Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) is one of the largest Christian denominations in the country, claiming 4 million members across 10,000 congregations within the United States, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. 1

Among mainstream Protestant denominations, ELCA is losing membership at the most rapid pace. In 2018, ELCA recorded a loss of 1 million members, or roughly 25% of its total membership, over a single decade. Some have cited the church’s left-progressive political stances and liturgical weakness as the cause of the loss. 2 3

ELCA leadership is substantially more liberal than its members, especially considering the church’s left-of-center political activism. In a 2014 Pew Research poll, 32% of ELCA members identified as conservative, 41% identified as moderate, and 24% identified as liberal. Clergy, meanwhile, identified overwhelmingly as liberal. 4


Lutheranism, as a religious movement, began during the 16th century during the Holy Roman Empire to raise a series of concerns with the Roman Catholic Church. Historians often cite October 31, 1517 as the starting date of Lutheranism and the Protestant Reformation. On this date, Martin Luther, at the time a Roman Catholic friar and university professor, published and nailed his “95 Theses” document to the doors of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Saxony (modern Germany). His criticism of the Roman Catholic Church and subsequent trial became the early basis for Lutheranism and Protestantism more broadly, leading to religious strife throughout Europe for decades to come. 5 6

As Lutherans began to settle in the United States and Virgin Islands, they established associations of congregations based on immigrant waves. Some of the most influential Lutheran organizations included the Lutheran Church in America, which was comprised mostly of European immigrants in colonial and early 19th century New York City and Philadelphia; the American Lutheran Church, which was based in Minneapolis and comprised of Midwestern and Scandinavian immigrants to the Midwest in the late 19th and early 20th century; and the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches, which was made up of lower Midwestern congregations. These various associations became less influential as the population further assimilated, and members sought a church unified under one banner to be able to communicate with other Christian denominations. 7

In 1988, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America was formed as a merger of the Lutheran Church in America, the American Lutheran Church, and the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches. The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod refused to join the merger, primarily due to ELCA’s left-of-center stances on various theological, social, and political issues. 8 9 10 

Political Engagement

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has historically been involved in left-progressive political activism. ELCA has a Washington, D.C. office, along with state public policy offices and registered lobbyists in California, Colorado, Iowa, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Wisconsin, and Washington. 11

ELCA’s federal policy priorities for 2021 include a number of left-of-center positions, such as  increasing federal spending on food stamps, using federal funding to create a mandatory family leave program, increasing the nationwide minimum wage to $15 per hour, supporting environmentalist measures, and implementing federal policy to eliminate purported “systemic biases and injustice.” ELCA has also supported federal initiatives to permanently maintain the DACA program to protect certain illegal immigrants from deportation, policies to place pressure on Israel for the alleged “Palestinian occupation,” and policies to prevent the implementation of voter identification laws. 12

In his essay “Socialism: A Reality Check,” ELCA Reverend Bruce Wollenburg chided the  use of the term socialism to describe far-left proposals made by the Democratic Party. Wollenburg noted the church’s embrace of the “Social Gospel” and its role in various left-progressive causes, such as the New Deal in the 1940s. Wollenburg called on Christians to support left-of-center social and economic policies. 13

Most notably, ELCA has been known for its LGBT activism. The church has never taken a position on same-sex marriage, leaving the issue to local congregations to determine. In December 2019, ELCA ordained Nicole Garcia as the church’s first transgender pastor. In 2009, however, ELCA allowed for ministers in same-sex marriages and partnerships to be ordained and made same-sex civil unions eligible for religious blessings. 14 15

In 2019, ELCA issued “A Declaration of the ELCA to People of African Descent,” as part of a “racial reconciliation dialogue.” The Declaration claimed that the church was committed to understanding alleged “institutional and structural racism” while fighting against “white supremacy” and “white privilege.” 16


The ELCA’s structure consists of congregations, synods, and the national organization. Congregations are individual religious communities operating under the regional structure of synods, with the national church organization managing various synods. The churchwide organization is based at the Lutheran Center in Chicago and functions with 65 synods with 10,000 congregations in the United States, Caribbean, and Virgin Islands. 17

Reverend Elizabeth Eaton is the presiding bishop of the churchwide organization. She was re-elected to a second six-year term at the 2019 Churchwide Assembly in Milwaukee. Eaton, in her first term, was recognized for making efforts to reincorporate theological conservatives who remained in the denomination after the schism. 18 19 20


Like other religious institutions, ELCA is not obligated to file non-profit tax returns with the IRS, but it publishes audited financial documents on its website. 21 The churchwide operating budget for 2019-2020 was $69.6 million. 22


  1. “About.” The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). Accessed May 19, 2020. ^
  2. Tooley, Mark. ”Liberal Lutherans Doubling Down”. Juicy Ecumenism, Institute on Religion and Democracy.  July 29, 2018. Accessed February 7, 2021.
  3. Benne, Robert. ”ELCA Hits Bottom”. First Things. October 2018. Accessed February 6, 2021.
  4. [1]“Political ideology among members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America”. Pew Research Center. Accessed February 7, 2021.
  5. Burton, Isabelle Tara.  ”The Protestant Reformation, Explained.” Vox. November 2, 2017. Accessed February 6,  2021.
  6. Orta, Palau Josep. ”How Martin Luther Started a Religious Revolution”. National Geographic. October 12, 2017. Accessed February 6, 2021.
  7. ”Evangelical Lutheran Church in America”. Brittanica Encyclopedia. Accessed February 6, 2021.
  8. ”Ecumenism Underlines ELCA-LCMS Differences”. Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. March 20, 1998. Accessed February 7, 2021.
  9. “History”. Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Accessed February 7, 2021.
  10. ”Frequently Asked Questions – Denominations”. Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. Accessed February 7, 2021.
  11. ”Advocate as an ELCA Ministry”. Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Accessed February 7, 2021.
  12. ”2021 Federal Policy Priorities”. Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Accessed February 5, 2021.
  13. Wollenburg, Bruce. ”Socialism: A Reality Check”. Journal of Lutheran Ethics. January 1, 2010. Accessed February 4, 2021.
  14. Gawronski, Quinn. ”Transgender Latina makes history as Evangelical Lutheran pastor.” NBC News. December 12, 2019. Accessed February 6, 2021.
  15. ”ELCA Assembly Opens Ministry to Partnered Gay and Lesbian Lutherans.” Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. August 21, 2009. Accessed February 7, 2021. 
  16. ”Declaration of the ELCA to People of African Descent”. Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Accessed February 4, 2021.
  17. “Churchwide Organization.” Accessed February 15, 2021.
  18. ”Presiding Bishop”. Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Accessed February 7, 2021.
  19. Rodgers, Ann. ”New Lutheran Bishop Elizabeth Eaton focuses on gospel”. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. August 19, 2013. Accessed February 7, 2021.
  20. Miller, Emily. ”Five Things to Watch at the ELCA Churchwide Assembly”. Religion News Service. August 7, 2019. Accessed February 6, 2021.
  21. ”Financials”. Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Accessed February 7, 2021.
  22. ”2019 Operating Results Summary for the Twelve Months Ending January 31, 2020”. Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Accessed February 7, 2021.
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