My Letter on the Sanctuary Resolution

Dear Members of Congregations and Leaders of the New England Synod,

Earlier this month the New England Synod gathered for its annual assembly in Springfield, MA.  There were 450 voting participants (300 laypersons/deacons and 150 pastors). Among the business items addressed included a resolution on the subject of Sanctuary

The purpose of this letter is to provide some clarification around that resolution.  Before reviewing the specifics of the resolution, I feel it would be beneficial to provide you some background information around process. Therefore, I have divided this communication into three sections:

  1. What is a resolution and how does it come before the Assembly?
  2. What authority does a resolution hold in the Synod?
  3. What does this resolution on Sanctuary mean?

What is a Resolution & how does it come before the Assembly?

As the highest legislative body of this synod, the assembly acts on multiple governance matters including, but not limited to: approval of an annual budget; and election of officers, members of the Synod Council and other Synod Committees. 

In addition, our rules and procedures provide the opportunity for members of this synod to offer resolutions. A resolution calls for an action—often a policy decision—that is concrete, specific, and within the power of the Assembly to implement.  (Note:  These should not be confused with ‘continuing resolutions’ which are amendments to the synods governing documents, namely its constitution and bylaws.)

The process for resolutions to come before the assembly is an open one. This is announced each winter by various means of communication. Anyone in the New England Synod (members of congregations, pastors/deacons, members of the Synod Council etc.)  may introduce a resolution by submitting it at least 45 days in advance of the assembly. 

Resolutions are then reviewed by the Reference & Council Committee, which is elected by the Synod Council. The Reference & Council Committee may adjust the language of the resolution, typically in concert with those who submitted it. Once an agreed upon version is drafted, the resolution is published in the Assembly Handbook (online) and in the Assembly Guidebook. The resolution is then brought to the assembly for consideration.

The resolution is brought before the assembly by the Reference and Council Committee.  This is then followed by discussion/debate on the “resolved” portions of the resolution. The Bishop, serving as the Chair of the Assembly, is charged with the task of managing the discussion/debate or as I like to say, “helping the assembly do its work.” My role is to ensure that a proper and fair process of debate/discussion ensues. This may include attending to any proposed motions, amendments, or questions of order.

What authority does an approved resolution have in our Synod?

A well-written resolution addresses a topic of concern that is a call for action, that is concrete, specific and within the power of the synod to implement.

‘Resolutions’ are brought to the assembly for the purpose of discussion in order to provide guidance to the ministries of the Synod and the Synod Council. No resolution passed at a Synod Assembly has any authority over congregations, members, or rostered ministers (pastors/deacons) of that synod.

One of the confusing matters to many people is what I like to call the ‘hybrid’ polity (polity is another word for church governance) of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). What I mean is our “both/and” approach. We lift up a form of congregational autonomy….. while also agreeing to be in a connected system of congregations and synods. 

Many times, I am asked questions that carry with them many assumptions about authority. In relation to the topic of this letter, resolutions passed at a synod assembly do not have authority over congregations, members, or pastors/deacons. Rather, as noted previously, it is to provide guidance, and other specifics (depending on how it is written), to the Synod Council and ministries of the synod.

As to the authority of the resolutions over pastors and congregations, etc., there is only the authority of influence. That is why the language of resolutions is often to “encourage or invite.” 

As a separately incorporated entity, the congregation, the Synod and the ELCA are legally only bound by the actions of their highest legislative body with some exceptions.

What does this resolution on Sanctuary mean?

The resolution on Sanctuary was brought before the June 2017 Assembly. There was a period of discussion/debate during which two amendments were offered, one eliminating a reference to “this administration” and another adding the last resolved regarding immigration reform. Those were approved by the assembly, and then the amended resolution was adopted by the assembly. A copy of the adopted resolution is on the final page of this letter.

The practice of this Synod has been that all approved resolutions are brought to the Synod Council at its next regularly scheduled meeting (September 2017). Typically, there is a discussion about the resolution and what actions, if any, are called for by the resolution. That will be the case with this resolution. The Synod Council will review this resolution, and respond appropriately.  Since the Synod Council is the governing body that acts between Synod Assemblies (which occur once per year in June), it is appropriate to wait for that September Synod Council discussion before engaging in any actions. 

One suggestion that has been made, which we will investigate for future resolutions, is some kind of process that allows for the synod as a whole to have an opportunity to discuss proposed resolutions in advance of the assembly. I think there is merit to this point, and I’ll bring this to the Synod Council as well.

I recognize that some congregations and individuals are looking for clarity in the meantime. Therefore, I will offer my understanding of both this resolution as well as our church governance structure. Here are some options that congregations, individuals, groups etc. may want to engage this resolution, if they choose to:

  • Hold Sunday adult forum conversations or a series of evening discussion and consider inviting people from a number of different perspectives on this topic
  • Form a book study using either Welcoming the Stranger: Justice & Compassion in the Immigration Debate by Soerens & Yang” or They are Us: Lutherans & Immigration by Bouman and Deffenbaugh or another one of your choosing.
  • Invite members of a congregation to meet with nearby organizations that work in the area of refugee resettlement or immigration issues
  • Seek out elected officials to meet with and discuss this subject
  • Engage with organizations, congregations or others who are already involved in the Sanctuary movement, possibly contacting organizations that are named in the resolutioni.e. LIRS (Lutheran Immigration & Refugee Services) has both persons who are knowledgeable in this area and also resources to share.  I will add here that any congregation considering becoming a sanctuary would do well to consult with legal counsel, as well as others with experience, before entering into such work.
  • Invite members of your congregation to advocate for immigration reform by writing to congress.
  • Study the ELCA Social Teaching Statement on Immigration

As with all resolutions, this resolution uses language that includes “encourage, assist, coordinate, engage.”  It does not use language that includes “require, demand, expect.” 

In my personal view, resolutions are best used as opportunities to engage people at a point that best fits their starting point, and moves them forward. You and your congregation know that starting point best.

It is my hope that this letter provides some clarity for you and your congregation or ministry setting.



Rev. James Hazelwood