Questions of Purpose, Focus, Consistency, and Strength

[1] The invitation to prepare written thoughts on Our Calling in Education forced me to give it more careful consideration, and to learn about the adoption of church social statements in general. In seeking to articulate my disappointments with the education draft after my prior reading, I’ve learned more about the purpose of Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) social statements. I hope my comments contribute to a strengthened statement upon final adoption.

[2] The church’s description of social statements includes the following:

Social statements are theological documents.

Social statements are teaching documents.

Social statements involve this church in the ongoing task of theological ethics.

Social statements result from an extensive, inclusive, and accepted process of deliberation throughout this church.

Social statements guide the institutional life of this church.

Social statements, intended to be used widely in the life and mission of this church, reflect awareness of the various audiences and ministries which they are to serve.

[3] The proposed statement seems to meet these aspects in varying degrees. As a theological document it effectively uses the Apostles’ Creed as an organizing device. As a teaching document I believe its overall organization and internal consistency need review in order to be effective. Guidelines three and four seem met by the extensive steps taken to develop the document. For the statement to be a guide for the life of this church (#5) more specific recommendations for action seem needed. Many of the church’s ministries are identified in the document (#6), but others with an educational purpose are not evident.

[4] In my opinion, the document could be strengthened with a tighter focus on the purpose of a social statement, with explicit use of Luther’s two kingdom’s perspective, and with more internal consistency.

[5] The document reminds me in some ways of an elephant. An elephant looks awkward and it is hard to understand how it fits together into a being whose parts all work well together. Observers have suggested elephants are put together by a committee. The same could be said about Our Calling in Education. It contains several parts that don’t always seem to fit together. Perhaps this comes from its broad instructions and attempts to satisfy the needs of several constituencies. Several parts seem inconsistent with others and don’t always forcefully meet the purposes of a social statement.

[6] Before being too critical of the work of the task force responsible for the statement, one needs to look at the genesis of the task force and the charge given them by the ELCA Division for Church in Society (DCS), now the Program Unit for Church in Society (CS). Formal impetus for the study began with the 2001 Churchwide Assembly of the ELCA. Expectations about education from that body were diverse, including desires to make a statement of support for American public education, establishing guidelines for voucher plans being proposed to finance education in America, increasing support for campus ministry activities of the church, and encouraging support for church schools and the preparation of educators for those programs. The issuance of guidelines for the study was assigned to CS, and its guidelines began with a request for a Lutheran vision of education for our time, a very appropriate objective. Three additional guidelines moved from a theological focus to the identification of areas of application: specific educational issues of our country, the church’s educational institutions, and public education in the United States.

[7] Unfortunately, the outline suggested by the table of contents of the draft does not make these guidelines completely clear and begs for explicit, cohesive unity among the several topics.

[8] The diversity of expectations for the statement may be viewed from Luther’s two kingdoms perspective. Many educational concerns are a part of the temporal, civil kingdom of this world. Concern for an educated, literate populous is a necessary foundation for a democracy. The welfare and equality of our society assumes access to education for all citizens, and maximum development of the talents of all participants. In the United States an effective public school system at the K-12 and higher education levels has been the major vehicle for providing a quality education for all. It should be noted that prior to the development of our system of public education, church schools were the initial institution used by early Americans to provide education to its young people. The church has long been interested in education for the good of society.

[9] In Luther’s kingdom of grace we are interested in effective education for purposes of faith development for the furtherance of the gospel message. Here the church is the responsible and interested party, not the civil government. If the church isn’t active in this arena, no other agency will be. This makes evident the need for the church’s statement on education to be forceful with its plans and purposes for Christian education. My disappointment at the lack of emphatic support for church schools at all levels of education arises here. From my perspective, persistent, consistent church-wide support and endorsement for its schools, including preparing teachers and administrators, curricula, and parent support is a major deficiency in the document. Congregations with effective early childhood programs and elementary schools are leaders in evangelism, in fostering vocation and a sense of calling in their youth, and in achieving the ELCA goals of inclusivity. The social statement can do more to support such efforts. Just as two kingdoms exist side by side, so can the church’s efforts to support public and church-related education stand in a complementary way.

[10] A brief history adds to the blur of understanding and purpose for the social statement on education. Many colleges of the church were primarily founded to prepare people for ministry. Today, the church college I know best says it “encourages critical inquiry into matters of both faith and reason …to educate leaders for a global society who are strong in character and judgment, confident in their identity and vocation, and committed to service and justice.” That sounds like a concern for the kingdom of this world, not merely the preparation of clergy. The church supports such goals when it supports its schools, and should do so actively and proudly.

[11] The preface to the draft statement provides a list of nine helpful questions regarding education. They are directed to individuals, the church [it’s not clear if that is at the congregational, synodical, or national level, or all three], and society as a whole.

[12] The document then lists four contexts for the work of the church in education, resulting in a confusing division of overlapping topics. Either a distinction between church and public education, as the two kingdoms; or an age level breakdown between collegiate education and younger schooling would be possible, but the mixed combination of both at this point in the document is problematic.

[13]Although attempting to be comprehensive, the document omits several educational agencies. Statements about community colleges, technical schools, distance learning, outdoor and experiential learning and home schooling are omitted or receive no recommendations. Adjunct agencies of the church, as the Evangelical Lutheran Education Association, Lutheran Student Movement, Lutheran Outdoor Ministries, and the like are omitted. An acknowledgement of intergenerational and parent education, Head Start and infant and toddler programs, and education via the Internet would bring more current topics to the document. A concern for education for everyone on our planet would also seem appropriate as an act of social consciousness. A forty-page limit for the final document is offered as a reason for some of the choices made in the preparation of the draft.

[14] Inconsistencies appear: Encouraging public funding for public and private higher education; but not for both public and private pre-school, elementary, and secondary education is a long-standing contradiction when Lutherans discuss support for education. Is there any theological reasons for supporting one level of education, but not another?

[15] One approach that may assist the task force is to shift from an endorsement of specific educational institutions to a focus on individual students that are to be educated. Principles of equity and quality are important for all students, no matter where they receive their education. My suggestion is to focus on the education of individuals and groups, rather than on the qualities of specific institutions. Look at principles and values, not specific procedures. A social statement needs to set guidelines for action based on theological and social principles, not on untried political fads such as the current accountability thrust in education. Endorsement of long-held educational practices needs review. Public education has done much for the development of the United States, yet it mirrors the ills of our society. A link to other social statements addressing social inequities is needed in this document. Discriminatory housing practices and economic inequities can not be resolved by education without a massive shift in public policy and values.

[16] Perhaps recognition of regional differences in church education in the United States may also be helpful to bridge alternative approaches. Elementary schools sponsored by congregations are more common on the two coasts and in a few larger cities. Early childhood programs are more common in the Upper Midwest and other areas of the country. All can meet standards of quality, inclusivity, and outreach with national support without having to be accepted as national norms.

[17] One example in the document of ‘soft’ verbs rather than strong recommendations is found in the paragraph beginning on P. 16; L. 23. It includes the words “some parents may consider sending their children to a Lutheran or other Christian school….Others… may consider home schooling……Pastors and other rostered leaders can help parents think through these possibilities, and congregations can support them if they choose these options.” [Emphasis mine]. What guidelines are offered for pastors and leaders to use when helping people think through these possibilities? What endorsement of church agencies is found in this section? Do we seek the support of education for all people, or for certain types of education?

[18] The draft concludes with 15 implementing resolutions; apparently for adoption by the church council and 2007 assembly. Some are as acceptable as apple pie and motherhood. Some reflect issues of delicate wording regarding support for public and church related schools at specific levels of schooling. In number nine, ‘affirming’ church schools and encouraging ‘partnership’ with them says nothing about developing more of them, of consideration of alternative funding sources for them, or the church taking responsibility for preparing faculty for them. Such steps would bring meaning to ‘affirm’ them. Many other resolutions also could be strengthened with verbs of greater specificity and action.

[19] The breadth of expectations and the process of development for this social statement make the outcome problematic. After the current hearings and time for input on the first draft, which expires October 15, 2006, the task force will reassemble later that month. They will forward a revised draft to other authorities of the church, culminating in the Church Council. Finally, a two-thirds majority of the 2007 church assembly in Chicago is required to adopt the statement as recommended by the Council.

[20] A super-majority is required to become a statement of the church. Two-thirds of the votes are also required for revisions or cancellation of previous social statements. The proportion of votes needed for approval reveals the importance, respect, and value of such a document. Therefore, the crafters of the document need to be aware not only of the theological basis of a statement, but of the political realities that it will face in its adoption. It must satisfy a wide audience in order to be adopted. These pressures foster a statement that is appealing to all, and not offensive, and so not very forceful in its recommendations. The remaining months of the development process for this social statement provide time to address these concerns and to provide the church with a powerful, growth-producing document. Clarity, strong commitment to both church and public education, targeted purpose, input, deliberation, and prayer are in order. The 2007 assembly provides an opportunity for Lutherans to return to their educational heritage in an emphatic way.