All German Protestantism celebrates a remarkable ritual every six years: the election of a new EKD council. On the one hand, a celebration of internal church democracy, which would be difficult to imagine in Catholicism. Bishops have to apply in front of laypeople, and parliament is allowed to put together its new top church from a broad tableau of candidates. But the electoral process is rich in finesse and also has pitfalls. The council election in Ulm in 2009 is legendary when parliament failed applicants who had arrived in good faith late at night.
On Tuesday, the fifteen-member council was elected digitally for the first time, which promised a certain acceleration of the process. The election was primarily about the successor to the outgoing EKD council chairman Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, who will not run again. In principle, laypeople can also be elected to the office of President of the Council. Usually, however, a leading clergyman is elected from one of the regional churches, namely the one who achieves the best result in the council election at the beginning.
There were five people with this profile to choose from: the Westphalian President Annette Kurschus, the Hamburg Bishop Kirsten Fehrs, the Berlin Bishop Christian Stäblein, the Saxon State Bishop Tobias Bilz and Church President Volker Jung from Hesse and Nassau.
The question of leadership came to a head early on
Jung had taken himself out of the race, however, by announcing in his application speech on Sunday that after his term in office in Hessen he would be leaving the council early if he should be elected there. The Saxon Bilz, on the other hand, has to struggle with the tensions in his own regional church and also has little experience at the EKD level. The same applies to the “capital city bishop” Stäblein, who also made it onto the candidate board quite late.
The leadership question came to a head early on for Annette Kurschus and Kirsten Fehrs, also because after the short episode of only 120 days at the top of the church, Margot Käßmann wanted a wife. Many synodals said that both of them, Kurschus and Fehrs, could well imagine themselves as EKD council chairmen.
The Westphalian Kurschus is a thoughtful, eloquent theologian and has leadership experience in a large regional church. She was also Bedford-Strohm’s deputy for six years. Fehrs from Hamburg is livelier, more spontaneous than Kurschus. Until 2020 she was responsible for dealing with sexualized violence within the EKD – a victim representative gave her a good report card for her work on Monday evening. However, Fehrs also admitted errors in the processing and seemed close to tears. There were synodals for whom this final appearance before the election was a bit too emotional.
A more cautious tone could turn up
In the first ballot, the church parliament then made it clear that it sees Kurschus at the head of the EKD. The 58-year-old Westphalian was the only one of the 22 applicants to jump with 108 votes, over the two-thirds quorum of 98 votes. It is very unlikely that the newly elected council on Wednesday will propose anyone other than Kurschus to succeed Bedford-Strohm. After the opinionated and mission-conscious regional bishop in Bavaria, a more cautious tone could return.
In the second ballot, Fehrs then skipped the required quorum with 116 votes. After complex internal discussions, because there is no fixed parliamentary group discipline, the synod succeeded in fine-tuned communication: Kurschus and Fehrs should emerge stronger from the election in precisely this order. Other candidates initially received significantly fewer votes. In the third ballot, Andreas Barner was the first layperson to fulfill the quorum. The former pharmaceutical manager has set up the reform process in the EKD in recent years and is considered to be indispensable for its continuation.
In the fourth ballot, Kerstin Griese (SPD), Parliamentary State Secretary in the Federal Ministry of Labor, was elected. In the following ballot, there was a whole slide in the top committee: Bishop Bilz from Saxony, the moderate Pietist and dean of the Palatinate Michael Diener, the Hanoverian church lawyer Stephanie Springer and the pastor and “Sinnfluencer” Josephine Teske, who was successful on Instagram.
And then – despite the rapid digital counting – it got very tough again. The church political groups found it difficult to come to a constructive understanding in the breaks between the votes. When the law professor Jacob Joussen and then the CDU politician Thomas Rachel managed to return to the council, the sun was already setting in Bremen. The “Ulm” scenario appeared on the horizon and the mood became more irritable from ballot to ballot.
Nevertheless, the progress up to then also indicated a certain satisfaction of the church parliament with the work of the previous council. Almost all members of the EKD leadership who were again on the candidate board were re-elected very quickly. The question of who should join the council was more prone to conflict.