In Search of Authenticity – Rev. Priscilla Paris-Austin

Linda Thomas at CTS eventCan bureaucracy provide a path toward justice? Like secular institutions, mainline Christian denominations use bureaucratic procedure to move toward change and transformation. However, unlike secular institutions, the Church is called through the Triune God to offer grace and strive for justice. With the 2016 ELCA Churchwide Assembly recently completed, Rev. Priscilla Paris-Austin gives us a snap-shot of her activities during the week-long series of meetings and votes, and how she and others continue their tireless efforts to call the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to confess, reassess, and deal with the reality that after 28 years it’s racial composition is still 96% white. Reverend Austin reminds us that God created racial diversity and calls the ELCA to redouble it’s efforts to make good on its commitment to diversity. Read and be inspired, friends – and don’t forget to comment and share!

Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of the LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor –“We Talk. We Listen.”

I have a love/hate relationship with systems.

Participants at the 2016 ELCA Churchwide Assembly in New Orleans, Louisiana.

At their best systems create pathways to justice and equity. Systems can establish order and promote fairness in a chaotic, disorderly and sinful world. This is why I deeply value our church constitutions and assemblies.  Setting the high aim of bringing forth God’s reign on earth, these systems seek to shape an orderly pathway for healthy relationships within and beyond the church, all for the glory of God!

So when the opportunity arose for me to attend the ELCA Churchwide Assembly, the church geek in me leapt for joy. I cleared my calendar, arranged special activities for my children, adjusted my family budget and jumped on the plane to spend a week in New Orleans in August, knowing full well, that most of my time would be spent in the confines of a windowless convention hall. All because I knew that this was my chance to add my voice to the work of justice and peacemaking of our national church. Yes, I love systems.

But systems are designed and operated by human beings, who in our theology we understand to be both saints and sinners. That means that despite our best and most saintly of efforts, we will often fall into our own patterns of sinfulness that make the system oppressive, hurtful, harmful and very contrary to the way in which Jesus might do things. In the name of good order we find ourselves protecting the system from people rather than uplifting people through the system. It is my deep frustration with this reality that keeps me engaged with the system in an effort to call it to the same daily confession and repentance that I need in my life.

This summer I entered the Assembly with no particular agenda, other than to be certain that voices from the margins get moved to the center of the conversation. And through this simple calling, the Holy Spirit set me on a path of sleepless nights, copious writing, and a multitude of surprising conversations that led to a 2 minute speech on the floor of the assembly and affirmative vote to shake up the system.

Graph of the Pew Study’s finding on diversity among religious communities in the United States. At 96% white – The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America is officially the whitest religious organization in the United States (see second-from-the-bottom).


You see, at its founding in 1988, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America set a goal for diversity and inclusion within our ranks. That goal was given a number, 10%, and institutionalized into the system via the Churchwide Constitution. 28 years later, the Pew reports showed that not only had we not achieved that goal, but the percentage of people of color in the ELCA was less than when we started.

It seems that forming Ethnic Specific Ministry Associations and staffing a Unit for Multi-Cultural Ministries was not sufficient to make change occur. It seems that despite, the presence and development of a library of resources by affiliated organizations like Women of the ELCA, a shift in the culture of the church is still slow to be made manifest. And it seemed that our system response to this failure, was to remove the goal from our governing documents and replace it with a commitment to work toward diversity.

Suffice it to say, this did not sit well with me, but the Holy Spirit was at work. It turns out She had gathered in this place and time the exact collection of individuals necessary to dream up a new vision for our church. She had tilled the soil and softened the hearts of leaders who were now naming new priorities of justice and inclusion.  As I sat humbly at the feet of phenomenal young adult leaders in our church, and under the wings of elders who have been walking this road since before I began, it became evident that She was calling the church geek in me to action.


It was time to call the system to account. It was resolution writing time.

In my heart, I simply wanted to tell the assembly, that we can do better. I wanted them to understand that God has provided us with all we need to do God’s work of building a beautiful, diverse, inclusive, beloved community. I know that is messy work, but I wanted the system, or rather, I wanted the people in the system to hear the grace that the answers exist within our midst. That we can be all that God is calling us to be. So my head got to work, laying out the WHEREAS[i] clauses that name our abundant resources and confess our failure. Then with Spirit guidance from young adults and wise elders the RESOLVED[ii] clauses came into being.

The final hurdle of the system

was now before me…


You see, while my love/hate relationship with systems is complex, my hate/love relationship with money goes even deeper. But I knew that the reality of the capitalistic society in which we live, is that whatever solution I proposed, it was going to require money, a financial investment in our future. I wanted to be like Jesus and simply toss the tables in the temple and let the money fall where it may. I was inside the system, in a seat with voice and vote and an organized coalition of support, but I knew the system would not take well to such upset and the power we held, even collectively was not quite enough to bring forth the dollars needed. The question became; who was the Holy Spirit calling to complete what I had started?

This led me to more conversations, with more of God’s beloved church geeks and the answer became clear. It was time for a call to accountability to all we named and claimed as church. And it was time to trust the system.


I stood on the Assembly floor and directed these words to our Presiding Bishop[iii]:

 “I love my church. By that I mean I love my church in all its expressions, in all the locations I have served, lived, loved and been formed. I am overjoyed by the intentional naming and claiming of our efforts to be a people of restorative justice and reconciling peace with a commitment to diversity.

But I want MORE.

I want our commitments to be more than just lip-service.

I want them to move us to action.

I want them to be supported with a plan for success.

I want them supported by the wisdom of people of color who have been leading in our midst,

Let Us LEAD.

I want them supported with strategies of accountability that are adaptive & authentic and

I want them supported with resources, that means, dollars.

At the assembly – from left to right – Rev. Tuhina Rasche, Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, Rev. Priscilla Paris-Austin.

I am grateful for the strong affirmation and support of Reference and Counsel for this resolution and I support it being referred to Church Council for budgetary consideration.

I am trusting that the work of Called Together Forward[iv], the current priorities of the Council and Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton and the actions of this Assembly thus far this week will serve to compel our church council to partner effectively with the Churchwide Staff, all the partners who are named in this resolution to bring to fruition the heart and content of this resolution”

The resolution was referred to the Church Council, an action that on its surface, that seems futile, but I am a child of the risen Christ and therefore called to live in hope. My hope and my prayer is that we will be who God calls us to be.

Meanwhile, I will continue to love the system by holding it accountable to fulfill this promise.

11181188_1017277271638254_7750523003400743439_n.jpgRev. Priscilla Paris-Austin (LSTC M.Div. 2011) is currently the pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Seattle, WA. Additionally, she is a member of the Rostered Women of Color Project Steering Team for the ELCA as well as the Northwest Washington Synod Strategy Team for Authentic Diversity.

[i] WHEREAS the ELCA Church Council voted [CC15.11.55]:To recognize and affirm the extensive efforts of the presiding bishop to call the entire church to confront racism and to add our voice to that call; and To invite the presiding bishop to include the current efforts in a broader, comprehensive strategy toward becoming a racially and ethnically diverse church committed to dismantling racism; and

WHEREAS the Women of the ELCA has developed a wealth of resources and curriculum for racial justice from a Biblical and historical perspective and the Ethnic Specific Ministry Associations along with the Ethnic Specific, Multicultural and Racial Justice team have developed strategies for engaging and  involving people of color in every aspect of the life of our church; and

WHEREAS our church is blessed with a breadth and depth of people of color and people with a first language other than English whose voices need to be amplified in order to guide this church in moving forward towards becoming a more inclusive and diverse church; and
WHEREAS even with these resources and supports, synods and congregations have had difficulty achieving this church’s commitment to diversity as reflected in the Continuing Resolutions under section 5.01 of the Constitution,  Bylaws and Continuing Resolutions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; therefore

[ii] BE IT RESOLVED the Churchwide Assembly direct the ELCA Church Council to form a Task Force for the purpose of developing a comprehensive set of strategies to equip congregations and synods to work towards becoming a more authentically diverse church. The work of the Task Force shall include but is not limited to:

  • consulting with WELCA,  the Ethnic Specific Ministry Associations,  the Multicultural and Racial Justice Team, the Conference of Bishops and ecumenical partners;
  • collecting existing resources such as those available from WELCA and the Ethnic Specific Ministry Associations and beyond the ELCA;
  • identify needs for additional resources;
  • supporting synods in identifying their specific opportunities for growth;
  • assess the effectiveness of diversity strategies across the three expressions church in order to identify strategies that have yielded authentic diversity; and be it further

RESOLVED that the Task Force be composed of 1 person from each of the 9 regions and 1 Bishop who will serve as co-chair. The composition of the Task Force shall conform with the representational principles in section 5.01.f of the ELCA Constitution except that persons of Color and/or persons whose Primary Language is other than English shall comprise 100% of the Task Force and the Task Force will be ethnically diverse. The members of the Task Force shall be appointed by the Church Council in consultation with the ELCA Director of Ethnic Specific and Multicultural Ministries; and be it further

RESOLVED that the Church Council designate funds to support the work of the Task Force as soon as funds become available, no later than November April 2017. The work of the Task Force shall begin no later than August 2017 and conclude at the 2019 Churchwide Assembly; and be it further

RESOLVED that the Task Force submit a report and recommendations to the 2019 Churchwide Assembly that includes;

  • a summary of the information gathered by the Task Force and
  • a proposal of recommendations for metrics and supports to provide mutual accountability for our commitment to diversity across the three expressions of the church and a proposal for funding these efforts.

[iii] Video link is available at Plenary 8 – 1:36-1:41 [approximately]



6 thoughts on “In Search of Authenticity – Rev. Priscilla Paris-Austin

  1. Robert Lesher

    Than you and the other “church geeks” who can find ways of bringing change in this way. Some of us have worked for it for many years. I for one was granted a different, less patient gift, that doesn’t do the “rules” work well. I look forward to the next steps, will inform my bishop of willingness to help in our synod or beyond, and await, prayerfully, other opportunities to be involved.


  2. When the radical call of the gospel does not work to attain racial justice, we are challenged to use the resources of the law. Well done, Sister. Well done! I will continue to wage racial justice with you!


  3. Maryann Lund

    May God bless you . . . Us . . . In our efforts to be ambassadors in reaching out to all races, all athnicities. We are all children of God created in God’s image.


  4. Pingback: Caught in the Words – Rev. Tuhina Rasche – We Talk. We Listen.

  5. Pingback: Special Editorial: After One Year – Rev. Dr. Linda Thomas, Blog Editor – We Talk. We Listen.

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