*originally written Jan. 13, 2014
I’m writing this post partly in response to a lot of things I have read lately, and news reports I’ve seen, mostly relating to folks who have been abused in churches, or who use the Bible to oppress women. Women who are fighting courageously to be seen as equal partners in churches where they’re not allowed any say in decision making, who are not only getting discouraged, but are approaching burn-out with faith in general. It’s gotten me fired up, Spirit-led, if you will, to share with you all why I love my church.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is one of mainline Christian denominations in the United States. In many ways the mainline denominations are declining and/or under fire for not being innovative enough to “capture the imagination” or speak to new generations. Some of this may certainly be true. We might be a little stuffy, with a little too much of the European reserve in our nature. And we need to learn how to be a little more flexible in worship and in acceptance of people who look and live differently than some of us.
Being part of an established denomination has its drawbacks. The bureaucracy can be maddening. The hierarchy can be unresponsive. It can take forever to get anything done. I get that. As an ordained pastor I LIVE THAT.
I get the lure of independent non-denominational churches. No one else to answer to, we can do what we want. We choose our own pastors, we don’t have to send off a percentage or our offering to salary administrators in an office far away. We can find a church that REALLY teaches the Bible and doesn’t have a lot of doctrine.
But there are problems there too. And I see far more dangerous problems there.
One of the things I actually LIKE in being a part of a larger, organized denomination is OVERSIGHT. That’s right. I’m a pastor, but I have a bishop looking over my shoulder to make sure I’m behaving myself. I have congregational leaders to whom I am responsible. And the leaders are under obligation to meet with the whole membership annually or more often depending on circumstances. The whole congregation ELECTS the congregational leaders – they are NOT appointed. And according to our church’s constitution a member CANNOT be in leadership more than six years in a row – that means there is constant turnover in leadership. The church finances and financial records are available to any member of the congregation, and must also be reported at this annual meeting.
To become an ordained minister in my denomination a person has to jump through a myriad of hoops. You must complete a Master of Divinity Degree, a 4 year program – AFTER college. (Many people in my denomination come out of seminary heavily in debt and not earning much in salary, which is a problem we’re trying to remedy.) There are alternatives for people called to ministry who were not able to go to college, but those are exceptions made in extraordinary cases. Before you start seminary you have to get endorsement from the church (a stamp of approval that it’s ok for you to even go to classes!). You have to go for psychological evaluations, work under experienced pastors for three years, one year full-time, and then get final approval your senior year of seminary. NOT JUST ANYONE CAN BECOME A PASTOR.
Also, in my denomination THE CHURCH starts congregations, not individual people. The membership votes to call a pastor. The pastor “fits” with the congregation, the congregation is not built around the pastor. Sometimes pastors serve in one place a long time, but for the most part pastors come and go and the congregations remain. This means that while pastoral personality may change, church teaching stays more or less the same.
And speaking of church teaching. Decisions on major beliefs have been hashed out, debated, researched, and prayed over for DECADES and even CENTURIES – not decided on by a few people who may have little or no education, who all think the same about church structure and scripture. I’m not looking down on those with little or no education, but when deciding on church teaching and biblical interpretation it behooves us to have knowledge of the history of the faith and of the scriptures, and of different methods of interpretation.
The ELCA has come to be viewed as pretty liberal in some respects. But it has not always been so. Like I said, we’ve been debating stuff ever since the Reformation, what can change and what needs to stay the same. You know, not all the “rules” of the Bible were meant to be followed forever. Who decides what only applies to the folks of Ephesus, and what portions of Ephesians are meant for us too? How do we decide if women were to keep silent in church because women of Paul’s day were prohibited from speaking publicly ANYWHERE, or if Paul, looking at the contributions of women today and the place women hold in public life, would continue to say the same?
When making these decisions, my church has looked to Hebraic law. Some laws are casuistic – that is conditional (think of casual, they can be changed), and other laws are apodictic – that is laws that are divine commands. You shall not kill is a good example of an apodictic law, women shall be silent is one that my denomination determined to be casuistic.
But no one person makes those decisions. Not even a small group. The NATIONAL church votes on such changes. This is how we came to ordain women. This is how we came to be able to share communion with certain other denominations. And this is how, in the last few years we decided that an ordained person can be gay, in a relationship, and STILL allowed to be a pastor.
Is my denomination perfect? Of course not. But with oversight from the denomination and congregational rules of transparency, we do our best to eliminate as many abuses of power and abusers of people as possible.
If any of this has resonated with you and you’re looking for a church that will welcome your gifts as woman/man, young/old, gay/straight and help heal past religious wounds etc… I would suggest you look for a congregation that belongs to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, a Church I am VERY proud to serve.