A Lutheran Bishop’s Reflections on the Church’s Public Work of Advocacy

Racing up and down Capitol Hill

[1] As the bishop of the Metropolitan Washington, D.C., Synod of the ELCA I have had many opportunities to participate in the public advocacy ministry of the Lutheran community. Less accomplished than others in the theory of this advocacy, I am very familiar with its practice. I have raced up and down over Capitol Hill keeping appointments in Congressional offices. I have stood awkwardly at receptions and listened to people, generally much younger than I, who run our country behind the scenes. I have signed onto letters and written letters myself and I have made phone calls and sent emails. I have been an advocate for our churches and for positions our churches claim are important. I have done all this because I believe that our churches have an important role to play in advocacy, specifically in reminding “the powers that be” at every public level of the broad responsibility they have to care for the poor. Even allowing for pitfalls inherent in our public work, the advocacy ministry of our Lutheran denominations and institutions is important and deserves the widest support.

Pitfalls to be avoided in the church’s work of public advocacy

[2] Perhaps it would be best to address these pitfalls at the beginning. First, it seems to me that formal public advocacy by our churches cannot be a substitute for wise, widespread engagement by our members. It would be wrong for anyone to think that when bishops and advocates visit in the offices of elected officials, and write letters, and make phone calls, they do this so that other people don’t have to. Bishops and called advocates often have a natural entrée to elected officials. Some bishops have had the time and opportunity to develop deep relationships with these officials. But everyone has a role to play. Contrary to much of what we hear in this election season, our government is responsive to the concerns of people who make the time and take the trouble to get in touch. Public advocacy is most effective to the extent that it is supported by church member citizens who are also informed about issues and who make their opinions known to those who represent them.

[3] Then, too, it is problematic when our church bodies or our institutions advocate for positions which are not widely supported or understood in our congregations. Elected officials are typically well informed about what their constituents are thinking. Arguing that “the Lutherans” support such-and-such a position just because our documents say so is never particularly effective. And this means that the work of our advocates must also go on at the grassroots level, informing and teaching and working toward broad agreements among people for whom they can later speak with confidence and integrity.

Reasons why the church does need to engage in public advocacy

[4] We do need to designate full-time ​advocates to speak. However we also need the members in our churches to speak in Washington, and in state capitals and in city council chambers. There are at least two powerful reasons why this is so.

[5] In the first place, our Lutheran community has the practical experience of dealing with those whom governments always tend to overlook. Our daily ministries touch the lives of the very young and the very old, the poor and homeless and the left-out. Our institutional ministries care for the immigrants and the refugees, and for the poorest of the poor all over the world. When we ask elected officials to consider carefully the ways their work touches these needy ones, we are talking about issues we understand. We know the people involved. We have often walked with them and spoken to them. And we can say honestly that we ourselves have worked and sacrificed on behalf of the ones for whom we speak.

[6] It is a truism, but perhaps worth repeating here, that no one really wants to hear about or support work which has cost us little. To the extent that the Lutheran community sacrifices on behalf of, say, Central American immigrant children or Syrian Refugees, to that same extent we gain a hearing for these children among the powerful. Elected officials to whom I have spoken, and the members of their staffs to whom I have been more likely to speak, always come around to asking what my church itself has done to protect the ones for whose care I’m concerned. Some of their asking may simply grow out of a certain kind of political calculation (“How much did you all buy in before you asked for me to buy in?”). But I believe there is also at stake here the notion that because we present ourselves as people of faith, we will always come with evidence that we have put ourselves on the line for what we believe is important.

[7] And we speak, as we do, carefully and thoughtfully, but with passion, too, because there are so many other voices being raised in the corridors of power. This is the second reason for our engagement. One of the most fascinating features of making advocacy visits on Capitol Hill or in my state capital is seeing all the other groups and individuals making visits at the same time. Hurrying around in the Senate office buildings one busy afternoon during an advocacy day, I found myself twice in different waiting rooms with the same group of men and women speaking on behalf of farmers who grow sugar beets. The people who hold office in our country are subjected to so many appeals and are asked to support so many good ideas and pieces of legislation. Our advocacy visit or contact is often the only reminder in someone’s day that the weakest also deserve their attention and their action.

[8] It is easy enough for any one of us to forget the weakest people in our country and in our world. Even the best-hearted people, like most us and most of the people I have met doing advocacy work, live in a kind of bubble. There is just so much political and cultural noise around us all. Our advocacy ministry works best when we are careful, well-informed voices of reminding. “There are lots of people out there,” we say, “who expect something good from our public servants. Can we suggest what might be helpful?” And then we bear our witness. And when someone speaks on behalf of all of us, or of many of us, the speaking does resonate with people who are used to hearing a lot of talk.

The Distinctiveness of Lutheran Advocacy

[9] Of course, as we are not the only people speaking to our elected officials, so we are not the only ones advocating for the people and for the causes which are important to us. But I believe that we do our ministry of public advocacy as Lutherans with a style that is distinctive and valuable. First of all, I believe that we do our advocacy work with a certain humility that is rare in the push and pull of public life today. “Why should I teach a tailor how to make a suit?” Luther is reputed to have said. “He knows it himself. The same is true of the Prince. I shall only tell him that he should act like a Christian.” We rarely advocate in front of princes these days, and we are very careful making assumptions about the religious faith of the people we speak to. But we retain the sense, even when we are informing people about our concerns, that they have their own knowledge and their own calling from God, who ordains civil government to protect us all. We present ourselves as faithful people sharing information and asking for help. We are not on hand to tell other people how to do their (very difficult and demanding) jobs.

[10] Often the best part of any advocacy visit comes when there is time to ask the elected official or the staff member, “What do you know that people like us need to do to do our work better?” First of all, the question comes as a surprise to people who are mostly subjected to short declarative sentences. But often, too, the people we ask haven’t reflected lately on anything other than the issues flying one after another across their faces. Asking the people who run our government about what they could teach us puts us into a dialogue that is often mutually beneficial and always certainly more humane than the usual rhetoric.

[11] Finally, we engage in advocacy as Lutherans out of a desire to support the people who are responsible for the conduct of our government. When we offer this support as part of an advocacy visit or call, when we say to someone “You know, our churches pray for people in public office,” we are being faithful to the scripture and to the best part of our heritage.

Caring for the Decision Makers

[12] A few years ago I made a Capitol Hill visit with Bishop James Mauney of the ELCA’s Virginia Synod. We briefed a young woman, senior staff member to a senator, about our church’s concern for women and children living in poverty. We were asking the senator to support a particular bill which, it turned out, never came to the floor for a vote. But toward the end of our time, we asked the woman, “How are you? What’s it like doing what you do?” And she burst into tears. “This is so hard,” she said. “The atmosphere is so poisonous with some people. It’s so hard to accomplish even the simplest thing.” Thousands of people, lots of whom live in my synod, work as that woman works and carry burdens for all of us. Attending to them, speaking to them with respect, and praying for them is part of what we are called to do and part of the ministry that all blessed to be able to share.

[13] The advocacy ministry of our churches grows out of our desire to offer a prophetic voice in the cacophony of our society. We want to speak truth to power. But more than this, our advocacy ministry grows out of our desire to involve ourselves faithfully in our common life and to do this effectively in partnership with one another and with others who value what we value. Patiently, carefully we speak and listen. And together we make a difference for those we serve.


Here is some helpful material you can find on ELCA.org

The ELCA Advocacy homepage: http://elca.org/Our-Work/Publicly-Engaged-Church/Advocacy​

ELCA Social Statements:

“The Church in Society” (1991)

“Economic Life” (1999)

“Health and Healthcare​” (2003)

An Lutheran Church Missouri Synod Perspective:

“Church and State: An LCMS Perspective with Special Reference to Immigration​” (2013)

Additional reading material:

Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932)

Paul Hinlicky, Luther and the Beloved Community (2010), especially the chapter “Passion and Action in Christ: Political Theology between the Times”​

Richard Graham

Richard Graham serves as bishop of the Metropolitan Washington D.C. Synod of the ELCA.