Sacred Shift: 2019 Synod Assembly

By Bishop Michael Rinehart

There’s lots of change afoot this year at synod assembly. The price is down, the event is shorter, we’re meeting in a congregation, we have a bishop election. It’s a lot, I know!

synod assembly laying on hands during prayer

Sacred Shift

We have all sensed it. Our culture has shifted, worship attendance in America has shifted, and the religious life of our congregations has shifted. Church leadership is more challenging today than it was when I started as a pastor 30+ years ago. Our grandparents would be surprised to find out there are more people in church in China on any given Sunday, than in the U.S. They would be surprised to know that most Christians now live south of the equator. They would be surprised to find out that those who select “No Religion” in surveys is now equal to the number of Protestants in the US.

Many Millennials (born 1984-1998) view the church as corrupt and hypocritical. After all, historically the church marginalized women, supported the enslavement and subsequent extermination of the native peoples, endorsed slavery, supported segregation, remained silently complicit during lynchings (in some cases participatory), and so on. The church used the Bible to support bigotry and oppression. In addition to that, sexual and financial scandals have helped de-convert a generation.

These realities are sobering, but they also leave us with some incredible and sacred opportunities for ministry. This may be a time of purifying and healing for the church. It may be time for us to gain clearer focus and clarity on our mission. As the U.S. has de-churched, it should be no surprise that people have also become more isolated. Those who report being lonely or depressed has doubled in the last ten years. People are searching for community, connection, and hope. They are looking for places where they can explore questions of meaning or faith, in a nonjudgmental community that is willing to listen. We have the opportunity to learn to speak the good news in fresh ways to be heard by a new generation.

Let’s come together to talk about how we can be a community-building church in an age of de-churching and isolation. Let’s rethink the way we are church in the world. Let’s be about bringing people together around faith, hope, and love.

Shorter Assembly

This year Synod Assembly is being held over a two-day period, rather than a three-day period: May 17-18, 2019. This will save many congregations, though not all, one overnight and one or a couple of meals. This doesn’t impact registration costs, but it does affect the overall cost per congregation.

Cost isn’t the only reason. We are also recognizing that a three-day meeting in this digital age isn’t necessary. Many things that used to happen at long annual meetings happen on a regular basis online, including meetings, updates, reports, and more. There is hardly anything you will discover at an assembly that you couldn’t find out 365 days a year through the webpage, or an email. Still, it’s good to be together. Our assemblies in the Gulf Coast Synod are more than business anyway. We worship, and we learn together, from each other and from leaders in the field. It’s about relationships, so we will always meet.

A shorter assembly means we are having to really streamline things, especially because this is a bishop election year. There are many groups doing many things in this synod. If each one of them had a 10-minute report, the assembly would last a week. Think about candidacy, camp, campus ministry, Live On endowment fund, MIF, LSS, LWR, LIRS, TLU, WELCA, LMM, Perú, CAR, Portico, ELCA CWO, Thrivent, LFSW, and so on. While all these groups do incredible, meaningful work, a synod assembly could easily seem to some like a two-day infomercial. We are taking care to tend this garden, so it’s about community, not just an information dump.

Meeting in a Congregation

We are also holding the assembly in a congregation, rather than a hotel this year. We have met in a congregation one time in the last 10 years. A few years ago, we met at Lakewood United Methodist Church. Doing so saves us a lot of money on food, and so it allows us to lower the cost of registration. We spend around $30,000+ on food and beverage when we meet in a hotel. This money could be better spent. We can do it for less with local caterers.

There are some offsets, however. First, when that many people stay at a hotel, and you spend that much money on food and beverage, they give you the meeting space for free. We would not expect that from a congregation. Secondly, there are incidental charges that we incur when we meet in the congregation, that are usually picked up in a hotel contract. So, we are starting by lowering the cost little bit, until we see how it goes.

The main thing is, be really kind and grateful to the folks at Kinsmen, who have graciously allowed us to disrupt their routine and space with an unruly mob of several hundred Lutherans. Keep in mind, this is not a hotel. It’s a congregation, like yours. There are no paid servants, so let’s treat them like we are guests in their home, because we are!

One of the adjustments we had to made make six years ago in 2013, when we met at Camp Allen in Navasota, was meeting without tables. Pastors are accustomed to doing this at continuing education conferences all the time. It’s much easier now that everything is on the Guidebook app, instead of a huge notebook with reams of paper reports and pamphlets. You can do this!

Registration

226 are registered for this assembly as of April 29th. You can still register at: https://gulfcoastsynod.org/registration/

According to the following provision in the Synod Constitution, the assembly must be at least 60% lay people to be in order:

†S7.21. The membership of the Synod Assembly, of which at least 60 percent of the voting membership shall be composed of laypersons, shall be constituted as follows…

The dagger means this is a required provision. Synods cannot change it. Later in that provision it establishes the minimum requirements for congregations:

  1. A minimum of one lay member elected by each congregation with fewer than 175 baptized members and a minimum of two lay members elected by each congregation with 175 or more baptized members related to this synod, normally one of whom shall be male and one of whom shall be female, shall be voting members. The Synod Council shall establish a formula to provide additional lay representation from congregations on the basis of the number of baptized members in the congregation.

That formula for additional lay representation is in the bylaws:

S7.21.A97 Additional lay member representation from each congregation shall be as follows: 350-700 baptized members – 1 additional; 701-1400 baptized members – 2 additional; 1,401-2,000 baptized members – 3 additional; over 2,000 baptized members – 4 additional voting members in accordance with S7.21.c.

This all means that ELCA congregations are to bring a minimum of two lay members, unless they have less than 175 members. When we do this, we retain the majority of laity in the assembly. The assembly is not a gathering of clergy. Larger congregations may, but are not required, to bring more.

At this assembly, we are proposing shifting the language of that bylaw to make it easier to follow. The new language will be a simple graph, as follows. Keep in mind, this is the proposed graph, that wouldn’t go into effect until next year.

voting members chart

*C5.04. Of the Model Constitution for Congregations says:

This congregation shall choose from among its voting members laypersons to serve as voting members of the Synod Assembly as well as persons to represent it at meetings of any conference, cluster, coalition, or other area subdivision of which it is a member. The number of persons to be elected by the congregation and other qualifications shall be as prescribed in guidelines established by the   (insert name of synod)   of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

The asterisk means this is a required provision. This means it’s in effect whether the congregation has updated their constitution or not. Note that this provision calls for the synod assembly voting members to be elected at the congregational meeting. For most congregations, this means lifting up those voting members in January. Such planning would mitigate against the push to find those voting members during the busy Lent/Easter season, and hopefully result in a thoughtful selection of congregational representatives.

One resolution and one memorial

We haven’t had any resolutions or memorials in the last ten years. Let’s begin by exploring the difference.

A resolution is a detailed motion to make a change within the synod. If your goal is to make a structural or policy change in the architecture of the synod, it may require a resolution to get it done.

A memorial is a detailed motion in which a synod requests action on the part of the Churchwide Assembly. If your goal is to make a structural or policy change in the architecture of the Churchwide Organization or the ELCA in general, a memorial may be the way to get it done.

Resolutions are not the best way of getting most things done. If a resolution says everybody should do this or that, without teeth or funding, not much will happen. It would be better to target congregations with the interest and resources to do what you want. If your goal is to inform, you can connect with a whole lot more people through email or social media. Talk with synod staff or council about what you really want to get done, how it will be accomplished, who will do it, and why it’s important. We’ll be excited to brainstorm with you and find others who share your passion and calling.

The resolution coming to this synod assembly is to become an AMMPARO Synod. You can read more about AMMPARO here: https://www.elca.org/ammparo.

The memorial coming to this synod assembly is to memorialize the Churchwide Organization to sign the Earth Charter. You can read more about the Earth Charter here: http://earthcharter.org/discover/the-earth-charter/

Take some time to read up prior to assembly, so that we can have a well-informed decision. Please take some time in your congregation’s Sunday intercessory prayers to remember the synod in assembly. Come ready to network with other congregations and be challenged to grow in the way we reach out to this rapidly shifting society.