Sunday, May 5, 2013

First Impressions from a Bishop-Electing Synod Assembly

I am back from Synod Assembly, where we have elected a new bishop:  Robert Schaefer.  If you are a praying person, he has asked that we keep him in prayer.

We had a wealth of good candidates, and I'm pleased with our choice.  He's already done a lot of work with our synod, and he's served in the national headquarters too.  I like his vision of us being a people of the table, by which he means the Eucharist.  In one session, he said that when he comes to visit churches, if he's bishop, he'll be expecting to meet us at the table.  He sees this sacrament as the most important thing we do.

He's got a lot of work ahead of him, and he knows it.  He says that he'll hire people who don't look like him.  If I may put it more bluntly:  he's an ordained, older white guy, married with children.  The Synod leadership and the national church leadership has been full of older, ordained white guys, married with children.  There's a lot of work to be done reaching out to younger people, to non-white people, to people of different sexual orientations, and to the non-churched.  There's still a lot of work to be done incorporating the skills and talents of women, and there's even more work to be done in inclusivity with lay leadership.

And we haven't even begun to include transgendered people.  But that's a topic for a different day.

I've never been to a Synod Assembly where we elect a bishop, and I wasn't sure what to expect.  I'm still a bit baffled by the process.  It consumed a lot of time, and I'm not sure it needed to do so.  In between the various ballots, we heard reports from other parts of the church, but we didn't get to the heart of what really interests me.  This was my 5th Assembly, and the reports begin to feel the same from one year to the next.  Is there much new to say about the Malaria campaign?

I would rather have had a chance to network with individual churches to find out what's working and what's not.  I don't know how we'd get people to be honest about what's not working, but that conversation would fascinate me.

I would have rather had a chance to do some directed visioning.  I have no idea what that would look like, but surely someone could have led us through that.

I had little nudgings along the way.  When we heard the presentations about new mission plants, I was struck by how much the new mission plants are like old mission plants:  we go somewhere where there's no Lutheran church, and we try to get one started, and we hope for a building at some point.

But what if  a church plant involved ideas or activities instead of recruiting people to sit in pews on Sundays?  I would love to be part of creating a center for Liturgy and the Arts.  The center would explore ways that artistic activities can enrich and undergird liturgy and worship--and vice versa. 

I've had a few experiences with children and music, and I'm convinced that we'll reach more people in the future generation by starting a drumming ministry than by some of the other ways we've tried.  We have lots of enthusiasm for Vacation Bible School, with lots of non-member children, but then we don't see those children again--it's worth wondering why.

As we moved through the election process, I was struck by how few concrete ideas I heard.  I was enthusiastic by the macro visions that each candidate offered.  But how will those ideas work in real time, on the ground?  I still don't know--and maybe the bishop can never really know until one is in the office.

Much of Friday afternoon was taken with smaller group sessions with the final three candidates.  Again, I found it interesting, but the format didn't allow for much depth.  We had 30 seconds to ask questions that would be answered in 2 minutes or less.

What I really wanted was a long, lingering discussion.  Could we have moved more quickly through earlier balloting to leave time for that kind of discussion?  I think we could have--we were using electronic voting mechanisms, after all.  We could have had less reports and more conversations of depth.

I was pleased that we had two strong female candidates, one of whom made it to the final 3.  The one who didn't make it to the final rounds was born in 1970, and she checked the box that said "married," and her partner's name was female.  So, I'm part of a synod where a younger lesbian in a committed relationship can make it to the final 5--that fact encourages me.  The other female candidate, the one who made it to the final 3, has worked for the Bishop, and had a lot to offer.  I'm hopeful that she'll have a role in the structure that the new Bishop sets up.

My concerns about Synod Assembly remain the same, and more so this year.  It's an expensive proposition to come to Synod Assembly--I imagine that this expense prevents many a smaller church from participating fully.  On alternating years, like this one, Synod Assembly is held Thursday-Saturday, which excludes many working people and students.

What would a Synod Assembly look like, if we'd never had one, if we invented it at this time and place, from scratch?

More thoughts to come, I'm sure, as the week goes on.

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