Synod Assembly: Experimenting with Change

Since my first assembly in 1994, I can remember six resolutions that related to the format and/or logistics of Synod Assembly. The most significant one to pass was the late 1990s move from three-day assemblies to two-day. Last year’s resolution to investigate an alternating pattern of “centralized in person” and “decentralized digital” assemblies could have resulted in equally significant changes had it passed. It didn’t, but the preambulatory clauses should not be forgotten. Among them was the assertion that Synod Assembly has become too expensive. I’ve heard complaints about the cost of the Synod Assembly since a resolution in the 2000s calling for a move to biennial Synod Assemblies, and I am sympathetic. I too have thought we could reduce the cost of this event, but there has been demand on the other side of the room for convention center facilities, connected lodging, four-star lodging, etc.. Though we have had those moments when the assembly has decided how we do assembly, the track record of those decisions has leaned toward greater expense rather than less (with the exception of the move from three-day to two-day events), and the majority of survey results has reinforced the more expensive position.

The request from Grace, Wheeling, to host Synod Assembly in the Wheeling area opened up some possibilities we have not had heretofore. For the first time, we have multiple hotels and dining establishments within a short distance to the convention center, and, having “enjoyed” a more intimate relationship with the back office dimension of boarding and lodging this past assembly than I actually enjoy, my desire for change has been reinforced. Note well, I ran this past Synod Council and received approval for a change in plan.

With respect to lodging, we have tended, whenever possible, to secure lodging that is next to (if not conjoined with) the meeting area. We have also tended to select lodging on the basis of certain amenities. These criteria have evolved from years of post-assembly survey feedback (and some assembly actions). This pattern pushes us to more expensive lodging. On the flip side, when the lodging and the meeting facilities are one business entity, we usually get a lower rate for the actual meeting rooms. This year, there is a hotel conjoined with the conference center. There are also seven other hotels within a short walk or drive. Four of these are on the Highlands retail campus. Three are less than 2½ miles away on a road free from urban traffic. The costs and amenities vary from hotel to hotel. While we have reserved blocks of rooms (much like for a wedding) at the two closest hotels, no one is required to choose them. The assembly attendee is free to balance location, amenities, and price point and make a selection to suit his/her requirements. In truth, attendees have always had this freedom, by registering as a commuter and arranging for their own lodgings, though few have exercised it. By not bundling lodging and registration and not running the lodging through the Synod Office, we have the process more transparent. This may have caused more work for our attendees and congregations, but it also empowers them to take control of their expenses for the assembly. Some may also be able to take advantage of various discounts and rewards programs. In the end, some may end up paying more because the synod is not negotiating a lower rate at a more costly hotel. Others might realize significant savings. The median cost of lodging will decrease to the degree attendees exercise their freedom in favor of cheaper accommodations. This approach may not be practical for every venue, but it is before us now as an experiment.

With respect to boarding, there is good reason to provide meals as part of the assembly package when the logistics related to that meal affect the conduct of the business of the assembly. I’ll admit that I would be just as happy saying, “We adjourn for lunch; see you back here in two hours,” and let you go wherever you want to find a meal. We could do that at the Highlands. There are twenty-one dining establishments at the Highlands. Take your pick of menu and price point. Again, I see this as a matter of economic freedom for attendees. I also recognize that I might lose quorum on Saturday afternoon, and I don’t think that we can spare two hours. So, some meals should be taken in common for the sake of getting assembly business done. Other meals, however, can be removed from the assembly program. This year, we will not include Friday brunch as part of the assembly program. As the Synod Assembly does not convene before 1:00 PM on Friday, attendees are free to take advantage of the offerings at the Highlands (or down in the city) or grab something en route to Wheeling. Breakfast is also not part of the program on Saturday. We tried having breakfast at the assembly hotel once before, and it was a disaster: 150 people all trying to squeeze into the breakfast room was an exercise in non-Euclidean geometry, and the food could not come fast enough. Seeing that we will likely be dispersed among multiple hotels, we assume that the free breakfast provided by most of them will suffice. There are also nine dining establishments at the Highlands, ranging from coffee shops to full restaurants, that provide breakfast items. Given that some want nothing but a cup of joe and others want the breakfast buffet, there is good reason to give attendees the freedom to balance menu preference, convenience, and price point. Grace asked to host the evening meal, and it made sense to do it there as we will be at Grace for business on Friday afternoon and assembly mass in the evening. Also, Grace’s local team has done an amazing job with catering and cost control. It should also be noted that Grace has enlisted the aid of several local congregations in the providing of refreshments at the assembly.

With respect to venue, we are realizing additional cost savings by having the first day of the assembly at Grace. Grace asked to host the first day, and, after discussion in Synod Council, the cost-benefit analysis (which included the intangibles) favored Grace over the Highlands. It’s been a long time since we met in a church building. The assembly, if memory serves, had indicated that it preferred conference centers over churches, but that argument was based on pews vs. tables & chairs. Our business meeting at Grace will be at tables in the fellowship hall, addressing the primary concern. Additionally, we will have rooms for workshops, something that would have been impractical at the Highlands. That Saturday is at the Highlands is driven by the nature of the business load we will have that day. I recognize that there will be dissatisfaction with holding assembly in two different locations. This has been an issue for years, there being a divide between those who want to hold the assembly mass in a “real church” and those who want everything in one location. The assembly mass in a “real church” has been the larger party. We would be going to Grace for the mass anyway; why not spend the whole day in one place? We will have to see whether this improves logistics.

I would also note that Nancy Weeks deserves a great deal of credit. Not only did she work on the catering research and contracts, she also wrangled a major grant from the local economic development authority. We’ve not thought about how we bring business to a local community when we assemble there. Weeks recognized this and exploited it to our benefit and the benefit of the local community. We need to look into this more often.

So, this assembly is an experiment. There have been plenty of bumps in the planning of it. That’s what happens when one makes any change, and we are making a lot of changes. I’m sure that there will be more bumps during the assembly itself. I ask not only your patience but also your assistance. Constructive criticism is welcome and will be helpful in determining where we go from here. When giving feedback, tell us whether something is a requirement or merely a preference. If a preference, tell us how strong a preference. Give us alternatives. Remember also that it is your assembly. One voice on a feedback survey is one voice. Synod Council and Synod Office cannot tell whether it is a broadly shared opinion. You have the right to use the parliamentary processes by which we operate to seek assembly action, as has been done in the past.

DEM Status

The Rev. Dr. Gilson Waldkoenig returned to full-time duties at United Lutheran Seminary at the end of January, concluding his service as Director for Evangelical Mission (DEM). The Domestic Mission Unit (DMU) has indicated its intention to support a half-time DEM. We’ve indicated our intention to continue the position as well. We have the paperwork and a committee to work through reevaluation of the position’s goals and operational parameters. While that work has begun, it kicks into high gear following Camp Luther. The payroll of the DEM position is underwritten by DMU, and the work is supported by a grant.


This past September, we were privileged to have Prof. Jonah Gabriel, the Director of Bezaha Seminary, Bezaha, Madagascar, visit the United States, spending most of his time with us here in WV-WMD. This visit was part of a larger consultation between the ELCA (Global Mission Unit and the four companion synods here) and counterparts in the Malagasy Lutheran Church. Four theologians from Madagascar made the trip and, splitting up, explored the four synods here.

It would be too much to detail everything Prof. Jonah got to experience and all the people he got to speak with. Special thanks go to Ron Stemple and the folks at St. Paul Lutheran Church, Aurora. The members of the Accident Lutheran Parish, Prs. Patrice Weirick and Ian Reid, Chap. Setley and the Lutheran Campus Ministry at WVU, the guy from AAA (who brought us gas in Chicago), and, of blessed memory, Stacy Fint, Director of the Intensive English Program at WVU. A photo journal was posted on the synod Facebook page. Prof. Jonah has a special interest in environmental theology and has been working on the dangers of deforestation in Madagascar. It was reported to me that Prof. Jonah’s peers and the ELCA Global Mission folks all agreed that he had experienced the most interesting of all the visits.

We are working to support Prof. Jonah’s return to the USA to enroll in the Intensive English Program at WVU. This will be financially and logistically challenging. There are several moving pieces and multiple partners to engage.

I received an invitation to preach at President Mahatoky’s 41st Jubilee but declined. Our meager Madagascar fund was depleted, at that point, by Prof. Jonah’s visit.

The Companion Synod Program is a challenge for us and always has been. We have never supported it with a budget line item, preferring to do what we can with it from special gifts. The visits are certainly interesting, and I suspect that any of the folks that have made trips to Madagascar will attest to the value of the experience. These visits have been largely self-funded by those making the trips with minimal synod resources. The hoped for return of Pr. Jonah to study English here (so that he can advance his research and teaching through easier participation in the global Lutheran theological community) is, to my thinking, one of the best ways we can partner with our brothers and sisters in Madagascar.

Changes to the Consultation Process

Synod Council adopted a continuing resolution that sets parameters for the work of the Synod Consultation Committee. The two most recent consultations did not go smoothly from an administrative perspective. Council, in conjunction with the Consultation Committee, reviewed related issues. Some of them are addressed by the continuing resolutions from a regulatory angle, but actual compliance will require a different approach to how the synod recruits for and elects to this committee. It will also require a different mindset within the committee. The changes are not something that can be legislated easily. At the heart of the matter is a shift in synodical attitude. For decades, we have said, “Run for Consultation Committee; it never meets.” Rarely would be more accurate than never, but the real issue is just how difficult the work of the committee is when it does meet. Consultation Committee, when activated, deals with intense conflicts and accusations of misconduct, heavy and emotionally draining work, within a short window of time. As we go forward, the nominations process will have to articulate more clearly the expectations associated with committee membership and think seriously about recruitment. We must also implement orientation and training for committee members. That task will begin after the election of a consultation committee member at this assembly.

Opioid Worship & Education

An order of service for use in connection with the Opioid Epidemic has been drafted and is ready for the first local site that would like to use it, assuming that the local site will review it first, making suggestions for improvement.

The Synod Clergy Continuing Ed Committee held its January 2019 event with Sky Kershner of the Kanawha Pastoral Counseling Center presenting on ministry in the midst of the crisis. The West Virginia Council of Churches continues to hold periodic training sessions related to opioids. The newly formed Symposium for Evangelical Lutheranism in Appalachia will hold an Appalachian regional conference in Gettysburg this coming November; this conference will be open to laity and clergy.

Vacancy Manual

The second draft of a handbook for congregational vacancy has been completed and feedback received. It is now in the revision process. I hope that this manual will assist congregations navigating pastoral vacancy. It covers a wide variety of issues. As future congregations enter vacancy, they will receive the handbook, and, as they end their vacancy, be asked for improvements to it.

Lay Eucharistic Minister Guidelines

Connected to the Vacancy Manual, but with application in any congregation wanting to utilize lay Eucharistic ministry with shut-ins etc., we have the Guidelines for Lay Eucharistic Ministry. This is in the second draft, and, like the Vacancy Manual, should be under constant revision as we learn what works and what doesn’t.

Bishop’s Lay Worship Leader

The Bishop’s Lay Worship Leader’s Program has been with us, as an approved program and policy of the Synod Assembly, since 1989. The first draft of a major revision of the Bishop’s Lay Worship Leaders Program has been completed and the first round of feedback has been received. It is now going through further revision and will be shared with a larger group for feedback. Current Bishop’s Lay Worship Leaders will be included in the feedback process. As the current program’s policies were approved by Synod Assembly, the wholesale termination or replacement of the current program would have to come before the Synod Assembly. It is possible, however, for Synod Council to authorize a second program that would run alongside the BLWL.

Synod Clergy Continuing Ed

Last January, the presbyteral college of the synod agreed to a plan that puts the planning of the Synod Clergy Continuing Ed Events in the hands of four peers. They did a magnificent job with the Winter 2019 Event, making several changes to event logistics that were well-received and reduced cost. They continue to demonstrate inventiveness and flexibility in their planning for the Fall 2019 event. Quite frankly, it is more work for the committee members, but democratization of the continuing ed program is already yielding fruit both tangible and intangible.

First Call Theological Education

If the changes to Synod Clergy Continuing Ed moved something out of the Office of the Bishop, changes to First Call Theological Education (FCTE) has moved something into the Office of the Bishop. We went a year without any pastors in the first three years of their first call, the target years for FCTE. With the arrival of Prs. Heycock and Wright, it was time to restart up the program. Being selfish, I decided to facilitate the FCTE Synod Cohort myself. It has been vivifying for me to teach and, hopefully, useful for Heycock and Wright. If they have told you otherwise, let me know. I do not intend to teach all sessions with them. As this is a small cohort, with only soon to be Pr. Warntz joining in June, we have collaboratively chosen topics based upon the pastor’s perceived needs and priorities (with recognition that I too may have notions about what they should be covering). As topics shift, I will ask others (pastors and laity) to lead this or that topic that aligns with their areas of expertise.

Bishop’s Teaching Ministry

This has been an exciting year in the realm of synodical educational ministry (and, here, I refer to ministry which the synod organ either executes or facilitates—-congregations do great things in educational ministry which are not covered here). I’ve had the privilege of leading worship workshops on compline and matins and look forward to more opportunities to do so. I’ve also given presentations on sanctification for a clergy group and for a large mixed group (both in the synod). I’ve been able to join a session of Theology on Tap in Martinsburg. These are the sorts of things I would like to do more often. Invite me to come and do a Bible study, or (better yet) lecture on some historical or theological topic, or play stump the theologian over beers, or explain how St. Paul uses polysyndeton (actually, his use of asyndeton is much cooler). Outside the synod, I’ve been invited to lecture on Lutheran Scholastic ecclesiology, present on theological loci in relationship to the opioid crisis, and lead a workshop on theological anthropology and politics.

The thing I like to boast about is SCALD (Symposium for Central Appalachian Lutheran Dogmatics). We held our second SCALD this past February with thirty attending (doubling the attendance from the first SCALD held over a year before). The event had laity and clergy attending. Five papers were presented by people in the trenches, eliciting lively discussion. Attendees came from six different Lutheran synods and two non-Lutheran denominations. One attendee, a seminarian from Chicago, took an overnight train to attend. We were able to do this event without charging a registration fee, arranging for lodging, or much anything else besides asking Pr. Bartling to use her church. Props to Pr. Bartling for hosting, providing the coffee free of charge—-we would have gladly put out a cigar box—-and soliciting snacks from her parishioners. Neat stuff can be done. Respectable stuff can be done, and we can do it without knocking ourselves silly with complicated logistics or crushing expense. The real metric is the demand from those attending that we do this again, and sooner rather than later. People are already sending me notes about papers they would like to write, and folks far beyond the synod have asked whether they can attend.


After a slump in seminarians from WV-WMD, we now have two in seminary and one about to enter. Mary Sanders (St. John’s, Redhouse) is enrolled in United Lutheran Seminary. Jeremy Lambson (Grace, Fairmont) is enrolled in Princeton Theological Seminary (in New Jersey, not south of Beckley). Devin Ames (Christ the King, Barboursville) has been accepted at Luther Seminary and beings this fall. A special congratulations to Ames: he is the first in this synod to receive a Fund for Leaders full-tuition scholarship.

If we could maintain our current enrollment rate, we would be slightly below where we need to be to replace clergy, assuming the current configuration of congregations continues. Unfortunately, system-wide, we are producing one pastor-candidate for every four vacant pulpits seeking first-call pastors. This means that even over-producing seminarians in this synod does not guarantee that our congregations will have enough candidates to supply the need.

Notions of supply-and-demand, however, cannot look at only the supply side of the equation. Demand is not static. Since the formation of the synod in 1987, demand has decreased. Well, to be clear, the desire for pastors has probably not decreased. What has decreased is the number of congregations capable of supporting full-time compensated pastorates, and, even where there exist resources for a full-time compensated pastorate, it is not uncommon that the number of years of experience that can be afforded is lower.

What does this mean for candidacy? That’s a tough question. Some voices across the church have said that bivocational ministry will be the future. I’m not sure how tent-making would work in communities where there aren’t great employment opportunities. Even with tent-making, congregations and congregants would have to reconcile themselves to pastors with possible rigid schedules in secular employment. It is also a less than impressive offer to say a potential candidate, here’s the school, here’s the debt you will acquire, and here’s the part-time employment that you will get for it. Now, you might say, “But it is a calling! Why should money matter?” I have yet to meet a parent of any young person in this synod who has said to his/her son/daughter, “I really think that you should pursue the ministry even if you are not going to have anything more than a part-time job out of it.” There might be some out there who have said that, but they haven’t told me.

If we are going to use the term, “calling,” to refer to the ministry, then we must do two things: 1) we have to actually call people, and 2) we have to ensure they can eat. Despite our use of the term, “call,” we, in practice, passively hope someone volunteers. Yes, I am painting with a broad brush stroke. Some do indeed speak directly to others about their potential usefulness to the church as an ordained minister. Most, it would seem, do not make a habit of it. When you get home, ask your coparishioners, “How often have you said to someone, ‘You should go into the ministry?’” The image of the church as Ecclesia militans (the church militant, or the church performing military service) reminds us that we wage war against Sin, Death, and the Devil, that Unholy Trinity. I’m not convinced that hanging up a few more posters of a glowering and pointing Uncle St. Samuel of Qualamoun, saying “I Want You,” will do the trick. The conversation should be direct and personal; that’s the closest thing we have to a draft notice. Barring that, I suppose we could stop telling our children to take cover in thunderstorms and then pray for foul weather.

Then, the second thing is making sure they can eat. If we would have our children and grandchildren go into the ministry, we should want them to have a living wage through it. If, however, we fear that our children and grandchildren, should they go into the ministry, would not receive the sort of compensation we wish for them, then we have an ironic situation. I don’t believe this to be an unresolvable conundrum, but may require new approaches to parish-pastor configuration.

Rostered Leader Debt Reduction

Seven pastors rostered in this synod received a total of $6,800. This distribution marked the end of the claimed seminary debt for two of those pastors. Issuance of the previous cycle’s checks was significantly delayed. A new procedure was put in place with this cycle, resulting in the processing of the requests in less than two hours and issuance of checks in short order after that. We should have processing down to less than an hour with this next cycle.

The Human Resource Challenge

I was going to bring this up in my extended essay on synods (Part 2 of my report), but that essay took on a life of its own. Human resources are a persistent challenge for us, and it is not getting easier. Throughout different aspects of the synod, there are pinch points, points at which one person is critical. When that is the case, the loss of that one person can have serious consequences. This happened when my father died just a few weeks before Synod Assembly 2017. Things that should have been done didn’t get done (or didn’t get done by the time they were supposed to be done). It happened again last year when our office administrator, Barbara Higgins, had to go on emergency medical leave. We scrambled, and, with the help of Maureen Corrigan and Tamara Riegel, we scraped by, but the deadlines we missed still haunt me. It’s not good for an organization to be dependent on one person, but we all know this situation. In how many of our congregations is there that one person who, if taken out of the picture, would leave us scrambling to pay the bills, make the emergency hospital call, or find the key to the furnace room? We have a synod that reflects her congregations. On one hand, that means the synod is sympathetic. On the other hand, synod can end up scrambling.

The two most common approaches for establishing redundancies are 1) hire more people or 2) create a committee. Hiring more people is not a practical option. Creating a committee? Well, how are our congregational committees doing? In some places, I’m sure they are doing fine, but I do hear reports about how hard it is to staff committees. We certainly know it at the synod. Several years ago, we had a Synod Council meeting of long knives, and nearly all the synod committees were disbanded. Some of them hadn’t met in years. Others were grossly understaffed and could not convince new people to join. Oh, there were certainly a number of family systems issues wrapped up in that, but it is symptomatic of the challenges we face.

I have no definitive answer to this. I am mulling it over. I am pretty sure that we have to figure this out—even if we have gotten by in the past. I bring it to your attention as a reminder that Synod, as it is currently configured, is not a massive corporation. There are benefits to that. There are also detriments. This too should factor into our conversations.


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