On June 12 the confessional movement in the MNS district got its lunch handed to it, at least from a purely political perspective. There were two major issues facing the convention. Both had serious theological ramifications. Both were lost. Every single candidate promoted by the confessionals was defeated. The elections were not even close. We got clobbered.
What is particularly puzzling about this sound thrashing is that three years ago the convention was evenly split. Three years ago we actually voted to a tie on a resolution which would have asked the synod to reconsider its position on allowing women elders and presidents. Three years ago we elected a board which, for the most part, was confessional. I was elected by a four vote margin. Yet in 2009 I received 35% of the votes.
What happened? How did we lose 15% of the vote in three years?
First, we lost the rhetorical battle. The main issue of the convention was the motion to receive TheAlley church into the synod. TheAlley is a mission start of Woodbury Lutheran whose pastor is Dean Nadasdy, one of the synod’s VPs. The congregation was the poster child of some in the synod. It had received $50,000 of Ablaze funds and $100,000 from the district since its inception two years earlier. Reportedly a couple of vans of students from Concordia College attend each week. Woodbury had sent 100 of its members. It was deemed “Cutting Edge,” “The church of the future,” “people ready to step out of their comfort zone,” and “uniquely situated to reach those young people the rest of us cannot reach.” The Alley was clearly a Causa Celebre of the district and synodical establishment.
One the other hand The Alley Church had been under fire from the confessionals in MNS and others for about 18 months prior to the convention and for good reason. They refused to use the name Lutheran in their publicity materials. And it was clear that the congregation had no intention to call themselves Lutheran anytime in the future. Initially the congregation did not practice closed communion according to the principles articulated and commonly held by the synod. More recently President Seitz, the MNS DP, had assured the district that this issue had been resolved. Still the church celebrated the sacrament only 12 times annually. The church had published a doctrinal statement in its publicity which contained no reference to Baptism or the Lord’s Supper. Although the district offered to give copies of the LSB to the fledgling congregation this gift was declined. No hymnal was used and it was apparent than no hymnal will be used. By all accounts, the ecumenical creeds, the Lord’s Prayer and any recognizable liturgical forms were lacking or used sparingly in the Sunday services.
Rhetorically the issues were clear. “Reaching young people,” “Cutting edge,” “Willing to change,” “Missional,” were the key concepts. Contrasted with these were “Liturgical,” “Orthodox,” Sacramental” “Traditional,” and “Lutheran.” I guess I can see why we lost. I think we overestimated the value the word “Lutheran.” I really supposed that the district in convention would not support an endeavor which intentionally did not use the term especially since a 1995 resolution of the synod required it. This was a fatal supposition.
Added to the rhetorical mix was the ability of the other side to demonize us. We were labeled “legalist,” “stuck on human traditions,” and were clearly depicted as those against young people and missions. These are key words to remember; young people and missions. The synod will support uncritically any idea which invokes the two things we fear we are losing – young people and mission work.
Second, we lost the political battle. The other side was very well organized. Early in the process, eight months before the convention, they began to send out Emails apparently to anyone and everyone. The list of endorsers – all pastors from MNS – was initially mostly retired guys. But as the convention loomed it grew to include almost 50 endorsers. These Emails took rather complex issues and turned them into simplistic, if inaccurate sound bites. It worked very well.
Further, the Emails attracted the Board early and often. They pitted the Board against the President of the district who was handily elected to his seventh term. His election was really never in doubt. What we learned, tragically for us, is that it is almost impossible to disagree with a popular incumbent an on an important issue – even when he is clearly and demonstrably wrong – and expect to win the majority. As goes the president so goes the district. That is most certainly true in MNS.
We found ourselves increasingly frustrated in our attempts to articulate a message which was primarily theological. We sent out mailings with no indication that they were read. We tried to hold meetings where both sides of the Board would speak. These were sponsored by the Board of the district and still were sparsely attended. By all accounts we prevailed when dialoging or debating but it didn’t matter. It all seemed too little and too late.
Early in the process I thought that if we could just create a level playing field where both sides had equal opportunity to speak and to argue then we would have a chance. Such a context was never achieved.
I still am uncertain precisely how to create a dialogical context especially for laymen. It really seems to be something necessary given our democratic polity. But I fear that sound bite theology prevails in our district.
Third, the power of incumbency was unusually strong. The orchestration was brilliant. President Seitz’s report, given immediately before the vote on The Alley was based on the thought that this would be a “Watershed convention.” He used all the buzz words – “Change” “contextualizing the gospel,” “Missional,” with faint praise for Sacraments, doctrine, tradition etc. While none in the assembly would have disagreed with president Seitz the speech was not that balance of “Keep it strait” and “Get it out” that one would have liked from an impartial chair.
Immediately after his address, the motion to accept the Alley was made. Rev. Ben Griffin was given an opportunity to speak. He is young, dynamic, casual in appearance, unclerical if you will. He asserted with great force that he is Lutheran, Missional, and Sacramental. The assembly took his word for it and the debate was pretty much over before it started although we did manage to make some points on floor of the convention.
Once the Alley was accepted by a 65% vote everything else followed similarly.
I write this on June 13 so the advantage of a couple of weeks of reflection is lacking. But the thoughts may be worthy, taken as they are.