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“Leaving the ELCA” series

Taking Action

The action you choose to take in leaving the ELCA depends a lot on your situation. It is vital to know what the other members of your congregation think about the matter of leaving or staying in the ELCA. It is also extremely important to know where your pastor(s) stand on the issues. Another crucial factor is to know graphic of discussion grouphow current leaders in the congregation understand the problems that give rise to the need to leave the ELCA. WordAlone recommends that individuals, groups and congregations carefully consider their situation as they decide what action to take. We have worked through this with many congregations, groups and individuals. We have some suggestions for analyzing your situation and the actions you may want to take.

 

Analyze Your Situation

One of the most important steps in deciding what action should be taken is to take a careful look at your congregation’s situation and how you relate to it. WordAlone has watched conflict in ELCA congregations over recent months. We have seen patterns emerging. Identifying the pattern for your situation can help very much in determining the best strategy for leaving the ELCA. On this page we will describe the patterns we are seeing and suggest which strategies seem to be working best.

Congregational Pattern #1: The Congregation is Strongly Pro-ELCA

As a person deeply concerned about the direction of the ELCA you will feel almost isolated in a pro-ELCA congregation.  Your pastor(s) has said little or nothing about the new direction of ordaining practicing homosexuals.  There will not be adequate public conversation to discuss the matter or help people work through their feelings.  There is probably an escalation in publicity about the programs and benefits of the ELCA.

If you took your concerns to your pastor, they were probably met with a benevolent, but condescending attitude. You were encouraged to find a way to be accepting of different opinions for the sake of unity in the church. graphic of chess gameYou were likely told about the large size and fine work of the ELCA. You were assured that these decisions about practicing homosexuals were made by intelligent people who made a careful decision. If you raised concerns about the authority of scripture, you probably heard some technical explanations that had the effect of confusing you about the meaning of texts that seem quite clear. The insinuation was made that you should leave biblical scholarship to those who have dedicated their lives to academically studying scripture.

If you took your concerns to other members of the congregation, you felt conspiratorial and inclined to avoid open conversation. If you continued talking about your concerns in spite of these feelings, you soon ran into situations where you noticed other people avoiding you or telling you that such talk is problematic for the unity of the congregation. You may even have been taken aside for a warning by a pastor or congregational leader.

Action Strategies for Pattern #1 — Members of Pro-ELCA Congregations

Change Membership

The simplest way for an individual or family to leave a pro- ELCA congregation is to change membership to another congregation. This is especially easy in areas of the country that have lots of Lutheran congregations. A few questions will help a person locate another congregation that has a healthier environment than a pro-ELCA congregation. It might also be wise to visit with the pastor of the new church to learn about the congregation’s commitment to the centrality of Scripture. If the congregation is another ELCA congregation you may want to know which of the three patterns it represents as well. There is no reason to rush the process. Once you have decided to leave the ELCA and determined that your present congregation is pro-ELCA, you can take all the time you need to locate a congregation that is moving in the direction God is calling you.

Establish an Associate Membership with another Congregation

Sometimes there is not a congregation acceptably close that provides the denominational direction desired. It is now commonly acceptable to establish an associate membership in another congregation besides one’s own. A person could establish an associate membership in another congregation that shares your Biblical values. Worship attendance and congregational activities can be split between congregations in order to maintain a more healthy spiritual life. This choice has the added advantage of maintaining membership in the ELCA congregation in case it ever changes its pattern in a way that would permit a vote for it to leave.

Join Lutheran CORE

Membership in Lutheran CORE’s “Community of Confessing Lutherans” can be established by either individuals or congregations. This provides an affiliation with many like-minded people who are deeply concerned about the recent policy developments in the ELCA. Since joining Lutheran CORE is actually permitted by the ELCA hierarchy it may be possible to persuade leadership of some pro-ELCA congregations to allow some kind of affiliation and some Lutheran CORE activities within the congregation. It is an option that should be explored if for no other reason than to learn more about the mindset of the congregation.

Join or Form a WordAlone/Lutheran CORE Chapter

Becoming actively involved in a WordAlone Chapter can provide ongoing encouragement for people dealing with pro-ELCA congregations. The educational activities of the chapter help people learn more about the issues, the Bible, and Lutheran belief. Chapter activities, like speakers and local conferences, help gather together and identify other like-minded people for mutual support and common action. Chapters that make use of WordAlone’s Evangelical Mission Teams {link to EMT Page} project learn effective ways to use public media and local publicity methods for influencing the general understanding at a grassroots level. This can become a springboard for promoting open conversation about biblical authority and related issues, even in pro-ELCA congregations. It can also form a foundation for significant activities in the local area such as the establishment of new congregations. If you would like to learn more about WordAlone/Lutheran CORE Chapters inquire at info@wordalone.org.

Form a House Church or a Cell Church

WordAlone is convinced that the formation of house or cell churches will be one of the most effective strategies for people who feel isolated in pro-ELCA congregations and want to leave. A house church is a single group that can comfortably provide fellowship and worship life for up to 20-25 people, depending on the size of their meeting space in the home. A cell church is organized as multiple groups meeting in homes each week, but gathering as a larger group for worship in a public setting at least once a month. In order to support the quick and effective development of house and cell churches WordAlone is working with Lutheran Evangelistic Movement (LEM) {Link to Deeper Life} to create a house church network called “Life Together Churches.” This network provides consultation in the formation of local house churches, a pastoral team to serve in a virtual parish format, worship planning, and support for local leadership. You can find more information about “Life Together Churches” by clicking HERE.

 

Congregational Pattern #2: The Congregation Is Divided.

In divided congregations there are two clear groups within the church. Identifiable leadership on both sides expresses opposite opinions about leaving or staying in the ELCA. Both sides frequently will call for surveys to be taken that show significant portions of the congregation are for leaving or against leaving, but much of the congregation is confused over what the issues actually are.

Pastors in deeply conflicted situations often do not come out with a clear statement of their perspective on these matters. They are worried that they need to remain somewhat neutral so that they can provide pastoral care to people on both sides. They are sometimes unjustly criticized by both sides for not providing leadership. In truth, the conflict in their congregation is probably unavoidable and is deeply threatening both to their livelihood and their ability to effectively minister to the entire congregation.

Divided congregations are also characterized by repeated threats from parties on both sides to leave the congregation. The financial situation for the congregation is probably deteriorating and member confidence about the future is seriously damaged. The general feeling of the congregation is like a ship grounded on dangerous shoals.

Action Strategies For Pattern #2 — Divided Congregations

Bring the Decision to a Vote

photo of chesspieces opposing sidesWhen the congregation is divided over the issue of leaving or staying in the ELCA, bringing the matter to a vote by the congregation may be the only way to resolve it. This needs to be done as thoughtfully and carefully as possible. The process of preparing for the first vote should be approached carefully and given the time it deserves. Normally a group should plan to spend between 8 and 12 weeks preparing the congregation for their first vote. Divided congregations need to avoid running the process when “snowbirds” are away for the winter or people are away at summer cabins. Leadership for the process needs to be balanced, with folks trusted by both sides. We recommend that divided congregations follow a process that involves a specially appointed task force to lead, multiple public information meetings, a published timeline, regular communications, and prayer support. The “process” section of this website talks about many issues relating to the voting process. To go to the “process” section click HERE.

Join another Church Body without Leaving the ELCA

In some congregations it may be possible to maintain the mission of the congregation by using the strategy of voting to join another church body such as LCMC or NALC while also remaining an ELCA congregation. Both LCMC and NALC only require a single 50% vote to join. Be aware, ELCA officials will strictly warn a congregation NOT to do this. They cite their own ruling on the ELCA constitution, but this is an untested ruling recently implemented. Several ELCA churches have been joined to LCMC for years and the practice has been tacitly accepted in several synods. However, congregations who choose this path should be aware that they will be doing so in defiance of ELCA policy and may be subject to discipline and perhaps dismissal from the ELCA.

A congregation choosing this strategy should be acutely aware of why they are doing this. Some reasons that occur to us include:

  • A large portion of the congregation is inclined to leave, but a significant percentage of the congregation needs time to experience a new church body before making the final decision.
  • A pastor beloved and trusted by both sides needs to maintain ELCA affiliation for a while.
  • The congregation faces a significant debt and needs to find a compromise position to keep as many members as possible for an extended time frame.
  • A small, isolated congregation would be destroyed by those losing the vote leaving the congregation and those leaving would not have sufficient resources to establish a new mission start.
  • The congregation is in a transitional phase, such as in the call process, and needs time to establish leadership to help guide the congregation’s affiliation choices in the future.

This approach can provide an acceptable option only if it enables both sides to remain in the congregation. This strategy should only be a transitional phase in the congregation’s life. It will introduce stresses that must be addressed as the congregation moves forward. We offer this strategy cautiously, as a way to allow members of a congregation to effectively leave the ELCA while other members are allowed to remain for a while.

Establish a New Mission Start

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New beginnings. . .new life!

Divided congregations frequently result in a significant portion of members leaving when the vote fails to go the direction they want. For Lutherans seeking to leave the ELCA this can be especially problematic since it is quite possible to lose the vote with up to 65% of the congregation agreeing to leave. It is often true that those desiring to leave actually have the resources, will, and skill required to form a new congregation. Establishing a new mission congregation can be a very effective strategy for leaving the ELCA.

In today’s environment starting new congregations is very much a grassroots process. The new affiliation options: LCMC, NALC, and CALC, all readily accept new mission starts by grassroots initiatives. There is no prolonged bureaucratic process required to establish the new congregation. There is also no churchwide support for a particular mission congregation. For the most part the people who are starting the congregation must do the work and provide the resources and leadership. Some groups will have sufficient membership and resources to become a viable congregation almost immediately. Others will need to build support from established congregations that will partner with them to get the new congregation going.

WordAlone has two initiatives that can be very helpful to new mission starts. Our Evangelical Mission Teams project can help by teaching local mission starts to get the word out about their new congregation through the local news media and local publicity. To learn more about Evangelical Mission Teams inquire at inquire at info@wordalone.org.

The second initiative that can be very helpful to new mission starts is the Life Together Churches network. By starting as a cell church a new mission start can greatly reduce its overhead costs, provide pastoral leadership immediately, and give the new congregation time to focus on building its membership, mission, and ministry before it undertakes the work of building a church and calling a pastor. To learn more about Life Together Churches click HERE.

Pattern #3: The Congregation Is Willing to Leave the ELCA.

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In this situation there is little question about whether the congregation will leave. Rather, the concern is about determining the best timing for leaving. The central issue is about helping as many members of the congregation as possible to understand the reasons for leaving so that the transition out of the ELCA will disrupt the mission of the congregation as little as possible.

Frequently pastors in this situation have been very forthcoming about their opposition to the actions of the ELCA regarding the effect of recent policy changes on the authority of the Bible. The staff and pastor(s) in these congregations seem united about the outcomes they are seeking and are willing to consider carrying forward the mission of the congregation apart from the ELCA. Staff, pastor(s) and congregational leaders work carefully and in concert to provide educational and open forum opportunities for all members of the congregation to learn about the issues , study scripture, and prepare for the process of leaving.

It is important to understand that some—perhaps many—congregations that are willing to leave the ELCA are not doing so immediately. This is because the process of leaving is secondary to other mission priorities for the congregation. Many of these congregations tend to plan strategically and are factoring the leaving process into some future time that will work well alongside the many other commitments the congregation has for its ministry. Leaders are not anxious about the process of leaving, but are concerned that it be handled in a positive and useful way for moving the congregation’s mission ahead.

Action Strategies for Pattern #3 — Congregations Willing To Leave the ELCA

Congregations that are willing to leave the ELCA tend to focus their energies on a process that will take as many members of the congregation with them as possible. For this reason these congregations normally follow a careful and deliberate process that enables as many members as possible to become informed and to get their questions answered. This process carefully considers a number of factors including timing, a careful study of the constitution, education about the issues, due process, and future affiliation. For more information about a careful process for leaving the ELCA click HERE.