News crisis: when people agree (Lutheran edition)

News crisis: when people agree (Lutheran edition) July 26, 2013

I’m in St. Louis this week at the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod’s 65th regular convention. The convention was largely peaceful and unified. And where it wasn’t, the issues were extremely important but fairly unique to the LCMS. I keep thinking how difficult it is to cover a convention such as this. Religion reporter Tim Townsend, of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, was at the convention.

He had a hilarious tweet the other day about the arcane language one must be familiar with when covering a denominational convention:

CCM approves reso to reconsider opinion 11-2598 and participation in 2010 Res. 8-30B — at open hearing of Floor Committee 4. #lcms2013

It’s funny but it’s also true that this is a completely typical form of discourse that must be parsed if one hopes to convey any substantive information to readers. It’s challenging to just get the acronyms, terminology, back story, theology and processes down. That’s key even before figuring out if it’s of interest to a general audience. Seen this way, it’s much easier to see why there’s more media coverage of those denominations that battle over sex and other cultural issues. Imagine what a disappointment it is to parse the debate only to find out that it’s on a topic such as distance-learning education.

Unlike previous conventions featuring narrow vote margins, nearly every resolution here was passing with huge margins — whether the topic was checks and balances of seminary faculty hiring, proper administration of the sacraments, review of non-seminary pastoral training programs, lay deacons, campus ministries, or other items. There’s interesting subtext there — we’re definitely in a new era in the LCMS, but it’s pretty tough to explain briefly. Which is probably why the St. Louis Post-Dispatch keeps publishing stories about how the Synod handled a First Commandment issue last year relating to syncretism, or worship with non-Christians at an interfaith worship service in Newtown, CT. (“Mono-maniacally obsessed” was how I heard one delegate refer to the reporter’s focus on the topic. “Tell him to get off the Newtown template,” was what another said. Consider it done.)

But you try to come up with something interesting to say about a huge convention taking place in your backyard when everyone is operating in peace and love (sadly, that might actually be big news when it comes to our church body and others …). Here was the St. Louis Post-Dispatch lede for the excitingly headlined “Lutherans end convention downtown after taking care of business“:

The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod closed its convention in downtown St. Louis on Thursday with the more than 1,000 delegates sticking to the event’s unofficial theme of unity.

Then there were, uh, four full paragraphs on “the Newtown template.” The rest of the story up some highlights:

Among the other business conducted this week by the delegates — who include ordained pastors and lay church members — was a vote to expand its relationship with Lutheran church bodies in Liberia, Siberia and Togo.

The body also passed a resolution that “encouraged” the church’s regional leaders to oversee and supervise their congregation’s administration of holy communion so that “practices which are not in harmony with the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions be addressed fraternally and evangelically.”

I think the declaration of formal fellowship with the Lutheran churches in Liberia, Siberia and Togo were a big story from this convention. And these “encouraging” resolutions — which will force my church body to have some tough discussions about doctrine — are easy to pass with huge margins. Whether those discussions will result in some tough decisions down the line is another thing.

Lower in the story we get some notes on non-seminary training of pastors and whether seminaries should restore the checks and balances on hiring that they had until 3 years ago (the Lutherans voted to restore that check). It was one of the more contentious debates and closer votes. Still, it passed 61 percent to 39 percent. That would have been a landslide vote in the old days.

I sympathize with the many delegates I spoke to who were frustrated by the “Newtown template” coverage of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. It certainly wasn’t worth focusing on again, given that it didn’t come up once during the convention, apart from a brief reiteration from District President Tim Yeadon (pictured here with one of our church body’s beloved Comfort Dogs) that everything’s still resolved.

But I think this post-convention story is also a great case study in how difficult it is to cover non-political religious bodies, particularly those not embroiled in sexy debates about ordination or interpretation of Biblical passages on sexual morality. As one of my editors once told me, “continue” is not a very exciting verb for a lede.

News is about drama. I’ve been to our recent conventions. They were nothing but drama. We had a president who would barely get re-elected and debates so tense that you could feel it in your body. There were lots of serious debates full of theological subtext — did we want to be a church body that retained its Lutheran identity? Did we want to adopt a more American approach? Were our doctrines on communion, the Office of Holy Ministry, etc. in need of revision? What were the theological implications of reorganizing our national headquarters? We still have those debates. The current administration and district presidents seem to want to work on handling those debates in a less contentious manner — through discourse and open engagement. From the votes of our Synod, it’s clear that this is being largely well received by the clergy, church workers and laypeople — but it makes for very difficult news writing.

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4 responses to “News crisis: when people agree (Lutheran edition)”

  1. It is kind of refreshing, but at the same time one wonders if there is unspoken tension that everybody is afraid to bring up. But I guess to be more on topic, can reporters please stop bringing up Newtown every-time they mention Harrison’s name?

    • Like: we can show “mercy” to all the world, but not to qualified ordained men waiting for calls, through no fault of their own?
      Not so long ago a Lutheran Pastor was Pastor of a congregation for life, unless God called him elsewhere. Under the (Texas style) “business model” he may be dismissed at will, although policy against it is still “on the books”.

      So there is a great discussion about a Small Catechism which, among other things, describes how you confess your sins to your Pastor, for God’s forgiveness.
      Not a word in that little book about inventing “sins” to ascribe to the Pastor in order to be rid of him! Or about calling a man the congregation isn’t willing to support, financially and otherwise.

      I don’t blame Mollie for not wanting to write about it, but the St Louis papers ignored a much more embarrassing story (to LCMS) than “Newtown” (which was only a half trained man getting conned by his “ministerial association” while short on sleep!) The other story was all there, in the resolution and what was [not] done. But maybe you’d have to be “Missouri” to parse this one, too. And it would take more than a “tweet” to explain it.

  2. Reflecting on the event, I have to say the part of the convention that I enjoyed the most was the robust, vigorous and passionate conversations on the floor and outside in the halls about …. wait for it….brace yourself….the Small Catechism by Dr. Martin Luther.

    Surely a person with little to no real understanding of the significance of this document can possibly be expected to understand how important it is for Lutherans.

    But….we actually, as a church body, at our national convention, spent a really quality time debating how best to translate, and how best to explain, what is, without any legitimate question, the MOST important document in the history of Christianity in the West since the Reformation in the 16th century.

    The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod actually cares enough about this most core text for our beliefs to debate how best to bring forward a new explanation of and to ask for a fuller and more robust version of this explanation for adults.

    While other so-called “Lutheran” church bodies have squandered their treasures adopting pro-homosexual, pro-abortion and what amounts to a complete collapse to our modern society and surrender of the basics of orthodox Christianity, it is good to know there are still a few of us “stodgy” Christians left who actually want to advance the true good news of Jesus.

    • Ah yes, the old ‘homosexuals are collapsing society’ chestnut. Given its heroic confessional stance against the Prussian Union, I’d really like to respect the MoSyn, but it seems the non-wingnuts were flushed out with Seminex.