Reflections of a Synod President
“How ya doing?” I’ve been getting that question a great deal lately for some reason. And my response is almost always the same: “I’m doing marvelously. Truly blessed.” And I am. It’s a small handful who have some idea of what it’s like to be president of the LCMS. Four of them are living and breathing on this earth. The LCMS is a very large organization. Its operations and internal relationships are carefully (not perfectly!) governed by its constitution and bylaws. These documents are an imperfect, human attempt of a church body with a confession to govern itself according to Holy Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions. I’ve often quipped that some historical critic needs to do a formgeschichtliche analysis of the bylaws of the Missouri Synod, which would demonstrate the history and polarities at the time of their convention adoption. It would not be difficult to demonstrate that ostensible reasons for their adoption were only half the real story of what was going on behind the scenes. I’ve tried to be honest about what I’m for and why, and will continue to do so.
What’s it like to be president of this great, often unwieldy, church body? First, it’s an enormously humbling reality. It takes a daily emotional, spiritual and physical stamina that pushes one to the limits and beyond. But I must be quick to add, I feel little different than I did struggling with challenging situations in my first little parish in Westgate, Iowa 25 years ago. Whether a portion of the locals are riled up over a pastor’s practice of close(d) communion, or detractors are trying to make national political hay and stir up opposition out of some issue, the stress level is virtually the same. The LCMS is just one big congregation. No pastor can please everyone. I approach all issues pastorally. I am to the core of my being a pastor. I try not to act rashly. I almost never act without some significant forethought and counsel. When I have or do, I make mistakes. When I make mistakes, I own them and apologize for them. Mistakes in this life are inevitable. I am not Jesus. To act pastorally means that change takes time and teaching. I have not been able to teach as much as I had preferred but I am taking steps to change this.
When I moved into the president’s office in the LCMS International Center, I moved most of my books and belongings myself. IC staff were distressed seeing this on several occasions, but I reassured them that I was doing this quite by intention. Some day I and all my books and “stuff” will be rolled out of that office, and it will be quite okay. God is the one carrying the Missouri Synod, and more often in spite of us and through us! And I don’t need to be president of the LCMS to be Matt Harrison. At some point the LCMS will get along quite famously without yours truly.
Joys abound, truly. I love what I do. I am thrilled that we are approaching the doubling the number of called international missionaries. And we won’t stop there. We may have to slow a bit in a few months, to make sure our systems of missionary care are in place, but Lord willing, we will continue to add men and women, lay and clergy, to our worldwide mission team. If our Synod actually focuses on this international work, giving it some priority or simply equal status with all the other mission trips and the dozens if not hundreds of other organizations our congregations support (some good, some less so), we can blow the lid off our all-time-high missionary number. A shout out to the LWML for providing so much help financially, as well as prayers and encouragement, and to CPH for being a marvelous partner in mission.
Since four years ago, we have reduced staffing in the IC by 70. Today we are doing more with less. I am thrilled with what is coming from the Office of National Mission. We are full steam ahead in developing the resources, training etc., for a large national effort at rejuvenating congregations (locally led) and evangelizing the communities around us. We have commissioned the most extensive demographic studies ever done on the LCMS in order to gain a precise understanding of our context(s) and how best to respond to our domestic challenges. I am enjoying this to the hilt. A very significant evangelism tool is now being developed which will help unleash the infinite potential of our marvelous laymen and women. Keep your eyes on Bart Day and the ONM!
Finances are always a challenge, but have also been a blessing. We’ve had the smallest reductions in unrestricted (plate to district to Synod) funding in decades. Thank you!
The Synod will continue to struggle with issues of doctrine and practice. Given the tumultuous events of the 1960s and 70s, it’s frankly amazing we are as united as we are. And things will become calmer still as 1974 fades into the past. I believe a consensus is emerging on issues of worship (though challenges remain to be sure). The penetration of LSB in nearly 90% of our congregations is a great sign. There is a consensus emerging, too, that while specific musical instrumentation is not commanded or forbidden, and a range of music may be acceptable (with appropriate Christological, sacramental provisos), the ordo (order) of the divine service should not be messed with. Confession and Absolution should not be ditched. The Creed should not be altered. The Lord’s Words of Institution are his, not ours to do with as we please. And we must have improved and improving preaching (more on that soon). If one speaks to a number of men involved in local Koinonia Project discussions, one will find that some amazing and stuff is quietly going on. We are at the tip of a new culture where we humbly discuss our differences, seeking truth in Christ and his Word. God help us. We have a long way to go.
Two years ago I requested of the CTCR a document to assist congregations in evaluating and improving their communion statements. We will release that very soon. We all recognize that there is “pastoral discretion” in communion practice—that is, discretion in communing individuals from time to time who, for a variety of reasons, may not be official members of an LCMS congregation or that of one of our partner churches. However, explaining our Lutheran teaching in a bulletin statement and then inviting all who believe this to commune without respect to church affiliation is not consistent with the stated and re-stated position of the Synod. I invite you to read, for instance, Dr. Walther’s, The Church and the Office of the Ministry, especially Thesis VIII on the Church. This is the official doctrinal statement of the Synod. I have been encouraging District Presidents and pastors/congregations to make sure their communion statements at the least require a person to speak with a pastor or elder prior to communing.
Since the restructuring of the Synod, narrowly adopted in 2010 (which I had opposed, ironically), the president has had responsibility for some $50 million worth of personnel and program. That on top of our aggressive effort to seriously visit every district headquarters, board of directors, staff, and circuit counselors forum, has meant that staff is stretched. But it’s good. The visitations have really allowed me and our regional VPs to get to know local challenges and people. What great folks we have! Daily we struggle with schedules. I have to turn down 98% of preaching/speaking requests. But we laugh daily. We laugh at ourselves. We laugh at the “crazy stuff” in Synod at times. And we marvel at the blessings all around.
The international moment unfolding worldwide for the LCMS is astounding, and I won’t rehearse it here. Suffice it to say, requests for our faithful seminary profs and other assistance are expanding exponentially. Lord, help us! Dr. Collver has so many requests from church bodies around the world he can’t even keep track of himself!
What is absolutely necessary for us is to continue to get our house in order. We have reduced internal borrowing for operations from some $16 million four years ago to just over $4 million today. We must get to zero. And we have achieved a three-month cash reserve for operations, the minimum for a responsible non-profit. We must revise our system of ecclesiastical supervision and adjudication. A church that holds to the inerrant scriptures and a quia subscription to the Book of Concord, cannot have public teachers for decade after decade openly rejecting the church’s teachings and or acting against them. There are church bodies where women are pastors, the Bible is not regarded as infallible, sexual preferences are optional, etc. etc. But this is not the LCMS, and to the extent I have anything to say about it, won’t be the LCMS. We must come to reasonable resolution of the issue of licensed lay deacons that has caused so very much dissention among us. Larry Vogel of the CTCR and a small task force have been working very hard on this issue, and there is light breaking at the end of the tunnel.
Well, this little communication written on a cold morning from Bread Co. in Ballwin, Missouri during the early hours of a day off, has gone on long enough.
Thank you! Thank you for your fidelity! Thank you for loving your pastors and people! Thank you for generosity! Thank you for the privilege of serving you!
I covet your prayers, and promise you mine.
Feb. 6, 2015
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