Why Take Your Synod Assembly Seriously?

When did Synod Assemblies become DisneyWorld?A Poisoned Church Structure Resists Antidotes

It’s that time of year. For the next two months the 65 synods of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America will each meet to forge a direction for the coming year.

In our Ambassador visits we have witnessed several lay reports from Synod Assemblies. All were similar. One was particularly memorable. The lay delegate spoke of being awestruck at meeting the bishop. She gushed about the spectacular worship. She closed her report by admitting she couldn’t remember a single piece of business conducted—but added that she looked forward to attending again.

When did the business of Church become like a trip to DisneyWorld?

The Synod Assembly is the business arm of the churches that band together within the denomination. There are limits to their power—but if people don’t take part, they can get away with anything. That “anything” could affect you!

In recent years, the Annual Synod Assembly has been less about business and more of a showcase for leadership. Elaborate worship with all the stops pulled fills the time once allocated for debate and deliberation. New ideas? By the time you get to new business, most of the delegates have gone home.

Synod Assemblies are comprised of all rostered pastors and at least two delegates from each member church.


Pastors are required to attend or provide a good excuse.

Many will do no more than report to the registration table to sign in, gab with some friends in the lobby, and walk out the door. Why?

We’d have to ask them, but we suspect they feel that the agenda is pre-approved and they can’t make a difference—so why spend two work days trying?

Lay Representatives

And then we get to lay representation. What a mess!

When the ELCA formed 25 years ago, leaders were full of grand ideas. The ELCA was going to be inclusive. Everyone who was denied representation for decades would now have a voice.

Result: The quota system—the convoluted and ineffective quota system. It starts with allowing two delegates from each congregation, one male and one female, but adds delegates to fill special criteria — race, multilingual, youth. The extra votes must be approved somewhere along the way—another control factor.

So now we have Synod Assemblies, voting on issues that affect everyone, that are comprised of loyalist pastors and lay people — many of whom are present because they fill the quota need—not because they know anything at all about Church government or Church issues.

There is another determining factor in some synods that skews the decision-making process—the growing use of mission, bridge and interim pastors. These pastors actually work for the synod and so have a bias to their employer. In Southeastern Pennsylvania about 25% of congregations have pastors who work as bridge, mission, or interim pastors.

The formula creates a corporate ecosystem that protects abuse.

Leaders know they don’t have to make a good argument. Who will question them?

Consequently, we are experiencing a slow-motion implosion.

How did this happen?

We’ll use Redeemer’s experience to illustrate and imagine that similar conditions exist in other congregations.

The quota system hurt Redeemer. The rule that you must have one male and one female delegate is supposed to increase participation by women. But Redeemer had strong participation among women for decades. In the early days of the ELCA we had a church council with nine women and one man. The man wasn’t interested in attending Synod Council. Several of the women didn’t want to take off work for a meeting at the periphery of the five-county area that constitutes our synod. So, we, like many congregations, sent representatives who were willing to go—not necessarily representatives who understood church issues.

There are other ELCA rules designed to give minorities greater voice. Congregations with significant diversity or which are multilingual are granted more votes under the quota system. Redeemer, over the course of ten years, became both racially diverse and multilingual. Our Black members and our Swahili/German/French-speaking members were not recognized by synod so we were never allowed extra representatives.

And then our congregation dared to challenge a decision of the bishop—a right of any ELCA congregation. Suddenly, just days before the 2009 Synod Assembly, we were informed that we would not be allowed ANY representation. We were officially terminated. We were already registered. Our fees had been paid and accepted. But we were out. Just like that.

This was still another decision of the bishop which we had a right to challenge constitutionally. But our rights were denied and synod leadership made sure that we had no voice.

This is against the stated parliamentary rules of a Lutheran Synod. If a member is denied representation, the entire Assembly is invalid. But the abuse of the system is so great that it is guaranteed no one will speak up. Business as usual.

There is no place within the ELCA to register a complaint. We know. We tried. Presiding bishops ignore us. ELCA lawyers feel no obligation to enforce Lutheran law. Secular courts don’t want to be involved. Anarchy!

We suspect this problem plagues other synods within the ELCA structure.

The structure of the ELCA is seriously flawed.

The people who could fix it are part of the problem, don’t care, or have been replaced by the quota system.

Consequently, Synod Assemblies claim governance rights not part of their constitution. They cover this up with ceremony—lots of ceremony. They do this well. The observers leave impressed and unaware that their voice has been silenced with lights and mirrors.

With the quota system, leaders have assumed the right to approve of lay participation—choosing for congregations who can speak for them. We’ve addressed a democratic ideal by instituting an undemocratic process! It doesn’t matter what you know if you can’t claim the appropriate gender.

We ask again . . .

When did the business of Church become like a trip to DisneyWorld?

PS: The annual Assembly of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod is barely two weeks away. We won’t be there again—by edict of the bishop. No one is likely to question our absence.

photo credit: Express Monorail via photopin cc