Sunday, October 10, 2010

Looking for direction on Higgins Road (Sunday Reflections for October 10, 2010)

Change continues to be the dominant reality for the ELCA’s national organization. The Conference of Bishops met this past week to hear of a major reorganization of the ELCA’s churchwide operation. These changes have been necessitated by a continuing and dramatic fall-off in contributions to the synods and national church.

The details haven’t been announced yet but everyone knows major staff cuts are inevitable at the Chicago headquarters on Higgins Road. There have been lay-offs before but they have involved shrinking existing offices and departments. This time there will be a real reorganization. The national church will be different with, of course, some months of inevitable chaos and confusion bringing it about.

Last year, when a ten percent budget cut and corresponding lay-offs were announced, two ELCA leaders presented them very differently. Mark Hanson, the Presiding Bishop, lamented the cutbacks but insisted they would not materially affect the ELCA’s ministry. The church’s mission and commitments would remain. However, Pastor Wyvetta Bullock, ELCA executive for administration, in detailing the reductions admitted frankly, “We will be doing less with less.” Now, apparently, the ELCA will be doing even less, with even less.

These are tough times for the ELCA. The atmosphere in the Higgins Road office tower is understandably grim. The staff has known for weeks that major layoffs were coming but specifics weren’t to be announced until now. As church employees they are not covered by unemployment insurance. Those let go will probably get a small severance package which, in this economy, will run out well before they find new jobs.

I have yet to hear an explanation for why the church provides less of a social safety net than secular society. This issue is at the heart of another church employee mess, the cancellation of an Augsburg Fortress’ pension plan. Plan members have sued the ELCA Publishing House for fraud because it claimed exemption from the federal pension insurance program, ERISA.

The problem is that the ELCA has tried to have it both ways with Augsburg Fortress. Its sole purpose is to meet the ELCA’s publishing needs, is run by an ELCA elected board, and operates as a church organization for legal purposes, such as exemption from ERISA. Yet the ELCA also has claimed that AF is an independent organization, meaning the church has no financial obligation to it or its employees. This may be legally accurate (we’ll see what the courts think) but ethically it stinks and everyone knows it. No one in ELCA leadership can talk about it now that it’s in litigation, but it is just adding to the ELCA’s sense of confusion and deterioration.

I suppose it’s understandable, then, that Bishop Hanson seems to have assumed the role of denominational cheerleader. Most people give him a lot of credit for his dispassionate and even-handed management of last year’s churchwide assembly and the multi-year process leading to the approval of gay clergy. The dust is settling, it’s fairly clear what congregations have left or are leaving over this (significant but certainly less than 10%), so he wants to rally the troops to move ahead.

The ELCA news service published a summary of Hanson’s report at the start of the bishop’s meeting last weekend:

• It is time for the church to move forward and get over being “timid” about mission and ministry.

• "I've been pondering that a lot. Have we become a timid church?" Hanson asked the ELCA leaders. A sign of a timid church is one that describes itself by what it has lost and what it lacks, he said. Such a church is one that tries to hold onto the past and preserve what was, Hanson said.

• A church that defines itself by controversies and partisan divisions "will become a weary and timid church," Hanson said.… The presiding bishop also said he is "deeply concerned" that leaders preach with a sense of confidence.

• Hanson said he continues to have confidence in the two priorities for the churchwide organization: accompanying congregations as growing centers of evangelical mission, and building capacity for evangelical witness in the world to alleviate poverty, and work for justice and peace.

• He reflected on his experiences at recent gatherings [of teens and youth and campus ministry leaders]. "In those gatherings, I saw evidence of the stirring up of leaders in this church that gives me a sense of confidence and courage," he said.

• Hanson concluded his report by asking leaders not to lose confidence "in the gifts of the Spirit and what it means to live out the faith."

So, timidity is out and confidence is in. If only it were that simple. Actually, as I wrote to a colleague, I don’t think the problem is timidity as it is confusion. The Bishop wants the church to more forward, but which way is that? Unfortunately it is so easy in the church to get lost in rhetoric, speaking without actually communicating. Above Hanson describes the church’s priorities as “accompanying” and “building capacity.” Huh? Paul says somewhere that an army can’t move forward if the trumpeter’s sound is uncertain. I think we’ve found an example.

I don’t mean to dump on Bishop Hanson personally. He is a good man who has done very well in an impossible job. Rather I cite him because his words and actions reflect the state of the ELCA and church denominations generally. While recent controversies have given the ELCA a jolt, the downward trends have been in place for a long time, and not just for Lutherans.

Unfortunately Hanson and most church leaders are too close to the problems to get real perspective—and perhaps also don’t want to see what’s there. An ELCA staff member posted on Facebook a quote from the management guru Peter Drucker: "Every organization has to prepare for the abandonment of everything it does." Perhaps the question the folks on Higgins Road and in our synod offices need to ask is, “What would happen, and who would notice, if we didn’t exist anymore?” It’s a question being asked in lots of places today, all around the world, and many are startled to find the answer is, “Not much and not many.”


Mary said...

A very well-written post. I used to be in the room, as a member of the Ch Council from 2003-06, 1/2 a term. I was the chair of Programs and Services and I served on a restructuring committee. Your final question is one that was asked in 2003 when we restructured before. And is it really necessary to have 65 synods, deployed directors, etc. etc.? The hard questions are hard to ask in the building and in the boardroom. I pray for my friends who will be affected by this directly, and indirectly - so in a way, that includes us all. Thank you for writing.

Doug said...

Thanks for sharing your experience Mary. Your observation is so true: "hard questions are hard to ask." And indeed this will be a tough time for many people

Doug said...

In a comment on Facebook, William said...
Well said, Doug. To pick up on what is perhaps a minor theme, but which should be discussed in ELCA circles: as a religious organization, the ELCA is allowed to opt out of paying unemployment insurance. Certainly, they (and likely every congregation) have done so in the name of saving money. The question is, though, as a church, should they be taking advantage of this loophole? (which bears relation to the AF controversy, as well) How much moral authority is lost in doing so?

Carla Powell said...

Pastors face the same loophole of not receiving unemployment coverage (having just started the first day of my period of unemployment as a pastor). I'm not sure the answer is for all of our organizations to pay into unemployment, but I know it's been a tough place to be at 8765 Higgins in the last several years. I'm praying, and thank you for your clear words.

Doug said...

You're absolutely right, Carla. I've been on-leave and know the feeling of abandonment by the church at such a time. You really are on your own. I think the answer is either pay into unemployment, provide a comparable benefit through the national church, or have a set severance policy which congregations agree to in advance.

And unfortunately, from the response of the ELCA thus far, there are going to be more tough times ahead. We still don't get it. We're still not dealing with church's new reality.

Paul said...

I like Drucker's comment: "Every organization has to prepare for the abandonment of everything it does." It echoes what Jesus said in Mark 13:3, "Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down."
I also have been disappointed with Augsburg Fortress's actions and the hands off approach from the corporate branch.
You have stated some obvious glitches in our imperfect system. I was hoping to see some proposed suggestions for a direction that you think might be worthy of discussion.
Like maybe we should work toward coonverting our sanctuaries into mission centers for feeding the hungry, clothing the poor, etc. After a Sunday morning of doing that, we can spend some time singing and praising God. I think there's an ELCA church out in Oregon or Washington attempting such a model.
Luther spoke of ritual as a good thing, but it does no service to God to focus on rituals and doctrine while our neighbor starves outside our doors.
I think the ELCA has placed a greater emphasis on mission and serving than many other denominations. We have a long way to go --- I'm not sure it's going to happen by the trickle-down approach. It may have to be grassroots. And to get a culture of people to change, who've been taught they are good Christians when they sit in the pew almost every Sunday, is no small task.
We are at the beginning of this evolution. No person will be unaffected by it because "all will be thrown down." And we will be reborn. Halleluiah!

Bob said...

Doug, I'm glad you raised the unemployment issue. It is not just a clergy issue; lay employees are affected and there are not as many places in the church for them to go. It's especially important in the perfect storm of recession and downsizing, when secular employees may get several unemployment extensions because of the depressed job market. Some Roman Catholic dioceses participate in unemployment as a justice issue ( Perhaps this should be a discussion in the ELCA.

"Every organization must prepare for the abandonment of everything it does." Hmmmmm. Sounds curiously like "whoever loses his life for my sake will find it."

lifecoach said...

Yes, these are troubling times. First the recession. Then the ELCA does the right thing, in my opinion, by opening the ministry to my GLBT fellow Christians. We need to understand that there are not first and second class Christians.
I feel these two situations has caused much of today's problems for the ELCA. Whoever said that withholding funds was the "Christian" thing to do?
I know what it's like to be "let go" without a paycheck. I was a pastor in another Lutheran body and was forced out by politics with no source of income. So I really feel for those being let go. Life is not fair. But Christ never said it was. The important thing is that we hold one another together in love.

Anonymous said...

In a way, Hansen and Obama have identical problems. They were elected to do unpopular thing. Both were afraid of doing unpopular things, aimed for the middel and shot themselves in the foot. And everyone who supported them. Oh well....

Doug said...

Paul, thanks for your thoughts. I like the idea of becoming social ministry centers. It would go a long way toward giving churches some concrete identity. You're right, however, that this would likely need to be a grass-roots development. I didn't give much in the way of constructive suggestions, partly because I have written about this in the past and also trying to keep posts to a reasonable length. Hope to get something up along those lines soon.

Doug said...

Bob, you're certainly right and I would just reiterate what I said above in response to Carla. The ELCA and its congregations are shirking their responsibility here. It is a conversation that needs to happnen, even if much too late.

Doug said...

Lifecoach, sorry I missed your comment earlier so belated thanks. The recession and decisions of CWA09 have accelerated the process but it's been going on for years. US Lutheran membership peaked in the late 1960s/early 70s. Income held up for a while because membership was getting older but now that's not enough to compensate for all the losses. The first ELCA churchwide budget was for over $100 million (which it didn't meet) and now is $45m. The ELCA has been gliding along on dreams and fantasy from its inception and hasn't yet wrung all that out of its system. Normally, there's nothing wrong with dreaming but in this case it's hurting the real lives of real people. It's got to stop and we need to return to reality.

Anonymous said...

I am not sure that focusing on one side of our identity is healthy. Liturgy=the public, people's work. Corporate liturgy as praise of the Triune God (which makes us uniquely Christian as opposed to well-meaning members of society engaging in social ministry..which is a good thing to do). Liturgy as daily response to God's love in our words and deeds...also a public work of ours. When we lose sight of one side, we lose balance.

One post said something about "being taught that being good Christians meant coming to church every week [paraphrase]. Where did this commenter worship. I have never heard that in many years in many different congregations throughout the ELCA and LC-MS. I am certain that was just projection. Sorry to be so blunt. Wanting and encouraging the Body of Christ to gather is, however, a worthy goal.


Doug said...

"Anonymous," I'm not sure it's projection really. After all, about the only behavior that gets a direct "intervention" from a congregation is not showing up on Sunday and most churches measure themselves by worship attendance. I think the churches sends a pretty strong message that's what is really important to them. As for the balance of worship and service, that doesn't seem to be a concern of the Bible. In fact, it has a lot of negative things to say about worship but I can't think of anything negative it says about serving other people.

Pastor Kevin Maxey said...

Not only does the church not participate in Unemployment compensation, but the staff being let go are not receiving the guidelines that most synods have for severance - 1 month of pay for each year of service up to 6 months. Most will only get 3 months. When I callenged a bishop on the church itself failing to meet its own guidelines, the response was that the church is hurting. Aparently it is ok to hurt the staff. When the larger church can't provide justice it is no wonder that congregations feel no allegiance or call to share resources. Why should a congregation provide some type of severance when the church wide expression isn't even meeting the minimal standards. It is sad that our standards are 26 weeks instead of 99 weeks. Maybe the church will have to coin the phrase 13ers - those who have exhausted income and insurance (can't get goverment COBRA either)

Doug said...

Thanks Kevin. The church's moral authority has taken quite a hit because of all this. Unfortunately the time to have addressed this was years ago. I'm afraid now it is too late as I only expect the ELCA's financial situation to deteriorate further.