The Blue Ribbon Plan, by Rev. Martin R. Noland

(Editor’ s Note: We have had a lot of interest shown in Rev. Noland’s article and so we thought we would publish it as a post. You can also find it on the site in Issue 2 of the BJS Quarterly. If you click here it will take you to an article published last fall on this issue which has links to other articles on this same subject. The archives of the Editor’s Blog from that same time period has some more stories. Pastor Preus has also written on the Blue Ribbon Plan.)

Introduction
In the realm of church structure and governance, reviews of the “big picture” need to be made about every ten conventions. These reviews are needed because the synod tinkers with its bylaws at every convention. Ten conventions, i.e., thirty years, of tinkering usually results in confusion in government and structure, duplication of effort, or worse.

I, therefore, offer my thanks to President Kieschnick for appointing in 2005 the “Blue Ribbon Task Force on Synod Structure and Governance.” I also offer my sincere thanks to each member of that committee, who have already spent countless hours on this necessary task, and who will undoubtedly spend many more. Thanks are also due to the members of the Commission on Structure, who help the synod keep tabs on needed changes in the interim.

The Proposals in General

The result of the work of the Blue Ribbon Task Force is the document “Walking Together: The LCMS Future,” available at the synod’s website (http://www.lcms.org). The specific proposals are described in the document “Proposals and Possibilities for Consideration and Discussion” (hereafter “Blue Ribbon Plan”; cited page numbers refer to this document). Although there are some good and needed proposals in the Blue Ribbon Plan, there are many others that are bad or unnecessary. Each change in structure or government needs to be considered on its own merits or demerits. The synod needs to beware of its habits at previous conventions. After passing a couple of highly-debated resolutions, it often grew impatient and passed everything else that the chairmen recommended. The danger is that at the 2010 convention the delegates will get worn out and unwisely rubber-stamp harmful proposals.

This means that those who care about the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod need to review these proposals in advance, and identify which are bad or unnecessary. The demerits of the “bad or unnecessary” proposals should be publicized as early and as frequently as possible. Then the “good and necessary” proposals can be discussed in a positive way for the good of all members of the church, i.e, the “common good.” At the same time, we should be aware that changes in structure have a limited goal. They are not the way to synodical harmony and unity. The latter goals can only be achieved through deliberate and fraternal discussion of theological issues, as many synodical leaders are reminding us.

The documents making up “Walking Together” lack two important features for making a definite response. First, reasons for the proposed change are lacking, in most cases. Second, specific proposed bylaws are lacking in all cases. We hope that the Task Force will provide both features in due time. In the meantime, the following can only be considered a provisional response because, lacking rationale and bylaws, the proposals are indefinite.

Conventions in Chains

Synodical and district conventions are the legislative bodies of The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. They settle disputed questions, pass resolutions that must be enacted by someone else, adopt policies, and when necessary revise bylaws or the Constitution. There are many executive officers whose job it is to enact those resolutions. There is a judicial system that handles individual cases of dispute, heresy, and offense. Synodical and district conventions are also electoral bodies, i.e., they elect persons to office, and may remove them if necessary. The synodical and district conventions are thus the highest authority in the church and must be free in order to do their work properly.

The Missouri Synod did not invent synodical conventions. The word “synod” actually refers to regional assemblies of bishops and pastors, which date back to ca. 170 A.D. in the Christian church. The Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. was the first “ecumenical council,” which was really just a “super-sized” synod. Such synods and councils were “representative” bodies, which means that they were opportunities for their members to freely voice their concerns, to have fair settlement of their differences, and to work together for the common good. These same purposes have been found in the Missouri Synod’s conventions, at least until now.

Many of the Blue Ribbon Plan proposals significantly impair the ability of synodical conventions to give the members of the synod

  • voice to their concerns,
  • fair settlement of differences, and
  • the ability to work together for the common good.

They also reduce the likelihood of fair elections. In a word, the Blue Ribbon Plan proposals pertaining to conventions are “anti-democratic.” If we do not carefully consider these proposals, the Missouri Synod will end up like the ELCA. Almost every ELCA member I know bemoans his church’s lack of democracy. James Nestingen, in a recent article in Logia: A Journal of Lutheran Theology, states that the ELCA is in its current state because too little attention was paid to the antidemocratic aspects of its polity at its founding in the late 1980’s.

Why would the Task Force make such proposals? Although no one can presume individual motivations, the facts are that 1) most church leaders today are affected by the American corporate mind-set, which is strictly hierarchical; 2) many church leaders are heavily influenced by church consultants from evangelical and Pentecostal churches that are sectarian and accustomed to personality cults; 3) church leaders who lead “super-sized” congregations, or who have spent most of their careers in synodical office, often think that their opinions are more important than the rank-and-file pastor or layman. Thus they think their opinions should have more weight. After all, they are the experts, right?

WRONG! Although church leaders may know better HOW to do things, they are not experts on WHAT to do or WHY. Only the people of the church themselves know their concerns, their differences, and their common good. If the peoples’ expression of these things is stifled, then the concerns and good of the “experts” will become the focus of the conventions. If we claim to be a church that believes in the “priesthood of all believers,” then the people’s concerns, differences, and common good should be the convention’s focus, not that of the “experts.”

Squelching the Voice of Members

Specific proposals that will impair the ability of the members of synod to
have a voice include–

  1. “eliminating electoral circuits” (p. 2);
  2. eliminating free election of circuit counselors by congregational circuits (result of previous point and “involve the district president in the selection of circuit counselors,” p. 2);
  3. reducing the number of voting delegates at synodical conventions (“a reduced number of voting delegates–either 625 or 850”, p. 4);
  4. “elect national convention delegates at district conventions” (p. 4);
  5. increasing the time between legislative conventions from three to six years (result of “hold a national convention every three years, alternating between a focused convention and a general convention,” p.4);
  6. all but requiring overtures from congregations to be filtered through circuits for district conventions (“the individual member congregation is strongly encouraged to channel its overtures to the district convention . . . through a circuit forum . . . [these] will receive priority consideration,” p. 5);
  7. all but requiring overtures to be filtered through circuits and districts for synod conventions (“the individual member congregation is strongly encouraged to channel its overtures to the national general convention . . . through the district convention . . . [these] will receive priority consideration,” p. 5);
  8. requiring a two-thirds vote for doctrinal resolutions, while they presently only require a majority (“doctrinal resolutions . . . require a two-thirds vote for adoption,” p. 5); and
  9. allowing doctrinal statements submitted by the CTCR to be adopted by two-thirds vote at a convention instead of two-thirds of the congregations of synod (result of “doctrinal statements . . . submitted by the CTCR . . . require a two-thirds vote for adoption,” p. 5).
  10. creation of political caucuses, which will overwhelm the convention, as the Democratic Party and the ELCA discovered in the late twentieth century (result of “circuits could be formed . . . by affinity groups, by size of congregation, or by any other method,” p. 2). One is tempted to call this particular proposal the “ELCA Plan.”

Creating an Electoral Elite

Specific proposals that will impair the ability of the members of the synod to have a fair settlement of differences and fair elections include–

  1. giving larger congregations more delegates to district conventions (“allow congregations with more than 750 members to be represented by two additional delegates for each additional unit of 750 confirmed members,” p. 4). This proposal seems to be democratic, but it is based on two fallacies. The first fallacy is that bigger congregations are thought to be more effective, and therefore deserve to have more voting power. But the grandfather of all “super-sizers,” Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago, recently acknowledged that its “super-size” status has resulted in less effectiveness in its religious ministry to its members. The second fallacy is that the unit of representation is the individual person in synod. The truth is that congregations make up the synod, not individuals; therefore congregations are the unit of representation. This is a direct deduction from Article V of the LCMS Constitution.
  2. election of synodical delegates at district conventions by the majority bloc at that convention (result of “elect national convention delegates at district conventions from a list of congregational delegates to the district convention,” p. 4). This proposal means that synodical delegates will be representing not their congregations but the majority of delegates at the district convention. District majorities will thus become the voting blocs in synod, and they will easily be controlled by district presidents. Democratic representation in the synod should be based on the member-unit, that is, the congregation no matter how small. The Blue Ribbon Plan will not give more voting power to the average laymen, but only to larger congregations and their pastors who will become the electoral elite.

There is also a proposal that will impair the ability of the lay members of the synod to have a voice and exert their “priesthood.” It will allow for the replacement of lay delegates with commissioned-minister delegates (result of “the ministers of religion-commissioned are . . . certainly eligible to serve as a congregation’s non-ordained delegate,” p.3). When commissioned ministers replace laymen as delegates, the latter will obviously have neither voice nor vote.

Relation of Synod to Its Members

People are often confused as to whether a resolution of the synod is binding on the “corporate synod” or its member congregations. When a resolution of the synod applies to a synodical officer or entity, that resolution is obviously binding. The synodical convention passes resolutions so that such officers and entities will enact them!

When the synodical convention passes a resolution that pertains to its member congregations, or church-workers in those congregations, a different relationship is involved. The language is in Article VII of the LCMS Constitution: “No resolution of the synod imposing anything upon the individual congregation is of binding force if it is not in accordance with the Word of God or if it appears to be inexpedient as far as the condition of a congregation is concerned.” This very important right of congregations is imperiled by this Blue Ribbon Plan statement: “The Synod expects every member congregation of the synod to respect its resolutions and consider them of binding force on the assumption that they are in accordance with the Word of God and that they are applicable to the condition of the congregation” (p. 5).

The difference between the two wordings is that the historic position gives the individual congregation the right to decide. The new wording eliminates that right, because it eliminates the language of conditional exception in Article VII. At best, the new wording is ambiguous, which will encourage many more lawsuits between congregations and synod when synod tries to enforce its “rules.” At worst, the new wording will be an “iron fist” that forces congregations to comply with the will of the synod.

More Power for the President

An important “check” on the power of the synodical president has been the fact that he is up for election at every convention, i.e., every three years. The Blue Ribbon Plan would increase his tenure to six years (result of “standardize terms of office for all elected officials,” p. 3 and “six-year, staggered terms of office,” p. 4). This gives a bad president more time to do damage before he is called to account. This, too, is “anti-democratic.”

An important “balance” on the power of the synodical president has been the allocation of many important functions of the synod to “program boards.” The program boards would lose control over these functions and lose authority over the choice of and control of the corresponding executives under the Blue Ribbon Plan (result of “allow for a minimal number of executives who report directly to the president of the synod . . . all program boards would function in an advisory rather than an administrative role,” p. 3). These executives would become dependent functionaries of the synodical president, thus radically increasing his power between conventions. This, too, is “anti-democratic.”

Reshaping of Districts

The last proposal we will consider is the comprehensive plan to redistrict the synod (result of “increase the number of districts from 35 to 100,” p. 2). District boundaries determine a number of things: which and how many congregations attend district conventions, jurisdiction of district presidents, service areas for district staff, constituencies for district boards and commissions, and, most important, the fellowship of Lutherans that one knows by name.

The size of districts affects each of these in different ways. Smaller, and thus more, districts seem to make more sense for visitation purposes. But if the plan to increase the number of districts means a proportional increase in total district expenses, then the amount of revenue going to the national synod will be even less than present. That may be the reason that the Blue Ribbon Plan recommends the consolidation of district offices and staff (“these smaller districts could be organized into regions for staffing and for the resourcing of congregations,” p.2). District staff should be concerned that most of them will be “terminated” under this proposal, which the Task Force evidently believes is a good thing. When the synod makes even small changes in staffing, it should make provision for the “terminated” staff with adequate salary and benefits in the interim, until they are placed in a new position. To do any less is to belie the claim that servants of the church are “brothers.”

My chief concern is that the proposal to redistrict the synod will result in the alteration of boundaries in order to achieve political goals. Visitation of parishes could be improved, not by making more district presidents, but by specifying that district vice-presidents will perform this important duty. The number of vice-presidents in a district could then be determined by the number of parishes, e.g., one vice-president for every 60 parishes. Therefore the proposal to redistrict is really unnecessary, since its most important goal can be achieved without abandoning the historic state boundaries.

Taking Action

What can you do about these things?

  1. Educate yourself in matters of church government and structure. I recommend the following books available from Concordia Publishing House: C.S. Meyer, ed., Moving Frontiers; August Suelflow, ed., Heritage in Motion; C.F.W. Walther, The True Visible Church and the Form of a Christian Congregation; and C.F.W. Walther, Essays for the Church.
  2. Spread the word about the “bad or unnecessary” Blue Ribbon Plan proposals. Make copies of this essay, and share it with pastors and lay leaders you know. For future communications and news, share the website address of Brothers of John the Steadfast (www.steadfastlutherans.org).

Conclusion

Keep our synod and all of its leaders in your prayers, that they may have the wisdom necessary to lead our church in a God-pleasing way. Remember that the persons you might disagree with are brothers (or sisters) in Christ. They deserve your respect and thanks, even when you disagree. Remember that what unites us is not personality or polity, but our common confession of Christ crucified, as proclaimed by the prophets and apostles in Holy Scriptures, and as explicated in our Lutheran confessions.

About Norm Fisher

Norm was raised in the UCC in Connecticut, and like many fell away from the church after high school. With this background he saw it primarily as a service organization. On the miracle of his first child he came back to the church. On moving to Texas a few years later he found a home in Lutheranism when he was invited to a confessional church a half-hour away by our new neighbors.

He is one of those people who found a like mind in computers while in Middle School and has been programming ever since. He's responsible for many websites, including the Book of Concord, LCMSsermons.com, and several other sites.

He has served the church in various positions, including financial secretary, sunday school teacher, elder, PTF board member, and choir member.

More of his work can be found at KNFA.net.

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