The Limited (Yet Often Overblown) Power of Church Bureaucrats

I was reading a post on another Lutheran pastor's blog where I saw a comment that questioned the quality of Augsburg Fortress' work over the past few years, and pined for the last generation of worship materials (LBW and WOV).  This, along with a few other comments critical of the new Lutheran Study Bible, got me all riled up (you'll see plenty of my comments over on his blog), because I've heard this kind of stuff before.

Over the years I've had unique opportunities to meet with hundreds of Lutheran lay and ordained leaders, first as the Director of Alumni Relations for our seminary in Philadelphia, and then later as a sales representative for Augsburg Fortress.  I heard joys and praise for the organizations for which I worked, and also concerns and critiques.  When these church leaders offered their critiques, I often heard a common strain in their chorus:

"The church isn't what it used to be.  Everything would be fine if we could only return to [insert era, usually:

  • when the speaker was a child or young adult leader/pastor in the church; or,
  • the era when their mentor/teacher was a child or young adult in the church, or when that mentor/teacher was a top leader in the church; or other eras, including,
  • the Reformation; or,
  • pre-Reformation; or,
  • the early church]"

and related . . .

"Our [bishops, theologians, churchwide staff, publishing house] aren't as good as they were in my time, and we're declining as a church for it.  If only we had the likes of [insert name of "great" church leader, theologian, or publication from bygone era] we'd be much better off."

While I sympathize with their concern about the church, and am genuinely sad that they feel the church is not what it was or could be, I respectfully think their analysis of what is going on in the church is wrong.

Related to the first point: we cannot reprisinate an era that no longer exists – not the early church, not the Reformation, not the 1950s or early 1980s. 

Secondly, the claim that in a past generation the church was more faithful fails, upon further examination, to hold water.  Such a claim is often a cry of lament that a particular person, group, or theology no longer holds a prominent place . . . it is a cry that "we" are no longer "in charge" (whoever "we" are – adherents to a particular theological perspective, a once-priviledged class of individuals [white men, for example, who nonetheless are still quite priviledged!], or a small cadre of now-retired professors and their students, for example).

Furthermore, such claims of past faithfulness vs. a supposed current faithlessness tend to look at the past through rose-colored glasses.  Past generations had their strengths, for sure, but they also had their weaknesses . . . just like our generation.  While I gladly mine past generations for thier strengths, we cannot paint these generations as broadly more faithful than ours when these were generations in which women had their place (in the kitchen), people of color had their place (as the object of our colonial missions), and theology failed to speak to the reality of poverty and struggle shared by the majority of the world's citizens.  You call that faithful to the Lord who speaks Good News to the poor and uplifts the lowly and fills the hungry with good things?

But more importantly . . . I'm intrigued by the suggestion in the second claim that church "higher ups" have some amazing power to corrupt the church and lead it into a supposedly diminished stature.  As I stated on Eric's blog,

Behind all this criticism [of Augsburg Fortress, of the ELCA hierarchy] seems to be a populist uprising against the
“higher ups” of church authority, as if they’re to blame for all our
church’s problems. P’shaw. Despite one’s feelings about mergers,
bishops, churchwide headquarters’ moves, or the publishing house, we’re
a church with a polity that is functionally congregational. “Higher
ups” have no power to get butts in pews or ears within ear-shot of the
Gospel. Our church’s real (and supposed) decline (in numbers, stature,
etc.) is not a function of willy-nilly bureaucrats but of local leaders
(lay and ordained) neglecting their call.

So yes, offer critiques of Augsburg Fortress and churchwide offerings,
but . . . but I certainly hope that pastors and lay leaders will look
in the mirror when lamenting the state of the church today . . .
because no cubicle-dwelling editor in Minneapolis or program assistant
in Chicago has ever had the power to dramatically impact the viability
of local parish ministries.

Strong critiques of churchwide structures and accusations blaming these structures for the supposed downfall of the ELCA often come, paradoxically, from folks with very pietistic, congregational perspectives.  That is, these are people who generally see the church as beginning with the individual believer, the home and/or the local congregation . . . but when it comes to explaining the so-called downfall of the church, they blame not the individual believer, the home, and/or the local congregation, but the churchwide structures.  Huh?

Congregations which struggle with issues regarding size, ministry, mission, faithfulness, "relevance," and other concerns would do well to be concerned less with what churchwide agencies are doing or not doing, and more with what they are doing or not doing locally.  The tasks of ministry are given to all the baptized and in local contexts, after all, not just outsourced to that small number of people with offices and cubicles at churchwide organizations . . . But if they do look to churchwide organizations with an open mind, more often than not they'll find a willing and supportive partner in ministry.  That's been my experience, anyway.

Published by Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. Veteran. Jedi. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.

5 thoughts on “The Limited (Yet Often Overblown) Power of Church Bureaucrats

  1. I would guess that a good many of the people in the pews couldn’t name the bishop of their synod, nor tell you where the synod office is located, ditto for the national headquarters. If that is true, then the marginal and fallen away members surely aren’t influenced by those people at all. How many read the Lutheran either?
    One big change, that I wrote about on my blog
    some time ago, is the change in society with Sunday shopping, traveling, and eating out. Don’t blame those workers for not being in church [especially the teens who work on Sunday] if you buy your gas and groceries after church on the way to Sunday Brunch.

  2. PS – good points. People identify with the local church more than they do with a synod. I try to communicate what is going on in the synod but people generally don’t get too excited about it.
    So…at the end of the day, when it comes down to it, it is the local congregation that makes a difference in their local context.
    One example of this is the ELCA passing/changing certain policies, rules, etc (i.e. CCM, homosexuality). I may not agree with everything that comes out of Churchwide, but it is not going to change how I preach and present the Gospel. As for the people in the pews, their lives won’t change all that much based on what comes out of Churchwide (unless of course they could somehow force local congregation to “tow the company line”).

  3. There are exceptions to the people in the pews not knowing much about what is going on. A congregation only about 6 miles away from where I live opted out of the ELCA a few years ago, supposedly because of the Apostolic secession thing. I don’t know if they learned of this themselves or if the pastor at that time told them about it. They now are served by a Lutheran pastor who also resigned from the ELCA but who is now under a bishop in another country. He’s a LTSP grad.

  4. “We have seen the enemy, and he is us.”
    We have to twist arms to get people to attend synod assembly. But it is through the assembly that then we – members of the church – elect our leadership (synod council, voting members to churchwide, etc). At every step along the way, there is a feedback loop. The “people in power” are the people WE have placed there.
    Now given, there are times when we truly are in the minority. When we strongly believe that person X should not be elected or policy Z should not pass, and “our side” does not win. Yet that is precisely when we ought to stand by the church. To uphold the work of the Spirit through the processes & people of the church only when we agree is … well, I call it cowardice – and it says to me that the real belief is that the Spirit only blows where “our side” decides it should.

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