The 99th Convention of the largest District in the LCMS was held Sunday, June 28 – Wednesday, July 1. Below is a rundown of the significant happenings.
Convention Theme: “Celebrate Jesus” (Philippians 2:9-11). Um, what does that passage have to do with “celebrating” Jesus? Bowing to Jesus, whose Name is above every other name – Yes! Confessing that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father – Yes! But, “celebrating” Jesus? What does that mean? The convention logo features two individuals standing before a cross, one looks to be dancing, the other is raising hands in praise. Again, shouldn’t they be bowing? Maybe I’m being too nitpicky, but it just struck me as odd, and a bit too “happy-clappy, contemporary praise stuff” for my stubborn confessional tastes.
New District President Elected: Rev. David P.E. Maier (son of WAM II, brother of WAM III) was elected as the 15th President of the Michigan District (Rev. C. William Hoesman could not stand for re-election due to term limits and is planning to retire in October of this year). Maier won on the first ballot, receiving 51.9% of the votes cast. The candidate we supported, Rev. David H. Reed, came in a distant second at 21.0% of the vote.
Services: I did not attend the opening Divine Service on Sunday evening, but heard that it was surprisingly right out of LSB and free of any contemporary praise ditties. My convention experience began on Monday morning with a truncated version of Matins, in which the preacher left the pulpit to deliver his entertaining and energetic “message” from the center of the chancel, the thrust of which was aimed at getting us to break free from our comfort zones and celebrate Jesus by getting out there to reach the lost. I passed on the Tuesday morning Service, but attended the Tuesday evening Installation Service, in which President Kieschnick preached. After the five minute introductory comments in which he thanked everyone and their brother, and paid tribute to the service of Rev. Hoesman as DP for the last 12 years, leading the congregation in applause (which led into a standing ovation) – I didn’t clap or stand, since it really makes me itchy to do such in God’s House; but that’s just me – he launched into his message titled, “Life Is Just So Overwhelming.” It was typical Jerry Kieschnick preaching – every time I’ve heard him preach, he’s followed the same format: First, he shares personal stories about how he’s “sharing the Gospel” with others, then he emphasizes the utter urgency there is for reaching the lost, and finally exhorts us to follow his example. The lay delegate from our congregation commented to me that it was a bit like hearing Joel Osteen preach. To be fair, unlike Osteen, Kieschnick does talk about sin and hell, and even points to Jesus as Savior, but the point is well taken, since he does similarly put himself forward as an example to follow. Every time I’ve heard him preach, I leave a bit disheartened, since I know I could never be as good a Christian as Jerry is. What really irked me about his “message” is that he used the same illustrative story I’ve heard him use on at least two other occasions – the story about an infant named Thomas who died and Jerry volunteering to transport his body. It’s a touching story and all, but, really, how many times must PK share it? I did hear something new, though, which was the basis of the “message.” Evidently, a teenage girl committed suicide and, when the parents found her body, she had written on the wall (or on a note – can’t remember), “Life is just so overwhelming.” PK shared how the world is filled with people like this teenage girl, for whom life is just so overwhelming, exhorting us to get out there and “let our lights shine” and share Jesus with them – just like he’s been doing, by the way. Anyway, you get the point.
Devotionals: There were over 200 pastors in attendance at the convention and yet all of the devotionals and prayers were led/offered by laymen. Many of us found that a bit strange. I have nothing against laymen. Love ’em! Used to be one! But, having laymen lead/offer the devotionals and prayers when there is a room full of pastors is not only a little weird, but is a bit too “everyone a minister” for me.
Resolutions: The way we handled the business of the convention was more than a little disappointing. Of the 22 resolutions which called for our action, only 11 were acted upon (and the action of one of those eleven was simply to table it until the next convention). Especially disappointing was the fact that we conveniently skipped over two resolutions (one that called for us to reject gender neutral language in Scripture, translations, liturgies, and hymns; the other that resolved that we seek unity in worship practice) to get to a resolution to address clergy mental health (especially “burnout”), which was amended to address “professional church worker” mental health, instead of just “clergy” mental health. Here’s a rundown of the resolutions:
Floor Committee 1: Theology, Mission and Relations
1-01 To commend the use of “Partners in Ministry: Ethical Conduct for Congregations and Professional Church Workers” (Passed with overwhelming majority and little debate)
1-02 To encourage accountable internet usage in Michigan District Churches (Passed)
1-03 To promote healthy marriages (Passed)
1-04 To promote the Biblical understanding of marriage as the lifelong union of one man and one woman (Lots of discussion on this one, which was prompted by a pastoral delegate going to the mike to oppose the resolution on the basis that he felt we would be taking the civil rights away of many of our children who he argued did not choose to be gay or lesbian, but were made that way by God. He brought up the polygamy found in Scripture and argued that different cultures and different times called for a different approach toward marriage. The resolution eventually passed).
1-05 To oppose embryonic stem cell research (The same pastoral delegate who opposed 1-04 went to the mike to oppose this resolution as well. Lots of discussion, but eventually passed)
1-06 To reject gender neutral language in Scripture, translations, liturgies, and hymns (Skipped this one – too theological, I guess)
1-07 To encourage congregations of the Michigan District to seek unity in worship practice (Skipped this one – again, too theological, I guess)
1-08 To address clergy mental health (amended to 1-08A and passed with the title “professional church worker” replacing “clergy”)
1-09 To plan for the 500th anniversary celebration of the Reformation, etc. (Didn’t get to this one)
Floor Committee 2: Administration/Constitutional Matters
2-01 To transfer Prince of Peace Lutheran of Ortonville from Circuit #12 to Circuit #17 (Passed)
2-02 To implement changes to future Michigan District Conventions (Lots of discussion on this one; it involved changing the timing of the convention from summer to fall, combining the All Professional Church Workers Conference with the Convention, and changing from a Sunday-Wednesday format to a Thursday-Saturday format; many changes to District bylaws would have been required; it was tabled until the next convention)
2-03 To revise District Convention nomination and election procedures (Skipped)
2-04 To revise the Church Extension Fund bylaws allowing the participation or purchase of loans or investments outside of the Michigan District (Passed)
2-05 More changes to CEF bylaws to enable the 2-04 passed resolution to stand (Passed)
2-06 To amend the District Bylaws regarding Article X on the CEF to enable the 2-04 passed resolution to stand (Passed)
2-07 To encourage participation in National Lutheran School Accreditation (Didn’t get to this one)
2-08 To affirm mission through Lutheran Schools (Didn’t get to this one)
2-09 To support the Lutheran character of Lutheran schools (Didn’t get to this one)
2-10 To commend the Lutheran Heritage Foundation (Didn’t get to this one)
2-11 To support Synodical Pre-Seminary Programs (Didn’t get to this one)
2-12 To encourage Michigan District congregations to embrace disaster preparedness (Didn’t get to this one)
2-13 To ensure proper accounting of congregational money (Didn’t get to this one)
As I said, the way we conducted business was more than a little disappointing. More important to the chairman was to stick to the “orders of the day” (i.e. schedule), which included several advertisements, promotional videos, and speeches of various RSOs and such that most of us have heard and seen many times. I say we do the business we’re responsible for doing and then, if we have time, we can hear from all those organizations. Besides, there’s a “Ministry Tent” housing dozens of tables (booths) for all of these organizations (and more) that we can visit throughout our time at the convention. It just seems a little ridiculous to me to leave half of the resolutions the convention delegates are called together to address unattended in order to make sure that we get all the ads in there.
No Matt Harrison: One of the things I was looking forward to the most was hearing Matt Harrison speak, but, alas, he didn’t make the schedule. Evidently, many tried to convince President Hoesman to allot Harrison some time, but he wouldn’t do so. He was briefly acknowledged for the wonderful work he is doing, but wasn’t permitted to address the assembly. I wonder why.
BRTFSSG: Everything I’ve heard reported about this presentation ran true to form, with the exception that Rev. Jon Braunersreuther (PK’s right hand man), who led the presentation, continuously repeated the phrase, “The Task Force has a congregational bias” (I haven’t heard anyone make reference to this in their reports). I was trying to keep track of how many times he made reference to the Task Forces’ supposed “congregational bias” – I think it was about 14 times during his presentation. It was like he was trying to use a Jedi Mind Trick on us, as if repeating this phrase over and over again would cause us to believe it to be true. I woke up in a cold sweat that night, shouting, “congregational bias” (not really). Obviously, this is an attempt to thwart the ever-growing opinion that one of the main reasons many do not like these proposals is the resultant centralization of power which would be furthered if adopted. During the Q&A, Rev. Braunersreuther did a fabulous job of evading the questions asked and the concerns raised, continuing to try to play the “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain” game. Like his boss, he is one heck of a politician. I kept waiting for him to shout, “Is you is, or is you ain’t, my constituency!” (a reference from one of the greatest movies ever made – “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”). We’re supposed to buy what he’s peddling, since, after all, no matter what concerns we may have, we should a) trust our synodical leaders to do right by us and b) just believe that the proposals are necessary to save the synod (sense of urgency emphasized big time). I don’t think it worked, as it seems that even those who support PK and his administration with great enthusiasm are not too keen on these proposals. At least that’s the “buzz” I heard.
President Kieschnick’s Report: Same “Trouble in River City” video played for our viewing pleasure, followed up by a live speech about how united we are and what a beacon of light we are to so many others out there because of our doctrinal unity, etc. The things that divide us pale in comparison to those things that unite us. These are “unprecedented times” we are living in, presenting us with “unprecedented opportunities” to reach and save the lost. Ablaze!(tm) is our “mission of outreach” and “is being accomplished while simultaneously upholding our doctrines and confession of faith.” I beg to differ. When this “mission of outreach” involves the funding of new mission starts (Ablaze![tm] Covenant Congregations) that purposely do not include Lutheran in their names, and go out of their way to avoid giving the appearance that they are Lutheran in any way, shape, or form, it is NOT “upholding our doctrines and confession of faith.” PK went out of his way to try to convince us that he is well aware of the problems our synod is facing. At one point, he said, “Look, I’m no imbecile; no dummy. I know there are things that divide us.” I wish he would make up his mind. Are we united or divided? I guess that all depends on the audience. In any event, it is clear to me that PK is of the school that believes that doctrine and practice are two completely separate things; that we can remain Lutheran in doctrine, while following (mimicking) the practices of the methabapticostals and Americanized “evangelicals.” For the life of me, I simply have never been able to fathom how trained Lutheran pastors could ever adopt such a flawed and theologically untenable approach. It ain’t rocket science; it’s not even rock science – if you worship like methabapticostals, you is gonna become methabapticostals. It’s the whole “lex orandi, lex credendi” thing at work. Even a 7-year old can figure this stuff out. So, why do so many grown men and women struggle with it? It is mind-boggling. As for the Q&A, the questions had to be submitted beforehand. There was only time for around 5 canned answers to 5 pre-submitted questions. Of those 5, the only real question asked had to do with worship practices. I was surprised that it was permitted at all. The question was something along the lines of, “President Kieschnick, you have stated that one of the areas in which there is some division in our synod is in the realm of worship practices. Can you tell us what specifically is at the root of that division?” The answer: “What kind of music is permissible; how much or how little of the liturgy must be present; whether or not congregations must use hymnals; that sort of thing. Our Commission on Worship is working hard at defining the appropriate parameters of worship among us.” I’m paraphrasing, as I didn’t record his answer word-for-word, but that was the gist of his answer. Very short. No detail. Devoid of explanation. We got 5-10 minutes of stump-speech for all the other answers, but about 20 seconds for this one. Things that make you go, “Hmmm.” PK’s answer is just plain wrong. What stands at the root of the division among us in regards to worship is wholly theological. It’s not a matter of style or taste, as he seems to believe (and so many others like him), but it is a matter of whether or not we adhere to the theology of worship revealed to us in Holy Scripture and exposited in our Lutheran Confessions. At one point, PK made the claim that he is always studying Scripture and our Confessions. How can that be when he endorses and promotes a theology of worship that is so contradictory to them? The last question asked of him was a big, fat, juicy softball placed on a tee for him to hit out of the ballpark: “What can we do to support you as our synodical president? What is it that you need from us the most?” (or something to that effect). In his answer, PK indicated that a person in leadership will receive criticism no matter what he says or does. A leader is to expect that. I agree with him on that. It is definitely true that there will be criticism lodged in every leader’s direction no matter how faithful he is. All parish pastors know this to be true. Having said that, he asked that we keep him in his prayers. But, even more so, that we keep his wife, Terry, in our prayers, for while PK can handle the criticism that comes his way, it is often much more difficult for a leader’s wife to do so. This led into an emotional moment in the convention hall, wherein the assembly rose to their feet and faced Terry, who was seated in the back, to give her a standing ovation. Now, I’m a sentimental chap and do not want to give the impression that I think there is anything at all wrong with acknowledging our spouses and thanking them for their love and support. Lord knows I would not be where I am today were it not for the love and support of my lovely wife. So, while I have no problem with PK drawing our attention to his wonderful companion, I do think that his time would have been better served to answer serious theological questions during this limited time for doing so among us. But, as I said, the only real question asked of him received about 20 seconds worth of answer.
Conclusion: The Michigan District will remain a beacon of light for the new direction our synod is heading. There was very little controversy and conflict in the convention hall, mostly due to the fact that nothing controversial really made it to the floor, but was cleverly and conveniently passed over. The only time things got even remotely heated was during the resolutions concerning marriage and embryonic stell cell research, both of which should have been slam dunks. It was, at the end of the day, a rather boring three days where nothing much was accomplished. But, I think that was exactly the plan. Maintain the status quo and avoid things that would give the appearance of there being divide in our District. That, and to give PK center stage, upon which he could shine (he is good friends with our District). So, in that respect, mission accomplished!
Rev. Thomas C. Messer
Peace Lutheran, Alma, MI