-minded focus on homosexuality may well undermine more than 50 years of ecumenical work and cut off the ELCA from most of the Christian churches in the world?

Perhaps the most tragic dimension of the majority's decision is the certain damage that will be done to ELCA congregations should the ELCA change its ministry standards. Many congregations will lose members and many will be deeply divided -- some already are.

The majority on the council is concerned about pastoral care for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people, but seemingly oblivious to the overwhelming pastoral care that will be needed for millions of members and thousands of congregations should the majority on the council have its way.