Monday, May 8, 2017

The ELCA's Poll Tax

"My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations, but you have made it into a den of robbers." Mark 11:17

Poor people should be able to vote just like rich people.  Money should not influence our ability to participate in public life.  We believe it in the church, as well as in the secular world.

In the church, as in the world, this isn't our current reality.  The votes and voice of the poor are suppressed.

I want to make this claim as strongly as possible, about the practical effects of our policies and systems, without making claims about intent-conscious, or otherwise.  The church rightly lobbies for Voting Rights for all people.  But sometimes we are oblivious as to how we replicate the same inequalities in our denominational structure.

My denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, (ELCA) has a de facto poll tax.

In the Jim Crow South, as in other parts of the world, a poll tax was the amount of money that citizens had to pay to be able to vote.  The amount was set such that it would not prevent middle and upper class participation, but would be substantial enough to prevent poor people from voting.  As part of Jim Crow, the poll tax was overtly racist, but poor white people were affected as well.

My friend, colleague, and #decolonizeLutheranism co-conspirator the Rev. Paul Bailie gave me the language of poll tax, in this excellent blog post on why he is not attending synod assembly this year.  His post raises several critically important issues, from racist worship to the dominance of certain cultural forms of Lutheranism to the exclusion of others, all of which are generating needed conversation.  But it is the concept of synod assembly registration as poll tax which I need to address.

Quick catch-up for those who aren't ELCA Lutherans: ELCA Lutherans are divided into regions called synods.  Yearly, we gather in these synods to do the business of the church: debating and voting on issues that will affect us all, from our policy on LGBTQ clergy, to the guidelines for paying our pastors, to refuting  past theological mistakes like the Doctrine of Discovery, to who will be the next bishop of that synod. Each congregation gets to send a certain number of voting members based on their size.

We have to pay the synod in order for our voting members to attend, and thus, speak and vote. If a congregation cannot afford to pay the assembly registration (and associated costs) they do not get to vote in church matters.

Like a historical poll tax, the amount that each congregation has to pay in order for voting members to attend, and thus, vote, is such that it is not a burden for larger and richer congregations, yet is a substantial burden, sometimes an impossible one, on smaller and poorer congregations. In Pastor Bailie's synod, the cost is $180 per voting member, not including transportation and hotel costs.  In the synod I served in, the amount is $250, again excluding travel and hotel.  The smallest congregations send three voting members, two lay leaders and the pastor, so the total cost for a small congregation to send voting members and pay for their travel and hotel can easily exceed $1,000.

When I speak of this, I don't get the impression that middle and upper middle class people understand what $1,000  means to a small congregation of people living in poverty.  $1,000 was larger than our entire yearly budget for Christian Education materials.  It was the difference between being able to pay the electric bill or not.  For a small congregation of people living in poverty, paying $1,000 to send three people to vote on church matters would have meant choosing not to make payroll, or to cut from some other essential expense. $1,000 for synod registration and associated costs too often prevents smaller, poorer congregations from attending.

(This still does not take into account the full cost of attendance, which includes travel, incidental meals, lost wages, etc.)

When smaller, poorer congregations do have the money to attend synod assembly, their voices and concerns are often systemically ignored.  They experience micro and macro aggressions, up to and including racist worship services.  The cost for attending is very high, in dignity as well as dollars.

I understand that there are costs associated with putting on a synod assembly, and that in a world where congregational benevolence to synods is decreasing, synod assemblies need to be funded in some way.  I simply do  not believe they should be funded in a way that prevents smaller, poorer congregations from attending, participating in debate, and voting.  Nor do they have to be.  One simple solution would be to more equitably distribute costs, by tying the cost of registration to the operating budget of the congregation, as reported to the synod in our yearly congregational reports.  Congregations with a operating budget below a certain threshold, such as the one Pastor Bailie serves, would not have to pay to attend, and larger, richer congregations would pay a larger fee.

In the church, as in the world, any policy that suppresses the vote of the poor is unjust.  And as we advocate for full Voting Rights in the world, we can change our church policies so that everyone has full Voting Rights in the church.


  1. Synod Assemblies are at issue as is the ability of clergy to get health care in smaller churches and a host of other disparities. Thanks for the post!

  2. Your solution is fair it is JUSTICE. I attended my first synod assembly this year and was appalled at the wasteful spending. I hope that your voice and the voices of others can be heard.

  3. Your solution is fair it is JUSTICE. I attended my first synod assembly this year and was appalled at the wasteful spending. I hope that your voice and the voices of others can be heard.

  4. Before I read Paul's blog post, it never occurred to me, a lay person, that congregations had to pay to attend Synod Assembly. Thanks for writing this and further highlighting this injustice .