April 12, 2010
ELCA Church Council adopts significant revisions to ministry policies
The Church Council of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America adopted a series of historic and sweeping revisions to ministry policy documents April 10, the result of months of extensive writing, comment and review by hundreds of leaders and members following the 2009 Churchwide Assembly.
The Church Council is the ELCA's board of directors and serves as the interim legislative authority of the church between churchwide assemblies. The council met in Chicago April 9-12. The next churchwide assembly is in Orlando, Fla., in August 2011.
The changes were called for by the 2009 Churchwide Assembly, which directed that policy documents be revised to make it possible for eligible Lutherans in committed, publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous same-gender relationships to serve as ELCA clergy and professional lay leaders. The assembly directed that revised policies recognize the convictions of those who believe the ELCA should not allow such service. The assembly also adopted a social statement on human sexuality.
The council adopted revisions to two documents that spell out the church's behavioral expectations of ELCA professional leaders — "Vision and Expectations: Ordained Ministers in the ELCA" and "Vision and Expectations: Associates in Ministry, Deaconesses and Diaconal Ministers in the ELCA." The council also adopted revisions to a document that specifies grounds for discipline of professional leaders, "Definitions and Guidelines for Discipline," and it adopted revisions to the "ELCA Candidacy Manual," used by regional committees to help guide candidates seeking to become professional leaders in the ELCA.
Council members asked few questions and commented briefly on each proposed document before approving them. Only minor editorial changes were proposed and adopted by the council. Each revised document was adopted overwhelmingly.
Keith A. Hunsinger, council member, Oak Harbor, Ohio, who said he does not agree with the sexuality decisions made in August 2009, announced April 11 that he had abstained on each vote on the documents. He explained that he didn't believe that the first drafts of the documents released last fall embodied the full range of decisions made at the 2009 assembly. "My conscience won't allow me to vote for any of these documents, but as a member of the board of directors, I can't vote against the will of the churchwide assembly," he told the ELCA News Service.
However, Hunsinger told the council that the final forms of each document reflected "the breadth and depth" of the decisions, including the fact that "we agreed to live under a big tent," and that multiple voices would be heard. "Because those documents now said that, I feel my ideas and I are still welcome in the ELCA," he said.
The revised policies are effective immediately, said David D. Swartling, ELCA secretary. Final revised text of each document will be posted to the ELCA Web site by the end of April, he said.
Following council approval of the policies, Mark S. Hanson, ELCA presiding bishop, expressed his appreciation to many, including the council and the Conference of Bishops for leading the revision process over the past few months. He also thanked Stanley N. Olson, executive director, ELCA Vocation and Education, the lead staff person working with church leaders and various constituencies through the revision process.
Olson thanked many others who have worked for changes in ministry policies through more than two decades of effort. "This is the work of many — hundreds, thousands of people who have reflected, thought and prayed. We are still a church that is tense over this, but we are Easter people, and I think we have done an Easter thing today," he told the council.
Prior to voting, Donald Main, Lancaster, Pa., chair of the ELCA Committee on Appeals, which led the effort to revise Definitions and Guidelines for Discipline, told the council that the document had not been revised since 1993. New sections address matters such as integrity, and substance abuse and addiction, he said.
The Committee on Appeals also "considered each and every word, constantly testing different language so as to be clear and concise as possible, and remain faithful to our charge and to the social statement and ministry policies recommended and adopted by our assembly," Main added.
The two Vision and Expectations documents and the Candidacy Manual are "tools in the service of God's mission through the ELCA, primarily to assist us in that work of calling forth and supporting faithful, wise and courageous leaders," Olson said. The Vision and Expectations documents were most recently revised in the early 1990s, and the Candidacy Manual was revised in the past few years, he said.
"We have not attempted to spell out every possible situation and to give definitive direction for every possible situation," he told the council. "There are broad principles in these documents, and there are guidelines with some details." Olson added the documents call for the ELCA to trust established processes and its leaders who have responsibility for oversight and decision-making.
"Our next step is to orient our staff and the candidacy committees," Olson said. A memo summarizing key policy revisions will be sent this week to help guide synod bishops, staff working with candidates for professional leadership, candidacy committee chairs, seminary presidents and selected staff, and applicants and candidates.
Olson added that the ELCA Vocation and Education program unit, the ELCA Office of the Secretary and others are responsible for monitoring the new policies, and suggesting further revisions and guidelines if necessary.