By Cheryl Magness
The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) Council of Presidents (COP) gathered in St. Louis Sept. 16–19 for its first meeting of the new triennium.
Life under the cross
On Sept. 16, following a call to order by COP Chairman Rev. Dr. R. Lee Hagan, an opening devotion from LCMS English District President Rev. Dr. Jamison Hardy and a study of 1 Timothy 2 by LCMS California-Nevada-Hawaii District President Rev. Michael Lange, LCMS President Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison led the group in discussing a chapter of Luther’s Theology of the Cross by Walther von Loewenich. The discussion focused on the hiddenness of God and the question of suffering, particularly among LCMS congregations.
“The hidden life in Christ is in these small places … struggling under the sins of the faithful [and] the weaknesses of pastors,” Harrison said. “Congregations that are thriving and doing well, the Lord is certainly blessing them. They also have their problems that we can’t see. …
“When I look at the future of the Synod demographically, I often feel like I’m looking into a black hole. Is it inevitable? … How do I look at this as a theologian of the cross? … I don’t use it as an excuse. … I trust in Christ, pray for repentance, wisdom, vision.”
During the ensuing discussion, the Rev. Dr. D. Richard Stuckwisch, president of the LCMS Indiana District, said that the hiddenness of God means that one can’t know the mind of God by looking at what is happening externally, whether good or bad. The Rev. Dr. Scott R. Murray, LCMS third vice-president, agreed, pointing to the mystery of why some congregations that faithfully preach the Word and administer the Sacraments grow, while others do not. The Rev. Waldemar R. Vinovskis, president of the LCMS SELC District, added that the theology of the cross “shuts our mouths to boasting [or] taking any kind of credit.” The belief that “I only know I’m in Christ if I’m suffering” is wrong, Vinovskis said. Christ is there when things are going well, too.
Next, the COP heard a report from the Convention Action Committee regarding resolutions from the 2023 convention requiring COP action. In the afternoon, the COP broke into koinonia groups to discuss a variety of topics concerning the pastoral office, including preaching, training for the ministry, continuing education, the proper use of lay assistants in worship, the nature of supervision and the difference between a devotion and a worship service. After discussing the topics in small groups, the district presidents reassembled for full group sharing.
‘A great spirit’
On Sept. 17, the Rev. Dr. Lucas Woodford, president of the LCMS Minnesota South District, led the council in a study of the Augsburg Confession and Apology, Article IV, on justification.
Harrison gave the second part of his report to the COP. “We had a convention this summer,” he said, to some laughter, before offering a series of updates on the convention and the work of the various offices of the Synod based at the LCMS International Center in St. Louis.
“Thank you all for your work” at the convention, Harrison continued, adding his appreciation for the COP members’ “attitude … churchmanship … kindness and readiness. The [Resolution] 7-03 [committee] had a huge challenge in bringing new governance for the universities to the floor. … Everyone involved never gave up. … [We have] the best opportunity right now with the universities that we’ve ever had. It’s a great spirit, a new beginning for the Concordia University System and a crucial moment to get it right.”
Harrison briefly reported on the ongoing situation regarding Concordia University Texas (CTX), Austin, Texas. “It’s unfortunate,” said Harrison, “that after the convention, the first communication [from the leadership of CTX] was a letter to the regents [elected at the convention] that they would not be seated. … The BOD opted, under the Seventh Commandment, to file a complaint. I hope you get a chance to read it. It is rather succinct.” Harrison said the filing of a complaint was “certainly not optimal, no doubt about that” but, sadly, necessary.
Harrison thanked the presidents for their “strong support as districts,” with a revenue pledge for the new fiscal year that exceeds last year’s: “That is rather remarkable in a challenging economy.” He offered updates on recent developments in international church relations, noting “a tremendous response” to the Church Relations conference held concurrent with the Synod convention, and reported on a recent independent assessment of LCMS Mission Advancement, by an external consultant, that was mandated by the Synod’s Board of Directors.
“[Mission Advancement Executive Director Mark] Hofman has led with a philosophy of ‘appreciative inquiry,’” said Harrison, noting Hofman’s emphasis on the development of relationships and donor-led giving. “Donor retention is sky high [in the LCMS] compared to the industry as a whole,” Harrison observed. “Our cost of funds is only 12.5 cents, much better than most.”
Later in the afternoon, Synod First Vice-President Rev. Peter Lange updated the COP on the work of the Colloquy Committee for Pastoral Ministry (CCPM), noting the addition of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis President Rev. Dr. Thomas J. Egger to the committee. Lange said that the CCPM recently adopted revisions to the colloquy policy — the first in at least five years — with a plan to put the new policy into practice later this year. The COP also nominated candidates for the Commission on Constitutional Matters (CCM) and the Commission on Handbook (COH) and elected new members of the Commission on Theology and Church Relations (CTCR). Elected to the CTCR were Fred Guengerich, lay member from the LCMS Mid-South District; William Frerking, lay member from the LCMS Texas District; and the Rev. Dr. Ely Prieto, ordained member from the LCMS Missouri District.
On Sept. 18, the COP heard reports from a variety of ministry and entity representatives.
The Rev. Dr. James A. Baneck, executive director of the LCMS Office of Pastoral Education, reviewed recent developments in the Set Apart to Serve (SAS) church work recruitment initiative, including a planned (now completed) virtual Town Hall introducing SAS resources in late September; Church Worker Appreciation Month, which took place in October; ongoing research on second-career church workers; and the upcoming release, in 2024, of an SAS curriculum from Concordia Publishing House.
LCMS Secretary Rev. Dr. John W. Sias provided a post-convention report on the recently concluded election cycle, noting “very few complaints”; reported on efforts to update statistical information on congregations that have not reported in a long time (“We’re behind in our understanding of what’s happening”); and discussed the initial steps being taken to carry out 2023 Resolution 9-06A, “To Appoint Task Force to Evaluate Current Electoral Circuit Parameters.” The task force, which will consider the parameters for visitation circuits and electoral circuits and offer an overture six months before the 2026 convention, will comprise Sias, the CCM, the COH, and three district presidents and three district secretaries (from different districts) chosen by the COP.
“The research involved here,” said Sias, “is not simply looking at representation at Synod convention; the more interesting part of the problem is how what we are doing will affect the visitation circuits and help them do what they are intended to do.”
The COP also heard from the Rev. Dr. Larry Vogel, who reviewed the Commission on Theology and Church Relations report A Chaste and Decent Life: An Update to Human Sexuality 1981. Vogel observed that the biblical idea that our identities come from Christ and not from ourselves “could hardly be more radical” in the current cultural climate. But, said Vogel, “Human beings are not generic. We are not given the task of discovering who we are. … [Children] are being given this ridiculous responsibility to figure out what their sexuality is.” Nevertheless, Vogel said, “People are hungry … [for] a truth they know is missing from their lives.”
The Rev. Bart Day, president and CEO of Lutheran Church Extension Fund (LCEF), updated the COP on LCEF’s work to support LCMS workers, churches and districts via low-interest loans, assistance with determining when to sell property, expansion of the church worker loan pool and leadership development. The Rev. Dan Galchutt, executive director of the LCMS Office of National Mission (ONM), reviewed a new branding initiative for the ONM that emphasizes “God’s mission here,” and updated the COP on developments in church planting, worker wellness and efforts to more effectively partner with districts. And Dr. Al Freeman, director of LCMS School Ministry, introduced plans for a new jobs board for Lutheran schoolteachers, emphasizing that it would not supersede the call process for rostered teachers but would serve both schools and teachers. Teachers are in great demand, but due to a shortage of rostered candidates, 51% of current Lutheran schoolteachers are not on the commissioned roster.
The COP next meets Nov. 13–15 at Concordia University Irvine, Irvine, Calif. See below for the COP vacancy report.
Posted Nov. 2, 2023/Updated Nov. 6, 2023