I’m down here in Houston where my church body — the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod — is having its 64th triennial convention. This is the second convention I’ve attended as an adult and it’s always a lot of fun to catch up with folks from across the country and have those in-depth conversations about theology and practice.
The LCMS gets relatively little media attention, considering its size. Mostly that’s because we are not divided on issues like abortion or same-sex marriage. We don’t have female clergy and I’ve talked with a grand total of one person who wishes it were otherwise. And she’s a delegate from the East who was over 80 years old. If you’re not fighting about those kinds of issues, the media just don’t tend to care about what you’re doing.
But if you’re inside this church body, there are some fascinating conversations and debates going on. There are huge differences of opinion about the importance of retaining traditional Lutheran identity versus adoption of a more evangelical style and substance. The church had previously made a decision — decades ago — to not follow in the historical-critical methodology of mainline denominations.
So yesterday we had a presidential election and elected a new president. The incumbent was seeking his third re-election. I thought it might be interesting to compare two reports that appeared in the same paper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
First of all, let me say that I think both pieces are good, insofar as I’m able to judge them from my not-disinterested standpoint. But the difference is still notable. The first is a wire piece from the Associated Press. It explains the nuts and bolts just like a wire report should:
Delegates for the nation’s second-largest Lutheran denomination selected a new leader, voting in a 48-year-old Ballwin minister and sending the church’s outgoing leader to his first defeat after nine years in office.
About 1,200 delegates for the Kirkwood-based Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod gathered in Houston and elected the Rev. Matthew Harrison as president on Tuesday. He defeated the incumbent, Dr. Gerald Kieschnick, by a vote of 54 percent to 45 percent.
It even gets in some good context, but mostly by referring to events from nearly a decade ago. The picture is of the new president on the left, the outgoing president in the middle and Dr. John Nunes, head of Lutheran World Relief, on the right.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch wisely sent religion-beat specialist Tim Townsend down to cover the convention and he was able to talk to delegates and church officials who keyed him into the significance of the election. And every paragraph of the report shows the help and context that comes with being on the ground:
Harrison’s victory represented a larger ideological change for the conservative denomination, which is split between moderate and conservative camps. Frequently over the course of the convention’s first five days, speakers referenced the political “elephant in the room.”
During his nine years as president, Kieschnick, 67, was criticized by traditionalists who bemoaned what they called his postmodern approach to the church. Kieschnick, they said, had favored a nondenominational, evangelical megachurch model, and in the process diluted Martin Luther’s theology.
Until Tuesday’s elections, the delegates had been voting almost exclusively on 38 proposals to radically restructure the denomination in an effort to combat what the church’s treasurer called “a financial crisis.” Kieschnick had championed the restructuring.
But reaction to the reorganization was split. Supporters said restructuring would decrease costs, while critics felt the move would be a step toward a hierarchical structure more similar to the Catholic Church’s. Harrison and his supporters had framed the restructuring as a power grab by Kieschnick.
“The change we really need is not structural,” Harrison wrote in the Reporter, a synod newspaper, before the convention. “Part of me might like the massive increase in power proposed for the Synod president. That’s why it’s not a good idea.”
Even though Townsend covers religion for the hometown paper of the LCMS headquarters, it was not a given that he’d be sent to this convention. I know reporters around the country who don’t have the budget for any travel. But sometimes, from afar, I think it becomes easier to try to force a story into a preconceived narrative. And that can have kind of a snowball effect. Maybe that’s more significant with a church body less divided on hot button topics like we are.
I’m sure various folks might quibble about any reported piece, but I have heard many delegates today say they were surprised at how well Townsend reported on and explained some of the “inside baseball” issues that are near and dear to Lutheran hearts.
Meeting some of the key players and being able to listen to how they discuss those issues also means that future stories will have that much more context and background. In that regard, travel budgets are actually a small price to pay.