A Public Letter To My Conference of Bishops and the ELCA Church Council Concerning “Trustworthy Stewards”

A Public Letter To My Conference of Bishops and the ELCA Church Council Concerning “Trustworthy Stewards” March 10, 2019

Undermining Trust By Re-Writing A Text About Trust

I’m not at all happy to write this, and generally wish I didn’t have to… partially because I have to lay out internal politics of my own denomination for an audience much broader than that. But also because I had thought (and I am grieved to learn I am wrong) that those who I respect and who serve in leadership in my church would have handled this better.

But they didn’t. And apparently they won’t. So there comes a time to take it to a wider audience, and this is the time.

So, first a bit of background. Over two decades ago, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America adopted a Vision & Expectations for clergy in our denomination (for those who want some history, there’s this). There’s a lot in it, about stewardship of many areas of life as a pastor.

But the sticky point, the part of the text that was both intentionally included, and did the most harm, was around sexuality.

Over the past couple of decades, as our denomination has come to terms with the ways we have excluded LGBTQ+ from leadership in our denomination, we’ve taken some positive steps. In 2009, for example, the ELCA decided that congregations could call pastors who were in same-gender committed relationships (remember, this was before same-gender marriage was legal, so the language then was different from now).

Along the way, we’ve also published liturgies for weddings for same-gender couples, and some great advocacy organizations like Reconciling Works and Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries have both supported LGBTQ+ leaders and helped congregations become fully welcoming places.

Okay, so this brings us to 2018. In the fall of 2018, we learned that our churchwide staff were partnering with the bishops of our denomination to re-write Vision & Expectations. The communities most harmed by the original document expressed a hope they would be included at the table when the new document was in formation.

This is where things started to break down. Apparently a bunch of internal politics and systems made it difficult for this request to be heard. And even though some churchwide staff promised that leaders from ELM and other organizations would be included in the process, they weren’t.

For this context, read ELM’s recent public statement.

At this point, many of us reached out to the bishops in our denomination and asked for clarification.

This is where things got very disappointing. Over the course of about three days leading up to the ELCA conference of bishops meeting, I heard repeatedly from more than one bishop things like: I haven’t read the documents. I’m not on the committee. The process is out of our hands. I’m busy doing other ministry.

Then the bishops gathered. I watched their gathering on social media. They celebrated all their busy time together. But not a word from the bishops on the process, or substantive response to our concerns that would indicate they might try to approach things differently.

Along the way, I started learning even more disturbing things. For one, there was just one person (a bishop) on the committee re-writing Vision & Expectation who would identify as a member of the most affected LGBTQ+.

Furthermore, although this new document is now drafted to serve as a guiding text for both clergy AND deacons (a newly renamed rostered leader profile in our denomination) no deacons were included in the drafting process.

Now, I’m a community organizer. And I often don’t get it right. But one of the fundamental dictums in the community organizing space is:

NOTHING ABOUT US WITHOUT US.

This is an essential dictum, because any plan, any document, as well-intentioned as it might be, if it does not include the voices of those whom it is about, will be inherently unjust.

So the story isn’t done. The bishops get out of their meeting, and the radio silence continues. Then comes Ash Wednesday. On Ash Wednesday the ELCA drops the new draft in a press release buried on their web site. You can read that here.

Part of the announcement: We only have until March 18th to submit responses. So just two weeks. And pastors and deacons have to submit their input through their synodical bishop, who will then bring it forward to the conference of bishops, who will then bring it to the ELCA church council at their April 4th meeting.

It’s like a Friday news drop in Washington D.C., designed to squash input and response. And the deep irony, a document titled “Trustworthy Stewards” is now offered through an intrinsically trust-eroding approach.

This is a process designed to diminish and water-down any critique that might come in, first because of how many funnels any critique will have to pass through, and also because many vulnerable leaders will not feel able to even bring their critiques to the bishops to begin with.

NOTHING ABOUT US WITHOUT US.

When I talk to my own bishop about this, I get a mix of “I didn’t know much about it going in” and “now that I’ve been there the process is kind of out of our control but I’ll get an e-mail out except I’m so busy.”

I’ve started my own personal set of edits of the document as presented, and submitted them per the process to my bishop.

But my big ask of the ELCA church council, and the bishops themselves, is to back up, get off the lawn altogether, and take a completely different approach.

I think the right next step is this: go back to the drawing board and center excluded voices. Ideally, they’d hand the drafting of the document itself OVER to excluded voices (like ELM and the deacons) who can then bring a robust and faithful document back to the bishops, who can then play an appropriate and pastoral oversight role.

In the meantime…

NOTHING ABOUT US WITHOUT US.

A friend and colleague wrote one of the more succinct statements on the document, so I include it here:

“Trustworthy Servants is a flawed document in process and content. It downloads from the past in an authoritarian manner, expecting to meet the needs of a disaffiliated society that prizes mutuality and collaboration. Those values are easily read in the New Testament by people who hold no church membership. The document has no conversation with the vitality in our society that presses forward toward Beloved Community. 

I well imagine today’s activist thinking Jesus and the church ought to be her profession. Then she reads this draft and walks away. “Sex, money, and power is all they care about! That’s the corporate world I’m fighting.”

We need a dialogue process across the three expressions of the church and its institutions on what it means to be trustworthy agents of the grace of God in our age. Then the proper authorities might glean what is needed to draft a statement for the whole church to consider as its expectations for pastors and deacons.” (Russell Meyer)

We have a chance to get this right. We have a chance to create a vision for clergy and deacons in our denomination that is faithful and loving and true and helpful. But we can’t get there this way, through an authoritarian process and the most affected voices sidelined.

NOTHING ABOUT DEACONS WITHOUT DEACONS.

NOTHING ABOUT LGBTQ+ CLERGY WITHOUT LGBTQ+ CLERGY.

NOTHING ABOUT US WITHOUT US.

Addendum, with a h/t to my friend Amalia Vagts:

“This current revision, while well-intentioned and crafted by people I know and respect tremendously, is what happens when a system (in this case our ELCA) does not name and address power dynamics and systemic oppression.

Additionally, we’ve ignored two important grounding values in our own governing documents: first, that the ELCA “Provide structures and decision-making processes for this church that foster mutuality and interdependence and that involve people in making decisions that affect them” (ELCA Constitution 4.03.o) and that “The congregations, synods, and churchwide organization of this church are interdependent partners sharing responsibly in God’s mission. In an interdependent relationship primary responsibility for particular functions will vary between the partners. Whenever possible, the entity most directly affected by a decision shall be the principal party responsible for decision and implementation, with the other entities facilitating and assisting” (ELCA Constituion 5.01.c).

I would argue that our congregations are the entity most directly affected by ministry leaders.”

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  • Phoebe Congalton Morad

    THANK YOU – Printing this out and sharing it with the version our Bishop asked for comments from congregants at our ELCA church in Hingham MA. We will ensure that comments get back to them by the 18th. About the WHOLE “process”. So glad you took the time to write this.

  • Eric Bonetti

    I am very sorry you have to deal with this. My former denomination, The Episcopal Church, has similarly displayed a lack of integrity, with the Diocese of Virginia repeatedly refusing to address the perjury and other misconduct of my former rector, Bob Malm.

    As both a survivor of childhood clergy sexual abuse and part of the first same-sex couple married in my parish, I am deeply hurt and appalled by the church’s lack of integrity—so much so that I have renounced Christianity in favor of more ethical shores.

    I surely hope ELCA takes your comments to heart.

  • I just hope there comes a point in time that the ELCA stops talking incessantly and obsessively about their clergy’s genitalia and what they are or are not doing with them.

  • I can tell you are hurt, understandably so. I cannot imagine being abused sexually. Sorry

  • Is the author (Schenkloth) LGBTQ+? I really do not care, except that, he stated that this “agreement” should have representation from that community. So, if he is, then he has standing, and his message comes across loud and clear. But if he is cis-gendered and only working on their behalf, then he comes across as a paternalistic hypocrite IMO.
    Again, I DO NOT CARE, what his sexual persuasion is. But he stated that that was one of the most important things missing–NOTHING ABOUT US WITHOUT US– Right?
    I personally do not think that that is necessarily true, for it would invalidate most things. People of faith can come together to solve problems without personally being a part of that problem. . .Do we have to a pimp on a committee when trying to find solutions to prostitution? What about a discussion on racism without a bigot present–for isn’t it “about them?” Or to get it out of the moral realm, do we need to have a poor person on a committee, to solve problems of poverty?
    This is sophistry. Yes, these voices are important, but not essential.
    Opening hearts and minds (and providing a voice and a space) for those on the fringes should not be difficult. I don’t even know why it needs a committee, much less one that is infused with LGBTQ+ thought. . .
    I am afraid that this is more about politics than serving God, who tells us just to love those who persecute us. . .
    I hope I am wrong. I am mean no offense. Peace