Diversifying the ELCA: An Alternative Proposal

By Bishop Michael Rinehart

Church service

Our goal was to be 10% persons of color in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) by 1998. In 2016, we are still 96% white. In this synod we are 92% white – better but not good for a synod which includes Houston, which is 50% Latino, and New Orleans, which is 50% African American.

racially diverse religious groups

In our neck of the woods, the Anglo population is actually in decline. The Latino population is swelling, as well as the Asian population. Under the age of 25, 70% of Houston is Latino. Do the math. Just from the vantage point of enlightened self-interest, the Lutheran Church must look at this. There are, however, much more important reasons.

Asians, African Americans, Latinos, Anglos et al have a different angle of vision, based on their life circumstances and location in society. Those more likely to be living in poverty, less likely to get the job, more likely to experience discrimination, will see the world from a different vantage point. They also hear Scripture passages about wealth and poverty, day laborers and landowners, differently. We need each other. Without each other, our theology develops into a caricature that begins to look more like us than the body of Christ. There is however an even more compelling reason.

The cultural, religious, and governmental power structures in our society view the white angle of vision as correct and others as divergent. This gives birth to privilege and at the worst, racism. Privilege, a system that gives preference and benefits to one group over others, is as much a reality in the ELCA as it is in the society at large. Racism ultimately foments hate crimes such as we saw in Charleston and other places this past year. We are talking about much more than the institutional survival of a mainline Protestant denomination. What we are discussing is a matter of life and death, for real people, as well as the soul of our nation. Which is why I am devoting my first Connections article of the year to this topic.

What can the ELCA do about it? Well, we can begin by acknowledging that our 1988 strategy has not produced the results we intended. Establishing quotas for persons of color is an admirable thing to do. All-white planning teams produce a certain kind of program or event, often with blind spots that end up neglecting, alienating, and ultimately marginalizing other groups. What the group missed is obvious to the groups that have been left out. More careful recruiting would have solved a host of problems. It’s the right thing to do. As a trickle-down strategy to transform the ELCA into a multicultural church, it is insufficient. We will need more. Here’s why.

I’ve seen this in congregations that are trying to reach out to a new cultural group, whether it be people of another race, socioeconomic group, or even a younger generation. The congregation, much more comfortable with its static hegemony, reaches out because it has been left with no other choice. Staying the same is much easier. We usually change when we have no other choice. So our idea is to “welcome” the other into “our” system. They can come, as long as they don’t change the system, and alienate the insiders that are currently benefitting from the system by prestige, convenience, or even financial gain. Come to us, be like us and keep our system going.

When reaching out to groups of other cultures, the system quickly discovers the people from these other cultures have their own ideas about things, their own perspectives, and their own ways of organizing. In some cases, they eat different food and speak other languages. They may dance in worship and prefer different music. Even if they have the courage to enter, they immediately get the message in a hundred different ways that “we don’t do it that way.” This message can be conveyed with subtle adept or brutal directness. At the end of the day, congregations are very stable systems. Change usually requires a point of conflict, and some people ultimately getting mad and leaving (which many congregations feel they can’t survive). This takes courage, sacrifice, and strong, bold pastoral leadership, as well as a community that is at a tipping point. Most of the time it doesn’t happen.

The ELCA is governed by a Northern European set of sensibilities. Furthermore, our structures are the result of the institutionalization of those cultural values and a series of compromises required to effect the 1988 merger. These structures are often treated with as much or more deference than the Book of Concord, prompting one friend to suggest to me that we are not a Confessional Church; we are a Constitutional Church. Point taken. These structures are taken for granted as being “Lutheran,” despite the fact that Lutherans elsewhere in the world have different polities. Our cultural blinders often allow us to confuse “Lutheran” or even “Christian” with our cultural values. I have found the devotion to our current organizational structure so fervent that, even as a bishop, trying to alter them is met with overwhelming resistance.

So what are we to do? What assets do we have to bring to bear upon our deficits?

One of our strengths as a church body is our commitment to ecumenical dialog. We have established bilateral conversations with many other denominations. Some of these have resulted in full-communion partnerships. We now exchange pastors and ministries with the Episcopal Church USA, the Presbyterian Church USA, the United Methodist Church, and others. The thing is, these are also predominantly white, mainline Protestant church bodies.

A few years ago, former ELCA bishop Leonard Bolick encouraged us to lean into our dialogs with the AME Zion Church. His North Carolina Synod offices, being adjacent to an AME Zion seminary, created a geographic proximity that fostered a relationship. Unlikely friendships emerge from such collisions, and good things can happen. The ELCA needs such a collision.

The AME Zion Church broke off from the Methodist Church in 1844 because of rules disallowing people of color to hold certain positions. They named and rejected the heresy of racism, ever so tolerated in white, mainline Protestantism. They are good partners because they baptize babies, they ordain women, and they hold a broad Methodism with which Lutherans have been “strangely warmed” as of late. They also bring a commitment to social justice and an awareness of poverty and discrimination that we acknowledge, but sometimes fail to proclaim and decry as a way to reform our institutions.

I am delighted to say there are dialogs taking place. What if, around the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we could announce another full-communion partner, not with another predominantly white mainline Protestant denomination, but with a historic African American church? What if, rather than just quotas or trying to get more persons of color into our system, we effected a collision with a community that could help us remove our cultural blinders and broaden our theological, ecclesiastical, and liturgical vision? What if, rather than welcoming “others” into “our” house, however noble that might seem, we go out into the highways and byways and leave our very white, Northern European, middle class inner sanctum and see what happens? Both groups might discover we have gifts the other needs.

There is nothing wrong with having, say a Scandinavian way of doing things, especially if one lives in Scandinavia. If, however, one lives in a melting pot, and one’s current way of doing things is not getting the job done as effectively as one might like, and one identifies institutional racism in the system, perhaps leveraging a healthy, mutual relationship with a body for a different culture can build strength. Think cross-pollination for a stronger crop.

Last year I challenged our congregations to do just that. I asked every congregation to establish a relationship with another congregation in the area of a different kind. I’m not talking about merger. I’m talking about relationship. Eat together, serve together, learn together, and/or worship together, several times a year. Whatever you can pull off. Create some kind of platform for people to bump into each other. Loosen them up. Give them a chance to spark improbable friendships. Learn. See what happens. I’m not so naïve to think every congregation will do this. Those that do, though, will reap the benefits.

I’ll be honest with you. As I have floated the idea of using our ecumenical partnerships to help us widen our circle, I’ve gotten a lot of shrugs. Bishops, churchwide staff, members of synod staffs, and pastors have said to me, “I don’t know…” So, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe leveraging our ecumenical partnerships won’t make a difference in our denominational demographics or in the racism in our culture, government, or churches, but why not try? What if we established wonderful relationships across racial and denominational boundaries for nothing? We don’t have to wait for our synodical or denominational leaders to buy in. You can do it as an individual. You can do it as a congregation. I can see nothing but good coming of it.

One thing is for sure: What we’re doing now isn’t working. As a friend of mine likes to say, “If you keep doing what you’ve been doing, you’ll keep getting what you’ve been getting.” Trying harder won’t yield even marginally different results. What we’re doing now isn’t going to get us where we need to go. It’s time to try something new, with bold leadership. Are we at that tipping point yet?

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