The Courage to Network


Education Matters

[1] Education matters considerably for the Lutheran movement.  Consistent with the Reformers, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) teaches a dual calling “to educate people in the Christian faith for their vocation and to strive with others to ensure that all have access to high quality education that develops personal gifts and abilities and serves the common good.”  “This calling,” says the ELCA social statement on education, “embraces all people in both Church and society.”[1] Since April 2013, following Church Council action to establish a Theological Education Advisory Council (TEAC), ELCA leaders have undertaken actions that I believe could engender radical change to make education in the Christian faith essential and universal in this church.  While yet unknown in the congregations, this work has moved from study and recommendations to early design that seeks a new church for new times.  The Lutheran movement should become a network that serves a democratic turn to theological education for the whole people of God.

[2] In this essay, I seek to capture key traits and to assess the significance of the turn to the networked church.  I argue in affirmation of the vision and values of this new ecclesiology.  Over the last two years, I have participated in two organized conversations about TEAC with ELCA leaders, first at a Western Mission Network Consultation in January 2016 and second at a meeting of the ELCA Theological Roundtable (TRT) in May 2017.  (See paragraph 14 for a description of the TRT) I arrive at my claims and judgments as a result of these conversations coupled with thirty years of experience on boards and task forces of the ELCA and thirty years of teaching and administrative work at an ELCA college.  On behalf of Roundtable colleagues, I share several worries and questions held by ELCA members dedicated to the quest for theological education for all.  I conclude with a personal appreciation as an ethicist of the church.

Called to a Counter-cultural Democratic Church

[3] The Church Council called for a system review to address a daunting set of needs and challenges: “to consider how our interdependent network of theological education providers can best serve the church as it seeks to address in a holistic manner, issues in leadership development, theological education, candidacy and call, and the rosters of this church.”[2] (The process has subsequently gone under the rubric of TEAC.[3]) This charge encompassed complex and large-scale organizational and financial challenges for the educational delivery system of the ELCA, particularly its eight seminaries, as well as cultural and demographic changes in the membership of the church that have brought significant declines in individual and congregational membership over the last decade with accompanying revenue shortage.  As an act of urgent necessity, the Church Council essentially has, in my view, asked TEAC to rebuild educational institutions created over twenty-five years ago in different times.

[4] Mindful of the scale and scope of its assignment, TEAC began by asking hundreds of ELCA leaders to engage in writing about three fundamental questions: What is the vocation of the Lutheran movement in our North American context?  Into what forms and contexts of public witness and service is God calling this church for which we need to prepare leaders?  What kinds of forms of education and contexts will best create the learning and equipping communities need to live faithfully into God’s mission?  The answers TEAC received to these questions were perhaps unexpected and may have caused the council to think more boldly and expansively than requested.  The responses indicate that ELCA leaders want far more than solutions to problems of organization, finance, and pedagogy.  They want the ELCA to be a public church that offers a compelling theological and ethical witness to shape society in wholesome ways.  The Lutheran movement has a distinctive witness of hope, grace, inclusion, reconciliation, and compassion that gives life, in contrast to the cultures of fear, exclusion, legalism, and violence that dominate public discourse.  The public square desperately needs the Lutheran voice.

[5] Unfortunately, the North American Lutheran movement has work to do to be heard.  And the difficulties are understated in the report.  Still, TEAC takes a bold Lutheran turn in answer to the question of capability for pubic church: the priesthood of all believers.  All the baptized are called to “the ministry of witnessing theologically to a counter-cultural Word.”  “To that end,” says TEAC, “we must explore with imagination and resolve how we can organize and unleash the resources of our church to equip the baptized to be voices that speak of love and grace, hope and reconciliation, inclusion and compassion—voices that call for us to heal the world God loves so much.”[4]  The pressing problems of educational delivery system, finance, and governance are problems for the leadership of a command and control institution, which the ELCA currently embodies.  These problems must be addressed—and TEAC addresses them extensively.  But the call for a public church of all believers requires a pause on institution building until matters of church identity, purpose, and principle have been settled.  If the purpose of the church changes significantly, polity changes must surely follow.

[6] TEAC says just enough about these fundamentals to signal something significantly different for what we might call the “next” ELCA.  A church whose identity is the priesthood of all believers requires a “more integrated understanding and practice” of teaching ministry for all, namely, “an ecology and a network of complementary, interdependent opportunities.”[5]  This web of relations is human communities invested in Christian education.  Who are they?  Who should they be?  Today, the communities are limited, independent, and unorganized, serving far less than the whole people of God.  In the future, they must serve all.  To organize and engage a community of millions (the ELCA is currently 3.8), the scale and scope of this network will be vast.  Further and importantly, a stronger network of theological education will depend upon a coordinated transition to the networked church.  The ELCA cannot do networked theological education on the scale and scope that TEAC envisions without becoming itself a networked church with a different polity and ecology.

[7] Before exploring the implications of a networked church of theological education for all, we need to lift up the guiding norms set forth by TEAC.  The post-command and control church of TEAC will depend upon common purpose and principle for social cohesion and cooperation.  The purpose of a new theological education for all and the grounding for its development will be a counter-cultural Word that heals a broken world and can engender human flourishing together.  For TEAC, this Word will include the communication of Lutheran teachings about freedom, abundance, hope, neighbor love, and reconciliation.  It will model, says TEAC, “global inclusion, aimed to serve diverse audiences and to invite all people to God’s overflowing banquet table.”[6]

[8] This purpose for theological education can be advanced by shared commitment to five guiding principles.  First, the network itself will be a Christian calling that connects people to others and to tasks where we may need to do things differently.  Second, the network will be a movement of many hands and voices that will call for “flexibility, responsiveness and fluidity of boundaries.”  Third, the cultures of these educational communities and the wider web will be participatory and non-hierarchical, characterized by mutuality and appreciation for the teaching and learning abilities of all.  Fourth, the network will seek good stewardship of resources such as elimination of redundancies, the scaling of good practices, and enduring commitments.  Fifth, this new network will be inclusive, “organized as a network of diverse people and programs to serve all God’s people.”[7]

[9] After articulating revisionist purposes and principles for theological education, the TEAC report sets forth three basic recommendations with 12 enabling actions including establishment of a 9-person advisory committee, now at work and charged by Church Council to ongoing implementation and accountability to the TEAC report.  The advisory committee reflects current institutional stakeholders, structures, and responsibilities.  The offices and programs that intersect with TEAC are called to play their parts.  The ELCA churchwide organization is moving on TEAC, along with the Conference of Bishops.

Embracing a Daunting Call to Reform

[10] Courage is the word for the capacity variously described as integrity and resolve in response to unwelcome experiences and conditions of life.  Courageous people and groups persist in fearsome situations that deter authentic and needed action.  Given the cultural forces currently bearing down and threatening the vitality of the ELCA (and other North American churches), the TEAC process deserves strong appreciation and support—precisely as a counter-cultural agenda for a public church.  The theological groundings of its ecclesial and social vision are sound and needful.  TEAC leaders understand the essential role of education for Christian faith and life and are investing the care and wisdom these matters deserve.  With TEAC, the churchwide organization exercises its power diligently, creatively, and hopefully effectively.  Theological education should now be on the agenda of every Church Council meeting.  Needed change should result because education matters for Lutherans. 

[11] Before we turn to concerns and questions from members of the ELCA Theological Roundtable, we need to imagine briefly where the ecclesial vision and norms of TEAC should take the ELCA.   Currently, enactment of TEAC is the responsibility of Church Council working through the advisory committee, churchwide organization, synods, seminaries, and other ministries.  However, this responsibility and accountability can and must be expected to change over time because the human and material resources of ELCA institutions alone cannot create the network TEAC envisions.  These resources are insufficient for current ministry commitments, which have been reduced over the last twenty-five years.  TEAC calls the ELCA to think big and new at a time when the capacity of current ministries to assume new responsibility is tapped out with no change in sight.

[12] Even if they could, current ELCA institutions should not assume sole or principal responsibility for a network of the whole people of God.  This would be a misguided start toward a new Lutheran movement.  TEAC calls for a church that must be reformed to become a vibrant and inclusive network in faith and learning.  By understanding network as a calling, TEAC de-centers ELCA institutions and positions education as a matter of responsibility for all.  Think of Luther’s purpose and audience for the Small Catechism.  Think now of theological education for the 21st century as the work of the priesthood of all believers—a gift and a task for 3.8 million people and all others who respond to Lutheran hospitality and witness.  Further, by understanding the network as a calling TEAC obligates current ELCA leaders to extend a serious and compelling invitation to all the baptized to participate in a new Christian education network for the whole people of God.  Hearing and accepting such a call will be crucial to building the capacity the ELCA needs.

[13] If current ELCA institutions cannot and should not do the whole work of network, what should they do?  TEAC has begun crucial activity that befits a denomination with strong capacities for communication, information sharing, and analysis.  Educational inventory or “asset-mapping” has begun as part of a network development and management role for the churchwide organization.  In time, existing educational programs will be evaluated to determine which should be taken to scale to serve more people.  While ELCA institutions such as seminaries, colleges and universities, continuing education centers and the like will continue to deliver Christian learning experiences, the main and essential work of the churchwide organization will be the fair brokering and facilitation of network development involving care and encouragement of human relations of connection, collaboration, creativity, and commitment.  Metaphors of “ecology” and “network” help the ELCA to think in properly relational and egalitarian terms about this new church.  The people-to-people and community-to-community activity at the scale envisioned by TEAC will be immense and exceedingly complex.  Again, the current churchwide organization cannot do it all.  Still, it needs in this moment to lead toward change through enabling and empowering people and communities of the ELCA to connect and interact in love and to ask the critical questions about their ministries, so that the networked church will also be a bridging church.

Getting Serious about Counter-cultural Witness

[14] As TEAC claims, the ELCA is rich in networks for education, even though it needs countless more.  Seven networks and the Conference of Bishops have formed a Theological Roundtable supported by the Office of the Presiding Bishop that illustrates precisely what TEAC seeks.  Member networks are: Asian Lutheran International Conference, Association of Teaching Theologians, Conference of Bishops, Conference of International Black Lutherans, Latino Scholars, Lutheran Alliance for Faith, Science and Technology, Lutheran Ethicists and Lutheran Women in Theological and Religious Studies.  These member networks share the commitment of TEAC to building an inclusive church for the diverse people of God.  In their work together, Roundtable members seek to affirm diversity in the theological witness of the church and to build relationships that model respect and mutuality for the ELCA.

[15] In a recent extended conversation about TEAC, the Roundtable expressed both appreciation and concern about the report and subsequent developments.  As leaders who are themselves in different ways counter-cultural activists within the ELCA and beyond, Roundtable members read TEAC from perspectives informed by the persisting difficulties of constructive change in the ELCA due to chronic absence of serious capable follow-through on many well-intentioned initiatives to advance inclusive excellence in the ELCA.  The results after twenty-five years are lamentable, and Roundtable members are committed to giving voice to the ways in which this church can do better.  While required to call out the church for its shortcomings, these voices also offer rich and realistic understandings of the challenges of creating and sustaining an inclusive network.  TEAC cannot be the latest failed attempt at an inclusive ELCA.

[16] Given the shortcomings of the past, Roundtable members want to caution TEAC leaders from assuming that a bold invitation to members to claim a call to network will quickly engage and serve the diverse priesthood of ELCA believers today.  Many people are ready to claim and cultivate their passions and gifts.  Still, network is corporate, a vast and varied community sustained by shared identity, purpose, and principle, which cannot be assumed today.  The call to network must be polyphonic and speak to the different experiences and needs of membership.  The work of reconciliation, inclusion, and justice that TEAC envisions for the future of theological education must be basic to the building of Christian learning for all.  Roundtable members want TEAC to be vigilant about reconciliation, inclusion, and justice.

[17] In time, the networked church will need to cultivate a polity to support and encourage a truly democratic institution where diverse voices are respected and people-to-people and community-to-community bridges are constantly under construction—because they hardly exist today.  Freedom to claim and cultivate one’s voice does not mean that members will be turned outward to the neighbor.  The call to network can be abused as permission to multiply closed societies.  How, then, will the ELCA mitigate individualism and segregation in a networked church?  How will members learn in ways that engender new understanding, empathy, and cooperation across difference?  For Roundtable members, the dominant polarizing voices of North American culture have a strong hold on the ELCA (and other churches).  We must be serious about change.

[18] As TEAC work unfolds, Roundtable members will note whether existing inequalities and privileges within the ELCA define the new network and keep minority and marginalized communities invisible, voiceless, and isolated.  Asset-mapping will help the church to see where communities are underserved and where growth needs to be encouraged and supported.  In principle, the network should create democratic space for disruptive, prophetic, and emancipatory discourse and learning.  But it may not for many reasons.  Here the responsibility of the churchwide organization, bishops, teaching theologians, and other leaders to be fair brokers and facilitators of dialogue in difference will be important.  As a white male who has served on a social statement task force on genetics, I have experienced the potential of ELCA representational principles to change the discourse and support inclusive excellence.  Diversity as gift could be the counter-cultural result of the turn to network.  This church can hope.

[19] A further way the ELCA can keep faith with diversity is through connections to the global church and the Lutheran communion.  Several networks of the Roundtable have an international membership and purpose that add to the scale and scope of what the TEAC network seeks.  For example, the work of gender justice is global. The global ministries of the ELCA and the Lutheran World Federation provide opportunities for learning that include cross-cultural perspective, moral recognition, and opportunity for engaged partnership.  The xenophobia and white racism potently visible and active in the United States cannot be addressed apart from global learning and solidarity, which must be fundamental to the networked church.  Lutherans can and should stand with other people of good will in affirming that “the core challenge of global interdependence is to engage in problem solving together, across differences of many kinds, to overcome daunting challenges—economic, environmental, political, and humanitarian—that confront the people of every society.”[8] The call to network is the call to learn and live in interdependent ways commensurate with the global reach of human being and doing.

Moral Deliberation Redux: A Personal Appreciation

[20] Since adoption of the foundational social statement, “The Church in Society: A Lutheran Perspective” in 1991, the ELCA has been a church seeking to fulfill a distinctive social teaching of community of moral deliberation.  This teaching has made a major contribution to the work and impact of the social thought and policy of the ELCA.  But the vision of community of moral deliberation articulated in the 1991 statement remains far from realized, for reasons similar to those that have engendered TEAC.  Still, the relevance of this teaching for the common good could not be more obvious today.  To date, the development of community of moral deliberation has been thought to be the responsibility of the churchwide organization and rostered leaders, despite what we know about the role of lay leaders in vital congressional life.  With the call to a learning network for all, the ELCA has new opportunity to realize what “The Church in Society” says community of moral deliberation can and should be:

[21] Through its congregations, synods, and churchwide organization, and affiliated institutions and ecumenical relationships, this church shall seek to:

·       be a community where open, passionate, and respectful deliberation on challenging

and controversial issues of contemporary society is expected and encouraged;

·       engage those of diverse perspectives, classes, genders, ages, races, and cultures

in the deliberation process so that each of our limited horizons might be expanded

and the witness of the body of Christ in the world enhanced;

·       draw upon the resources of faith and reason—on Scripture, Church history,

knowledge, and personal experience—to learn and to discern how to respond to

contemporary challenges in light of God’s Word;

·       address through deliberative processes the issues faced by the people of God, in

order to equip them in their discipleship and citizenship in the world;

·       arrive at positions to guide its corporate witness through participatory processes

of moral deliberation;

·       contribute toward the upbuilding of the common good and the revitalizing of

public life through open and inclusive processes of deliberation.[9]




Per Anderson is Associate Dean for Global Learning and Professor of Religion at Concordia College, Moorhead, Minnesota.



[1] Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, “A Social Statement: Our Calling in Education,” 2007, (accessed December 17, 2017), 1.


[2] Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Church Council, November 12-15, 2015, “Report and Recommendations from TEAC,” (accessed December 17, 2017) 1.  For a report of Church Council adoption of the TEAC report and recommendation, see “Report of Actions of the Church Council (April 7-10, 2016), (accessed December 17, 2017). 


[3] Ibid. Since April 2013, three different TEAC groups have been appointed and served.  The current 9-person group is named “Theological Education Advisory Committee.”  This essay assumes agreement among these three groups with the November 2015 report and recommendations of the first Theological Education Advisory Council.  The ELCA Church Council accepted the report and recommendations in April 2016 and took steps to create the ongoing 9-person committee along with other action steps.


[4] ELCA, “Report and Recommendations,” 1, 3.


[5] ELCA, “Report and Recommendations,” 3.


[6] ELCA, “Report and Recommendations,” 4.


[7] ELCA, “Report and Recommendations,” 3-4.


[8] The National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement, A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future (Washington: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2012), 69.


[9] Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, “A Social Statement: The Church in Society: A Lutheran Perspective,” 1991, (accessed December 17, 2017), 8.

Articles published in the journal reflect the perspectives and thoughts of their authors and not necessarily the theological, ethical, or social stances of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.​

© September/October 2018

Journal of Lutheran Ethics

Volume 18, Issue 5