Happy hearts were pounding among the more than 2,000 worshipers. The soaring strain of hymns of praise filled the Columbus, Ohio, convention hall as — 25 years ago — bishops of three Lutheran church bodies poured water from three bowls into a baptismal font and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America was born.
Years before that worship service there had been prayers, standing ovations, tears of joy and shouts of "Hallelujah!" as delegates to conventions of the American Lutheran Church, the Lutheran Church in America, and the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches heard the results of votes approving the plan to end separate lives and merge into a new Lutheran church.
Some of us had been through previous mergers. Unions over many decades had brought together Lutherans of German, Swedish, Danish, Finnish and Norwegian heritage into congregations, synods, districts and national affiliations which — while honoring the heritage of our homelands — reflected more precisely the life and witness of Lutheranism on the North American continent.
The most recent of those mergers, in 1960 and 1963, created the ALC and the LCA. The AELC didn't come from a merger, but from a schism. It was composed of pastors and congregations that broke from the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod in the 1970s after a long, bitter dispute over theology and interpretation of the Bible.
Now, following years of discussion and negotiation, there was to be a new Lutheran church giving us a stronger, more unified witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ, guided by the teachings of Martin Luther, taking a firm hold on the 20th century and carrying that witness into the 21st century, just 12 years away.
"It was a time of youthful idealism, even playful idealism," said Ann Hafften, Weatherford, Texas, an ALC staff member at the time. "We were looking toward a oneness that was very holy and believed that was the direction we should be headed. We were looking at the world differently and at a world that was going to be different."
The world of our new ELCA would be different, but in some unsuspected and surprising ways.
The constituting convention elected Herbert Chilstrom, head of the LCA Minnesota Synod, as bishop of the new church. (The term "presiding bishop" wasn't chosen to describe the office until several years later.) On the fifth ballot, Chilstrom received 626 votes, with David Preus, then head of the ALC, receiving 411.
"The ELCA was born in turbulent times," Chilstrom wrote in his memoir, A Journey of Grace (see "Leaders 'back then' left their marks"). Massive changes in society during the 1960s and 1970s were having an impact on all churches and the attitude of Americans toward religious institutions.
The new bishop remembers being thrilled with the ELCA staff that gathered in Chicago, the site chosen for the church's national offices. "We had some very top-notch people taking positions with the ELCA," he said in an interview with The Lutheran. "When you're faced with a job you felt you could not do on your own, you wanted good people around you."
But there were disappointments and worries in the first year. Income didn't meet expectations. A budget of $112 million was found to be too optimistic. So Chilstrom encouraged units of the new church to intentionally underspend. They did so by $7 million, but there was still a shortfall.
Financial woes would continue to plague the ELCA. In 1990 the budget was cut to about $90 million. And in subsequent years there were further cuts in staff and budget.
The 2013 budget is about $62 million for ELCA operations, about $47 million of that is designated for mission support, plus about $18.5 million for ELCA World Hunger.
As we began life together in the ELCA, some chose not to join us. In the first year more than 50 congregations left to become independent or part of The Association of American Lutheran Churches, formed by ALC congregations that didn't approve of the merger.
Our new church had been launched, continuing the paths set by the previous church bodies, and shaping its own mission.
The first 100 days
Chilstrom spoke glowingly about the first 100 days of the new church.
"I'm beginning to see some changes happening in this church that in the long run are going to have profound significance for us," he said. The bishop was referring to "intentionally becoming an inclusive church," breaking out of the stereotype of Lutherans as white, northern Europeans.
"Out of this comes the question of how much variety can this church tolerate," he added.
"It surprised me how much I would be involved in ecumenical affairs. That came very fast. Suddenly I'm walking into a world where, if I thought the ELCA was large, the Anglican and Roman Catholic and Orthodox worlds were larger.
"It was a pleasant surprise to discover that I had so much in common with people in those other churches. I coveted those relationships in the gospel."
Ecumenism would be a key concern for the ELCA, in actions that both stirred some of us and troubled others.
In 1997 we approved full altar and pulpit fellowship with three Reformed Churches: the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Reformed Church in America, and the United Church of Christ.
While admitting some differences in the approach to the sacrament of communion, the agreement said that shouldn't keep the church bodies from sharing the sacrament together, exchanging pastors and forming cooperative congregations. Though controversial in some circles, the "Formula of Agreement" passed by a vote of 839-193.
However, that same year we failed — by a narrow margin — to approve a similar agreement establishing fellowship with the U.S. Episcopal Church. After some renegotiation, it won approval two years later, but opposition to the requirement that pastors be ordained by bishops remained strong and even caused some congregations to begin to withdraw from the ELCA.
Those ecumenical agreements capped years of dialogue begun long before the ELCA merger was approved, bringing to fruition work started by the ALC, LCA and AELC. But some other aspects of what had been life in our previous church bodies would prove difficult for the ELCA.
"I was surprised in those first years how long it was taking to grow out of the mentality of our predecessor church bodies," said Bishop E. Roy Riley of the New Jersey Synod, one of the first bishops elected after the ELCA merger. "There was excitement about the new church, but the 'new' didn't really take root quickly."
Hafften, who worked outside the ELCA before joining the churchwide staff a few years after the merger, said, "Some of the barriers that I thought would break down, didn't break down. But I thought that it would be easier for people to set aside who we had been in favor of the new church.
"The congregations I moved in and out of those years weren't as excited about it as I was."
Although Riley said he "began to appreciate the cultures of those previous church bodies," at the same time he "saw why it was difficult to let go of some of that history and perspective."
For Bob Elliott, a former ELCA staff member who lives in Chicago, "those of us who were urban underestimated how conservative the rest of the country was." He said the ELCA was perceived as being "too progressive in many ways" by those in rural and semi-rural areas around the country.
The ELCA also was buffeted by the difficulties facing churches and American society in the 1990s and beyond.
All of the predecessor church bodies had enthusiastically engaged such social issues as racism, sexism, economic injustice, and war and peace. The ELCA continued this engagement by adopting "social statements" intended to be "teaching documents" to help pastors and laypeople consider a Christian response to social problems and to guide ELCA officials in addressing public issues.
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© 2016 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers