The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America or ELCA is the largest Lutheran body in the United States, with 3.6 million full members in 2005, in 10,549 churches with 17,665 clergy. The 7900 Sunday Schools have an enrollment of 640,000. The ELCA membership is nationwide but is concentrated in rural areas of Pennsylvania and the Midwest. Metropolitan areas have 42% of the churches; small and medium cities have 20%, and small towns have 37%. It is a mainline Protestant denomination.
The bishop of St. Paul, Minnesota, Rev. Mark S. Hanson was reelected in 2007 for another six-year term as ELCA presiding bishop. The ELCA was created in 1988 after a very complex set of mergers that brought together most of the nation's Lutherans. The ELCA encompasses a very broad range of opinions and practices regarding theology, piety, and worship styles, as well as political and social views. Many members are conservative Republicans; 95% are white. ELCA is a member of the National Council of Churches and has a lobbying office in Washington called the Lutheran Office of Governmental Affairs.
Beginning in the 1890s, Lutheran denominations in America reorganized in every generation. As a result, by the 1960s, three large bodies encompassed nearly all Lutherans:
- the liberal, more urban Lutheran Church in America
- the pietist, more rural American Lutheran Church;
- the orthodox Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod
The first two denominations, along with the American Evangelical Lutheran Church (a spinoff from the Missouri Synod) merged in 1988 to form the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. Members came primarily from German and Scandinavian immigrant stock. Two conservative bodies, The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod and the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod did not join. The term "Evangelical" in the name stems from old Lutheran traditions and does not mean the church is associated with the modern Evangelical or Fundamentalist movements.
Lutherans within ELCA believe:
The ELCA clergy are well educated, reflecting the Lutheran tradition's emphasis on biblical and theological studies. All clergy must have a graduate degree, usually a master of divinity (M.Div.) or its equivalent. Two thirds have attended a Lutheran seminary, most commonly Luther Seminary. About 30% have completed postgraduate work for a D.Min., Th.D., or Ph.D., sometimes at secular universities. The average pastor is 51 years old and has been a minister for twenty years. 19% are women.
In terms of theological positions, the clergy are in the Lutheran tradition of emphasizing sin. They do not believe that the Bible is inerrant, yet they accept that Jesus was born of a virgin and that the devil actually exists. They reject the notion that most religions are equally valid, yet fear the intolerant behavior of some people of faith. Theologically, they can be termed moderate modernists.
In terms of politics, the clergy are liberal Democrats. Although they supported Al Gore over George Bush by 67%-26% in 2000, with 5% for Ralph Nader, 80% avoid political sermons or taking public stands on political issues.
In 2005, the ELCA voted against allowing homosexual pastors or allowing same-sex couples to receive blessings from pastors. The vote was almost equal, though far short of a two-thirds majority required. In 2007, the ELCA's assembly again voted against allowing celibate homosexual pastors.
- Cimino, Richard P. Lutherans today: American Lutheran identity in the twenty-first century (2003) 248 pages excerpt and text search
- Hofrenning, Daniel, Janelle Sagness, and L. DeAne Lagerquist. "Evangelical Lutheran Church of America" in Pulpit and Politics: Clergy in American Politics at the Advent of the Millennium ed. by Corwin E. Smidt. (2004) pp 43–58. online edition
- Kleingartner, Connie Marie. "Honoring Our Past, Embracing Our Future: A Qualitative View of First-Wave Women Clergy in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America." PhD U. of St. Thomas, St. Paul 1999. 180 pp. DAI 2001 61(7): 2765-2766-A. DA9980866
- Trexler, Edgar R. Anatomy of a merger: people, dynamics, and decisions that shaped the ELCA (1992) 286 pages