Synod Renewal ““ Through Mission and Structure?

We’re lucky enough to have another missive from Publius Aequillus, where he discusses whether greater consolidation of power in the office of the Synodical President is a good idea:

“Others would heal Joseph’s wounds with tighter church governance. They say, if our presidents, visitors, and commissions had more authority, if they could prescribe things to congregations and the congregations had to obey, then life would be brought to those dead bones. Without question, if such a yoke were laid upon the necks of the children, many external works would be produced. Indeed, it wouldn’t even be that difficult to get the money to begin flowing. But that would in no way elevate spiritual life. In fact, it would suffer a terrible retrogression. The Gospel tolerates no hierarchy.”

— Friedrich Pfotenhauer, “Revitalization of the Synod Shall Come from Neither Missions nor More Synodical Power: The Word is the Only Remedy,” 1936

In the final BRTFSSG Report dated 15 October 2009, President Kieschnick is quoted regarding the purpose for the restructuring of the Synod. He states, “A primary focus of our church body must be on renewing the health and vitality of existing congregations and on starting new congregations…” He then goes on to state that there are two major reasons to restructure the Synod: “The first is mission… The Second is stewardship.” He leaves a third implicit reason unstated: To consolidate power.

President Kieschnick’s first assertion is that his BRTFSSG plan is necessary to further the mission of the church. He asserts that whatever can be done to help congregations in mission and outreach must be done. In President Kieschnick’s convention video on the BRTFSSG he says, “We must renew in our people a sense of urgency about God’s mission. Our Synod’s purpose is not to create a perfect structure, but to reach people with the Gospel of Jesus Christ… Enhancing mission is a primary reason for improving structure and governance.” Yet, President Kieschnick and the BRTFSSG are extremely vague on just how such a change in structure and governance will actually enhance mission and outreach. He provides no concrete rationale or reason on how a revised structure and governance will promote mission or assist the congregation in outreach. These are vacuous words. Pfotenhauer saw the danger of such talk when he wrote, “An attempt has been made to elevate the spiritual life in the home congregation by rousing the Church to missions and directing her sight to the misery of the churchless and especially the poor non-Christians… rambling afar in the opinion that the Church must be saved and enlivened with mission is Schwarmgeisterei (fanaticism).” President Kieschnick’s assertion that his BRTFSSG will revitalize mission must be recognized for what it truly is–pure fanaticism!

President Kieschnick’s second assertion is that the BRTFSSG is necessary for stewardship. Once again, this sounds good and compelling. President Kieschnick says, “It is imperative that the Synod find ways to amend its currently complex and inefficient system of structure and governance that achieves more efficient operating costs.” This resonates with many church-goes. The operations of the International Center seem complex, burdensome, and expensive to many people in the Synod. There is a sentiment among many pastors and congregations that the so-called “fat-cats” at the International Center need to be eliminated. While efficiency and stewardship always can be improved, it is dangerous, however, to “restructure” without understanding how the current structure functions. Many of the so-called inefficiencies that exist in our church were created intentionally to prevent clericalism and to protect the rights of congregations and lay people. There are a number of checks and balances, which are less efficient than a purely “top-down” or a CEO/corporate style of structure, but which prevent any one individual or group of individuals from controlling the Synod.

Over all, the staff at the International Center has been declining for the past ten years. Rather than call for the wholesale decimation of the staff at the International Center, convention delegates should ask why the World Mission staff at the International Center is nearly three times greater than the number of ordained missionaries in the field? If restructuring is necessary for the “mission” of the church, then where are all the “missionaries”? Under the current BRTFSSG plan, the restructuring of the International Center involves the elimination of only 40-50 people, primarily coming from LCMS World Relief and Human Care. It is ironic that while World Mission has accumulated approximately $18 million in deficit spending over the past eight years (primarily due to the failure of Ablaze and the Fan into Flame campaign), the BRTFSSG restructuring plan eliminates World Relief and Human Care, which for the past eight years has operated in the black and maintained a surplus of funds. For all the assertions that restructuring is needed for the sake of stewardship, Tom Kuchta in the June 2009 Reporter said, “The current recommendations by the BRTFSSG will have immaterial effect on the financial operations of the Synod.” In other words, the BRTFSSG will not improve stewardship and does not address the entities within the Synod that have operated inefficiently and with loss.

Finally, this leaves a third unstated reason for the necessity of the President’s BRTFSSG–the consolidation of power. Not wishing to assign motives to individuals or imply evil intent, we do not maintain that President Kieschnick and the BRTFSSG intend to make a “power grab.” However, an analysis of the BRTFSSG Report shows a considerable consolidation of power in the office of the Synod President. Program Boards and Commissions are eliminated, thereby placing the tasks and functions handled by them under the Synod President. The President of Synod argues that such a change is necessary for the sake of efficiency. Indeed, corporate Synod would certainly be more efficient and easier for him to control “top-down” as a CEO does, rather than working collaboratively and cooperatively to win people over to your ideas or to create a compelling vision. Many within the LCMS have come to believe that the Ablaze and Fan into Flame campaign were of non-Lutheran origin and generally misguided. The current “inefficient” structure has allowed for conscientious people to question and not fully implement it. Under the proposed BRTFSSG, no questioning or resistance will be possible.

Furthermore, the President’s BRTFSSG claims to have a “congregational bias,” yet it takes away authority and power from the local congregation. C.F.W. Walther in “Duties of an Evangelical Synod” writes, “Throughout the existence of the Missouri Synod, we have had to battle arduously to preserve freedom of the congregations.” Walther’s words never rang truer than today. In the President’s BRTFSSG Report, several proposals rob freedom from the congregation. Recommendation #3 states that it wants to “restore circuits to their primary purpose” by having the circuit counselors nominated by the District President. Recommendation #10 proposes that “District Conventions will Elect Delegates to the National Convention.” Both of these proposals take away the rights of congregations gathered in a circuit forum to select their own delegates and circuit counselors.

Recommendation #16 gives priority to circuit and district overtures at the Synodical Convention. In the book Church, Identity, and Change, edited by David Roozen (the President’s consultant on the BRTFSSG and a professor at Hartford Seminary), notes how overtures about “close(d) communion” from congregations in the 1998 LCMS Synod convention “explicitly declared the action of a district (the Florida-Georgia District) null and void” (pg. 254). The concern is that individual congregations could overthrow the will of an entire district. In this example, however, the Florida-Georgia District took a position that was contrary to the theological practices of the Missouri Synod, and in convention, driven by congregations making overtures to the Synod, the Florida-Georgia District’s incorrect position was corrected. The President’s BRTFSSG proposal wants to “fix” this problem. If his BRTFSSG proposal is adopted, it will become next to impossible for a small congregation to have a voice in the Synod, let alone help correct the wrong practice of an aberrant district.

Notice how all of these recommendations take power away from the local congregations and transfer it to districts and the larger Synod. These recommendations go against what Dr. Walther wrote in the “Duties of an Evangelical Lutheran Synod,” when he said, “Yes, even a small rural congregation of seven families has as much power as all the congregations in America combined, because it also has Jesus in its midst.” The President’s BRTFSSG, despite its rhetoric, is not “congregationally biased” but rather favors large congregations, presumably because they have more of Jesus in their midst than small congregations. Districts, therefore, have greater rights than the rights of individual congregations.

In President Kieschnick’s BRTFSSG Report, Recommendations 15 and 18 consolidate power within the Office of the President. The “organizational chart” found in the appendix outlines the various areas that would report to the President of Synod. Gone are the program boards and commissions. In their place are two giant mission boards (under the BRTFSSG, everything is “Mission”–mission fanaticism?).

Under the BRTFSSG, the Office of the President acquires more power and authority than even the Presiding Bishop of the ELCA. For instance, under the BRTFSSG, the President of the LCMS is placed over missions, communications, fund raising, and the “seminary.” The Constitution of the ELCA does not give the Presiding Bishop authority over fundraising. Under the ELCA constitution (17.21ff – 17.30ff), the Presiding Bishop does not have authority over the communications of the ELCA. Under the President’s BRTFSSG he would have control of the communications department of Synod. Under the ELCA’s constitution (16.10 ff), the Presiding Bishop does not have authority over the ELCA’s Program Boards. Whereas President Kieschnick’s BRTFSSG, eliminates all program boards and commissions, placing their functions under the direct authority and supervision of the President of Synod. Other areas of the BRTFSSG seem to have taken suggestions from the ELCA constitution. For instance, in section 15.11ff, the Presiding Bishop of the ELCA directs the secretary and the treasurer of the Synod. Similarly, the President of the LCMS would have similar authority in the BRTFSSG. The BRTFSSG would even allow the President to chose his vice-presidents based on his leadership style. All of this is a far cry from “congregational bias.”

Let us heed the voice of Frederick Pfotenhauer and recognize that the Synod will not be revitalized by mission fanaticism or by the obtaining of more synodical power as the BRTFSSG proposes to do. Rather, the Synod will only be revitalized by the Word of God Alone. As Pfotenhauer wrote, “The chief requirement of a capable district president and visitor is not that he be great with finances and a capable administrator, but much more that he be a profound theologian and experienced student of the Scripture.” May the Lord grant the Missouri Synod repentance and a desire to seek revitalization in the Word of God alone. May the Lord great delegates wisdom to challenge the murky assertions of the BRTFSSG. And may the Lord grant us church leaders, once again, who are profound theologians and experienced students of the Scriptures.

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