Saturday, May 05, 2007

The ELCA's 20th Anniversary

If it weren't for having "Evangelical Lutheran Church in America" on the news section of the church computer's "Dell-Google Start Page," the actual 20th Anniversary of the forming of the ELCA would have completely slipped by me. Technically, it did anyway, for the ELCA Constituting Convention was April 30—May 3, 1987, in Columbus, Ohio, meaning that 20th Anniversary slipped by Thursday. (Perhaps this is another instance where my friend Elisabeth's "birth week" idea is useful.)

If you search really hard on the ELCA's own website, you'll be able to find some mention of it. But even then mention of this church's 20th anniversary is buried near the bottom of a ELCA News Service release or is just one-more-thing in next August's Churchwide Assembly.

Fortunately (?), the Port Huron, Michigan, Times Herald published this in today's paper:
Lutheran merger led to mixed results

Times Herald columnist

This week marks the anniversary of something practically nobody remembers - including people who were there.

Twenty years ago this week, representatives of three Lutheran Church bodies gathered in Columbus, Ohio, to form the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

They packed themselves into a downtown convention center and spent four days turning the former Lutheran Church in America, American Lutheran Church and Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches into what one pastor friend of mine scornfully dismissed as "the General Motors of Lutheranism."

As things turned out, he may have been closer to the mark than he ever dreamed. Starting with a membership of about 5.34 million, the roll 20 years later stands closer to 4.88 million. Membership has gone the way of GM's sales figures. The difference is that those who left have not joined Japanese churches.

I was rummaging in my desk the other day, and I found my notes and a slew of press handouts from that constituting convention two decades ago. This newspaper's management at the time decided the event was important enough to send me to cover it.

My wife and I were put up in a snazzy hotel next to the Ohio State Capitol building. We were on the top floor and practically needed binoculars to see the roof of the Capitol. If you've ever been there, the seat of Ohio's government looks as if they stopped building it about half way and never bothered to finish.

Anyhow, my convention notes are revealing. Honest, I was paying attention, which made it some of the hardest work I've ever done. Here's part of what my boss got for his investment:

"This business of merging churches is about as exciting as watching paint dry. The folks running the show are plodding through a list of resolutions that not many people are paying attention to. The delegates are not on the edge of their seats. Some are, but they're the ones trying to stay awake.

"The mezzanine is about two-thirds full. Motions are routinely approved on a voice vote. One delegate asks plaintively if we can't skip reading them. The chairman is not ready to do something that radical.

"Delegates have folding chairs with padded seats. That's a mistake. Hard seats might speed things up."

The merging took four days, beating God's creation record by three days. Thus the ELCA was created with hopes it would be fruitful and multiply. It could have been done easily in 48 hours. They probably rented the convention center without a discount for finishing early, so, being good frugal Germans, they wanted to get their money's worth.

Twenty years later, the results have been mixed. Some ELCA churches and mission programs are thriving. Still, ELCA Lutherans, along with other mainline Protestants are seeing too many empty pews on Sunday and dwindling cash to do mission work.

What will it take to reinvigorate those hopes from 1987?

For starters, maybe unpadded seats.
Thanks, Mr. Ketchum, for the reminders. And the questions. Now, I wonder if anyone besides you and (thanks to you) me, will note this anniversary?

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