Friday, May 4, 2012

Synods aren't sexy

Earlier this week, down at a Lutheran camp and retreat center in Farmington, MN, I was installed as the vice moderator of the Synod of Lakes and Prairies.  

Don't worry.  I expect to only hear crickets upon that announcement.

"The What of Who and Where?" you may be asking.  It's OK.  I expect to hear that, too.

The synod is not one of the better known aspects of the Presbyterian Church.  I like to consider our synod, that which includes almost every Presbyterian church in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska and a few churches sprinkled beyond these states, one of the best kept secrets in the PC(USA).  I wish it wasn't so well kept.

The synod is one of two "middle councils" between the local congregation and the larger national organization of our denomination.  More locally our congregation is a member of a presbytery, the Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area, which covers the metro area  and stretches all the way down to Albert Lea.  Our presbytery is then a member of the synod, along with sixteen other presbyteries ranging in size from the Des Moines, Iowa metro area to the entires state of South Dakota.  We also have on non-geographic presbytery within our synod, a Dakota language Native American presbytery, the oldest Presbyterian mission west of the Mississippi River (someone PLEASE correct me if honor isn't quite right).  
These two middle councils are a big part of what distinguishes Presbyterians from some of our brothers and sisters in faith.  We are a connectional church.  By that I mean that we don't believe it is good for any one congregation to operate as an island.  We don't believe we are all out here on our own, with no support from or accountability to others.  We believe it is in the very nature of the church Christ formed to be connected to one another, partnered with each other, and in mission together.  Our connections can be local and organic, but they are also institutionalized so that sometimes, many times, we are forced into working and missional relationships with brothers and sisters in faith with whom may disagree.  Personally, I think we are all the better because of this.

We also believe that there are important ministries and missions that are better organized and carried out by levels of organization larger than local congregations not because no one cares locally, but because it is a better stewardship of resources to work together.  Presbyteries, synods, and the General Assembly do for local congregations and the whole church what we can't do on our own and what is better accomplished when we work together.  They aren't some nebulous "them" out there dictating what "we" must do.  Presbyteries, synods, and the General Assembly are "us," members of local congregations with passions and visions for ministries beyond their local community who are called and elected to carry those visions for the whole church. There are things the Presbyterian Church can do to demonstrate God's love and grace in the world that are better done on a national or regional level.  Commissioners to these other parts of our body make sure these ministries and missions happen.
It doesn't make sense for every single congregation to publish Sunday School curriculum.  It would be a poor use of our collective resources for that to happen, so the national church works to provide options for us.  It doesn't makes sense for one congregation to in Madison to provide an entire campus ministry including a magnificent student church, campus pastors, student housing, counseling, and mission outreach to the community and the world, so the synod provides a great deal of resources, networking, and oversight to Pres House, our Presbyterian presence on the UW-Madison campus.  It doesn't make sense for one congregation to work completely on it's own to start a new congregation in an unchurched neighborhood when there are four, five, or more congregations who can see that vital need from different angles, so the presbytery pools resources to do that work together.  

Our Synod of Lakes and Prairies, through an extremely hard-working staff, commissioners like me who spend two days together a few times a year, and other volunteers around our constituent presbyteries, participates in God's work in the world inexhaustibly.  

1.  We maintain covenant relationships, sharing human and financial resources (when possible), with seven Presbyterian colleges and universities.   
2.  We fund scholarships for racial-ethnic students pursuing higher education.  
3.  We provide training for the committees of presbyteries that oversee their member ministers and congregation and those that prepare women and men for ordained ministry as pastors.  
4.  We offer Self-Development of People grants to community and regional organizations, directly related to Presbyterian churches and not, that low-income people identify a problem within their life experience, organize themselves to do something about their condition, and are the direct beneficiaries of the project.  
5.  We support collegiate ministries on Presbyterian and non-Presbyterian campus through grants for specific projects and conferences for ministry leaders.  
6.  We provide support and a place for collaboration for presbytery executives in our area.  
7.  We respond to the unique mission needs across the presbyteries by connecting people across those boundaries who are best equipped to assist each other.  
8.  We heighten the awareness of our presbyteries to larger justice issues, particularly when it comes to race relations and the condition  of racial and ethnic minorities in our midst.  

Many of these things are not immediately on the ministry radar of our local congregations, but I hope you will agree they are important to the church's call to demonstrate the kingdom of God on earth.  This isn't even ALL of what we do, and it doesn't even include our famous Synod School.  (Please, talk to ANYONE in my family about Synod School.  We'd love to tell you all about it and have you join us there this year, July 22-27, in Storm Lake, IA.  You won't regret it.)

Locally, we don't hear a whole lot about what happens at the synod partly because I have not been a great communicator of these things and partly because synods don't directly relate to congregations  And because, well, synods aren't sexy.  Synods aren't the bodies that elect commissioners to the General Assembly to vote on things that get the headlines - things like sex.  Synods are the bodies that vote on changes to the constitution that get the headlines - changes about things like sex.  Synods aren't the body we LOVE because they helped our church find a new pastor.  They aren't the body we we HATE because they wouldn't help us get rid of that horrible pastor fast enough.  Synods aren't sexy.  

And without the sex to sell them mixed with maybe a bit too much humility unfortunately many of them don't market themselves or their fantastically faithful ministries to the local church. They have some excuse for this minimal marketing.  Their charge isn't necessarily to serve the local church directly.  However, as I've found myself saying over and over recently, it's members of local churches who do the praying and discerning and voting as General Assembly and Presbytery commissioners.  Synods may not directly serve local congregations directly, but they better figure out how to communicate their value to them, and they better do it pretty quickly.  

Unfortunately, my term of service to the synod as vice moderator this year and moderator next year may be the last such term for anyone.  There is an item of business that will come before the 220th General Assembly (the national decision-making body of our church that meets every two years) this year that contains a recommendation to eliminate this level of our denomination's organization.  This isn't the first time this has been before the General Assembly, but this time the recommendation seems to have more momentum than in the past.  There are some who think eliminating synods will save money, and this hope plays into the fear many people have that we don't have enough money.  Synods are funded in part by a portion of the per capita payment that is collected based on the membership of each local congregation.  Other synod funds come from congregations like ours who make a mission pledge to the different levels of the Presbyterian denomination.  Even if synods are eliminated there are a number of their functions that will need to be picked up by General Assembly or presbytery staff, meaning new positions will need to be created and funded carry out these duties.  The cost won't likely change without synods; it will only differ to whom the money is sent.

It is true that many synods around our denomination are not NEARLY as functional as ours is.  There are several regions of the country that already operate as if there is no synod.  I am not saying our current structure is not worth examining.  However, I am deeply concerned about the kinds of ministry that are taking place here in the Synod of Lakes and Prairies that may get lost in the shuffle if there isn't the continuation of the important connection in our church.  They are important and life-giving ministries, but they aren't necessarily the kind of ministries which everyone feels called to support with their own energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.  In fact, they may be ministries that have one supporter in Wisconsin, two in Minnesota, another in Iowa, and then someone way out in the far northwestern corner of North Dakota, but thank GOD for these supporters who feel passionately called to work on behalf of our church in anyone of these unique ways.  The problem is if we eliminate the synod, the infrastructure for their meeting organization, the bookkeeper for their grant monies, the institutional memory for their legacy of ministry, we make it very difficult, if not impossible for them to continue to work for Christ in these unique and vital missions.

I hope it doesn't come to this.

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