2019 Convention in Memoriam

By Dennis Matyas  –

Many have and will undertake an account of the recent synodical convention in Tampa. The focus will be diverse, the tone and tenor equally so. For those of us grafted to the veins of the LCMS, we will hear about the convention’s nuances and political factions for at least the next three years. For my part, I offer up my brief perspective as a voting pastoral delegate; you can take it or leave it, recognizing that one man’s opinion is just that—one man’s.

At the mercy of the weather, my initial flight was delayed, causing me to miss my connection and get rebooked twelve hours later. I watched the opening service in the terminal at DTW and crawled into my hotel bed in Tampa at almost 1 AM. C’est la vie. This being my second convention since my ordination in 2012, I was already well versed in the process. I was also already well versed in the willingness of delegates to speak to every resolution. It seems almost irresistible to some, whose importance looms large in their minds: after all, we were elected by our congregations; we were elected by our circuits; we traveled, slept, and ate on our Districts’ dime; we had our own assigned seats with our own electronic devices with little labels with our own names on them; we were encouraged and enabled to speak, debate, and amend. In short, you feel very important as a delegate (some more than others). But speaking from the floor is tricky business: you risk repeating what someone has already said, you risk being inarticulate or rambling, and you risk the impatient groans of over a thousand delegates who would rather listen to a bag of bacon speak. Add to that the floor committees’ significant burden to get through their resolutions in the time allotted, and the very privilege and honor of speaking to and for your church body quickly becomes a curse.

That curse was never more evident to me than when the topic of Concordia College, Selma came up. The historically black college was closed at the end of 2018 due to severe financial difficulties and … reasons? I am neither familiar with, nor involved in, any of the niceties of that issue, so I cannot speak to it. But I can report on my observation of the fallout, and the only emotion I have is one of heartbreak. On the one hand, many feel that sufficient and significant effort was taken and eventually failed to save Selma; on the other hand, many feel that adequate transparency to the synod at large regarding this effort was lacking. So it was that during “debate” on the resolution to give thanks to God for Selma’s 97 years of service, it got ugly. Really, heartbreakingly, ugly. What many expected to be a boiler plate resolution turned into O. J. Simpson trying on the glove. It did not fit, and no one would acquit, even as the resolution extended into the next day. Some got very defensive, and others were out for blood. Someone praised the efforts of the administration, and someone accused the COP of systemic racism. Someone tearfully thanked Selma, and someone accused everyone of never caring to begin with. It was an absolute train wreck, and I found myself feeling profoundly sad for both sides. From beginning to end it was lose-lose, and the only way to stop the pain was to let the patient bleed out.

I would like to believe that we’re better than all that, but unfortunately Christ’s church is made up of sinners, and the politics of church organization are unavoidably human. Besides, I have spent enough time as a pastor and rostered member of Synod to know better. Policy-making and administration is not pretty, but it is necessary. However, instead of bemoaning the internal problems of the LCMS and her policies and divisions, we should rather be marveling in utter thanks at the fact that we even still exist. Think about it: if any single congregation operated like synod at convention, how could it survive? What if almost half of a congregation did not support or respect its pastoral leadership? What if half of the congregation openly mocked the other half for its preference of devotional music? What if a congregation’s boards were gerrymandered and stacked—or were even accused of gerrymandering? What if every one of those congregational boards had its work second-guessed and criticized openly? What if everyone in the congregation passed each other little notes and tracts that threw the other members under the bus for the tiniest imperfection? Obviously such a congregation would die—and it would probably deserve to die. But the LCMS continues on. Why?

I submit the LCMS continues on because we are actually not divided in spirit and confession. All those examples are incidental to church fellowship. Yes, it gets ugly, but they are not the house’s foundation. Christ is the foundation, and the witness of the LCMS trudges onward despite our imperfections and bickering. He unites us in ways that we continually fail to undermine. We go to convention like brothers go to the tree house for their secret club—enthusiasm for our own rules turns inexorably to angry tears, and we bloody each others’ noses in the scrum. But when the street lights come on, we still go back home together and eat at the same supper table. We try our best to hate each other, but Christ stands over us as a mediator, hands on our shoulders, forcing our reluctant apologies. For me, the hero of that day was the chaplain. Seeing the raw pain in the room, he improvised the next order of worship printed before us, and ran the DS 3 liturgy of Confession and Absolution. Everyone knew it from memory, and everyone needed it. Even with no horse in the race, as it were, I had tears in my eyes as I heard my sins being forgiven.

We are not divided. Not where it counts, anyway. What unites us is far greater than any contrived means by which we can divide ourselves, and that unity must be at the forefront of our reporting. It is that unity—the unity we have within Scripture and the Confessions, given by the grace of Jesus Christ—that must be the public message. Yes, convention is the place for policy and administration, but the public witness outside of the convention hall is what the world needs to see about us. That answers all our hang-wringing over numbers and budgets. That answers the aching perennial question, “Why and how are we still here?” It also tells the rest of the world that we are still about the business we were about 180 years ago.

Instead of dwelling on the self-made division, I will choose to rejoice in the unity that makes our little synod unique. I have to. It’s the only thing that makes the bile go back down. By official resolution, we rejected racism in all forms. We reaffirmed the sanctity of marriage and family. We reaffirmed the natural, God-made binary of human sexuality, including proper sexual behavior. We encouraged care for the immigrants among us. We confessed a six-day creation. We extended our fellowship with three other churches. We celebrated mission work and enabled more of it. Many of these “no brainer” resolutions were taken by voice, which meant they were unanimous. Unanimous. Someone with more influence than me should tell the presidium to issue a press release to the mainstream media that we are united on these specific and controversial social issues, because I know from personal experience that there are future Lutheran Christians out there who are dying to find a church home that actually sticks to its doctrinal guns and won’t suddenly go the way of the world. Maybe, just maybe, they would see the news and find the nearest congregation.

For the outsider looking in, the LCMS convention must be a strange sight. We spent almost an hour throwing mud over a bylaw, but it took us less than ten minutes to uphold marriage between only one man and one woman. I am mentally and spiritual exhausted, and by Thursday night I was desperate to get home. But looking at what counts—faith in Christ and true Scriptural confession thereof—well … I guess it wasn’t so ugly after all.

Peace to you in Christ. Now shut up about the bylaws and get back to work.