In what might be a first for the head of a U.S. church denomination, the leader of the nation’s largest Lutheran church used virtual technology to lead an interactive nationwide town hall meeting.

From a studio in Chicago on December 6, Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America fielded a variety of questions on topics such as leadership, mission, evangelism, funding, and churchwide staff reductions. Hanson responded to 19 questions, which were posed by a live audience and those watching online.

More than 2,200 people watched the event live; in the five days following the town hall, more than 6,000 unique visitors viewed an archived version of the broadcast.

John R. Brooks, director of the ELCA News Service, said the town hall idea was Hanson’s. “He wanted to address the church about a variety of topics during Advent.”

Brooks does not know if the leader of an American denomination has ever done a broadcast like this. “Bishop Hanson, when he was elected presiding bishop in 2001, did something like this from the assembly at which he was elected. There was no live audience—just a time for him to respond to questions, as I recall. One of our synod bishops, the Rev. Ed Benoway of the ELCA Florida-Bahamas Synod, has done something like this, too.”

This won’t be the last town hall for the head of the ELCA. “We will do it again, probably two or three times per year,” Brooks said. “It's a rare chance for the presiding bishop of this church to address members directly. He very much wants to do this again. We may attach some themes to future forums so that we can focus on particular topics.”

How They Did It

The ELCA produced the town hall meeting itself. Staff of the ELCA Communications Services and ELCA Information Technology did the technical work. Brooks said, “We have some minor technical issues to resolve, but for the most part, we were pleased at how well this one went.”

The ELCA promoted the event through a news release, its Facebook page, its Twitter handles, and a feature on the home page of the ELCA Web site. Hanson also issued an open letter to the church before Thanksgiving in which he mentioned the town hall forum.

In selecting the studio audience, Brooks said they had help from staff in two nearby synods, who made calls and recruited people. “We wanted real members and pastors, not staff from this organization, in the audience,” he said. Online participants submitted questions through the ELCA Web site and Facebook.

Brooks said they did not have any expectations regarding the number of people would view the event live. “We knew we would be competing with many other things at the time we did it—church gatherings, Christmas concerts, shopping, football games.”

The online video player for the forum was launched 3,148 times, with 2,205 unique viewers. Top viewership was in Minnesota, Illinois, and Florida. Viewers in several foreign countries also watched.

The Reaction

ELCA members have responded to the town hall on Facebook and Twitter. One person on Facebook commented: “I plan to watch it online. Thanks for doing it, thanks for making it available later, and thanks for being so tech-savvy and plugged in.” Another person said: “It was very informative about the direction of our church. [I] look forward to more of these.”

Others on Facebook requested a written transcript of the event. “It would certainly facilitate our (congregational) conversations if we had access to a text transcript,” one viewer commented, so we could “refer back easily to what was said without having to rely on sheer memory.”