In 2016, the ELCA Churchwide Assembly made an unprecedented commitment to becoming a more authentically diverse church. Over the last three years, congregations, synods and the churchwide organization have been working together on measurable diversity objectives.

At its constituting convention in 1988, the ELCA adopted the goal “that within 10 years of its establishment its membership shall include at least 10% people of color and/or primary language other than English.” When the ELCA didn’t reach that goal, the 2000 Churchwide Assembly added a continuing resolution to the constitution, defining “person of color” and “primary language other than English.”

By 2013, when Chris Boerger began his term as ELCA secretary, the church was still far from achieving its original goal. “It suddenly occurred to me, ‘We’re now 30 years in the life of this church. We just need to say we failed at our first goal of being a church of 10 percent. Can we be honest? Let’s start calling it a failure, let’s not call that a work in progress,’ ” he said.

Not long after, an analysis of the Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study ranked the ELCA last among 30 selected religious groups in denominational representation of people of color.

Feeling a new approach was needed to make progress on the ELCA’s commitment to ethnic and racial diversity, Boerger and others began discussing a different framework for goals and reporting. “I had started hearing people talking about it as ‘When we get to 10%, we’ve done it,’ ” Boerger said. “Rather than seeing the 10% as a floor that we would build onto, it was seen as a ceiling that would stop our work. So looking for language other than a percentage seemed important.”

Boerger felt it was necessary to look at the geographic areas of the synods and congregations. “We made a commitment to look ethnically like our neighborhoods, or the demographics of the territory in which we exist. Quite frankly, that’s much higher than 10%,” he said.

In a report to the 2016 Churchwide Assembly, Boerger advocated for amendments to continuing resolutions addressing the diversity goal. The resolutions—approved by the assembly—called for each of the church’s expressions to annually assess its ethnic and racial diversity “when compared to the demographic data of its community or territory.” The churchwide organization was to work with synods as they assisted congregations in achieving those goals.

“There was an attempt to build some accountability into the continuing resolutions,” Boerger said. The actions required annual reports to the Church Council and reports every three years to the Churchwide Assembly. “In the past, there was no requirement for reporting,” he added.

Candid conversations

As ELCA program director for racial justice ministries, Judith Roberts receives the annual synod reports on progress toward congregational diversity goals. In the last three years, racial justice ministries have assisted synods with training and development.

Roberts pointed to another continuing resolution on racial justice adopted at the 2016 Churchwide Assembly that encouraged synods to train rostered ministers every two years in anti-racism work. Although not required, several synods have since made that training mandatory.

“We made a commitment to look ethnically like our neighborhoods, or the demographics of the territory in which we exist.”

She described a “multipronged approach” of churchwide units collaborating in achieving goals across the church: “There are intentional spaces with the Conference of Bishops and the Office of the Presiding Bishop, racial justice ministries, and Research and Evaluation [for working together on the goals]. The congregational vitality team is tracking how they’re supporting leadership development, how they are walking with synods on area strategies, and partnering congregations up to learn from each other and support each other.”

Part of Roberts’ work with the conference has been in “candid conversations” about helping the bishops identify the level at which their synods currently reflect the diversity of their areas. “The bishops have been very engaged in this reporting,” she said. “Some synods are just beginning their journey; some synods are already doing the work and they need more tools; and some synods are showing results. We have at least three different groups of where synods would place themselves.”

Moving forward, Roberts is working with the other churchwide units and the conference to implement a reporting tool that will streamline the collecting, tracking and sharing of information, beyond reviewing parochial reports.

The 2016 resolutions also directed the ELCA Church Council to form a task force for strategic authentic diversity. The group was tasked with developing a comprehensive set of strategies for equipping congregations and synods in the work of becoming a more authentically diverse church.

When the task force met, they recognized their common experiences, as individuals and as members of communities, within the church. “That allowed for offering of some collective perspective from among people of color that, quite frankly, doesn’t happen in that way often enough in the life of our church,” said Albert Starr, co-convener of the task force and ELCA director for ethnic specific and multicultural ministries.

Abraham Allende, task force co-convener and bishop of the Northeastern Ohio Synod, agreed: “There were 16 of us; everyone represented some heretofore marginalized community, whether it be Native American, Asian American, the LGBTQ community and so forth. For me, it was really gratifying to see that. These were not just people who were selected because of the community they represented, they brought gifts to the table—the different perspectives, and then, of course, the theological and the academic background to it.

“And we did some hard work. We did not want the results of our work to just sit on the shelf somewhere, and that was really a motivating force for us.”

Called to be transformational

In April, the task force’s report and recommendations were adopted by the Church Council, which recommended them to the 2019 Churchwide Assembly. The report included five strategies for becoming a more authentically diverse church: theological framing and equipping; theological education and leadership development; healing action; structural accountability in all expressions of the ELCA; and partnership in this work with full communion, ecumenical and interreligious partners.

“One of the things that [the strategies] have in common is around promoting what we have been collectively referring to as a ‘metanoia movement’—calling for a change of heart and mind that will help our church in all of its expressions,” Starr said.

“As we do our work of moving from vision to reality … that work has to be foundational enough to be intentionally woven into every aspect of the life of our church.”

When asked by a Church Council member what authentic diversity would look like, Starr used the curriculum analogy of being moved from the status of “elective” to “required.”

“As we do our work of moving from vision to reality … that work has to be foundational enough to be intentionally woven into every aspect of the life of our church,” he said. That can only be accomplished if voices that have previously been marginalized are invested in as full participants in the life of the church, he added.

Congregations made up of predominantly European descent members “can ask the questions, ‘How can we, from our context, support this? What do we need to know about this? How do we journey together on this from where we are?” Starr said.

Allende agreed: “For us, it’s not an option: every synod and every part of the church really needs to address this issue in their context. Because, obviously, every context or every synod is going to look different.”

What it looks like to address authentic diversity in a specific context, Allende said, ultimately comes down to one basic objective—developing relationships. “It’s easy to look at our political climate now and see the divisiveness that exists,” he said. “But the church is called to be different. The church is called to be transformational. And I think that, not only our rostered ministers but a lot of people in our congregations, are taking that responsibility seriously.”

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John Potter
John G. Potter is content editor of Living Lutheran. He lives in St. Paul, Minn.

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