Friday, October 15, 2010

Time to get disorganized (Sunday Reflections for October 17, 2010)

Wind from the Sea--Andrew Wyeth, 1947
And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind. (Acts 2)

As expected, ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson revealed last Monday the outline of the ELCA’s new churchwide structure. The plan was approved by the ELCA Church Council at a meeting the prior week held via conference call. The new structure purports to be simpler and is certainly smaller. Sixty-five staff members will be let go, most working at the Chicago headquarters on Higgins Road. This is about 20% of the ELCA staff and comes after a ten percent reduction last November.

The reorganization is the consequence of a dramatic falloff in churchwide revenue. According to the ELCA news release:

"In 2008 after adjusting for inflation, the value of mission support income had declined by half since the founding of this church in 1988," Hanson wrote to the council. "From 2008 to 2011, estimated churchwide mission support dropped from $65.3 million to $48 million." The work of the design team is based on an estimated range of $45 million to $48 million in annual mission support income for the next three years, Hanson said.

The last statement indicates ELCA leadership believes the income drop has hit bottom but doesn’t say why they believe this. I don’t see any reason to believe this is the case, which means another round of cutbacks will be coming soon. This can only add to the sense of embattlement and malaise in the churchwide office.

One Lutheran blogger described the reorganization plan as “more of the same, only on a smaller scale” and that’s the way it looks to me, as well. Perhaps that is all that can be expected as this point. The new scheme was put together pretty quickly with the overriding objective being to cut spending. I think this needs to be seen as a stop-gap that has bought some time because this is going to have to be revisited, and soon.

“The same but smaller” just isn’t going to cut it because the church really has entered a whole new situation. This was true even at the time the ELCA was formed, though it wasn’t recognized sufficiently at the time. And it is why the ELCA has essentially failed—and this needs to be frankly admitted. It’s time to go back to the drawing board and start over.

The group forming the ELCA in the 1980s was called the Commission for a New Lutheran Church (CNLC). Much emphasis was placed at the time on the goal being to create a genuinely new denomination. In hindsight we can now see the result really wasn’t nearly new enough. As a student I attended a conference at my seminary about the potential merger. I remember one presenter (I think it was Bob Benne) wondering aloud whether this would actually renew American Lutheranism or whether it would simply be a case of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, or of the last two dinosaurs mating. The current reorganization certainly is deck chair arranging, after having tossed some of them over the side.

So what’s next? As I’ve written many times before, it is incredibly difficult for people within an organization to imagine it becoming something genuinely different. The secular, contemporary example I often cite is General Motors. GM has been doing what it’s been doing, the way it’s been doing it, for so long that it’s been nearly impossible for it to adjust to the dramatic changes sweeping the automotive world. The end result, of course, was bankruptcy.

The church, especially at its higher bureaucratic levels, is much the same. Yet change it must. Recently the ELCA appointed (yet another) task force to study itself, called LIFT (Living into the Future Together). LIFT member and lay youth minister, Erik Ullestad, wrote this in response to the ELCA restructuring:

Much of the conversation and research on the LIFT Task Force has pointed to something painfully radical: The mark of a vibrant organization in a post-modern, open-source world is not a large national expression headquartered in a high-rise building, but instead consists of strong, healthy local expressions that network together for mission and ministry.

Perhaps the best symbolic statement the ELCA could make that it is going to be something radically different would be to hang a big “For Sale” sign on its Higgins Road office tower (of course, good luck with that in this real estate market). I think it’s now apparent that the goal of the ELCA was to achieve the pinnacle of denominational organization, just as the denominational model was dying. What better symbol of that was there than to have a tall, shiny, big city office building?

I don’t know what the future holds for American Lutheranism or American Christianity. I have ideas, some of which I have shared and will share more, and others have ideas, but what most everybody agrees on is that religion in America and around the world is changing radically. What the ELCA needs to do is certainly not to fight that, for that is sure to end in disaster. Neither can it ignore that reality or simply react as it gets clobbered by one blow after another, which is what it has mostly been doing.

The challenge for the ELCA is to reform itself to so it can ride with these changes, adjust to them and, when and where possible, take advantage of them and perhaps even influence them. As Ullestad’s quote indicates, this is likely not going to happen at the top but in the responses of the multiple, inter-dependent parts of the church: congregations, colleges and seminaries, social service organizations, ad hoc associations, etc.

All of this seems to argue for a radical decentralizing of the church. There needs to be some creative chaos right now. We need to let things get out of (our) control. This, of course, is the bureaucrat’s worst nightmare: “We can’t let them do that!” Nor will it please anyone concerned about Lutheran quality control. Yet the truth is that such control and administration is already breaking down, especially at the congregational level. Instead of resisting it, now is the time to encourage it.

There is, of course, a long history of creative disorder in the church, supported by considerable biblical tradition. Indeed you could make the case it’s the way God most often gets things done. At least that seems to be what Jesus is telling one of the Bible’s many control freaks, Nicodemus: “The wind/Spirit blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” It’s time to open the windows and let the winds blow in.

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