Highlights from the 2016 Synod Assembly

Synod Assembly 2016 Highlights

One of our lowest scores on the Congregational Vitality Assessment we took last year was how informed people felt about what is going on in the Synod and the wider Church. In an effort to remedy this, here are some of the interesting things that happened at Synod Assembly this week.

As always, we heard from many of the ministries of the larger Church, including:

  • David Lose, president of Philadelphia Seminary, talked about the efforts being made to bring together Gettysburg and Philadelphia Seminaries, and how these efforts will result in balanced budgets and full tuition scholarships for ELCA students – a huge step in addressing the massive clergy shortage the ELCA is currently experiencing (600 fulltime vacancies) and which will get much worse in the coming years due to retirements (1000 vacancies by 2020).
  • Molly Beck Dean, main planner of the National Youth Gathering, was the representative from Churchwide, and she told us about the exciting ministries going on around the country and the world, including highlighting some new mission starts and feeding locations, and thanking the Upstate NY Synod for its financial contributions to these ministries.
  • We raised over $30,000 for World Hunger over the three days!

Each assembly we discuss several business decisions, called resolutions and memorials. Some of the more interesting one this year were:

  • Resolution/Memorial on the possibility of lay presidency: to satisfy the needs of rural churches without a regular pastor, it was proposed that churches could lift up lay leaders within their congregations who could take turns presiding at communion. A frequent dissenting opinion was that the system we currently have in place, in which permission must be granted by the bishop for a lay person to preside, works well, and having that check/balance system in place is important for maintaining the integrity and proper use of the sacrament. Frequent supporting opinion was giving lay people the opportunity to serve one another and receive the means of grace however often they want. The resolution was defeated, as the synod council had recommended it be.
  • Resolution on denying the Doctrine of Discovery: This resolution repented the use of Christian theology to take control of the “new world” by means of Native American genocide, in hopes of mending relationships and improving ministry with our Native American brothers and sisters. It passed.
  • Memorial regarding Islamic extremism: This memorial acknowledged the evil of Islamic (later changed to “religious”) extremism and the damage it is doing for Christians and others around the world. Much debate arose, especially around whether there should be a call from the Lutheran Church for the government to take stronger action (and what sort of action this should be), and whether the resolution as it stood was insufficient because it did not recognize the breadth of the issue, nor take responsibility for the ways we have all fallen short in ministering to those affected by religious extremism. The assembly voted to push the resolution to synod council for further study.

Much of the Assembly was focused on the theme of “In Christ, One New Humanity” (Eph. 2:15) and in particular, racial justice. This included a keynote speaker on the topic (the Rev. Dr. Cheryl Pero, director of the Albert “Pete” Pero Jr. Multicultural Center at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago), a common read (The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness), breakout sessions to discuss the topic in small groups, several workshops offered on the topic, and worship and devotions planned with this theme in mind.

One phrase that came up a lot and often caused tension among us was “white privilege.” Swallowing that racism still exists in this country is difficult for many of us – we have a black president, after all! – but understanding it from the perspective of white privilege puts a different spin on it. It suggests that racism today isn’t so much overt exclusion as it is an unspoken assumption about who has what opportunities, and who doesn’t. Often they are opportunities that people who are white never noticed because it is all they have ever known. Here is a white privilege checklist to bring some of those to light:

  • If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure about renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I want to live, and that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.
  • I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
  • I can turn on the television or open the front page of the newspaper and see people of my race widely represented.
  • When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
  • I can be sure that my children will be given curriculum materials that testify to the existence of their race (e.g. novels written by people of their race).
  • I can easily find a hairdresser who can cut my hair, and products in my local grocery store to care for my hair.
  • Whether I use checks, credit cards, or cash, I can be sure my skin color will not work against the appearance of financial responsibility.
  • I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
  • I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
  • If a traffic cop pulls me over, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.
  • When I cut myself, I can easily find a Band-Aid that roughly matches my skin color.
  • I can easily buy posters, postcards, picture books, children’s books, greeting cards, dolls, toys, and children’s magazines featuring people of my race.
  • I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having coworkers on the job suspect that I got it because of my race.
  • If my day, week, or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it has racial overtones.

Could you answer yes to most or all of those? Our brothers and sisters of color, even those who are well-educated, well-spoken, positive contributors to society, cannot answer yes to very many of these. The fact that most middle class white people can answer yes to most of them does not make those white people bad people, nor does it minimize their accomplishments, but it does point to a certain privilege they were born into. At the assembly, we spent a lot of energy trying to come to terms with this difficult and challenging reality. No one likes to be told that their success is due to some privilege they didn’t earn themselves; no one likes their accomplishments to be undermined. But this is not the purpose of talking about white privilege. The purpose is simply to point out some of the assumptions we make, and the distance we have yet to go in terms of racial justice in this country.

Once we can recognize that racial justice has not yet been achieved (and this conversation has touched only the tip of the iceberg on that!), we can start to consider steps forward to address it. The assembly attendees were given several resources for bringing the conversation back to congregations; the hope is that conversation will help us at least start to understand the situation which is so often hidden from us, and that it may ultimately help us to follow the call of the prophet Micah: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.”

I hope you will take advantage of opportunities in the next months to learn more about this issue. I know it is an uncomfortable conversation, but sometimes God’s call makes us uncomfortable; growing pains usually are. But learning (even if you don’t agree) is an important step in living into Jesus’ way of compassion for even the outsider, those who are different, those on the margins, and those we might otherwise dismiss – and to treat all people as the children of God that they are.