By James H. Heine
HOUSTON — On Tuesday, July 13, Rev. Matthew C. Harrison was elected president of The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod. On Friday, July 16, Reporter sat down with Harrison to talk about his election and his vision for the future of the Synod. The following is an edited version of that conversation.
What is your reaction to your election? You will now serve as the 13th president of the Synod. (Dr. C.F.W. Walther having served in the office twice.)
It was a profound combination of joy and sorrow, of hope and also a great sense of my own unworthiness and sinfulness. To stand in front of that great body, a body that directs the future of The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, which is, humanly speaking, the most significant force on the globe for confessional Lutheranism and for the proclamation of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments, was very, very humbling.
Many times I’ve been on the losing side of elections, and I’ve served a lot of time as a board minority; so I actually thought about the people who have been supporters of President Kieschnick, and I just knew that a lot of people would be very sorrowful. And I had actually — I took a little time off before the convention and was reading my Bible quite intensely — I would come to passages where the Lord gives promises, like where the Lord gave the promise to the apostles to give them the words to speak — I prayed those passages and prayed for wisdom and the Lord’s guidance in being able to speak whatever the circumstance demanded.
It was an awesome moment. Just before the election, I was prepared to put my hand quietly around my dear wife and unobtrusively walk out of the convention hall with her and open the door into the Houston heat and into the next chapter of my life. We fully expected that could be the reality, and that would have been OK. The Lord blesses.
So to have a stunning — it always takes a couple of seconds when you begin to discern mentally, see visually the results, and then to be able to discern before anybody says anything — to see that result was extraordinary. I just stood up and was overcome with a flood of emotion.
My sons began crying, and then I thought of how this would be for President Kieschnick, who is certainly the most capable chairman of a convention we’ve ever had in the Missouri Synod. For him to have the dignity and strength to continue despite this was just an extraordinary thing, and I am in awe of his ability.
I didn’t want to say anything in my remarks that would be in any way divisive. I really believe that — recognizing the healing that we need to have — working toward healing is something that has to begin in each one of us, including me, as president of the Synod.
What is your assessment of the convention and of the restructuring it has mandated?
This is the great irony lost on no one. I was not in favor of the changes. I was not in favor of what I believed was too much authority moving to the president, with the elimination of the program boards. That’s the deep irony of all this. The profound restructuring propositions passed. I did not request this authority, and then I end up getting elected. It is a very humbling reality.
I can only think, “Oh, the depths of the wisdom of the knowledge of God. How unsearchable His judgments and His paths beyond tracing out.”
Going forward, what will be your biggest challenges?
The initial enormous challenge will be to adjust the structure and the staffing of the International Center. I think I know how the International Center works, which is a profound advantage. I know the financial issues of the IC. I know Synod finances are extremely complex, and it took me, frankly, five or six years to figure out how they actually worked.
I’m very familiar with the internal policies and programs and how the programs function. We have some tremendous staff. They know how the International Center works. So it is going to be a daunting task moving forward, trying to care for people when the Synod has virtually mandated the reduction of staff at the IC. To try to do that in a responsible Christian way while taking care of people is a daunting task.
I’ve always handled every vocation I’ve had pastorally. I’m a pastor at heart. That’s who I am. That’s where I live. And what does a pastor do? A pastor listens. A pastor visits. A pastor makes decisions slowly. I learned long ago as a young pastor never to make a decision without sleeping on it. In the midst of emotional and challenging circumstances, one should always sleep on things, because they always look different in the morning.
And then there are a raft of appointments the president has to make. We have to make appointments of people who are well-qualified to serve and have a heart for the church and her life.
The financial challenges are daunting. The Synod right now, if you take the Concordia University System combined debt plus the internal borrowing, the Synod’s about $45 million in debt, essentially, and so we have to proceed and figure out how we cope with that debt.
I think there are bright, shining areas in the Synod’s life, many, many bright, shining areas. I think our seminaries are bright, shining lights in our church. So I look forward to engaging the panoply of issues we face.
Missouri has a unique position in world leadership. So we’ll get the restructuring done, take a deep breath and set our face toward the future and the mission of Christ and begin working on a way to have profound discussion — theological discussion — about the church’s life, and also, in the midst of that, to move forward in mission and mercy.
How do you believe the national church can best serve the local congregation, and what implications might the 2010 Synod convention’s actions have for the local congregation, if any?
I believe in good, old bread-and-butter Missouri Synod Lutheranism, where the common folks are. That kind of Lutheranism is decidedly, proudly conservative, and at the same time, it’s decidedly and lovingly flexible and sees an opportunity and runs with that opportunity. A local congregation doesn’t need bureaucracy to get its work done, or to get its permission to go do its work. That’s the great thing about the Missouri Synod. It’s both the challenge and the blessing.
My job is not to herd anybody. It’d be like herding cats anyway. I think a priority in the international office would be to use the resources the Synod sends in the most effective way, in a way that the people know and see that their resources are being used wisely, in ways that make them proud to be part of this body.
From LCMS World Relief and Human Care, a fundamental principle I’ve learned to operate with — and we’ve all learned together — is that we exist to increase local capacity. Local decisions are made locally. Local people, whether they’re in Sri Lanka or Nigeria or Honduras, local people have the solutions to their local issues.
What a church can do is come alongside, make the collective capacity available — and the Missouri Synod has unbelievable collective capacity. It can bring that capacity alongside and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the people who actually get things done, the people on the ground.
Church relations: How will you approach that issue in the next couple of years? There are a lot of questions about our brothers and sisters in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and whether we can work effectively with them in externals.
It is a hard issue. It will be difficult to move to resolution in any way, shape or form, because people are deeply invested, and it’s complex. On the positive side, I’ve served on the inter-Lutheran boards. I’ve spent more time with ELCA leadership and ELCA people than, I think, virtually anybody else in the Synod over the last 10 years. We know the agencies. LCMS World Relief has 120 Recognized Service Organizations, 100 of which are inter-Lutheran. We know the constitutional issues they face; we know the representation, Missouri/ELCA, on those organizations.
I know the ELCA leadership at the inter-Lutheran intersection. I know many personally and have known them very well. There is not an immediate one-size-fits-all answer to this question. It’s going to be nuanced.
It’s going to be virtually impossible to do anything with Higgins Road [the ELCA’s headquarters] — that is, direct joint administration of an AIDs task force or those kinds of issues. Higgins Road is deeply and ideologically committed to their stand on the issues that separate us, and unless the ELCA is willing and able to bring something new to the table, it’s just going to be very difficult.
On the other hand, a ministry such as LWR Baltimore — where our friend John Nunes is doing his best to navigate some difficult waters and be faithful in an inter-Lutheran organization — I think our emphasis has to be on these independent Lutheran entities and how we relate to them.
Who is Matt Harrison and how did he get here?
I’m a guy who had a very humble childhood, growing up in a very inauspicious home in a very common, rural-rooted Iowa family.
Through a number of experiences, the Lord grabbed my heart for the Gospel and has taken me on the most adventuresome and wild ride one could ever imagine. I’ve been all over the world and seen everything.
I’m profoundly thankful for my wife of 29 years. I’ve been married since I was 19. We grew up together.
I’m the dad of two boys. So this triennium is going to be an intense challenge because I’ve got two boys in high school. And I’m certainly concerned that they continue to love Jesus and their church. I’m not going to sacrifice my boys on the altar of service to the Church.
And I would just say: My garage is messy, and I need to get home and clean it up.
It’s kind of interesting: Jesus sees the multitudes, and they are harassed like sheep without a shepherd, and He doesn’t say go, feed them. He doesn’t say go, do this, or act, or make a plan or anything else.
You know what the first thing He says the Church should do? Pray. Pray that the Lord of the harvest sends workers.
It was LCMS President Schwan of the 19th century who commented, “Be careful when you pray for mission, because soon the Lord will get the financial resources for sending workers from you. Then be doubly careful to ‘pray the Lord of the harvest’ because if you do, you may well end up the very worker the Lord sends!”
Posted Aug. 4, 2010