ELCIC faces looming crisis with hope

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Bishop Susan Johnson addresses the delegates at the 14th Biennial National Convention in Ottawa. Photo: Simon Chambers
Bishop Susan Johnson addresses the delegates at the 14th Biennial National Convention in Ottawa. Photo: Simon Chambers

Lutheran delegates were shown a sobering portrait of their church’s present and future prospects during the first business session of the ELCIC’s National Convention.

In her opening address, National Bishop Susan Johnson shared the results of a financial and demographic study of the denomination commissioned by the ELCIC’s Conference of Bishops.

It shows that 54 congregations have closed since the ELCIC was established in 1986, and that individual membership has dropped from more than 262,000 to about 139,000 during the same time period. Future projections are equally grim. The study suggests a further 64 ELCIC congregations will close by 2020.

An aging membership explains part of the drop in numbers. An especially sharp decline came following the ELCIC’s decision in 2011 to authorize congregations to offer same-sex marriages.

The projected drop in membership would have financially catastrophic consequences for an already cash-strapped denomination, with annual revenues to the national church estimated to plunge by $400,000 by 2020.

Johnson described the demographic and financial projections as “a worst-case scenario” that could result in major cuts to national staff, programming and global partnerships, and even curtailing the full communion relationship with the Anglican Church of Canada.

At the same time, the national bishop struck a hopeful tone, suggesting the ELCIC’s membership and money crisis could also be a moment of opportunity for Canada’s Lutherans to “define what our core mission is and how we can best accomplish it.”

“We need to be open to the creative power of the Holy Spirit,” Johnson told delegates. “God is calling us, and indeed all the churches in North America and much of Europe, to a new thing. What’s hard is that we don’t know what that new thing is going to be.”

Nevertheless, Johnson offered some suggestions as to what that “new thing” might look like in the ELCIC. They include creating more flexible models of local ministry, deepening partnerships and reducing the size of some national church structures.

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