The State of the ELCA: Review of Russ Crabtree’s book

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By Bishop Michael Rinehart

The State of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America: An Organizational Intelligence Perspective, by Russell Crabtree, has about 97 pages. It was probably finished in 2016, based on a few of the examples, though there is no date in the book that I could find.

The State of the ELCABishop Wayne Miller of the Metropolitan Chicago Synod says the book is a “must read for congregational leaders, synod staffs, and synod councils.” Bishop James Hazelwood of the New England Synod, who spoke at one of our leadership events a few years ago says, “Russ Crabtree… provides a clear evidence-based approach to assessing where we are as a church.”

There is a lot of data in this book, not attendance, membership or giving, information readily available elsewhere, but data gathered from 288 ELCA congregations of every size, 57,000 members in five synods. The information reports the experiences of members, as reported by the members themselves.

Crabtree gives us an example from another discipline. Yoga, in practice, has around $27 billion in revenue. There are 20 million practitioners, 91% of whom say they are satisfied with the experience of their current yoga studio. 91% satisfaction rate. What would members of ELCA congregations say?

The book has nine chapters. His conclusion is thoughtfully titled, “What does this mean?”

  1. Vitality of ELCA congregations
  2. Beliefs and spiritual practices of ELCA members
  3. Aspirations
  4. Pastoral transitions
  5. Financial giving
  6. Synods
  7. From data to discernment
  8. Interview of pastors from large and small transformational ELCA churches
  9. Interview of pastors from more conservative and more progressive transformational ELCA churches

Congregational satisfaction, contrary to popular thought, does not mean pandering to the members. Inwardly-focused congregations tend to have lower membership satisfaction rates, while outwardly-focused congregational have higher member satisfaction rates. This makes sense if you believe the gospel. Joy is found when we give ourselves away.


Crabtree discovered that Lutheran congregations fare some what better than a number of other denominations in satisfaction. They have higher satisfaction and less polarization than, say, Presbyterians (PCUSA), Episcopalians, and Methodists. The numbers, however, are not great. 33 percent of Lutheran members generally agree that folks are “going through the motions” in their congregation. Only 58% of white ELCA members are satisfied with their congregation, as compare to 70% in Latino ELCA congregations and 67% in African American ELCA congregations. Crabtree reflects with curiosity, that white males, arguably the most prosperous and privileged demographic group in the United States, are among the least satisfied. The least satisfied group of all is Lutheran households that make more than $300,000 a year. His conclusion about overall satisfaction: If you believe increasing attracting people with resources and power is a pathway to congregational vitality, you would be mistaken.

80% agree that the church exhibits and atmosphere of genuine care for members, however only 43% agree that the church adapts to meet the needs of those it wants to reach. Lutherans perceive their church to be more internally then extremely-focused.

There are some Lutheran congregations that have much higher satisfaction and energy levels than the average congregation, only about 10% of ELCA congregations. Crabtree calls these transformational congregations. The last two chapters have stories from interviews of these congregations, large and small, conservative and liberal.

Some church leaders may believe that simply having worship on Sunday is fulfilling the mission, but a high percentage of ELCA members wouldn’t agree. 57 percent of ELCA Lutherans agreed that the church is effective in fulfilling its mission.

Crabtree gives a sobering look at the church, but he also offers some pathways to a hopeful future indicated by the work he has done with congregations over the years.

When asked to prioritize the list of 17 goals across all groups and sizes of the church the top five areas where ELCA members want to invest additional energy are:

  1. Reaching new people
  2. Attracting families
  3. Healing the broken
  4. Developing financial generosity
  5. Equipping people for ministry in the world

Pastoral Transitions

Nothing gets the congregation fired up more than the call process. Crabtree regularly surveys congregations on their most recent pastoral transition. Sometimes denominational executives and interim pastors focus on the grieving process in congregations when a pastor leaves. While there are some who are grieving, only 16% of those who responded said uncomfortably so. Grief ministry is appropriate, but should not be a dominant theme in most congregations.

Like congregations in general, there is also some good news in pastoral transitions. 31% indicate a willingness to become more available to serve during a pastoral transition. Because participation breeds commitment, smart congregations will find 30 tasks for every 100 adults who attend worship during a transition: prayer teams, focus groups, going away parties, call committees, transition teams, listening, welcome… Rather than decline, some congregations find a pastoral transition is a good time for a shot in the arm.

Only 3% say they plan to give less during a pastoral transition. 13%, a significant group, indicate they are willing to give more to support a transition. If a congregation of 200 households in a community with an average income of $100K has 30 families willing to step up 1%, that $30K more for interim costs, interview costs, relocation costs.

During interims some people get off the bus and some will get on the bus. But only 7% say they intend to explore other churches. 1/5 are on the fence. How many actually leave will depend on what happens during the transition. Here the author offers a warning: If anxiety is high and not addressed by congregational leaders, more may leave. Only 50% of members feel their congregation’s leaders are doing an effective job of communicating. There is an opportunity here for us to up our game.

When asked, during a pastoral transition, if they feel the congregation is stronger, weaker or about the same as just before the pastor’s departure, one third say stronger, one third say weaker, and one third say about the same, an even split. If they believe the congregation is stronger, they will try to drag out the interim, believing the call process is moving too quickly. If they believe they are weaker, they will complain that the call process is not quick enough.


50% of ELCA Lutherans favor an annual appeal. 7% do not. 43% on the fence. When doing an annual appeal, leaders will simply have to spend a significant amount of time winning over the middle. But here is some good news: Even those dissatisfied with their church support doing a campaign.

When asked which of these five most influences their giving decisions, ELCA members prioritized them like this:

  1. Personal faith and call to be generous.
  2. Effectiveness of ministry in making a difference.
  3. How well the church manages finances.
  4. The state of the economy.
  5. Reaching out to the needs of the world.

It’s important to manage finances well, but this is not the reason give. Older members give out of duty, personal faith, a call to be generous. Younger members give if they feel their congregation is making a difference.

Different people give for different reasons. It’s important to listen to your congregation, perhaps survey them. Find out why they give. The way you approach giving can be adapted to the motives of your people. Be creative. Be generation-specific. Develop messaging that addresses various giving motives.

The Synod

The average person in the pew knows little about the synod or the churchwide organization. What the congregation knows or feels is often based on what the pastor and key lay leaders say and do. Only 41% of clergy are satisfied with their synod. 48% believe the synod is going thru the motions. With lay leaders the numbers can be lower. And as time passes, the numbers go down. Leaders who are very aware of the synod plateau at 48% satisfaction. After 6-10 years that satisfaction drops to 39%.

It is difficult for any entity to be sustainable in the long run if more than half of the persons who make decisions about funding that entity are dissatisfied or on the fence about how it is doing.

Our synod took Russ Crabtree’s survey in 2011 and in 2016. Congregational leaders evaluated the work of the synod. A survey was sent to every congregational council member that would give us their email address. In both years the sample was sufficient, though in 2016 the sample was smaller (233) than 2011 (385). In 2011, overall satisfaction was low. In 2016, after our first strategic plan, reorganization and creation of LEAD, Crabtree’s organization said satisfaction was high. We were told they had never seen a score this high from any judicatory. Here was the question:

On the whole, I am satisfied with how things are in our Synod.

2011    2016

Clearly agree              38%     52%

On the fence               53%     42%

Clearly disagree          8%       5%


More satisfied. Less dissatisfied. Less on the fence. In another question, in 2011 38% felt we were just going through the motions. In the 2016 survey that number dropped to 13%.

While we celebrate this, the survey still shows room for significant improvement. We are a long way from yoga’s 91% satisfaction rate. Our goal is to be network of Christ-centered, outwardly-focused congregations passing the faith to the next generation. How do we get there?

When asked what they wanted from their synod, congregational leaders listed these five things out of a list of 16:

  1. Equip pastors/leaders to reach new members.
  2. Equip pastors/leaders to develop disciples.
  3. Work with churches that are struggling.
  4. Rethink how to be vital Lutheran churches.
  5. Equip congregations to address community problems.

Leaders do not want the synod to:

  1. Streamline the synod organizationally and administratively so that it makes use of its financial resources. This came in DEAD LAST.
  2. Provide leaders with interpretive resources that will build more support among members for the work of the synod. This came in next to last.

Synods must not only change how they communicate; the must change what they do. Better marketing of a synod won’t change this much. The only path toward vitality for synods is to direct energy into helping congregations grow into vital entities. This is one of the reasons we created LEAD. After receiving a bad report card in 2011, we recognized we were not resourcing congregations as we would like. We were too distracted by congregational conflict, hurricanes, and other matters. We felt the only way forward was to create a separate organization that did not have to deal with maintenance, an organization that could spend 100% of its time focused on leadership development and congregational vitality. We now have that entity and are deeply grateful to Peggy Hahn and her team for their work in this church.

Our new strategic plan focuses on four things we heard congregations asking for:

Deepening Faith By Mindy RollDeeping Faith: We will help congregations and their members deepen faith. We heard you, loud and clear. We’re off and running. Please consider putting together some small groups to work through a new curriculum we created, authored by Pastor Mindy Roll, creatively entitled. Deepening Faith. This small group gathering will invite people to reflect upon their lives and their faith together. Each person will need a participant guide, and the group leader will need the leader guide. Deepening Faith Leader GuideThis lines up with Crabtree’s data that shows ELCA congregational leaders want the synod to help them develop disciples. Our synod assembly this year, Faith5, will focus on thing we can do to teach the faith in the home as well.

Hospitality: We heard from congregational leaders a desire to get better at hospitality, from welcoming newcomers, to a deeper hospitality in the community. We all know we need to work on this. Chris Markert has assembled a team that is working on this. They are about to launch a congregational self-assessment on hospitality. This lines up with Crabtree’s data that shows ELCA congregational leaders want the synod to help them reach new members.

Leadership: We heard positive feedback for LEAD, and were told to keep that focus on leadership alive. A community will usually not grow any more than the leader is growing. With the context changing underneath our feet, we need to continue to learn adaptive leadership. We are going to continue to pour energy into coaching, digital resources, and feeding a pipeline for future leadership.

Structure: Our organizational structures, governance and constitutions were built for a former era. Some of them are still useful, some are no longer helpful. A committee-reports-to-the-whole council of four officers (president, VP, secretary, treasurer) and eight standing committee chairs (building, education, fellowship, stewardship…) is no longer the most helpful governance in many contexts. A one-size-fits-all approach will not do. How do we organize to be a lean, purpose-drive congregations that maximize people in ministry, rather than bury them in committees and administration? Are our structures serving us or are we serving our structures?

We hope this focused work will help us respond creatively to the challenges Crabtree to painstakingly lays out for us. This book is a good read for congregational and denominational leaders in the ELCA. I’m deeply grateful to Russ, Robin and others for their work in our synod, and in the whole church.