Leadership flaws in the ELCA

(Too often when “Leadership within the ELCA” is invoked it is “code” for the Churchwide Offices in Chicago.  In this post, I’m referring to pastors and lay leaders of congregations.)

The 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly decisions related to human sexuality has had a dramatic role in revealing the leadership flaws of pastors and lay leaders within the ELCA.  I’m not claiming moral superiority here, because I’ve made plenty of my own mistakes responding to the Churchwide Assembly actions.  But there are congregational leaders who are making some very large mistakes that will have long-lasting implications.

One of the most significant flaws I’m noticing is the tendency to listen only to like-minded people.  Proverbs 11:14 says, “Where there is no guidance, a nation falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety.”  I read this to suggest an abundance of counselors means people with different perspectives giving advice.  There is little value in leadership which simply looks for a multitude of those who concur with their perspectives or conclusions.  If I am not in relationship with those who can challenge my perspectives or add to my awareness, I’ve lost guidance.

Another flaw I notice is the tendency to become legalistic.  As these leaders attempt to negotiate the minefields of conflict, there is often a close look at the congregation’s constitution and a defensive reading of it.  An example I’m seeing cropping up on a number of websites:  Objections to anyone from the Bishop’s office “consulting” with the congregation between the two votes required to leave the ELCA because the constitution says that a consultation with the Bishop is required.  What they completely miss is that the Bishop’s Office has the authority to begin a “consultation” on other grounds, or that the Bishop’s staff is an extension of the Bishop.  Defensive legalism does not serve the congregation well.  Are they right?  Maybe.  But this is driven by fear, and that fear seems to be the result of creating an “us vs. them” relationship.

The other common leadership flaw I’m watching literally destroying some congregations is the tendency to devalue the people or perspectives that are different from the ones the leaders hold.  This results in people not feeling heard or valued.  When people feel as though they are not being heard, they will often resort to more attention-getting behaviors, which inevitably ratchets up the conflict.  Petitions, secret meetings, and the like are the usual routes for attempting to be heard.  Those are rarely helpful within the life of a congregation.

It is particularly challenging within a congregation when the leadership (rostered or lay) are creating unnecessary conflict.  The defensiveness is exaggerated.  The Synodical leadership and the assistance that can be provided is dismissed.

Leadership flaws are revealed in conflict.

Pondering Pastor


9 responses to “Leadership flaws in the ELCA

  1. Shouldn’t the ELCA Leadership both clergy and lay considered these consequences before considering bringing the resolutions to a vote?

    • ponderingpastor

      Replying directly to your question: Yes. They did.

      But behind the question might be something I notice from many of my colleagues. It is the belief that the decisions made by the Churchwide Assembly are so bad/wrong that our response is absolutely justified. It is as if they are saying that poor choices being made in congregations is the fault of the Churchwide Assembly. Nonsense! One of my life mottos is “It’s not what happens to me but how I handle it that determines my happiness.” The decisions of the Churchwide Assembly invited people to find ways of creative and authentic response. For many it has simply revealed existing flawed leadership.

      Pondering Pastor

  2. Thanks for the response. I am a member of a church council and feel we just muddled through this issue. I am questioning whether effort should have gone into preparing an approach to help congregations deal with this type of controversial decision before a congregation is asked to deal with formally by voting. I asked our bishop about this and got the answer nothing formal was in place. Hence my question. Many congregations are still to work through this process and many of the same mistakes will be made. A lesson learned summary would be helpful to those willing to listen.


    • ponderingpastor

      Indeed, “a lesson learned summary would be helpful”. I suspect many of those with good leadership skills will seek such advice.

      Pondering Pastor

  3. Check out this website (http://www.exposingtheelca.com ) and then come back here and try to defend the direction the ELCA is going. You have blinders on if you do. The ELCA has been moving away from God for a long time now. They have decided they know better than God in a multitude of issues and even declare what parts of the Bible are true and what are not. They give more authority to individuals wishes than the Word of God. Go read up on how Jesus viewed the Scriptures and then say how we are more enlightened then Him.
    The ELCA has left God. To all members, get out ASAP.

    • ponderingpastor

      I debated whether or not to approve this comment. Yours and others like it seem to suggest that “rightness” justifies flawed leadership or the steps taken by that leadership. It does not. I disagree with most of the website you cite, and the conclusions you draw. In a reasonable conversation I could share with you why.

      But look at what you’ve done in your comment. You’ve not invited me into conversation. You’ve declared me half-blind. You have lumped all people who disagree with you to be apostate. You have defined what the Word of God says and are critical of those who don’t accept your definition. You have declared this conversation over. That’s too bad, because you have a valuable perspective that will not be heard because of your unwillingness to engage.

      Pondering Pastor

  4. As a pastor of the ELCA for 23 years, who is now preparing to leave for the LCMC, I have learned that the ELCA leadership makes a great show of “listening”, but then goes ahead and does what it wants to do anyway. The ELCA system of governance is flawed. Congregations have no direct input into Churchwide Assembly decisions (such as a ratification process). We just went through a 6-month journey in which we laid out the issues and provided 10 different opportunities for people to share their opinions and ask questions. Then we voted to leave the ELCA with a 92.6% majority. There are clearly two different understandings of the role of Scripture in the ELCA. One position has now “won” the debate by virtue of the Churchwide Assembly vote. The time for “listening” is over. Now is the time to decide.

    • ponderingpastor

      As a pastor of the ELCA for 20 years (yes, you have me by 3), who will not leave the ELCA over this matter, I have learned that the ELCA leadership (if by that you mean in Churchwide Offices) do listen quite well, but do not always agree with me or with you. Listening does not mean agreement and doing your will. I’ve had input into the process many times, and can see the results of that input. Yes, the ELCA system of governance is flawed … as is everything if you are a confessional Lutheran. Congregations don’t need direct input such as ratification of Churchwide Assembly actions. That is a response from fear and mistrust. I’m saddened that you have lead a move to leave the ELCA. There are more than two understandings of the interpretation of Scripture in this church … but the role of Scripture is the “source and norm of our life together.” The time for listening is never over, but that does not preclude action. By leaving, you have forced the church further “left”.

      Pondering Pastor

  5. My experience with the process of deliberation involved a class sanctioned by our ELCA two of three years ago. Our church hired an associate pastor to assist our head pastor with the class. The pastor hired had led the same material before. They co- taught the class. We met on Sunday afternoons for several weeks for two hours. We had a very mixed group comprised of all ages, including teens; many varied scholarly levels,(teens, plain people with no college, professors with doctorates. I found it very informative. I sat with groups that were helpful in explaining the many faceted problem. I was personally looking for examples of scripture speaking out against the sin that didn’t include rape,murder, worshipping other gods. I found none. I was always told that the smallest sin is just as bad as the (what we would consider) the worst sin. I have worked with many gays. My Luther League in the forties turned out to be a lesbian. It never hurt me.
    My family has been hurt much more by pastors who have not been faithful to their marriage vows. I shouldn’t take five times and you are out to be defrocked. When your children have that kind of an example it hurts them.
    When our class was finished, we didn’t reveal how we stood. We were asked if any of us had changed our feelings about the subject. No one admitted to having changed their minds. We were given a questionaire to fill out and we all wrote our feelings if we wished. I stated that any rules laid down for gays should be equally enforced for the herosexuals.

    I felt that the prayers, opinions, were Spirit led. I feel yet that the results of the vote was Spirit led. We have been wrestling with this for twenty years, we have taken and retaken votes in that process. I have heard it said that we may be wrestling with this for another twenty years. Maybe we should be putting our efforts toward what Christ taught. Feed the poor, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner, make the stranger welcome.
    Maybe we’re too lazy to do that. Maybe we are worshipping another god.

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