Two years ago, in a paper to my district’s College of Visitors, I warned of “a cascade failure of synod structure.” Congregations declining in numbers, and the subsequent increased burden on pastors (multi-point parishes, worker priests) would result in fewer pastors able to serve on boards/commissions, etc.
The current structure of synod was really set in the 1950’s. (The deck chairs have been moved around a couple of times, but the Good Ship Missourah continued on her way.) Statistical analyses done at the time assured us that by the turn of the century the synod would have over 5 million members. So throughout the 50’s and 60’s, the synod adjusted its structure to handle the numbers: 10 shiny colleges to train teachers for our school system, 35 districts with full time executives to oversee all the program boards and experts, and eventually a Synod Office Building that any mid-level manager would be proud to drive to each day. All of this came just as the synod reached peak membership and began her slow decline. (The two are related, but that’s another story.)
For 40 years, the synod soldiered bravely on, supporting massive administrative overhead, almost all of it unnecessary. As one faithful district president in the 1980’s used to say, “Replace the entire executive staff of synod with an answering machine. In 3 years, see how many people have even noticed.” But, we were assured, it was all quite important work.
Now, the synod is being refined as if by fire. Most visibly, we have lost 3 of those 10 colleges. They were arguably the least Lutheran of the lot, so their loss hasn’t been noticed by the central core of the synod. But that was only prelude, the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Less visibly but more importantly, congregations no longer have five figure surpluses to send on to the synod. Instead, they have five figure deficits as they try to support their pastor. Congregations are joining together. Or, if not, they are using worker-priests to provide the Gospel.
In the two decades I have served as a pastor, I have not seen such desperation in calling for nominations for synod office. They are all volunteer offices. So, it’s a thing you do in addition to your living. For laymen now in their late 70’s or early 80’s, the time is coming to pass the torch to the next generation. But there are few to receive it, fewer still who desire to spend their days in meetings away from family. Pastors who are serving two or three parishes (in addition to outside employment!) are lucky if they can attend a Winkel or District Pastor’s conference. They have not time or energy to devote to meetings-that-could-have-been-an-email.
I think in this cycle the posts will be filled. According to desperate email #1 that I received, the synod is running at about half the usual number of nominations. It is still enough to fill all offices. By the time they are done (the deadline is the end of the month) they will likely have enough nominations to put at least two names for each office. I think this convention will have all the regular sort of convention things. But it may be the last one to do so. There used to be people clamoring, even campaigning, to be nominated for these officious and lofty positions. We’re not seeing so much of that now.
I think that’s good news. We shouldn’t see that in the church. We were unwilling to stop it on our own for the sake of the Word of God and Love of Neighbor. Now, God is bringing that era to a close, whether we want it that way or not.
I expect filling offices to get exponentially harder moving forward. I think this is also a good thing. The closer the center of gravity in the church is to the pulpit and the pew, the better off we will be. It’s starting to move. Thanks be to God.