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ELCA-SD Synod Considers Repealing Term Limit on Bishop

Lutherans have assembled in Sioux Falls today and tomorrow to debate term limits. No, really!

Many Lutheran congregants and pastors (including one of particular significance to me) are attending the South Dakota ELCA 2018 Synod Assembly at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church (down by Augie!) in Sioux Falls. Among the items on the Assembly agenda are two versions of a resolution calling for a repeal of the South Dakota Synod’s term limits on the office of bishop. Currently, Synod Bylaw S8.51.10 says a bishop cannot serve more than two consecutive terms. Resolutions 5a and 5b would strike that bylaw, allowing bishops to serve for as many six-year terms as the Synod Assembly may see fit to elect them for.

The whereases make a fair Lutheran case against term limits, citing Ephesians:

It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ [Ephesians 4:11–13].

God does not appear to set a time limit on those he gives to serve. God has also given his people discernment:

WHEREAS for the sake of the mission of the church, congregations trust its people to discern the work of the Holy Spirit in calling all servants, including pastors and deacons, into ministry without regard to term; and

WHEREAS the office of bishop is a calling from the Holy Spirit, discerned both by a candidate and the synod meeting in assembly; and

WHEREAS the Constitution of this Synod provides for the appointment of a Synod Study Committee and Bishop Election Committee to provide opportunities for discernment of call for the office of bishop, lift up the needs of the synod, and names of ministers of word and sacrament with gifts for the office of bishop – regardless of whether a bishop is eligible for reelection… [ELCA South Dakota Synod, Resolution 5a, 2018 Assembly].

The ELCA trusts church members to decide as a body how long a pastor should stay at a given church; it seems only logical to trust those same members to decide how long a bishop should serve, without regard to some arbitrary time limit. Some bishops may prove to be turkeys who need to be plucked after six years; others may do a bang-up job for six, twelve, eighteen years.

Apparently the South Dakota Synod is an exception to the rule: most ELCA synods do not have term limits on their bishops. The resolutions acknowledge that South Dakota’s term limits run counter to the ELCA’s Model Constitution for Synods, which specify no term limits. Nonetheless, the resolutions before the Assembly repeal only the bishop’s term limit; they leave in place Synod Bylaws S8.51.11–13, which limit the Synod Council Vice President and Secretary to two consecutive four-year terms and the Treasurer to three consecutive four-year terms. The resolutions recognize Synod Council discussions from the past year identifying “the distinct nature of the sense of call for the office of bishop apart from the other elected offices of the synod….”

Resolutions 5a and 5b differ in one key regard: 5a repeals the bishop’s term limit now, while 5b would strike the term limit on June 15, 2019. That matters because the Synod will elect its next bishop next year at the beginning of June, before 5b would take effect. Current Bishop David Zellmer is nearing the end of his second term. Pass 5a, and he could run for reëlection. Pass 5b, and he cannot.

I’m not a Lutheran, but I’m happy to apply the thinking of this resolution to my general political philosophy. Christianity and democracy overlap (particularly well, it seems, in Lutheran churches) in their respect for human intelligence and dignity. Term limits show a lack of confidence in our own intelligence and dignity. Instead of relying on arbitrary time limits to exclude experienced candidates from public office, we should rely on our own good sense to decide at every election who can lead us best.


  1. El Rayo X 2018-06-01 16:32

    So when does the negative campaigning begin in Lutheran elections?

  2. Steve Hickey 2018-06-01 16:43

    That text says apostles and prophets are still vital today. I agree. Sibby will jump on shortly and share things he learned at the University of Googling.

    And yes, term limits aren’t Biblical. But then neither is voting for church leaders.

  3. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2018-06-01 17:57

    If they repeal the term limit and Bishop Zellmer runs again, there will be no negative campaigning—have you seen the size of the staff he carries around? :-D

  4. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2018-06-01 17:58

    Steve, flesh that out. Does voting for church leaders run counter to Scripture, or is it just not addressed?

  5. Steve Hickey 2018-06-01 20:34

    They cast lots on various occasions trusting Providence to decide for them.but they didn’t vote. The way of the majority would be the wide road, with many on it, that leads to destruction. Imagine Moses a taking a vote about crossing the sea. The weary Hebrews wanted to go back to their slavery in Egypt. Leaders rose in the early church through their gifting and they were appointed and commissioned by a few who were of elder status in a fellowship.

    We’ve let democracy creep into the church.

  6. David Newquist 2018-06-01 22:03

    We’ve let democracy creep into the church? Wasn’t that called The Reformation?

  7. Debbo 2018-06-01 22:37

    Oh no. No, no, no SD Synod. Don’t pass 5a. Don’t do it. Don’t, don’t, don’t. It’s not a coincidence that it’s come up now, while Dave is bishop. Ole Dave loves him some power, loves him lots and lots of power. This is a really bad, bad, bad idea.

    Augustana College and the SD clergy roster are full of people who could affirm this, but few, if any will. Dave has power over them and he enjoys using it. He’s already come after me so I have nothing to lose, hence my speaking up.

    Nope, SD, don’t do this to your churches. You will so deeply regret it. 5b is fine. But you’ve have more than enough of Dave. Think of all the ELCA professionals who’ve left SD. Now is a good time to reverse that trend. Dave would like to be your pope for life. Don’t let that happen.

  8. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2018-06-02 07:34

    A source tells me the Assembly rejected the resolutions and kept the term limit.

    Casting lots—interesting. How far should we let that Biblical example guide decisions today? Should voters flip a coin on Marty vs. Kristi? Should legislators flip a coin when they vote on bills? Should the President roll dice to decide the size of his tariffs on steel from our Allies? Should churches choose their councils by drawing straws? Should congregations skip the call process and just draw their next pastor’s name from a hat?

  9. Steve Hickey 2018-06-02 09:52

    3 basic forms of church Govt and all have Biblical support. Not true one is more Biblical than the other. I have an affinity for a hybrid form of all three.

    1. Episkopas – top down hierarchy . Black smoke out the chimney when a select view sort out God’s leading and pick the top dog. Of course Orthodox and Catholic have this form but also Methodist, Episcopal, Anglican, Salvation Army, various others. Priest appointed to parishes and move when the Bishop says time to go.

    2. Presbyteros- appointed presbytery of elders sort it all out. Presbyterian, Reformed, etc

    3. Congregational. My least favourite . People vote. Leadership by lowest common denominator. God must want what we can all agree on. Baptist Lutheran Congrational Church

    I’m being snide. I prefer a model based of the strengths of all three minus the main weaknesses inherent to each form. Prayer, prophetic revelation, inner peace and knowing, confirmation from others, etc play big roles in discerning God’s leading in the local church. There are healthy and unhealthy (even toxic and evil) examples from each form of government. The common denominator there is each form involves human beings.

    I’d vote this down if I were a Lutheran.

  10. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2018-06-02 10:11

    Involving human beings is problematic in any form. It strikes me that open democratic selection should be the best check on our worst tendencies, since the decisions are made in the open, by everyone, giving more chances for people whose consciences are working at full strength to catch and stop any monkeyshines.

    Term limits assume we are going to screw up and never make the right decision after someone has been in power for an arbitrary amount of time. I guess the question would be which outcome produces more harm: a majority keeping a weak leader for an additional term, or a term limit forcing out a good leader and leading to replacement by a less qualified leader?

  11. Ben Cerwinske 2018-06-02 11:43

    But if we assume we’re so great at making decisions, why would a weak leader replace the existing one? While it can be uncomfortable to lose someone we’re comfortable with, not having term limits can suggest there is only one individual standing between us and catastrophe. Having term limits sends the message that there are many qualified people and we don’t need to rely on a king-like figure.

  12. Roger Elgersma 2018-06-02 12:04

    The first example of a church leader in the Bible was Melchizedek, who was a prophet priest and king who Abraham went to when he wanted guidance from God. Normally Abraham got direct guidance so did not need a priest. No documentation of what made Melchizedek a prophet, but prophesy can only be faked about so long. That is a spiritual gift that becomes evident over time.
    The first organized method of appointing priests was when Aaron and all his male decendents were automatically priests. That made no sense to me because one is not automatically spiritual because daddy was. But I am not God so maybe I just do not know the reason. Eli’s sons fornicating with women in the temple was an example of no limit on amount of problems that can come from automatically having a position. Now I recently heard of a top official in Rome say that when a priest has sex with a child the child has a spiritual experience. NO, they have a sexual experience. The assumption that their is any method of choosing only good people, when the Bible says that all have sinned and all have fallen short of the glory of God, is not reasonable. So a method of choosing a church leader also has to have a method of removal of that church leader. Constantly covering up the mistakes of church leaders leads to the problem the Catholics have come upon with the clergy not fixing their own problems. When using God’s name as one’s source of power, leads to God looking bad when the person makes mistakes. That situation can lead many away from God and that is not the goal of the church. King Saul started our prophesying and ended up with demons in him. God had the prophet appoint another king next. God had Philistines kill Eli’s sons in battle. Can God fix a problem, only when we do not fix it ourselves. When we do not fix our own problems we have to suffer with them longer.
    Before John Paul II was pope, he accomplished many things in Poland which could easily be said could only have happened if God was with him because the political situation just would not otherwise have allowed it. Later in his life he covered up problems of the priests. Maybe we should only trust God and not even totally trust the church. It is also not very nice to not trust a very sincere excellent person who has a leadership position. The most can get accomplished is when there is both excellent leaders and unity in purpose of the whole group. So to automatically not trust leaders is not beneficial either.
    I grew up Reformed and when we saw in the Reformation that the top down method resulted in many problems, we tried something else. That does not mean that something else is always best. My family tree book of seventeen generations came from church records and the first generation was the same age as Martin Luther. Not documented why, but it could be that our family joined the church when they saw that the problems could be solved. Which means that there needs both to be a method to put someone in an office and a method to take them out. Allowing someone to be at the top by themself too long allows that person to chose all the people under them which makes it much harder to remove them. The top spot should be someone with an amount of age and experience that the length of their life would automatically be a limit of how long they will be in that position.
    Queen Elizabeth has been at the top for a very long time and seems to have been respectable for a very long time. But in her lifetime, she has seen the next in line to the throne divorce, his kids marry non royalty and even divorced non royalty, so the fine standards do not always last.
    Some people are gems that we have not discovered, and some appear excellent and are fake. The Catholics are not the only ones that have found fake faith in leaders. Those who are appointed because they are that good are the best. Those who strive for power, although sometimes slyly, are to power hungry to trust. This is true both in church, government and even in who we marry. If we all had much more of that Spiritual gift of wisdom would be wonderful.

  13. Curtis Price 2018-06-02 14:25

    Uh, I think you put the update on the wrong post my friend.

  14. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2018-06-02 18:42

    Ben, you offer a reasonable position. Indeed, there are likely many qualified people for any given job. There may be no one “best” person; there may be an array of candidates, each of whom would bring different strengths and weakness to the job that by some strange calculus would add up to the same net good.

    But not all of those equally good candidates show up for every election.

    But notice that my assumption—my democratic axiom—is not that we are “great” at making decisions. Like my Christian neighbors, I acknowledge human fallibility. We do screw up. My democratic axiom is that, despite our fallibility, each of us still has as much right to participate in decision-making within our communities as any other member, and expanding participation in elections will produce better (not always great, but on balance better) results than narrowing who gets to participate in elections.

    Restricting our choice of leaders with a term limit denies us the chance to choose someone whose experience has proven her to be an effective leader. Term limits take the pressure off of us to overcome our fallibility, see beyond our preference for the familiar, and make a more rational decision about who should be our next leader.

    I’m still curious why South Dakota adopted (and yesterday, kept!) term limits that aren’t the normal practice in the rest of the ELCA.

  15. grudznick 2018-06-02 19:06

    This Mr. Zellmer fellow, running to be Bishop for Life, is a big galoot indeed. He’s nearly the size of Mr. Nelson, but far less abrasive and obnoxious, much more likable, and with a reasonable and inclusive vein running through his brain. I don’t think he’s even an overgodder, and he’s a Bishop for Christ’s Sake!

  16. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2018-06-02 19:08

    Grudz, on what basis do you claim that Bishop Zellmer is angling for a lifelong appointment?

  17. grudznick 2018-06-02 19:21

    Removal of term limits.
    He’s probably benign enough they should do it for him. Let him be the Bishop as long as he can. Way better than Mr. Hickey’s “leave it to random fate” plan.

  18. grudznick 2018-06-02 19:23

    Plus, Ms. Geelsdottir says he’s angling for it. That’s really my basis. She’d know better than I, her being a Luthern minister and all and me just a heathen.

  19. Debbo 2018-06-02 21:19

    Whew! I’m relieved that the SD Synod retained term limits. I’m very curious about what the arguments might have been. As I said in an earlier comment, the possibility of changing it after Dave is out is fine with me.

    Cory, if you learn anything about reasons the synod kept the term limits, I’d sure like to hear. Maybe enough people got a taste of Dave’s ethos? I dunno. Thanks.

  20. grudznick 2018-06-02 21:24

    A lot of hate seething around in that Lutheran church, if you ask me.

  21. Debbo 2018-06-02 21:52

    If you’re talking about me Grudz, I don’t hate Dave and he shouldn’t be bishop.

  22. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2018-06-03 06:44

    Grudz, you continue to posit claims about the Lutheran church without offering any evidence. On what basis do you claim that there is “a lot of hate… in that Lutheran church”?

    That said, I would second your nomination of Debbo for bishop in 2019… if either of us could qualify as a voting member.

    Debbo, my wife tells me that opponents of the resolutions mentioned, among other things, that term limits work really well for political offices, so they are good for this office as well. If I could step into the Lutheran worldview, that reasoning would make me nervous, because political office is very different from church office. People may have a calling to public service, but God does not call specific people to specific political offices. My Lutheran neighbors believe that God does make specific calls to specific pastors to specific churches and to the bishopric.

    Overlapping secular political reasoning with church reasoning may be problematic… but then here I am seeing parallels in my own beliefs about elections, term limits, and the wisdom of the community.

  23. mike fom iowa 2018-06-03 07:35

    Out of curiosity, isn’t the Lutheran Church handling federal funds for refugees/immigrants in South Dakota? You know, the ones that have Jason’s knickers in a twist.

  24. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2018-06-03 20:33

    Mike, Lutheran Social Services, a ministry of the ELCA, carries out the Christian mission of helping our fellow man by, among other things, assisting with refugee resettlement. Those darned Christians.

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