Part IV of Martin Noland’s Essay on Laymens’ Rights — Contemporary Challenges to Laymen’s Rights in the LCMS: The Blue Ribbon Proposal

(Editor’s Note: for an introduction to this essay and for Part I  click here. For Part II click here  and for Part III cilck here.)

IV. Contemporary Challenges to Laymen’s Rights in the Missouri Synod – The Blue Ribbon Proposal

                      Now that we understand the history of laymen’s rights in Lutheran congregations, especially as that is found in the Missouri Synod, we can assess some current challenges to those rights.   Does the Blue Ribbon Task Force directly attack laymen’s rights?   No.   Will their proposals reduce laymen’s rights at the synodical and congregational level?   Maybe, depending on what those proposals will be.

A.   Eliminate Legal Autonomy of Congregations

                      My biggest concern is with the proposals that would change the constitution of the synod.   These proposals can be found at synod’s website, in the section devoted to the Blue Ribbon Task Force and labeled as “Proposed Wording Changes to Constitutional Amendments” (or similar wording).   The proposal to change Constitution Article VII, under Proposed VII.B.2 would make it mandatory that all congregations “agree to abide by, honor, and uphold the collective will of the Synod as expressed in . . . convention resolutions.”   This statement directly undermines the letter and intent of Article VII, which is that synod is only an advisory body to the local congregation.

If the synod accepts this proposal, its congregations will lose their long-treasured legal autonomy and will become legally subservient to the national synod.   Mundinger’s book, cited previously, explains how important this legal autonomy has been in the synod’s history.   This issue was also addressed by the 1962 report of the Synodical Survey Commission.[i] Proposed Article VII.B.2 attacks laymen’s rights, because laymen assert their rights through congregational voter’s assemblies.   If proposed VII.B.2 passes, those rights will be curtailed and abridged, if not entirely abandoned.

The legal autonomy of congregations does not mean they are free to teach and do whatever they please.   When they become members, congregations agree to accept the legal duty[ii] to comply with the Scriptures, Lutheran Confessions, and the conditions of membership found in Article VI of the LCMS Constitution.   There is no freedom here, as long as they want to be members of synod. Congregations also have an ethical duty to support the synod and districts financially, since congregations benefit directly from the supply of church-workers and other support agencies of the synod.   Where congregations do have freedom is in their acceptance, or rejection, of any synodical convention resolution, which autonomy has traditionally been safeguarded by Constitution Article VII and is at risk in the Blue Ribbon proposals.

B.   Extension of the Vote to Commissioned Church-Workers

The synod has respected laymen’s rights in its deliberative bodies by having equal numbers of clergy and lay delegates at national and district conventions, and at meetings of circuits at which national delegates are elected.   Several proposals from the Blue Ribbon Task Force diminish the voting rights of laymen in those bodies by adding commissioned church-workers to the voting body.   “Commissioned church-workers” include teachers, DCEs, lay ministers, deaconesses, and a few others.   These people are all on the synodical roster, all are on some church-related payroll, all are eligible to receive Concordia Plans benefits, all are considered “ministers of religion” for tax purposes, and by most non-Lutherans would be considered ministers.   If commissioned church-workers are added to the deliberative bodies of the LCMS, it will mean either that they replace laymen’s votes, or that they will reduce the proportion of laymen’s votes, which now is 50%.  

C.   More Votes to Big Congregations

The most controversial proposal from the Blue Ribbon Task Force is to give larger congregations more votes.   Some people have argued that larger congregations should get more votes, because they are assessed more for conventions.   I don’t think they should be assessed more, since convention assessment should be based on voting rights, but convention assessment is a very small portion of synodical support.  

When I served in the Northern Illinois District, my congregation, which was one of the smallest congregations with a full-time pastor, was among the top ten in per capita giving to the synod and district via regular, unrestricted offerings.   There were a number of “mega-churches” in that district that gave nothing to synod and district in those years.   Thus really large congregations only have a case for more votes if their total per capita giving to synod is equal to or better than the rest.

How does giving larger congregations more votes affect laymen’s rights?   I am not sure, after studying the matter, that it really affects laymen’s rights as a class of people.   But it will definitely disadvantage those laymen who are in smaller or medium-size congregations, since their congregations will have less voting power.   It will also politically disadvantage those districts that have no or few mega-churches.

I recently did a study about the mega-churches in the Missouri Synod.   I studied every LCMS congregation that reported an average of 800 or more people in worship per week, which I am calling a “mega-church.” Many journalists accept the “mega-church” definition as 800+ in worship.   This data would be recorded under the “Average Attendance” column published in recent Lutheran Annuals.   I used the 2003 and 2008 Lutheran Annuals for my data.  

There are 79 congregations that can thus be called “mega-churches.” Out of these, only 7 are not in a metropolitan area, as defined by the US census bureau’s Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA).   Those seven are located in Seymour, Indiana; Mankato, Minnesota; Concordia, Missouri; Perryville, Missouri; Seward, Nebraska; Napoleon, Ohio; and Shawano, Wisconsin.   Those are all locations with a culturally dominant LCMS population and long synodical history.

Of the 79 congregations, only 10 are in cities under 160,000 populations.   All the other 69 congregations are located in suburbs of main cities or in suburban county areas of metropolitan areas with populations over 160,000.   With regard to growth statistics, 60% of the mega-churches did not meet or exceed the population growth of their MSA.   64% of the mega-churches did not meet or exceed the national population growth rate for the period of 7.0%

One conclusion that you can draw from this is that, just because a church is big, does not mean they are smarter than small churches in the matter of growth.   I need to say this, because I heard a very prominent LC-MS mega-church pastor argue this way fifteen years ago.   He argued that their churches are smarter and thus should have more voting power.   The fact is that 2/3rds of these LCMS mega-churches are not keeping up with the US population.   They obviously benefit from the demographic size and growth in their community, but that benefit cannot be transferred to congregations in other communities or to the synod as a whole.

Many of these mega-churches are bunched up into a couple of districts.   If you give the mega-churches more votes, then their districts will get more votes than what they have now.   District presidents should take note of which districts don’t even have one mega-church, as previously defined:   California-Nevada-Hawaii, Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Oklahoma, Minnesota-North, Iowa-East, Mid-South, Southern, New England, Atlantic, New Jersey, Southeastern, SELC, and English.   Districts with only one mega-church include:   Florida-Georgia, Iowa-West, Eastern, Central Illinois, Southern Illinois, and Northwest.   Districts with only two mega-churches include:   Rocky Mountain and Kansas.   Put all these districts together, and they would be the “losers” in the “more votes to big church” proposal.

Districts who would be the “winners” in this proposal (more than 5 mega-churches) would be:   Northern Illinois (6), Indiana (6), Nebraska (6), South Wisconsin (6), Missouri (9), Texas (10), and Michigan (12).   Since these districts are the heartland of the Missouri Synod, the general effect of “more votes to big congregations” would be that the central Midwest and its interests would dominate synodical conventions and operations even more than it already does.   I am surprised to see so many non-Midwestern church leaders in favor of this particular proposal, but then maybe they don’t know the facts about its probable effects on the synod.

D.   Blue Ribbon Plan in General

The Blue Ribbon Plan does not appear to be targeted specifically at layman’s rights.   The damage to layman’s rights seems to be collateral damage rather than the main target.   The main target, at least from what I have seen so far, is the plan for the synod expressed by C.F.W. Walther in his letter to Adam Ernst of August 21, 1845.[iii] The Missouri Synod adopted Walther’s plan in April 1847 as the essence of its constitution.

These are the six main features that Walther wanted in our church in 1845:   1) unconditional subscription to the Bible and the 1580 Book of Concord; 2) prohibition of all syncretistic activity by congregations and ministers of the synod, described specifically in a special paragraph; 3) the first and foremost function of the synod would be to maintain, promote, and defend the unity and purity of Lutheran doctrine; 4) the synod, i.e., convention and officers, would not be a full-powered government, but only an advisory body designed to assist congregations; and that the right to elect and call its pastor would remain solely with the congregation; 5) lay delegates and clergy delegates would have equal votes and voice at conventions, with a clergy chairman; 6) all matters resolved by delegates at convention could be still appealed to all of the individual congregations for final decision.

Points 3, 4, 5, and 6 in Walther’s plan would be altered under what we have seen in the Blue Ribbon proposals so far.   Changes proposed for Constitution Article III, i.e., the objectives of synod, would change point 3.   Changes proposed for Constitution Article VII, i.e, the advisory character of synod in relationship to its congregations, would change point 4.   Changes proposed for Constitution Article V, i.e., the definition of voting members, would change point 5.   Changes proposed for the way doctrinal resolutions and doctrinal statements are approved would change point 6, since it appears that appeal to congregations is not envisioned.[iv]

The administration does not need to change point 2 in Walther’s plan.   It already approved that change in the controversy over District President Benke’s participation in a syncretistic worship service at Yankee Stadium.   In other words, Walther’s point 2 is still in our constitution, but no one is enforcing it.   The only unaltered point in Walther’s plan is point 1, i.e., unconditional subscription to the Bible and Confessions.   Thus, recognizing that the synod’s constitutional article on its confession will not be changed, it appears to me that voters to the 2010 convention will be given the choice between two plans:   Walther’s plan or the President’s Blue Ribbon Task Force plan.

I need to make one more comment about the Blue Ribbon Task Force.   They have important work to do, and their work should not be summarily rejected.   There are many proposals that are good.   I am hoping that they will listen to the district conventions and that their final proposal will have mostly good things for all of us.   They especially need to work on the problem of unrestricted income to synod for the support of seminaries, church-worker training, and international missions.   If they cannot move us along the path toward progress in that area, everything else will be hindered by the lack of funding.

[i] Report of the Synodical Survey Commission to the Forty-Fifth Regular Convention of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod  (Saint Louis, 1961), 7-9, under “Internal Relationships” of congregations and synod.

[ii]   These three elements may be considered the essence of the Missouri Synod’s church law, namely, Scriptures, Confessions, and Constitution Article VI.

[iii]   See C. S. Meyer, Moving Frontiers (St Louis:   Concordia Publishing House, 1964), 143.

[iv] There is a history in the synod on the difference between doctrinal resolutions and doctrinal statements.   The latter was defined as, practically speaking, an amendment to the Constitution of synod, thus it required two-thirds votes of all congregations.   This is the only way that a doctrinal position passed at the convention could become legally binding on member congregations, due to Constitution Articles VII and XIV.

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