Report of the Bishop: Synod Assembly 2018
S8.12(i)(iv) [As this synod’s pastor, the bishop shall: Exercise leadership in the mission of this church and in so doing:] Submit a report to each regular meeting of the Synod Assembly concerning the synod’s life and work.
Our Synod Vice-President, Treasurer, and Director of Evangelical Mission will, in their written and oral reports taken together, cover significant territory. There seems little reason to rehearse that information in detail here.
In the Synod Statistics section of your Bulletin of Reports, you will find a download link for the “Synod Statistics” packet prepared by the ELCA’s Office for Research & Evaluation. I commend it to you for study and make the following observations:
- The numbers are for the close of CY 2016. R&E cannot complete the rectification and analysis by the time it must produce the report for the first of the synods’ assemblies. That means that we are always a little behind.
- Only 35 of our 65 congregations submitted parochial reports for 2016. That was a 20% improvement over 2015, but it still raises questions as to the value of the statistics for certain applications. While numbers rarely tell the whole story, they tell a story nonetheless. When a pastor or congregant in this synod (or someone beyond the synod) asks, “How is WV-WMD doing?” I can’t always be confident in my answer. Are we in numerical growth or decline? What is the likely cause of either? Do we know what we need to know in order to identify opportunities or threats and plan for the future? As voting members, you have to ask how important this information is to you (directly or indirectly) as those who decide what this synod should and should not do.
- The specific statistics in the R&E packet do not include all the stats that I might be interested in examining. It is possible that there are stats you would like to see. In the past, I have been able to get the raw data from R&E to perform my own analyses. If there are analyses desired by the assembly that are not included, the assembly should ask for them.
- Congregational and aggregate demographic data should be viewed in light of the context in which we live.
The listening posts conducted around the synod over the course of the last 1½ years provided
valuable insight into the life of congregations. I would like to highlight just a few of them.
- I heard people speaking with great and appropriate pride about the ways in which their congregations sought to meet the needs in their communities.
- I heard people speak with affection for the community of their co-parishioners.
- I heard some envy of the growth in numbers seen in some congregations of non-mainline traditions, accompanied by some questioning about what we would have to do to experience the same, but, almost as quickly, I heard people reaffirm that they would not want to lose the intimacy or other marks they identify with their current congregation.
- With some rare exceptions, I seldom heard people speak about the meaning of faith, preaching, or teaching in their lives.
- I heard what I would consider to be the confusion of the performance of works of love with evangelism (i.e., the sharing of the Gospel).
The Gospel Is the Thing
On this last, I will admit that I tend to be strict about the use of theological terms. In that light, understand that when I say, “Gospel,” I intend it as the good news of Jesus’ atoning work and the promise of the resurrection unto eternal life with God. As news, it is something spoken, declared, proclaimed. To share the Gospel is to engage in a communication event that involves words. To give a cup of water to the thirsty, for example, is not a proclamation of the Gospel. It is a good and pious work, a work of mercy, a work of love, that should and must be done, but, absent the Word, it saves no one. Such a claim should not shock. It is parallel to what Luther writes in the Small Catechism with respect to Baptism: “For without the Word of God, the water is merely water and no Baptism.”(SC IV:10) The congregants around the synod are doing some pretty amazing things with feeding ministries, quilting ministries, disaster relief ministries, etc.. These are, again, good and pious works, and, as works, they save neither the one who performs them nor the one who receives them. It is God who justifies, and that grace of justification is apprehended through faith, and that faith is worked in us by the Holy Spirit who is mediated by Word and Sacrament. It is a bit ironic, don’t you think, that, 500 years after the posting of the Ninety-Five Theses, we should extol works as salvific. God forbid that we abandon good works, but let us, at least, get our categories straight. Do good because you are commanded to do good or do good because your desire is to do good or do good because you wish to taste heaven or do good because there is no greater delight than pleasing the beloved, but, when doing good, declare without timidity the Gospel with words whenever the opportunity arises. If a cup of water is a good thing, what is a river of life? It is not either/or. That is a false dichotomy. It is both/and. Give the cup of water, and let the Word work that a river of life may flow.
Call to Prayer
In a listening post, Pr. Mackey suggested that we [the entire synod] pray about the direction of and vision for this synod. Synod Council discussed at some length how we might go about this. In the midst of that conversation, two “modes” of prayer received initial attention: intercessory (where we ask for things) and listening (where we wait to hear from God). Let me propose a third way: praying the psalms. Beginning with the nightly praying of compline in college, I fell under the influence of the psalms. Compline, in the LBW, appoints only six psalms, and, even praying only one nightly, means that the same psalm is going to be prayed roughly fourteen times over the course of a semester. During my semester in the monastery, we prayed the entire psalter (plus canticles) over the course of a week. Repetition allows each psalm to work on you, impressing itself upon you, slowly, methodically, and penetratingly. The psalms have formed my piety and the foundations of my pastoral care. I am not going to claim that such repetition of the psalms is the best spiritual discipline for everybody (let alone everybody’s cup of tea), and I invite everyone in the synod to prayer for the synod in whatever way proves most salutary. For those who would like to engage the psalms, I will be selecting a few psalms to get us started. Look for it in a few weeks.
It came to my attention, while attending a congregational council meeting, that we have not been taking advantage of the daily prayer offices to the extent that we might and that, when we do pray them, we are not enjoying them as much as we might. In conversations with some of our clergy, it was explained to me that little time was spent in seminary covering the prayer offices and that there had been few opportunities to participate in them. I’ve bounced the idea off of one of our pastors, and we intend to hold a worship workshop for clergy and laity on compline. This will be a pilot, and we’ll see where it goes.
Opioid Abuse Epidemic
The West Virginia Council of Churches has been offering training workshops related to addressing the opioid abuse epidemic in our region. It is expected that the Council will continue to do so, and it makes sense to me to advise people to take advantage of these educational offerings rather than duplicating them. At the same time, the West Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church has produced an impressive Lenten study that, again, we are welcome to use within our congregations.
Several months ago, Bishop Dunkin approached Bishops Bransfield, Klusmeyer, Steiner Ball, and me, asking that we hold an ecumenical worship service related to the opioid crisis. I have proposed to my counterparts that we hold multiple services throughout the region, that we not limit ourselves to the urban centers, and that we employ penitential and healing rites as may seem appropriate. I do not see it as necessary that all the bishops be together at all the services. In fact, I have recommended that we split up. This is not about a photo op or a press release. This is about prayer. It is about blessing. It is about the Word. We can visit more communities if we are not trying to coordinate our respective schedules, and it is a great mark of ecumenism when a Lutheran can pray with a Methodist bishop, a Methodist can pray with an Episcopalian bishop, etc..
It is my hope that we can hold the first of these this summer. Given that the other bishops are all based in Charleston, it seems likely that I will be leading the services in communities not convenient to that city or the highways that lead from it. Would there be any congregations interested in hosting or participating in local efforts to arrange for such a worship service?
The 1996 Synod Assembly authorized the creation of the Seed Planted Fund and a drive to raise money for it. Over the years several projects have been support by Seed Planted funds. Receiving a request this past year for a grant, Dr. Waldkoenig endeavored to review the guidelines and, in that process, found three conflicting guidelines. The provenance of the guidelines is not always clear; they appear to have different levels of authority (though none is higher than a standing rule of the Synod Assembly), and they are a little long in the tooth. I ask the Synod Assembly to issue a general repeal and nullification of all policies related to Seed Planted and, at the same time, instruct Synod Council to enact whatever new guidelines as may seem to serve in the present day.
The ELCA Office for Ecumenical and Inter-Religious Relations has posted a draft statement entitled A Declaration of Our Inter-Religious Commitment: A Draft Policy Statement of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The deadline for Public comment is June 30. I encourage you to review the document and submit your commentary. Comments submitted in this process are read. Prior to Camp Luther, I will be holding a round table for anyone interested in discussing this document. The date and place will be announced, but, if you have special interest, let me know.
Diaconal Ordination & Implications for Ministry
At its April 2018 meeting, the ELCA Church Council received the Report and Recommendation of the [Word and Service] Entrance Rite Discernment Group and green lighted the further development of measures that would change the entrance rite for deacons to ordination. Quite frankly, I am baffled. I am not baffled that the rite should be ordination; I supported ordination for diaconal ministers in 1993—it didn’t pass—as there is ample testimony for this in the Patristic writings and long-standing practice in the Western and Eastern churches (at least until the Reformation). I am baffled by the questions raised by ecclesiastical leadership, questions that even a cursory knowledge of church history with respect to holy orders would answer. On the other hand, I am rarely confident that our church, with its tag line, “Always being made new,” has any interest in history or understands that the “re-” in reform means something.
Be that as it may, the change will have little impact on our life as we now live it. We are not brimming with calls for deacons. This is not because we lack potential. What we lack are the structures of ministry that would facilitate their employment. Our church has conceived of the deacons in terms of a “ministry of Word and service.” A moment’s reflection should confirm that we could use such a ministry in our region. Indeed, having those trained for such a ministry might bring efficiencies and improved quality of service ministry to our communities and congregations, given that those of us trained for a ministry of Word and Sacrament do not necessarily (though some do) have the skills for the sorts of service needed. Our conception of one pastor for one congregation is still thought of by most as a gold standard. Where this cannot be secured, we, often begrudgingly, accept one pastor for more than one congregation (i.e., multiple point parishes). Only the Mountain Lutheran Parish currently employs the “more than one pastor for more than one congregation” model. If I remember correctly, Mason-Jackson Parish, in the early 1990s, did this too. I would wager that the saints of the Mountain Lutheran Parish would prefer not to go back to having only one pastor serving them. This is not simply because a 1:5 ratio is a terrible ratio for pastors and congregants; It is because, as a team, the Prs. Felici bring different gifts and skills to the ministry, compensating for each other’s weak areas with their individual strengths and having the benefits that come with collegiality. What would it look like to partner not out of necessity but rather for sake of improved quality of ministry? Whenever a congregation is looking to expand or augment its professional staff, a sober assessment should be made as to what exactly is being sought. In many instances, I suspect, the actual need could be appropriately and better addressed by a deacon rather than a second pastor. This, however, should not be the sole provenance of individual congregations with the resources to employ a multi-clergy staff. If we squint out eyes just enough, we may be able to see that any of our congregations when cooperating could enjoy the benefits of a multi-person staff and the benefits of some specialization with a deacon on board.
Over the course of the last several months, I have been working on a Manual for Vacancy, a guide to assist congregations during pastoral vacancy. Good progress has been made, with the experiences that come with working with several vacant congregations informing the project. Elements of it have already been employed. Most of the aspects of it require no legislative action; some, however, will if they are to become norms for this synod.
Bishop’s Lay Worship Leaders
The Bishop’s Lay Worship Leaders program almost dates back to the founding of this synod. Several provisions of the program soon fell out of use (if they were ever fully observed). Additionally, we must ask whether the training we have offered has been adequate. Pr. Kliner and I have had several long conversations about this. I propose no change to the program this year, but I intend to propose major reforms in 2019 for the consideration of Synod Assembly, as the current BLWL program was enacted by Synod Assembly. At present, I am leaning toward a system with three classes of licensure, integration of some of the standards for Synodically Authorized Ministers, and competency based examination. If these elements are in a proposal, I will also propose that the system be phased in over time.
The Ad Hoc Committee on Compensation is working on a rewrite of our compensation guidelines document template. The committee has already undertaken a review of the constellation of policies and guidelines that relate to compensation but have not been directly connected to the compensation guideline document.. Placing revised sabbatical, continuing education, family leave, disability, and insurance elements together with the base compensation document (and in a highly readable format) should make all of this easier for congregations and pastors to navigate. Again, much of this will not require legislative action on the part of the Synod Assembly, but some items will (e.g., sabbatical and family leave).
Clergy Continuing Ed
A committee of peers has been established to lead in matters related to what we have called “synod cont. ed.” This program was once under the Support Committee, but that committee was dissolved several years ago, and oversight and planning was moved into the Office of the Bishop. Believing my oversight and planning to be inadequate, I asked the presbyteral college how it would like to proceed, and it was agreed to form the committee with representation from each of the conferences. The committee is already hard at work. It should be noted that this program is not supported by the budget of the synod. The fees paid by attendees cover the expenses in most cases.
Pastoral Acts & Professional Integrity
Weddings, funerals, baptisms, etc. are all pastoral acts, and they can also be the occasion for misunderstandings and conflict. Because such misunderstandings and conflicts have risen among us in various parts of this synod over the past three years, I think it necessary to explain the discipline of this church. One might think that what I am about to say applies only to the clergy, but it doesn’t. Precisely because most of these acts are initiated by a request of the laity, it is equally relevant to all.
The WV-WMD Synod Constitution states, explicitly,
†S14.19. Ministers of Word and Sacrament shall respect the integrity of the ministry of congregations which they do not serve and shall not exercise ministerial functions therein unless invited to do so by the pastor, or if there is no duly called pastor, then by the interim pastor in consultation with the Congregation Council.
The prohibition upon one pastor marrying, burying, baptizing, or performing any other pastoral act in the congregation of another pastor without the invitation of that pastor is to be observed by all on the roster of this synod. There may have been confusion in the past over what constituted “in the congregation,” the assumption being that pastoral acts performed outside the walls of a given church are not “in the congregation.” Let me dispel that confusion here and now: the congregation is not the building. It is the baptized membership of the congregation. This is set forth in our ELCA Constitution
9.11. A congregation is a community of baptized persons….
This means that a parishioner (someone on the roll of baptized members of a given congregation), desiring the participation of a pastor other than his/her pastor in any pastoral act, approach his/her pastor to request that his/her pastor invite the other pastor. It is best practice that the parishioner approach his/her pastor prior to contacting the other pastor about the pastoral act. It is also to be understood that the congregational pastor is not under obligation to invite any other pastor to participate in the performance of pastoral acts in his/her congregation. At the same time, a pastor who is not the pastor of the parishioner shall not perform or agree to perform any pastoral acts without the invitation of the congregational pastor. It is best practice that, when approached by a parishioner other than his/her own, that the pastor refer the parishioner to his/her congregational pastor and take no steps until the congregational pastor has contacted him/her.
I do think that the current discipline makes inadequate provision for chaplaincy, a ministry that produces dual-relationships. Chap. Setley and I have talked about this with respect to campus ministry (an area I know a little something about) and military chaplaincy; we have included Sec. Boerger in some of that conversation, and I intend to continue those conversations. This even affects me because I am not a congregational pastor; since assuming this office, I have performed no pastoral acts without the invitation of the pastor of the congregation in which the parishioner is a member.
The minutes of the 2008 Synod Assembly record the following:
The Rev. William C. Ridenhour, First English Lutheran Church, Wheeling, commented on the growth in our giving and how the synod has pulled together in mission support since the great discussion concerning the budget in 1998. He requested prayer for joy and thanksgiving regarding the financial situation in the West Virginia-Western Maryland Synod.
1998 witnessed the first serious budget debate in the history of this synod. The suggestion that a special remission of $1 per capita from all congregations be requested in order to eliminate a shortfall in the budget (that still existed following mid-year reductions) was met with cries of “taxation” and concern that it would lead congregations to purge their rolls. On the other side, I remember Pr. Soltow waving a dollar bill in the air, saying, “It’s one dollar, people.” He said something else about the cost of a pizza, but I don’t remember his exact words. Someone else lamented that we shouldn’t be talking about money when we should be talking about mission, to which I responded, “Show me your budget, and I will tell you what your mission is.”
In many ways, that debate threw the windows open. We had differences of opinion, and we aired them. In the aftermath, Bp. Dunkin led the Synod Council in a “visitation” of the congregations in this synod, during which we talked about where the money goes and what it does. In the years that followed, mission support increased roughly 32%, with the goal of 15% proportional share being set and nearly attained in aggregate.
In the wake of the perfect storm that was the final years of the ‘00s, we’ve seen mission support tumble 38% from its 2008 mark, meaning we actually now anticipate fewer nominal dollars for the 2019 budget than we did for the reduced 1998 budget, to the tune of 18%. That’s nominal dollars, taking no account of inflation. In other words, we are not only getting by with less than we did in 1998; we are getting by with less than less. This has only been possible because of reductions in several expense areas and deep reductions in mission support share with the Churchwide expression.
It is perfectly understandable. Those pivotal years at the tail end of the previous decade were shaped by an economic crisis in the United States and reductions in mission support directly and indirectly attributable to the adoption of Human Sexuality Gift and Trust (2009). At the same time, we had two disastrous pastoral crises, one of the them in the congregation remitting the second highest amount of mission support in nominal dollars. The downward spiral was terrifying for those of us who managed the books. A slight rebound a few years ago proved not to be overly stable, and for good reason. The cost of health care has been the single largest pressure on congregations on the expense side, and continued depopulation has challenged the revenue side.
Serious reflection upon our financial position as a synod is in order. At the same time, we should not assume that having the WV-WMD Synod is the only way of doing business. Synodical polity is, I think, terribly valuable, but, to be honest, not indispensable if the church is understood to be nothing more than one more business or social organization–to address questions related to our doctrinal ecclesiology would occupy more space than we have at this point. Robert Fortenbaugh’s 1926 dissertation, The Development of the Synodical Polity of the Lutheran Church in America, to 1829, details how it was that colonial era Lutherans in America recognized that disconnected congregations could not provide everything that needed to be provided for healthy ecclesiastical life. So, as a matter of (what I would call) practical ecclesiology, we have found synods to be useful, and, here, we understand the measure by which we judge a synod to be one of utility. Introducing utility as the measure, however, invites us to consider the economies and diseconomies of our polity, in general, and our synod, in particular, employing the best that field of political economy has to offer.
This is not a matter of constructing a simple balance sheet. There are tangibles and intangibles involved, and, because we are people and not ciphers, those intangibles can hold the greatest sway in our thinking and, more importantly, feeling. It is easy enough to calculate the value of having a synod, recognizing that no synod is perfect, and come to the conclusion that having a synod is, on balance, a good and useful thing. It is not so easy to calculate the value of having this specific synod and come to the same conclusion unless those intangibles are accorded significant value.
I think there is value to having this particular synod. We may not have some of the things that larger, wealthier synods have, but we have some things that I think are of value. The question is: Do the congregants, pastors, and congregations in this synod likewise think that are things of value associated with this synod that might be lost, should this synod fold, and that we can afford to maintain this synod for the sake of those goods despite the current fiscal pressures?
I am not terrified by the possibility that the answer to the stated question might be, “No.” If we cannot make it as a synod, there will still be a synod (or, more likely, multiple synods as our congregations are divvied up among our neighbors). The services provided by synods will still be provided, and some new services might be gained. That’s worth considering. At the same time, I think some things will be lost (or diminished) in the way we do things: intimacy, personalized attention, collegiality, etc.. That’s also worth considering.
Over the course of the next two years, I ask that the voting members of this assembly take this question back to their congregations and ask it of their co-parishioners. Clearly, I do not think this is a question that we will answer at this assembly. I’m not even convinced that we will have it figured out by the next, and I have no way of being certain what the answer will be. The conventional wisdom is that leadership should not ask a question which they don’t already know the answer to. Well, I have no desire to be conventional. My hope is that should we answer that we need to keep this synod going we so answer because we believe it to be in the best interest of the congregations and the people of God who inhabit them. If we cannot say that, we should consign this synod to archives.
We moved the synod office across the river in January. The move was authorized by Synod Council as a long-range cost cutting measure. The space, however, is significantly smaller, being able to accommodate a handful of people for a meeting but not anything the size of the council. We lost close to a week of productivity because of the move. Even now, we are not fully unpacked. Barring disaster–I’m at the point where I assume disaster–we’ll take a couple of days sometime after Youth Gathering to finally square everything away. Some may remember when we were on the first floor of the Atrium. We were not able to hold Synod Council meetings in that space. So, we return to the road, seeking congregations willing to host us from time to time.
Less in the realm of the physical, it has become glaringly apparent that we need to develop some contingency plans and redundancies in the synod office. An emergency hospitalization in the synod office left us scrambling to get things ready for this assembly.
Challenges to Our Polity
Nominating Committee has fulfilled the mandates of the constitution, bylaws, and standing rules of this synod. It was not easy. You see in the Nominating Committee’s report, fifty-four nominations for sixteen positions. What you do not see is the list of potential nominees the Nominating Committee had received by the close of the open submission phase. Nominating Committee was short twenty-one nominees for those sixteen positions. Most surprising to me was the lack of any nominees for two of our four elections for Churchwide Assembly voting members and three of the seats on Synod Council.
If we want this church to be a representative democracy, we need representatives, but the dearth of candidates is nothing peculiar to synodical work. I hear regularly from congregations unable to recruit people for service on congregational councils and as congregational officers. Perhaps the answer is to stop trying to be a representative democracy. There are other forms of ecclesiastical government, but the potential for abuse and tyranny is rather high with some of them. If I don’t trust me, neither should you.
These elected positions are important to your life and to that of your congregations and pastors. The policies, fees, processes, and services associated with the synod are created and/or overseen, when not a mandate of the civil authorities, by folks like yourselves who have been elected to office, Synod Council being particularly immediate and Churchwide Assembly being superordinate. You who sit as voting members of Synod Assembly wield much more power than you realize, some of it direct, some of it indirect through the election of your Synod Council members, officers, etc.. I implore you: next year, don’t make the Nominating Committee work so hard. If they beat the bushes for you, your options come election will not be those of your choosing, and your input into the direction and actions of this synod will be diminished.
Updates to Governing Documents
There are several changes that I would recommend to our governing documents. The required provisions of the Constitution for Synods have already been incorporated into out constitution as required by †S18.11. Other provisions are recommended, though not required, by the Churchwide Assembly. I submit to you those that seem most appropriate for our usage. Lastly, some changes are completely matters of our discretion with no particular advice from the Churchwide Assembly. These are appended to my report for your consideration.
Despite what may sounds like some gloom and doom, I must confess that I do not feel particularly gloomy. I used to. The first years of this decade were rough. Being synod treasurer at that time was not fun, and I do not envy Joseph Solberg his task now. It has become clear to me that these concerns are not matters of ultimacy. “Jesus is the future of the church,” our now presiding bishop said when she was answering the election process questions. Jesus is ultimate, and with his ultimacy comes the ultimacy of the resurrection, perfection, and mystic union. If we are to walk through those gates of pearl and inhabit the Holy City, beholding God with our own eyes, how can we not see this present time as a slight momentary affliction preparing for us an eternal weight of glory? I don’t mean to say that we shouldn’t take these things, these worries of today, seriously. We should; they are serious business. Still, a little perspective might be a blessing. Our future is Jesus. He meets us when we are so that he might draw us to himself in eternity. It is a blessing that we have been called to revel in that promise. It is a blessing that we have been called to declare that promise even if it is with only the meager hymn that these fragile earthen vessels can manage. The transcendent power belongs to God and not to us. And that, my friends, is grace upon grace.