By Pamela Nielsen
The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) Council of Presidents (COP) conducted its fourth meeting of 2020 (its third via Zoom video conference) on Nov. 16–18, with discussion of the pandemic’s impact on the church dominating the meeting. Chief among the concerns was the effect of new and varied gathering restrictions — including news that lockdowns and distancing measures are expected to continue well into 2021 — on the 35 district conventions slated for 2021 and the 2022 Synod convention.
COP Chairman Rev. Dr. David P.E. Maier opened discussion on the possible delaying of district conventions. He described the idea as a “kind of radical but maybe appropriate resolution” for the district conventions.
Council members spoke in favor of delaying the convention cycle for a year, since “the majority of our delegates are in the high-risk category” and because major Synod initiatives flowing out of the last election cycle were just “gaining traction” before having to be shut down. This delay would allow districts more flexibility to hold their conventions before the national convention.
“This has to be an action that I take as president, according to [the LCMS] Constitution,” said LCMS President Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison, “to first inform congregations about an impending action that needs to be taken between conventions and then to put a vote to the congregations.” He underscored that Synod Secretary Rev. Dr. John W. Sias is working on the details of how that would take place. Harrison added, “I would be open to taking this action provided the council is overwhelmingly united in it and, secondarily, provided we all commit that we will not use this issue in any political way.”
LCMS English District President Rev. Dr. Jamison Hardy, reflecting on the ongoing impact of COVID-19, agreed. “In April, when we first talked about this,” Hardy said, “I was very adamant about meeting face to face. However, I believe this is a moment … [when] this council can speak together for the sake of the church, and I speak in favor of doing this.”
“There is one instance when the convention of the Synod was planned to be delayed,” said Sias. “That was in 1944 during the Second World War when the U.S. Office of Defense Transportation asked anybody … who might be having a convention to postpone.”
(Circumstances ultimately changed in 1944, and the convention convened as originally scheduled.)
Sias then noted that Synod legal counsel and the Commission on Constitutional Matters had been engaged to review the possibility, under present regulations, of deferring the convention by a congregational vote under LCMS Const. Art. XI B 8, a review that has now concluded favorably.
“I think our church body … needs to hear this council speaking as unanimously as we can in support of one another’s ability to get this done in a two-year window rather than a one-year window,” said Hardy. “I think it will say volumes to our church … during a pandemic … [to] do this for the sake of the church and for our people.”
LCMS Pacific Southwest District President Rev. Dr. Mike Gibson joined the growing consensus: “This is a wonderful moment if we choose to do this, to lead with compassion and concern for others. … We can be the church and we can partner to figure out the way it needs to happen.”
A motion was put forth to ask the Synod president to solicit votes from Synod congregations to extend the district convention cycle and move the Synod convention to 2023. The vote of the COP was unanimous on the following: “Resolved, that the COP asks the Synod president that, due to the continued uncertainty of the coronavirus situation, he put before the congregations of the LCMS, per Article XI B 8 of the Synod Handbook, the request to extend the district convention cycle to a two-year window (2021–2022, with most conventions being delayed a year to 2022) and move the Synod convention to 2023.”
COVID-19 impact survey
In his formal report to the council, Sias provided an overview of the results from a survey conducted by his office and LCMS Research Services on the impact of COVID across the church. Aimed at rostered workers, this survey followed another one, focused on the state of congregations, that came out in June.
The survey indicated that commissioned workers, on average, feel less cared for than ordained workers and that one-third of church workers have some degree of concern over their ministry organization’s viability. “The piece that showed the most impact [felt by our church workers] as a result of COVID was the spiritual dimension, largely from their missing physical gathering in Divine Service and reception of the Lord’s Supper,” said Sias, who urged the district presidents to keep in touch with their rostered workers as the pandemic continues. “I think a trickle-down effect needs to be watched for here, and an urgent need is to shore up the spiritual well-being of our workers, because that is going to impact the joy in their work and the quality of the work they are able to do.”
The survey also reflected the “strongly held, polar opposite opinions about how different congregations and church workers have made decisions in this pandemic,” said Sias. “It’s [either] an opportunity for divisions and wars of words among the Synod or an opportunity for us to grow together, understanding we all face these things, and to try to do what’s reasonable under the Word of God.”
Follow-up surveys are being prepared to gauge the pandemic’s ongoing impact, including a survey of congregations planned for early 2021.
Communion and COVID-19
The Rev. Dr. Larry Vogel, assistant to the executive director of the Synod’s Commission on Theology and Church Relations (CTCR), presented a report, requested by Harrison, on Communion practice in the time of COVID-19.
Vogel summarized the CTCR document released this past March, Communion and COVID-19, and the views from the two seminary faculties in light of a video streamed from an LCMS parish in which a pastor spoke the Words of Institution online while members partook of the Communion elements in their homes. The document answers “three key questions that this pandemic has put before the church: How should we respond when we’re deprived of public worship? How should we respond when in particular we are without the blessing of the Lord’s Supper? How should our church body, the LCMS, approach disputed practice such as online Communion?”
Such a practice, Vogel said, “tends to separate the Word and elements, and it ignores the communal nature of the Sacrament by separating the congregation into families.” He explained that pastoral care is either impossible or delegated in questionable ways in virtual Communion. For these reasons, the practice introduces uncertainty about the validity of the Sacrament and has therefore been endorsed by very few LCMS congregations. “We’re not doing what our Lord commands when He says ‘do this.’
“At the same time, all of us understand that to be without the Lord’s Supper is a true hardship for the church. Yet, the Lord has sustained His church through other times when believers could not receive the Lord’s Supper,” said Vogel, who noted that throughout church history there have been times of sickness, warfare, isolation, etc., when the Sacrament of the Altar was not readily or frequently available.
Vogel concluded his presentation by focusing on the third question: How should our church body, the LCMS, approach a disputed practice such as online Communion? He commended the COP for “the way you’re doing it here today,” saying “we should not forsake the age-old practice of deliberative conciliar decision-making, practicing and abiding in fraternal love for one another, and seeking to understand and to put the best construction on the words and actions, especially, of those with whom we do not agree.”
In his presidential report, Harrison provided updates on a number of areas, including Making Disciples for Life and plans for the 175th anniversary of the Synod in 2022. He shared further thoughts on COVID-19’s impact and the discussion surrounding extending the district convention cycle and postponing the Synod convention by a year.
Members of the Resolution 7-03 committee on matters related to the Concordia University System (CUS) provided an overview of their work and its desired outcomes: principally, the strengthening of the connection between the Synod and the schools and the strengthening of the schools’ confessional Lutheran identity.
CUS college and university presidents joined the council for a discussion, in plenary and small groups, of the initially drafted proposal, which revolves around a theological accreditation process, addressing curriculum, church-worker preparation and campus environment. The proposal would also clearly distinguish these ecclesial interests in the schools, to be overseen by a commission established for that purpose, and the “left-hand kingdom” operation of the institutions, the exclusive domain of the boards of regents.
The Res. 7-03 committee continues to refine the proposal with input from the boards of regents and presidents, CUS and the Board of Directors, working toward presentation of a comprehensive draft to the Synod for consideration well in advance of the upcoming Synod convention.
The Rev. Dr. James A. Baneck, executive director of the LCMS Office of Pastoral Education, provided an overview of the plans for implementing next steps in the church worker recruitment initiative, aiming to complete much of the work before the next Synod convention. Underscoring the need for such an effort were statistical reports on the number of pastors due to retire and the low numbers of men enrolled in seminary training.
The Rev. B. Keith Haney discussed his book, One Nation under God: Healing Racial Divides in America, published by Concordia Publishing House. Haney has become a leading voice in the Synod on the topic of racism and the church. “I pray Christians never give up or get discouraged with the relationships between blacks and whites,” said Haney, “because I believe in the power of the almighty God.”
The Rev. Dr. Ely Prieto, executive director and urban mission developer for Lutheran Intercity Network Coalition in San Antonio, was appointed to the CTCR.
The council spent time in the Word and prayer each day as the Rev. Dr. Dale A. Meyer, former president of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, led the group in studying 1 Peter.
Posted Jan. 12, 2020