WV-WMD Synod Assembly 2021
Report of the Bishop
These past nineteen months, it has not been so much of a case of the elephant in the room as the room inside the elephant. The COVID-19 pandemic has consumed us. Every aspect of our lives has been touched by it. Every aspect of our lives has been changed by it. We talk about little else, and, when we do talk about something else, the coronavirus inevitably infects that conversation as well. I suspect that some synod history geek one hundred years from now will read this report—allow me the sweet delusion that there will still be synod history geeks a hundred years from now—and think, “That’s a bit of hyperbole,” but we who live now cannot help but experience it that way. Strangely, a century ago, WV Synod Assembly minutes made scant mention of the Spanish Flu. Those old minutes suggest a synod that was plowing along with business as usual. I honestly do not know how that was possible for them. The Spanish Flu was, statistically, more deadly than COVID-19. Perhaps death was a more present reality in those days, even without the Spanish Flu, than it is now. Perhaps our greater scientific knowledge contributes toward a different state of mind. Perhaps politicization (or a different politicization) and mass communication (or changes in mass communication) has brought this pandemic fully into the naked public square. No matter the cause, we seem to be in a very different place than our synodical assembly ancestors.
To ignore the pandemic and the ways in which it affects our syondical life would be straight up denial. On the other hand, we must ask: In what ways has COVID-19 become our god?
You shall have no other gods.
What does this mean?
We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.
—Luther, Small Catechism (Tappert ed.)
Luther expounds in the Large Catechism:
What does “to have a god” mean, or what is God? Answer: A “god” is the term for that to which we look for all good and in which we find refuge in all need. Therefore, to have a god is nothing else than to trust and believe in that one with your whole heart. (Kolb-Wengert ed.)
The mirror image of Luther’s “god” is not merely that which we do not fear, love, and trust in above all things; it is that which we invest with the power of life and death, that which we loathe, that from which we expect nothing but evil, and that from which we would flee, not that we might flee to the One True God, but rather flee in abject terror, counting salvation as nothing more than distance. When that thing becomes the beginning and ending of our thoughts, words, and deeds, we have a religion, but not a religion that holds the Triune God as its object of hope and adoration. Perhaps we have lost the memory of the ancients. Remember: Not every god is friendly; some are out to kill you.
Nevertheless, here we are. We must reckon with the pandemic. May God grant us the wisdom to reckon wisely so that that we accord it consideration no less than it deserves but also no more.
Every congregation and the synod as synod have been challenged by the pandemic. Our routine way of being church has been disrupted. We are creatures with bodies. Would we even be human beings without a body? By consequence, the church made of human beings thrives when bodies are involved. For nineteen months, we have tried to figure out how not to be bodies, how to deal with the fragility of our bodies, and how to be bodies when it is our bodies (or something our bodies may be carrying) that we fear. If you don’t think that this is a serious question of theological anthropology (the theology of what it is to be human) and everything upon which theological anthropology touches (which is pretty much everything), you have missed the bulk of the iceberg. This is huge, and this should occupy a good part of our theological reflection in the future. Congregations and pastors have done an amazing job trying to adapt. How do we worship? How do we preach, teach, administer the sacraments? How do we provide pastoral care? How do we engage in mutual conversation and consolation? How do we fellowship? How do we serve? How do we engage in the governance of the church? If nothing else, the pandemic has shown us just how integral our bodies are to the life of the Christian community. Adapting, we have experimented with Zoom, Facebook, mailings, telephones, masks, hand sanitizers, deep cleanings, physical distancing, and touchless thermometers. We’ve adapted worship forms, sacramental distribution practices, music, the exchange of peace, and even how we get in and out of the church building. Congregations and pastors accomplished this more quickly than any of us could have imagined possible. Indeed, congregations and pastors deserve praise not only for the rapidity of their response but also the appropriateness of their response. Having comparing notes with those in other synods, it is apparent to me that the congregations and pastors in WV-WMD lead the way in common sense and orthopraxy. In other words, not only were things done to promulgate the gospel among the people in ways that mitigated unnecessary risks, but they were done without indulging heresy and liturgical nitwittery. Could things have been better? Yes. We can always look back and say, “We should have done this,” or, “We should have done that,” but it is a good day when you can say, “Well, it wasn’t perfect, but it got the job done and worked better than we could have hoped.”
The pandemic is not over, and the consequences of missteps during the pandemic will remain with us for some time. Some of these consequences we can predict; others will percolate to the surface in the months, years to come. In some cases, we will not even recognize the connection. Each congregation and each pastor will have to navigate treacherous waters. A ship may survive the maelstrom only to be wrecked upon the debris lurking beneath the surface. Congregational leadership, lay and clergy, should be advised to keep a sharp lookout. It is tempting but ill-advised to cry, “All’s well!” when the danger is simply no longer apparent. Establishment of mutual ministry committees, but not in the way that has been common among us, may prove helpful. The heretofore dominant models of mutual ministry committees are most likely inadequate for the days ahead. Personnel committee, complaint department, and support group all fall short of a holistic approach. Synod is moving, with its own mutual ministry committee, in a new direction, a direction that focuses upon the health and effectiveness of the ministry as a whole, the pastor being an important player in that ministry but not the sole player. The Synod Mutual Ministry Committee is using the Driesen Manual as the primary informant for its reformation. A mutual ministry committee that functions more as an organ of self-reflection in a congregation may help navigate uncertain seas. Should synod encourage congregations to establish congregational mutual ministry committees with an eye to the health of ministry as a whole and support them in implementation of the same?
The local congregation does not live in an ecclesiastical vacuum. The actions of other ecclesiastical entities, the synod, the Churchwide expression, other ELCA congregations both within and without this synod, and ecumenical entities, can either support or undermine the work within a given congregation. With this in mind, the synod has attempted to offer advice and counsel to congregations and pastors on pandemical matters without overstepping what is within the power of the synod constitutionally. Targeted and private communications were part of this strategy; what might be good for one congregation (or pastor) might not be good for another. Whenever these matters dealt with non-essentials and matters of congregational freedom under our polity, the synod was careful not to do more damage than good, trusting lay and pastoral congregational leadership to exercise their best judgment within context. Thus, published guidance offered suggestions and parameters within which each congregation could find its own best course. The synod also monitored the changing regulatory landscape, attempting to keep up with the executive orders of two states and one commonwealth. This proved very difficult, but, to the best of the synod’s ability, given our human resources, the synod made that information available through the website.
Beyond the synod (and also among our ecumenical counterparts) we have witnessed the rise of sacramental practices which do not conform to our Confessional theology. While we cannot expect our ecumenical counterparts to hew to the Lutheran Confessions, when a Lutheran congregation outside our synod departs from Confessional norms, it is even harder to maintain right practice. “My sister-in-law’s congregation in _______ is doing virtual communion, why can’t we?” is both a theological and a pastoral challenge. Let me be clear: bad theology is never good pastoral care. Let me be equally clear: virtual communion is not a participation in the Sacrament of the True Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Those who claim that they offer the True Body and Blood via virtual communion lie to their people. The Formula of Concord states that it is not the words of consecration alone that make the sacrament but the whole action, and that action includes distribution of that which has been consecrated.(_FC SD VII_:83-87) Where there is no distribution of that which is consecrated, there is no sacrament. I will happily provide a full exposition should I be asked. Virtual communion, therefore, is not an abuse of the sacrament, as there is no sacrament; it is an abuse of the people, as those who hawk this practice claim to offer the sacrament but instead offer a placebo. It is ecclesiastical malpractice, one which, I give thanks, has not found purchase on our soil. Still, we must be on our guard lest it take root.
Virtual baptism has also come up. Thankfully, this has been much easier to deal with as emergency baptism has never required clergy or even a gathered assembly. The greatest challenge related to baptism has been the misidentification of things that are good with respect to baptism but not necessary. Most of us clergy have been taught that baptism should take place during the principal worship service of the congregation. That is indeed a good, but it is neither absolute nor ordinate necessity and is no factor in the determination of the validity of the formal or the material cause of baptism. It is a pedagogical good in the same way in which baptism by immersion is a pedagogical good. We must be careful under pandemical conditions not to insist upon that which is not necessary when such an insistence becomes an obstacle to doing that which is necessary. Baptism is necessary (Augsburg Confession IX); being baptized on Sunday morning is not. Given the real threat to life that the pandemic poses, congregants and pastors are advised not to delay baptism, baptizing sooner rather than later whenever life is in the balance, even if that means baptizing in the hospital or the home. Furthermore, attention should be given first to the protocols that might be established in a congregation for baptism under pandemical conditions (both by clergy and, in case of emergency, by the laity). We may have focused upon Eucharistic protocols because we hold mass on a more frequent basis, but, from the position of necessity, baptism takes priority. As this pandemic is not over, should synod provide further advice and counsel on pandemical baptism?
In the midst of the pandemic, the pious desire of the clergy has been to administer the means of grace to their congregants. If Eucharistic celebration was suspended, it was not because the clergy wanted to suspend it. They felt compelled to do so out of a right concern for the bodies of their parishioners. At the same time, they struggled mightily, out of right concern for the souls of their parishioners, to figure out how the means of grace might be delivered. In the midst of that struggle, Synod sought to remind all that God is superabundant in his grace towards us in that he gives us the Gospel in more than one way.(Smalcald Articles III:IV) In the teaching emphasis over the past few decades on the benefits of frequent Holy Communion, we seem to have forgotten that the Gospel is also communicated through the preached Word, baptism, absolution, and the mutual conversation and consolation of the brethren and sistren. It is this last which gets scant attention. It happens. It happens all the time, but we don’t often recognize that it is as much a means of grace as Holy Communion. It is not a fallback position, i.e., it is not something we do when we cannot commune and only when we cannot commune. It should be our daily bread, taking place inside and outside the walls of our churches, engaged in with joy and intentionality by clergy and laity alike. Much of the anxiety over whether Holy Communion could be administered in our churches might have been obviated had we rightly understood and appreciated this wonderful means of grace. At the same time, a conversation without the gospel is no more a means of grace than water without the Word is baptism. Should synod inculcate a deeper understanding and greater appreciation for the mutual conversation and consolation of the saints?
Along with not giving sufficient attention to mutual conversation and consolation of the saints, I regret my failure to extol the value of personal piety. Again, for decades, piety has been a dirty word among many, personal piety even more so. Piety, however, does not need to be dour or pharisaic. On the contrary, piety can be joyful and compassionate. We sometimes forget that the Inner Mission Movement that birthed our social ministry organizations was spearheaded by Pietists. Piety is about prayer and conversation with God and neighbor. Piety is about daily vocation. Piety is conviction that things temporal do not trump things eternal and that things eternal change the way we see and interact with things temporal. The “personal” in personal piety does not deny community but recognizes that the community is made up of individuals. During the pandemic, it became much harder to be communal—-that bodies thing again. If there is any image that might help us think of the relationship between the communal and the personal, it may be those videos of multiple people playing music or singing together on Youtube. Do we think that each of those musicians did not practice, hour after hour, in private in order to make beautiful communal music? The church as choir, each voice contributing to the harmony, is a venerable image. Personal piety is both the practice of the individual voice in advance of the performance, and it is the individual performer still humming his/her part as the echoes of the other voices reverberate in his/her soul long after company is parted. In truth, personal piety is never really private because we always sing with the saints, for the saints in triumph sing with us even when it appears that we are alone.
It is not lost upon me how missed opportunities have peppered this pandemical season. In some cases, it has only been in hindsight that the opportunity was recognized. In other cases, the opportunity was recognized, but finite human resources devoted to other pressing matters militated against capitalization. In still other cases, it was simply a matter of bad timing. Sometimes synod was too far ahead of the curve, sometimes too far behind. The pandemic, however, is not over. How we move forward remains a question, one which Synod Mutual Ministry Committee should examine.
Let us move on to the nuts and bolts of the synod. Undoubtedly, the financial position of the synod is on the minds of some if not most. Our last assembly was largely devoted to that question. I direct your attention to the report of the Treasurer.
The 2019 Synod Assembly ordered Synod Council to evaluate synod staffing with an eye to reducing some positions to part-time. Synod Council, in adopting the budget for FY2021-2022, reduced the hours of the synod office administrator. Synod Council offered a choice between the reduced hours and a severance package. The severance package was accepted, the administrator’s service concluding at the end of January 2021. Since then, Synod Council outsourced bookkeeping operations to a congregation on a trial basis and has recently employed a part-time bookkeeper. We are still sorting through the various tasks formerly assigned to the administrator position, trying to determine what is worth keeping, what is best tossed, and where those things kept are best lodged. As we move forward, codifying the various procedures related to office operations presents itself as a long overdue measure. In every prior handoff, the transitions have been smoother, with one generation teaching the next. We should never have assumed that this would always be the case. More importantly, some tasks simply don’t require the same person to do them every year. Well-designed operating manuals would allow greater flexibility in staffing while maintaining continuity of operations. No small part of this has been the back office operations associated with Synod Assembly. We have been able to make some significant changes on the fly, but there is still more to do.
A major challenge already upon us is the recruitment of clergy. The number of clergy available for call has been decreasing for years. Seminaries are graduating one seminarian for every 3-4 calls seeking a first-call pastor. WV-WMD is particularly challenged by its compensation scale in comparison with other synods. There is also a perception out there that central Appalachia is an undesirable place to live and serve. It should also be noted that there has been a change in the assignment process for first-call candidates. It is now closer to a diocesan (think baseball farm school system) than the national assignment. This means we will need to raise more of our own. Remember, candidates for the ministry can be young, old, or somewhere in between. If you see someone with the piety and potential for ordained ministry, talk to them and pray for them. They may be waiting for a sign from God, and you might just be that sign. Synod will need to develop and execute a recruitment strategy, and the participation of the clergy and the parishioners of the synod will have to be a part of it. Synod has also begun to “market” WV-WMD. There are good things about being here. Some of us have been here for a long time, and it is by choice. We do not always highlight those good things, and we should, as they are part of the package.
Synod Clergy Continuing Education is an area where transition in operations had begun before the downsizing of the office. Prior to the pandemic, the clergy had taken ownership of their own events. Improved venue selection, offering of options, and program design had taken root. During the pandemic, the Synod Clergy Continuing Education Event Team diligently set up a series of remote events. This proved much more difficult than the standard event, especially with other pressures on the home front. Exhaustion has forced a pause, but there is already talk of getting things rolling again after a hiatus. Fortunately, other education events can be had remotely, allowing the synodical team to scale back to that which only the synod can offer.
Just prior to the pandemic, work had begun on two major polity projects: the reformation of the office of dean and the development of a new supply preacher program. The former has already been implemented in phases. The latter is being officially rolled out at this assembly with the recruitment table being run by the Commission on Synodical Lay Worship Leaders. Note well, the Bishop Lay Worship Leaders Program is not being eliminated, but there will be no new accessions into that program. It is hoped that SLWL will increase the number of people available to congregations in need of supply and offer better quality control. Please refer to the report of the Commission on Synodical Lay Worship Leaders for more information.
Prior to the pandemic, synod developed proto-type worship resources related to the opioid crisis. The pandemic derailed that project. When the pandemic begins to wind down, we should remember how the opioid crisis has ravaged our territory before and during the pandemic. The opioid crisis did not go away. It merely got pushed off the front page. That said, we will have continuing work to do with the pandemic as well. A requiem mass has been prepared for that time when we can gather to lament the loss of so many, friends and family among them.
In recent years, we have grieved the closure of congregations and church buildings. Our Saviour, Ravenswood, and Holy Trinity, Sharpsburg, have closed. St. Matthew’s, Benwood, has held its last service and is in the final administrative stages of closure. Cross of Grace, Hurricane, has held the last service in its building. St. Mark’s, Upper Flats, is under synodical administration. Gifts have been received from the closed congregations, and a gift has also been received from Calvary, Brandywine, a tithe of a bequest. No portion of those gifts has been needed to cover routine operations. Synod Council is still discerning the details of how to best use those gifts to advance the ministry of the Gospel and is doing so with the spirit of the gifts in mind. It should also be noted that St. Matthew’s, Benwood, gifted their building to the local Church of God which lost its building in a fire and has not had the resources to rebuild, thus continuing the building’s service as a place of worship.
The closure of congregations will become an increasing challenge for the synod. As a congregation comes to the end of its life, it can happen that the liquid assets are so depleted that even insurance and utilities cannot be covered. Synod has stepped in to cover those expenses, when the congregation is already in the process of closing or divesting itself of its building, because an uninsured or deteriorating building is a liability for the synod. If the building is located in WV, for example, a congregation that closes without making final disposition of the real estate and chattel leaves behind an abandoned ecclesiastical property. Such property would come to the synod whether the synod wants it or not. So, synod has subsidized closing churches with the understanding that the synod will be reimbursed upon sale of property. It is only a matter of time, given property values and depopulation, until the synod is in possession of a building the sale value of which is less than the synod has invested in insurance, utilities, and required maintenance. Demolition is not inexpensive, but it may be the best course to cost reduction in some situations. While the synod has been reluctant, throughout its history, to advocate closure and has only once taken administration of a congregation as prelude to closure and sale, it may be unwise to avoid this conversation much longer. Should the synod establish benchmarks that trigger conversation with fiscally imperiled congregations, including conversation about synodical administration?
Synod communications has been an issue for years. There was much weeping and gnashing of teeth over the synod website during the first years of my episcopal tenure. The condition of the website had started to improve prior to the pandemic, but the need for a common platform for pandemic-related information forced website development and maintenance into high gear. There were near daily updates in the early days of the pandemic, and, since then, most weeks see more than one update. The website is not pretty, but it is loaded with information. Whether that information is as easily accessed as one might hope is debatable, though one pastor in another synod did tell me that he comes to our website for information because he can find what he wants on our site and cannot on his synod’s site.
Meanwhile, we are shifting our Facebook usage away from mere announcements to include more human interest. It should be noted that the DEM has her own Facebook page as does the unofficial “WV-WMD Prays.” WV-WMD WELCA also has its own page. There is even a page (“Team Wittenberg”) just for Lutherans interested in LARCUM (the West Virginia Lutheran-Anglican-Roman Catholic-United Methodist tetralogue).
Email communication encountered a rough patch when Yahoo! stopped supporting Yahoo! Groups, the platform employed by The Bishop’s Roadshow. The Roadshow moved to Mailchimp, in the process losing more than 300 subscribers. While that may sound catastrophic, a review of the Yahoo! Groups-based list included many of our brothers and sisters who are now members of the Church Triumphant. At just over 100 subscribers, the Mailchimp-based list includes neither every pastor nor an officer in every congregation. Of Synod Assembly registrants, 42% indicate (as of the writing of this report) that they subscribe to The Roadshow. Subscription is voluntary, and synod is not going to add people to the list without their consent (as cumulative unsubscriptions negatively affects our use of the platform). Repeated messages have gone out asking folks to subscribe, but the list has not grown much in eight months. This is worrisome as The Roadshow is the synod’s primary email channel. A clergy email list is used for clergy-specific communications. A congregation (vice)president list was attempted several years ago but without success. Trying to set up such a list again was explored more recently (pre-pandemic), but we were advised that the same issues would militate against it. Whether we are in a different situation now is unclear. The easiest and most immediate fix would be to have every congregation designate one person to subscribe to The Roadshow. Spam filters are the greatest enemy to mass email communications, and one has to actually open and read the email in order to benefit from its information. Except for Facebook, synod communications intentionally refrain from transmitting gratuitous items. If it is in an email, e.g., it is probably worth opening to, at least, see if it applies to you.
To wrap this up, allow me to turn to matters of polity. The pandemic has been a time of intense passions and conflict. Much of that was outside our congregations, but no small portion of it moved in with us and set up house. Some congregations experienced this with greater intensity than others. Anecdotally, those in which the pastor had served for a longer period of time and built up a high level of trust tended to weather conflict better than those where the pastor’s tenure had been significantly shorter or where pre-existing tensions already existed. Inadequately developed polity structures and/or the facility of lay leaders to properly utilize those polity structures frequently exacerbated tensions and militated against conflict navigation. While polity is no guarantee of prudence, and the best systems can fail, poor practice in polity significantly increases the likelihood of destructive conflict. Remedial instruction in congregational polity (i.e., decision-making mechanisms) and politics (i.e., decision-making dynamics) would be a timely addition to synod educational offerings for congregational leaders. On-line sessions on congregational governing documents have already been offered, but further training on the duties of officers, the running of meetings, and legislative and administrative processes would be salutary.
The question of voting membership in congregations has been raised. The required provision in The Model Constitution for Congregations states that a voting member is a confirmed member who has made a contribution of record and communed in the congregation during the current or preceding calendar year. Can this be dispensed? Technically, yes, if one can claim that the requirement is impossible to fulfill (cf. ultra posse nemo obligatur). Obviously, it is not impossible to make a contribution of record, noting that there is no minimum contribution level. It is the communing in the congregation that becomes the question. Pay close attention to the wording of the provision. If someone communed on Christmas Eve of 2019, they would have satisfied the requirement through the end of calendar year 2020. There were very few congregations that did not hold at least one communion service during 2020; in fact, only one comes to mind. Therefore, one communion in 2020 carries the voting member through the end of calendar year 2021. To absent oneself from the communion and yet attend a congregational meeting is a strange juxtaposition. The standard should not be relaxed as it is unnecessary to deviate, communion being possible even if inconvenient. The standard is pitifully low as is; lowering it exposes the congregation to potential hijacking by those who do not actively participate in its life. This we know from experience; those interested in polity horror stories my attend one of my constitution lectures.
Congregations that have regularly updated their constitutions discovered that they had provision for holding meetings via telecommunications platforms. Those that have not kept up with constitutional changes found themselves, if they bothered to pay attention to their constitutions, without such provision. While all the civil jurisdictions in which our congregations reside have provision for emergency bylaws that, if enacted, would allow congregation councils to meet remotely; congregation meetings are another matter. Though it is unlikely that any judge, in the midst of the pandemic, would rule against a church trying to do the best it can under bad conditions, why provide fodder to the cantankerous and malcontent when it is easy enough just to do it according to Hoyle? Besides, when we do not follow the rules, why should we expect anyone else to follow the rules? Take this as advice to update your constitutions.
I was admonished by a member of the Committee on the Bishop’s Report to keep it under twenty pages. This is eight, and this is done (even if it is not exhaustive).