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New School System Born From Merger of Lutheran Congregations

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When clergy from three branches of Lutheranism poured water from three vessels into a baptismal font late last month in Columbus, Ohio, a new denominational school system was born.

The ceremony symbolized the long-expected merger of three Lutheran bodies that have different origins, but a shared view of their faith--and of the role of their schools.

The new church, named the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, will have 5.3 million members, making it the fourth-largest Protestant body in the country. It will oversee a total of 132 elementary schools, 6 high schools, and approximately 1,500 preschools, with a combined enrollment of 26,000 students.

The groups voting to join were the American Lutheran Church, the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches, and the Lutheran Church in America.

A fourth branch, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, which has 2.6 million members and operates 1,780 elementary and secondary schools, had decided against the merger because it practices what is considered a more conservative version of Lutheranism. Unlike the other branches, for example, it does not ordain women.

Despite the continuing differences between the Missouri Lutherans and the new church, the merger will help Lutheran education in general, an official of the Missouri Synod predicted last week.

"The merger is going to be good for Lutheran schools,'' said H. James Boldt, director of schools for the synod. The newly merged denominations "can do more now together than they could separately.''

Glenn H. Bracht, director of Christian day schools for the American Lutheran Church, added, "We will have more national leadership and resources.'' He said he looked forward to "serving our schools in a unified way.''

In preparation for the formal inauguration of the new church next Jan. 1, leaders of the three branches will begin, in the coming months, to coordinate their activities and policies and will consider a variety of issues bearing on church schools. Questions about the desirability of accrediting schools on the national level and the amount of religious training teachers should receive are expected to dominate the discussions.

Merger Was Expected

The final vote on the merger came on April 30, at a meeting of some 1,000 delegates in Columbus. The move had been discussed for about five years, and each of the churches had approved the merger separately last year.

The Lutheran Church in America, the largest Lutheran body in the nation, operates 48 elementary and secondary schools and about 1,000 preschools. The American Lutheran Church oversees 70 elementary and secondary schools and 450 to 500 preschools.

The Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches, the smallest of the branches, has 20 elementary schools and 25 preschools.

Delegates selected the Rev. Herbert Chilstrom, an American Lutheran Church minister from Minnesota, to be the bishop of the new church.

Church leaders said they hoped the new denomination would have a stronger voice on social issues and would be more effective in reaching out to members of minorities who may feel alienated from the church's German and Scandinavian roots.

Growth on West Coast

Although the three denominations have a strong presence in the East and the Middle West, their biggest growth in recent years has come in the West, according to Mr. Bracht. A large proportion of Lutheran schools is located in California, he said.

The Rev. Thomas H. Sauerman, director of schools for the Lutheran Church in America, said that most of his schools are located in inner-city neighborhoods, and that more than half of the students are black, Hispanic, or Asian.

"Just in the past five years, we've had to start waiting lists'' for student hoping to attend the schools, Pastor Sauerman said.

Minority parents, he said, are attracted by the schools' Christian emphasis and relatively low tuition--from $600 to $1,200 a year, depending on the school's location.

Nevertheless, the potential for growth in the new school system as a result of the merger will be small, school leaders conceded. Even with more advice and support at the national level, they said, the cost of starting and operating a school will remain prohibitive for many congregations.

"I don't see growth as a by-product of the formation of the new church,'' Pastor Sauerman said.

"It depends on whether or not local congregations see the school as a viable mission for them,'' said Robert Federwitz, director of schools for the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches and principal of Redeemer Lutheran School in Philadelphia.

Few Dollars, More Advice

The new church, whose central administration will be based in Chicago, will have a full-time director of schools who will focus on elementary and secondary schools, and an assistant director who will oversee the preschools.

Those officials, who are to be selected at the end of next month, will be in charge of a $195,000 budget and an undetermined number of staff members, according to Mr. Federwitz.

"Few dollars from the national office will be available to help congregations get started'' in establishing schools, Mr. Federwitz said.

Still, having a full-time national staff to deal with education "is the biggest positive effect'' of the merger on the schools, he added. Only the American Lutheran Church has a full-time director of schools; Mr. Federwitz and Pastor Sauerman said they spend much less than half of their time assisting their denominations' schools on a national level.

The national office "will strengthen the position of the schools,'' Pastor Sauerman agreed. "And it will help to form a closer bond between the schools--we didn't always cooperate on a local level.''

Typical of the types of initiatives the office will undertake is a joint workshop the three denominations have scheduled for this fall for their local school-board members.

Standards and Teachers

Pastor Sauerman said one of the new church's "first and major tasks'' will be to form standards and policies for the schools.

Currently, the schools are not formally accredited by the denominations, but receive official recognition. The development of some form of national accreditation--a move recently rejected by Roman Catholic schools--is being discussed, he said.

"We're not quite sure what form this would take,'' he added.

In addition, church officials said, a major debate in the coming months will focus on the qualifications to be required of teachers in the schools affiliated with the church.

The denominations now differ on how much religious training teachers should receive. The Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches, said Mr. Federwitz, has traditionally asked teachers to undergo theological training and has given them the same status as clergy.

While that denomination's schools do hire lay teachers when necessary, he said, the goal has been to hire "rostered'' teachers--those who have declared themselves dedicated to the "teaching ministry.''

In contrast, the other two merging churches have categorized teachers with other lay professionals employed by the church. "We encourage our teachers to study theology, and we view teaching as a ministry, but they are distinct from clergy,'' said Pastor Sauerman of the Lutheran Church in America.

The new church will conduct a six-year study of how it will view teachers and other lay professionals in the church. But Pastor Sauerman said he did not believe the tradition fostered by the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches would survive.

"I think the die has been cast--there's a separation between teachers and clergy,'' he said.

Said Mr. Federwitz: "That's going to be our biggest difference. It's no minor stumbling block.''

Despite their remaining differences, officials from the three denominations said the merger process has gone smoothly. They expressed optimism that a stronger, more effective school system will be created under the new Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

"We'll be better able to educate the church body about the mission of Lutheran schools, and that will build a positive spirit,'' Mr. Bracht of the American Lutheran Church said.

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