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Hmmm...which layer?

by Jaynan Clark Egland (President, WordAlone Network)

March 12, 2004

I have a very vivid memory from my childhood I’d like to share with you. It was my big, old Grandpa Clark’s birthday and I was in the Oldsmobile with my whole family cruising to my grandparent’s house for his party. One thing Grandpa and I had in common was that we both had the same favorite cake that my mom made from scratch. It was red with homemade butter cream frosting. (I think they called it Red Devil’s Food Cake but let’s not go there!) This cake was so delicious and it was also special because it wasn’t the standard two layers high. Oh no – it was a full three layers high!

We lived out on the farm and my grandparents were “townies” so we had a long 10-mile drive to their home on a curvy river road. There was my mom balancing this beautiful high, red cake on an elegant glass cake plate when my dad took one of the curves a bit too fast. Yikes! There went Grandpa’s cake sliding to the right as my mom tried to catch it with available fingers. The whole thing didn’t slide together as a unit, the creamy frosting saw to that. It was a sequence of layers sliding one after another to sure and certain destruction. I remember that no one in the car was praising the Lord at that particular moment while my mom managed to push one layer back on top of the next and then attempted to redesign the frosting to cover-up the cracks and crumbs below. The end product was not bad but we all knew what was underneath the butter cream frosting.

But, you know, that memory of my mom’s three-layer cake makes me think of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) today. For example, look at two recent news releases about restructuring the church. You can read them at:

And at:

They both explain how the different divisions and committees of the ELCA are considering the restructuring of the church. The directive to do so came by way of the strategic plan accepted at the churchwide assembly in Milwaukee, August 2003. It seems curious to me that anyone would try to fix the top layer of a multi-layer institutional church apart from a complete restructuring of the whole cake—church. How could that possibly work? Perhaps they hope to visibly cover up what is cracking and crumbling below with a thick layer of butter cream icing.

The ELCA likes to talk about the “three expressions of the church,” which is curious in a Lutheran church. I recall that we confess the church to be “where the Word is preached and the sacraments are administered rightly.” Then don’t we have “one expression” of the church, that being the Word in its two foci of Law and Gospel? If the church exists to deliver this Word worldwide, then all the layers of the institutional church outside the doors of the local church are “support staff” provided to serve the Word and sacrament ministry and extend the local churches’ mission and ministry beyond their neighborhoods. If the other two layers aren’t doing this efficiently and economically, don’t they need to carefully be reconsidered as to their own worth and value? It is also curious that the ELCA constitution defines these three layers or expressions to be the churchwide office, synods and the congregations. So what happened to the regions? Are they not a layer? Perhaps headquarters considers them to be like the creamy frosting sticking the layers together. How can the ELCA leadership seriously consider restructuring only one layer of the institution when it is public knowledge that the synodical and regional offices are experiencing shortfalls, ineffectiveness and less than enthusiastic support from the local churches in their geographic areas? If the ELCA “powers that be” (not to be confused with the great I Am) seriously consider that financial difficulties and inefficiencies are occurring in the two layers of the institution beyond the local church, they should realize that trying to fix only the top is neither helpful nor wise.

The late Dr. Jim Kittelson, professor of church history at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., often spoke of the layered chocolate cake of the institutional Lutheran church, which places the local church at the bottom. Over time, this bottom layer is squashed and virtually disappears off the plate from the weightiness of the two additional layers piled on top of it. It is curious that the church, as defined confessionally, could be put under, then ignored and virtually might disappear. It has been built upon rather than around. Perhaps the best restructuring for institutional churches in the 21st century would be to take a quick turn to the right and let the top two layers completely slide off to allow the bottom to be seen in its full aspects. Subsequently, what might appear to be a mess really would be an opportunity to consider the purpose, worth and value of each of those three layers separately and together before attempting to restructure any of the cake.

Obviously, the top layer isn’t the only problem in the ELCA. Folks much smarter than I know that no amount of fancy frosting is going to hold this whole thing together as it cracks and crumbles.

Is God calling for a total redo? An upside-down cake of sorts? A reconstruction that starts from the bottom up would really take the cake!