Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

If the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America isn’t exactly falling apart at the seams, it certainly is becoming frayed at the edges. The North American Lutheran Church and another association, Lutheran Churches in Mission for Christ, are plucking former ELCA congregations up at a greater pace than I predicted. I thought the NALC would have maybe five hundred congregations in five years. Instead they have two hundred twenty in their first nine months.

Still, this should hardly please anyone. Formation of the ELCA in 1987 was a heady time, producing the successful merger of two-thirds of America’s Lutherans gathered under one denomination with five-point-two-something million members in more than eleven thousand congregations. Lutherans had finally achieved part of the dream, all Lutherans in America in one Evangelical Lutheran Church.

But even in the run-up years as the ELCA was being formed, spoilers were at work warning against the diminution of Lutheran theology at the expense of corporate merger.

Richard John Neuhaus, then still a Lutheran pastor and editor of Forum Letter , was among those warning voices. On some points, I think, he was the warning voice, always insisting that real theology should inform churchly decisions, and when churchly choices departed from theology trouble always lies ahead.

When early in the formation process ELCA planners decided to impose a quota system to staff governing boards and fill church conventions, Neuhaus flatly said the Lutheran jig was up. The Lutheran merger enterprise had given up on serious theology and was adapting itself to a cultural fad, identity representation. From that fad, others would come. He kept harping on Martin Luther’s Small Catechism , something about it being the Holy Spirit who “calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes the Church holy,” tucked away in Luther’s explanation of the Apostle’s Creed.

Quotas were supposed to correct certain inequities in heretofore white-male-dominated institutions, like the Democratic Party and American Lutheranism. I don’t know how quotas were to help the Democrats, but they were supposed to make Lutheran churches holy. Neuhaus annoyingly kept saying the holiness of the church is located elsewhere than in quotas. It’s found in fidelity to the call of God to serve”regardless of external factors like sex or race.

Governance by quotas denies the call of the Holy Spirit, Neuhaus said. Even allowing that inequities existed”and who’s kidding whom, of course they did”the imposition of quotas precluded the call to repentance. What the church will not do by the gospel, quotas will rectify by the force of law. The Spirit clearly needed a goose and ELCA planners were just the people to help it along.

Quotas in the ELCA”or “representational principles,” as they are called”still rule. Every ELCA board, church assembly, and what-not beyond the congregation must be composed of ten percent “people of color or whose primary language is other than English,” fifty percent female, fifty percent male, sixty percent laity, and forty percent clergy (the same fifty-fifty male/female ratio works for clergy representation too).

So take a committee of, oh, ten people. Four are clergy and two of them are female. It would help in the formulation if one of the clergy females was a black woman who was raised speaking a language other than English, but you can’t have everything. Six of the ten must be lay persons, also selected on the fifty-fifty male/female basis, but someone in there needs to speak Spanish (there have been no determinations whether German, French, or even Australian counts as a primary language other than English).

Familiarity with pending issues or possession of a theological education does not factor in at all. The only real requirement is speaking the right language, being the right race or sex, and I would guess, knowing how to use a calculator to make it all work out would be of help. For dyscalculia-types like me, we never stood a chance.

When the details of the proposed quota system went around among the merging Lutherans, they received little support. Congregational straw votes repudiated them, district conventions and synod assemblies rejected them, major Lutheran periodicals (independent and officially denominational) editorialized against them, and the ELCA planners went ahead and included them in the governing documents.

Had there been any kind of real ratification process in place, something that required ELCA planners to actually heed what congregations were saying or to listen to the then-current governing bodies of the merging churches, quotas would have been defeated. As it happened, quotas and other disputed features became embedded in the ELCA’s constitution. At the 1987 Columbus, Ohio ELCA constituting convention, delegates from the merging churches were told it was all or nothing. The provisions could not be amended, nor rejected. Some few delegates might vote no, but not too many, please.

The imposition of quotas is and always will be one of those “what-ifs” of history. Not a big “what-if” to be sure. It’s not like quotas in the ELCA decided anything really important in world affairs, not like the Battle of Gettysburg or the October Revolution. But it nags at me still when I think of all that has happened to Lutherans in America since, whether there might have been a definite turning point that could have prevented it. I keep returning to quotas.

A different sort of ELCA might have emerged without quotas. The Lutheran collapse into the declining Protestant big-time might have been delayed. Neuahus might have remained a Lutheran, a little while longer at any rate. ELCA national membership might not be poised to dip below four million, and the number of congregations below nine thousand. Perhaps the ELCA would not have adopted an essentially pro-choice abortion statement under a feminist lash, and maybe the ELCA’s health plan would not now be prepared to treat elective abortion as a reimbursable medical expense for pastors and dependents. Maybe the issues around sexuality could have found a classically Christian theological resolution, something more biblically inspired.

Maybe I’d still be serving an ELCA parish. What? Yeah, I had to give that up a couple weeks ago. I joined the North American Lutheran Church some months back, while trying to remain with my ELCA congregation. But that isn’t permitted.

So I am where I am and I’m frankly feeling lost. In the NALC there are no quotas. Some of us find that disorientating. We have absolutely no idea who will show up for our meetings.

Russell E. Saltzman, now a mission pastor for the North American Lutheran Church, was editor of Forum Letter (1991“2007) following Richard Neuhaus. His previous On the Square articles can be found here .

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles