An Analysis of Recent Events in the ELCA Sierra Pacific Synod

For years I have been writing articles about the ELCA – often with the subtitle, “What Will It Be Next?”  The images I have chosen for those articles have often been a car or motorcycle careening out of control, a road with the pavement washed out, a road with a bridge ahead washed out, a road covered by an avalanche of rocks, or a road that goes over a cliff.  I have been certain that eventually the ELCA will crash. 

That “eventually” could very well be soon.  Last December the bishop and synod council of the ELCA’s Sierra Pacific Synod (northern California and northern Nevada) terminated the call of a Latino mission developer, and did so on December 12, the Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, one of the most special days for many in the Latino community.  At first Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton did not follow the recommendations of the “Listening Team” which she had convened, but instead felt that the words and actions of Bishop Megan Rohrer of the Sierra Pacific Synod did not rise to the level of initiating disciplinary procedures.  Instead she merely asked Bishop Rohrer to resign because they (Bishop Rohrer’s chosen pronoun) no longer had the trust and confidence of the synod.  A resolution proposed at the June 2-4 synod assembly that Bishop Rohrer resign by the end of the assembly and that they be dismissed from their position if they do not resign failed to pass by a vote of about 56% to 44%.  A two-thirds majority vote would have been required.  The synod assembly ended with Megan Rohrer still serving as bishop, but the fallout continues across the ELCA.  Congregations within that synod have said that they will leave the ELCA and at least one other synod has said that they will stop sending financial support to the ELCA as long as Megan Rohrer continues as bishop.  In addition I read of plans for demonstrations during the ELCA Churchwide Assembly in August.

Here is a link to a website that contains the most complete list that I am aware of to articles and videos related to the crisis.

I have been reading about the situation and watching it unfold for months, but I certainly do not claim to fully understand it.  Nor is it my role or my responsibility to make a statement about the rightness and/or wrongness of the actions and words of the people involved.  But I would want to make it abundantly clear.  Racism is wrong.  Abuse of power is wrong.  Discrimination and unequal treatment of people are wrong.   

In this article I want to explore two things.  First, Why has this whole situation been so explosive within and damaging to the entire ELCA? (For shock waves have been reverberating not just in one synod, but throughout the entire church body.)  And second, What does this whole situation say about the ELCA? 

First, Why has this situation been so explosive within and damaging to the entire ELCA?  I can think of six reasons. 

First, because the ELCA already was a weakened and injured church body.  The ELCA is painfully aware of the fact that it is significantly diminished from what it was when it was formed in 1988.  The number of members has decreased from over five million to less than 3.3 million in thirty-four years.  The number of congregations has dropped from over 11,000 to under 9,000.  And the congregations that remain are significantly diminished.  Smaller congregations mean less income to congregations, which means less income to synods, which means less money to churchwide.  The ELCA is obsessed with the fact that it has been labelled “the whitest denomination in the United States” (and this in spite of all of its efforts to be inclusive and multi-ethnic).  And the ELCA is constantly apologizing for everything and for all of the ways in which it has been complicit in the mistreatment of all disadvantaged peoples.  How could any organization – or any person – who is significantly diminished, failing to meet goals, and constantly apologizing be healthy and strong?

Second, the ELCA promotes a culture of victimization.  Throughout this whole situation – including at the recent Sierra Pacific Synod Assembly – people have been talking about how victimized they and other people are.  Now, I fully agree that it is wrong to victimize people.  I do not want to deny, minimize, or disregard the pain of those who have been victimized.  But I believe that any organization where such a high percentage of the people see themselves as and will frequently talk about themselves as being victimized will not be healthy and strong.

Third, in the ELCA there is competition for who is the most oppressed, marginalized, abused, and powerless.  For the person or group who is the most oppressed, marginalized, abused, and powerless actually has the most power.  They are the ones who are most to be listened to because that they are the ones who have the most accurate insight into the way things “really are.” 

Fourth, in the ELCA racism and white supremacy are the worst of sins.  A synodical bishop, who a few short months ago was the greatest of celebrities, has become the worst of sinners.  Even the presiding bishop is now being seen as having committed the unforgiveable sin.  Because Bishop Eaton at first did not follow the recommendations of the “Listening Team” and did not see racism as sufficient reason to initiate disciplinary procedures against a synodical bishop, she is being accused of being what she has been speaking most strongly against.    

Fifth, in the ELCA there is an absence of grace.  Oh, the ELCA talks about grace.  But it is the grace of being inclusive.  According to the ELCA, God is inclusive; therefore I need to be inclusive.  And anyone who is not as inclusive as God and me has committed the worst of sins.  If grace is all about being inclusive, then there is no grace for anyone who is not inclusive.  Not being inclusive is the unforgiveable sin.   

I wrote about this in my article, “Did Jesus Die for Our Sins?” which appeared in the May issue of our newsletter, CORE Voice.  A link to that article can be found here.  For many within the ELCA the reason Jesus died on the cross was not to pay the price for our sins (for if He needed to do that, then God the Father would be a Cosmic Child Abuser).  Instead Jesus was killed because His being inclusive was a threat to the Roman empire.  But the problem with that view is that without the blood of Jesus the only resource I have to deal with my own sins and the sins of those who sin against me is my being inclusive and following the example of Jesus who was inclusive and who resisted oppressive, non-inclusive power structures. 

Towards the end of the second day of the Sierra Pacific Synod Assembly there was talk about wanting to be able to find reconciliation and healing.  But without the blood of Jesus to cover over sin – without grace – how would you ever hope to be able to find reconciliation and healing when someone has committed the worst of sins?  

Sixth, there is a real zeal for works righteousness within the whole “woke” movement.  People need to show that they are just as woke as, if not more woke than, everyone else.  Therefore, if someone has committed the worst of sins, I must jump in and show myself to be totally woke.   

Those are six reasons why I believe the whole situation has been so explosive within and damaging to the entire ELCA.

Now I would like to turn our attention to my second question – What does this whole situation say about the ELCA?  I can think of eight things.

First, just being part of a so-called “marginalized” people group does not qualify someone to be bishop.  Enough said.

Second, Bishop Eaton has a habit of being very quick to issue statements and make judgments regarding issues outside the ELCA.  And yet she was very slow – it took her three weeks – to make a statement about and to become involved in this issue within her areas of responsibility.   She has plenty to deal with within her own arena of oversight.  She needs to focus her energy and attention on her areas of responsibility.   

Third, at the Sierra Pacific Synod Assembly Bishop Eaton made a very strong statement against racism and white supremacy.  A similarly strong statement was made by the interim vice president of the ELCA, Carlos Pena, who presided over much of the proceedings.  I wonder whether Bishop Eaton will ever be able to regain full credibility.

Fourth, the vote on the resolution to call for Bishop Rohrer’s resignation or dismissal if they do not resign failed by a margin of 56% to 44%.   (A two-thirds majority vote would have been required.)  A majority voted to dismiss, but not a two-thirds majority.  That alone is a recipe for a disaster.  I think of congregations where the vote to leave the ELCA failed.  A majority voted to leave, but not a two-thirds majority.  There are many tragic examples of what happened next.

Fifth, before the formation of the ELCA, I was a part of the ALC (American Lutheran Church).  The ALC was much more congregational, much less hierarchical, than the ELCA was designed to be.  In the ELCA synodical bishops have been given a great deal of power and authority.

But recently there has been much discussion that there needs to be a curbing of the power and authority of synodical bishops and synod councils, because the bishop and synod council of the Sierra Pacific Synod are seen as abusing that power and authority.  I wonder how many synod assemblies will be working to have that issue come to the floor of the Churchwide Assembly.

Sixth, another dynamic that I have heard mentioned is what has been called the “Purple Code” – the at least unwritten agreement that the Conference of Bishops will circle the wagons whenever there is controversy and no synodical bishop will ever speak against another synodical bishop.  But several synodical bishops have been calling for the need to bring charges against Bishop Rohrer.  The wagons are no longer circled.  Will they ever circle again?  The Purple Code has been broken.  Will it ever be intact again?

Seventh, I have heard that there has been much discussion the last few months that such things as parliamentary procedures and Roberts Rules are all rooted in systemic racism and all promote and maintain white supremacy.  They disadvantage ethnic minorities, people whose primary language is other than English, and people of color.  Therefore, they must all be dismantled.  Again, the ELCA Churchwide Assembly in August should be interesting.

Eighth, for months Bishop Eaton has been talking about Future Church and her goal to reach one million “new, young, and diverse people” by the end of this decade.  If people in the ELCA are already calling for a dismantling of everything in the ELCA that fosters racism and white supremacy, what will it be like when one million “new, young, and diverse people” become a part of the equation?  I assume that most of these one million “new, young, and diverse people” will not have a history with the ELCA, will not value the ELCA, and will not have experience in being a part of church life.  Is the ELCA really ready for what it says it wants?    

How all of this will play out I do not know.  Major new developments have occurred between the time when I started writing and when I finished writing this article.  Bishop Eaton announced that she would bring charges against and would initiate a disciplinary process against Bishop Rohrer and Bishop Rohrer has resigned.  I assume that there will be further developments by the time that you read this article.  Part of the reality of writing an article like this is knowing that it will always be out of date.

Please join with me in praying for all those within the ELCA.  No matter how far they have strayed, Jesus still loves them and He shed His blood for them.