by Associate in Minsitry Michelle Angalet
Mission Conference Representative
The word "synod" comes from the greek "synodus" meaning "assembly" or "meeting." The 65 synods of the ELCA are, in fact, assemblies of congregations. Though it is geographical boundaries that define us, it is our shared and common mission of doing God's work with our hands that truly binds us together and defines us. Picking up where it left off in September, the Southeastern Synod Council met January 13 & 14 at Messiah Lutheran Church in Montgomery, AL and continued its conversation about how our synod might better reflect an assembly of congregations bound by and reflective of the Spirit's mission for the sake of the world in our four states. There seems to be no argument of the fact that our synod's geography (over 200,000 square miles and the third largest in the ELCA behind the Alaska and Rocky Mountain Synods) makes this task especially challenging. But the synod staff and the Synod Council are also in agreement that this challenge does not make our task impossible. Rather, there is consensus that what is needed is a change in the working culture of how it is that we, the synod staff, the synod council, and all 160 congregations, live out our missional identity and walk together. And we are not alone in our thinking. This, in fact, is the thrust of the LIFT Task Force recommendations that were approved by the 2011 Churchwide Assembly. So, as the ELCA is a people who live out their mission and ministry in three expressions - churchwide, synod, and congregation - the leadership of the Southeastern Synod is actively engaged in redefining its role as a resource to support and to nurture the mission and ministries that our congregations are called to do.
Though we tended to our usual business of reviewing reports and responding to proposals, including the approval of a 2013-14 Southeastern Synod Ministry Funding Plan and the 2013 Southeastern Synod Compensation Guidelines for consideration at the 2012 Synod Assembly (an Assembly of the Assembly!), we also spent a great deal of time discussing J. Russell Crabtree's book The Fly in the Ointment: Why Denominations Aren't Helping Their Congregations... and How They Can. It was assigned reading for the meeting. Crabtree works from ten key thoughts to advocate for revisioning how it is that synods (or other regional expressions of the church) can truly be transformational organizations. That is, what is it that they need to be doing to empower and support congregations so that they can be engaged in ministries that transform the communities that they are a part of. These thoughts are consistent with some of the assumptions and research findings on which the LIFT Task Force recommendations were made and include, among others, the notions that
- there is a need for the church to operate from the reality that people now have many "options" when it comes to living out their faith and spirituality and that they don't default to denominational loyalty in choosing a church;
- synod staffs aren't able to provide what congregations need for a variety of reasons (funding, too much emphasis on "putting out fires," etc.); and
- local leaders (pastors, councils, etc.) are searching for better tools to transform their congregational ministries, again, for many different reasons.
Under Bishop Gordy's leadership, our synod staff recently outlined some short-term and long-term strategies to begin addressing these issues and to begin steering our large synod into the waters of cultural change. These strategies were shared with and affirmed by the Synod Council. Short-term strategies focus on how to provide more practical kinds of resources and training for congregational leaders and include having more time at the 2012 Synod Assembly for practical workshops; tapping into the deep and expert resources we have within our own synod to lead such workshops; intentional offerings of practical ministry workshops or support at Spring and Fall conference meetings and at the Rostered Leader Convocation. Future strategies include the encouragement and support of nongeographic coalitions that covenant together for learning and support around shared concerns, ministries and commitments; identification of gifted leaders from within our synod, lay and rostered, to provide leadership training; support the LTCA as a delivery platform for leadership development and education (more on this below); and create synod DVD and web-based resources to help us achieve our goals.
One of the realities of our culture that needs to change is how we refer to "the synod." By its very definition, the synod is us, the congregations and people gathered in Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and Mississippi, to do God's work with our hands. It is not the synod staff. Whatever the reasons for why "the synod" has been our default language as we talk about our church, it is time that we set them aside. It is time that we refer to "our Synod" and to be open to figuring out, together, how we can best focus on and equip ourselves to be in mission and ministry as the body of Christ for the sake of the world. Of course, the same can be said for "our ELCA."
This reflection would not be complete without some comments on LTCA (Lutheran Theological Center in Atlanta). About a year ago, Dr. Everett Flanigan joined our synod staff as Director for Evangelical Mission (DEM) and Assistant to the Bishop. Theoretically he spends half of his time as DEM and half as an Assistant to the Bishop with specific responsibility for LTCA. LTCA has had a number of faces and shapes over the years and it has been Dr. Flanigan's task to lead a conversation about how LTCA might best serve the needs of our Southeastern Synod, and also our ELCA. He presented an update of that conversation to Synod Council and will have a specific proposal for Council to consider at its June meeting. The Council and synod staff are excited about possibilities on the table for LTCA to serve as a "virtual" center that would be the "lay missional leadership school" for our synod and would play a role in continuing education and preparation of congregational leaders.
Finally, a few other items of note.
- We look forward to welcoming our synod's new Director for Evangelical Mission in February. Diaconal Minister Rebecca Kolowé will join us from the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod. She brings a wonderful portfolio of gifts and experience that will bless us in working with new mission congregations, with congregations currently engaged in the renewal process, and with supporting our synod staff's efforts to promote missional planning and ministry in all of our congregations.
- Earlier this month each congregation should have received a 2012 Congregational Pledge Form from Synod Treasurer Lee Smith. It was sent to the treasurers of every congregation. The Council strongly encourages all congregations to complete this form and return it as requested. It asks each congregation to provide a pledge or estimated pledge amount to synod mission support. Our synod staff and Council recognize that these numbers may not be exactly reflective of actual giving. But 64% of our congregations in FY 2011-12 did not provide any pledge estimation to our Synod office! When we ask our members to support our congregations through their estimated financial contributions, we must do the same when it is asked of us as leaders in our congregations. It has much to do with building a sense of shared accountability for the work that we are called to do.
- An additional outcome of the Synod Council meeting was the formation of a Task Force committed to exploration of possible alternatives for restoration of staff salaries to at least their 2009 levels, prior to salary cuts necessitated by decreased mission support.
- As a member of the Southeastern Synod Council, I am excited about the conversation that is taking place! I am excited about the visioning that is happening in our synod and the way in which the Spirit is leading! I am excited about the potential use of LTCA as a way to resource and feed our rostered and lay leaders! And I'm excited to hear the voices of our Southeastern Synod brothers and sisters in this conversation.
So let us hear from you! Please respond to this reflection with your thoughts and comments. Feel free to contact any member of Synod Council with questions or ideas. Connect with your Conference Representative to Council and arrange a presentation to engage this discussion or talk about ideas for specific workshops that might be beneficial in your conference. Talk about what nongeographical coalitions might serve the mission and ministry you engage in and recognize that the Spirit is loose in the world! Below is a link to the Synod Council page on the Southeastern Synod website. Feel free to review the agenda and exhibits to learn more about what Council considered and to see what good work is already going on right here. This is our Southeastern Synod, and this work of reimagining and retooling is our work. Your voice is an integral part of what it means to be in ministry together.
Click here to link to the Southeastern Synod Council webpage.