ELCA “Church Speak”

Like many groups, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) has its own internal language, especially as it relates to its organization and structure.

The ELCA is made up of congregations (10,000+ of them), synods (that’s our name for a regional grouping and there are 65 of them in the USA and the Caribbean), and churchwide (that’s our name for the national organization).

A “synod” is similar to a diocese in the Roman Catholic or Episcopal tradition.  The literal translation of the word “synod” is “walking together” which well expresses the hopes for this level of organization, providing a way for congregations to walk (work) together in ministry.  The ELCA’s 65 synods were set up to reflect where congregations are concentrated.  Thus, Pennsylvania has seven synods (lots of Lutherans there) and California three (not as many Lutherans in California and one of the California synods includes Hawaii and another northern Nevada).  My congregation, Mt. Olive Lutheran in Santa Monica, California, is part of the Southwest California Synod which is the greater Los Angeles area.

“Churchwide” is the term we use for the national church.  We do not use national since the ELCA includes congregations not only in the USA but also in the US Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Bahamas and Bermuda.  (I believe there is also one Slovak-Zion Synod congregation in Canada, but that is something for another blog post!)

With me so far?

Each synod gathers once/year in a synod assembly.  We use “assembly” rather than convention to emphasize how we “do” church, that is, the believers “assemble” in congregations each week, once/year as a synod and once/three years as a church.  That’s also why we use the term “voting members” rather than “delegates” for those who represent us at synod assemblies (each congregation gets two non-ordained voting members, one male and one female, plus its pastor or pastors as voting members at their synod assembly) and at the churchwide assembly (each synod elects voting members to represent them at the churchwide assembly, 60% of which must be non-clergy).  We call it “one church in three expressions.”

I know this can be confusing to those who are not church geeks but its purpose is to emphasize the inter-connectedness of the ELCA, one church in three expressions and to hold up for congregations that they (we) are part of something larger than ourselves.  Our ideal is that each of these “expressions” of the church (congregation, synod, churchwide) are “the church.”  Thus, we do not have “delegates” representing our congregations at the synod assembly or our synod at the churchwide assembly, but each expression is the church whenever and wherever it “assembles.”

Let’s call it hopeful language!

Thus, beginning tomorrow, Monday, evening the ELCA will gather in its churchwide assembly for 6 days of business, worship, Bible study and service.  Whenever the assembly is in business or worship session, you can follow it live here.

Today I will help wherever I am needed, first setting up the plenary hall and acquainting myself with the internet “feed” technology so that I can help when the feed begins tomorrow evening.

I leave you with one of Kris’ favorite photos from my time on the churchwide staff.  This one was used in the Chicago Reader when they interviewed me for a column in which they criticized the local Chicago media for their lack of religion coverage, a column called Sleeping Through the Sermon.


Here in New Orleans, ready to help where/when I can and “still at it”…


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