Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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On Jan. 1, 1988, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) officially began its life. The constituting of this new Lutheran Church body was the culmination of a long series of efforts to bring diverse Lutheran synods and groups in North America together. The ELCA joined the 2.9 million member Lutheran Church in America (LCA), the 2.3 million member American Lutheran Church (ALC), and the 100,000 member Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches (AELC). Even though the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LC-MS) is not a part of the ELCA, the new church represents one of the largest bodies in world Lutheranism, with a baptized membership of 5.3 million.

Steps toward Union. Each of the constituting churches had its distinct history. The ALC began its at the constituting convention in Minneapolis in 1960. It was characterized by such distinctive traits as the attempt to integrate the work of theological education; the effort toward Lutheran intersynod cooperation; and the approval of alternate routes to ordained service, with emphasis on members of minorities. The AELC, which had its roots in the LC-MS, began to function in 1977. After a major theological struggle with the Missouri Synod involving the dismissal of personnel from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, a new church was formed. From the outset the leadership of the AELC considered the denomination as an alternative to the LC-MS and its continuation was to be reviewed every 10 years. The AELC was marked by its commitment to inclusivity and its growth in an understanding of ministry. The LCA, since its inception in 1962, was represented by the incorporation of many ethnic strands. Its desire for inclusivity was highlighted by its social statement on race relations in 1964 and its admission of women to ordination in 1970. The ecumenical thrust of the LCA was dramatically marked by its overture toward union with the ALC and AELC at its convention in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1982.

When the three churches agreed to unite in 1982, they first formed a Commission for a New Lutheran Church. The commission, which consisted of 70 members, planned the merger that was finally approved by church conventions in 1986. At the ELCA constituting convention, held from April 30 to May 3, 1987, in Columbus, Ohio, the Rev. Dr. Herbert W. Chilstrom was elected bishop of the ELCA.

Constitution. The Constitution of the ELCA and that of its synods and regions begins with a Confession of Faith that reaffirms its belief in the Triune God and confesses Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. The ELCA Statement of Purpose states that the Church is a people created by God in Christ who are empowered, called, and sent. The ELCA Principles of Organization articulate the constitutional commitment to a new church through a mandate to include women, persons of color, and persons whose primary language is other than English in all areas of the life of the church; and a structure that calls for interdependency among congregations, synods, and churchwide organizations as they strive to fulfill their mission to witness to Jesus Christ.

ELCA members form about 11,000 congregations, served by 16,000 clergy. They are divided into 65 synods and 9 regions, and each synod is headed by a bishop. The Conference of Bishops, which consists of the 65 synodical bishops, as well as the bishop and secretary of the ELCA, provides spiritual enrichment and opportunities to discuss issues of importance to the church for those who serve in these roles. The Churchwide Assembly, which is composed of delegates elected by the synods, meets biennially to evaluate ELCA programs, elect officers, and conduct other business of the church.

The work of the main office, located in Chicago, Illinois, is divided among 4 administrative offices, 6 program divisions, 5 supporting commissions, the ELCA Publishing House, the Women of the ELCA, and the Board of Pensions (Address: Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 8765 West Higgins Road, Chicago, Illinois, 60631).

The ELCA has entered into full communion partnerships with the the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Church of Christ and the Reformed Church in 1997, the Moravian Church in 1999, and the Episcopal Church in 2000.

Bibliography: h. w. chilstrom, Foundations for the Future: The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America at the Threshold of a New Millennium (Minneapolis 1988). evangelical lutheran church in america, Constitutions, Bylaws, and Continuing Resolutions: Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (Minneapolis 1988). e. t. bachmann, The Ecumenical Involvement of the LCA Predecessor Bodies: A Brief History 19001970 (New York 1983). e. c. nelson, Lutheranism in North America 19141970 (Minneapolis 1972). w. g. volker, A Handbook and Directory for Congregational Leaders (Minneapolis 1988).

[d. j. swan/eds.]