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Chicago (ELCA)-JB — The Conference of Bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) held a wide-ranging discussion on a proposal for the future design of the churchwide organization, which was announced by the Office of the Presiding Bishop Sept. 15. The bishops commented on specifics of the proposal, its timing and implementation, and how the churchwide organization could improve its governance.
The ELCA is organized into 65 synods, each headed by a bishop. The ELCA Conference of Bishops is an advisory body to the church, consisting of the church's 65 synod bishops, ELCA presiding bishop and ELCA secretary. The conference met here Oct. 2-6.
The proposal is to eliminate 41 of about 500 staff positions and create 18 new staff positions under a new structure. The ELCA would retain three offices; its six divisions would become five departments; the work of its two commissions would be deployed to several strategic areas in the organization; its current six departments would become service units of the offices, and several new service units would be created.
The proposal is to phase out the existing boards of divisions, steering committees of commissions and advisory committees of departments. It asks the ELCA Church Council to develop amendments to the ELCA Constitution, eliminating boards and steering committees, for presentation to the 2005 Churchwide Assembly.
The church council is the ELCA's board of directors, and serves as the interim legislative authority between churchwide assemblies, the church's chief legislative authority.
This fall the churchwide organization is gathering comments from the church on the proposal. On Oct. 21 leaders of the churchwide organization will meet and refine the proposal, said the Rev. Mark S. Hanson, ELCA presiding bishop. From there it will go to the Church Council for action. The council will meet Nov. 13-16 in Charlotte, N.C.
Hanson encouraged the bishops to comment on the proposal. "The more creative, the more imaginative the suggestions are, the better off we'll be," he said.
In his remarks to the bishops, Hanson said one of the realities driving the reorganization and reduction in spending is a continuing decline in income to the churchwide organization. Even if there were no restructuring proposal, the churchwide organization would have to deal with the loss of programs and positions because of the current income decline, he said.
Hanson reminded the bishops that the restructuring proposal is a result of a nearly two-year listening process in which staff sought comments on the church's mission from members throughout the church. From those conversations five strategic directions emerged, and the proposed structure is intended to align the churchwide organization with those directions, he said. The directions are: support congregations; grow in evangelical outreach; be a public church; extend global, ecumenical and interfaith relationships; and support professional leaders.
Since the proposal was announced and employees learned of the fate of specific programs and people, Hanson said, it had been "a very, very difficult period of time for churchwide staff."
Early criticism of the proposal has been legitimate, Hanson said. Hanson said he wished he had met earlier with churchwide unit heads whose positions were proposed for elimination "to affirm their gifts of leadership."
"I have apologized for that," he said. Hanson also said he wished there had been better communication with people of color, especially about concerns related to the ELCA Commission for Multicultural Ministries (CMM). Under the proposal, the work of CMM is to be deployed into several strategic areas, including a staff person in the presiding bishop's office.
Hanson acknowledged that some people perceive the proposal as a "power grab" by the presiding bishop since responsibility for multicultural ministries, women in church and society, world hunger and poverty ministries and worship are proposed to be moved into his office.
"I certainly understand that perception," he said. Hanson said he is not interested in centralizing power, but that he views these functions "as central to my call." It is important to bring responsibilities related to the whole church into the presiding bishop's office, since the bishop is called to oversee the work of the churchwide organization, Hanson said.
Since it was formed, the ELCA has had a commitment to enhance the roles of women in the church, and seek to be multicultural and anti-racist. CMM and the Commission for Women are charged with those responsibilities. The Commission for Women is proposed to be eliminated as is CMM, but Hanson emphasized the work of both is to be redirected to other places in the churchwide structure.
Under the proposal churchwide governance will change. Most boards and advisory committees that relate to churchwide units are to be eliminated.
"We need a more lively, interactive way of bringing resources in and out of this church," Hanson said. The restructure proposal suggests the use of "roundtables," which will bring together consultants from throughout the church to discuss and advise the church on specific topics, Hanson said.
Hanson emphasized that the proposal attempts to mold the churchwide organization into more of a "living organism," he said.
In his report the Rev. Lowell G. Almen, ELCA secretary, emphasized that the strategic planning process, including restructuring, is a four-year process and not a six-week endeavor. That involves listening, developing proposals for restructuring and living into a new structure, including constitutional amendments that must be adopted by the 2005 Churchwide Assembly. He emphasized that many of the functions of the churchwide organization are moved into other places in the proposed structure and are not being completely eliminated.
The ELCA synod bishops responded to the restructure proposal in a series of sessions throughout their meeting. While many offered opinions on a wide variety of specific programs, most who spoke did not want action on restructuring proposals to be delayed into next year, as some in the church have suggested. Many of their comments included:
+ Schools: Under the proposal, the churchwide organization would no longer relate to childhood, elementary and secondary schools. That relationship would be maintained through an alliance or through the Evangelical Lutheran Education Association.
The church "can't minimize the pain, the shock" of this for ELCA schools staff, said the Rev. Stephen P. Bouman, bishop of the ELCA Metropolitan New York Synod. The staff has worked for 20 years to "make the case" for schools, he said. "Do we have a plan for schools? Do we really want them out of the building?" Bouman said.
The Rev. Charles S. Miller, executive for administration and executive assistant to the presiding bishop, suggested the plan could create a stronger churchwide relationship with schools.
+ Unfunded mandates: The Rev. William C. "Chris" Boerger, bishop of the ELCA Northwest Washington Synod, Seattle, said he is concerned about "unfunded mandates" that would become synod responsibilities. He cited examples such as ministry in daily life, social ministry and education in social justice.
+ Outdoor, campus ministry: Under the proposal, the churchwide organization would maintain a limited relationship with camping and outdoor ministries, to be phased out by 2005. After that, an alliance for Lutheran outdoor ministries would be formed. Campus ministry would be moved to a new Department for Youth, Education and Lay Leadership.
"I have a concern about camping and campus ministry," said the Rev. H. Gerard Knoche, bishop of the ELCA Delaware-Maryland Synod, Baltimore. "Those are the places where we get people for ordained ministry."
+ Multicultural ministries: The Rev. Margaret G. Payne, bishop of the ELCA New England Synod, Worcester, Mass., said it's important to keep a multicultural "monitoring system" in place for departments of the churchwide organization.
The Rev. Margarita Martinez, bishop of the ELCA Caribbean Synod, Dorado, Puerto Rico, said she has been "showered" with phone calls, faxes and e-mails about the fate of CMM. Her synod is feeling "a great sense of loss" among people who've worked with CMM programs for many years, she said.
The Rev. Paul J. Blom, bishop of the ELCA Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod, Houston, said he applauds the idea of multicultural ministries "touching all parts of the church" through the presiding bishop's office.
+ Representative Church Council: A few bishops suggested a different configuration for the ELCA Church Council would help the church, if board and committees were eliminated. They recommended a 65-member council, with one representative from each of the ELCA's 65 synods. Such a proposal was considered at the 2003 Churchwide Assembly, but defeated.
Greater council representation creates another advocate for churchwide ministries other than the Conference of Bishops, said the Rev. Robert D. Berg, bishop of the ELCA Northwest Synod Wisconsin, Rice Lake. A representational council could "build relationships and dollars," he said.
Church council representation is an issue that should "be put back on the table," said the Rev. Peter Rogness, bishop of the ELCA Saint Paul (Minn.) Area Synod. A "representative" council could provide connections that roundtables may not, he said.
However, the Rev. Gregory R. Pile, bishop of the ELCA Allegheny Synod, Altoona, Pa., said a 65-member council is "inconsistent" with the idea of a churchwide organization described by Hanson as a living organism. An executive committee would be better, he said.
+ More reductions may be needed: Some bishops said the restructuring proposal didn't go far enough. The proposal addresses only one expression of the church and others, such as synods, may need to be addressed, said the Rev. Callon W. Holloway Jr., bishop of the ELCA Southern Ohio Synod, Columbus.
Saying he is an advocate for "going further," the Rev. Steven L. Ullestad, bishop of the Northeastern Iowa Synod, Waverly, said he fears that in five years another restructuring may be needed. The current proposal may need to be bigger, he suggested.
Augsburg Fortress, the publishing house of the ELCA, Minneapolis, is making contingency plans should it assume responsibility for development of Christian education materials as proposed, said Beth A. Lewis, president and chief executive officer, Augsburg Fortress. She asked the bishops to help members understand that Augsburg Fortress is a unit of the church and is not outside the ELCA.
"I wanted to assure you," Lewis said to the bishops after detailing the publisher's preliminary plans about the Christian education proposal. "I know there's a nervousness about this. We are not the 'Lone Ranger' anymore, and we are reaching out to 'partner' with the church."
Following the restructuring discussion, Hanson said it's important that the church approach this as an urgent matter but not "out of anxiety."
"An anxiety-driven restructuring will not get us the urgency we need for the sake of the gospel," he said.
As a result of the Conference of Bishops' comments, Hanson said he must consider what, if anything, will be reinstated in the proposal. If so, then he must consider what else should be reduced or eliminated.
"It's hard to make promises in this environment," he concluded.