Every four years, Moravians from each North American Province gather to “do the business of the church”—to decide, legislate, make policy, discuss doctrine and chart the way forward for the next four years.
This June, more than 270 delegates from across the Northern Province will meet in Bethlehem, Pa. to “covenant with hand and heart” about church practice, Provincial structure and ministries, budgets, health care, new programs and more.
The 2014 Synod of the Moravian Church in America, Northern Province, will be held June 19-23 at Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pa.
Governing body of the Church
In the governance of the Moravian Church, Northern Province, the every-four-year-Synod is the “highest judicatory in the Province with supreme legislative powers in all matters not committed to by the Unity Synod.” In other words, Synod is where the key decisions about the Northern Province are made.
“Synod helps us discover God’s leading for the church,” says Betsy Miller, president of the Provincial Elders Conference (PEC) of the Northern Province. “Our time together gives God an opportunity to speak to us and through us, and for us to listen to God and one another in discerning the future direction of the church.”
While Synod is the main governing body of the Province, the PEC is charged with leadership of the church and carrying out the directives of Synod during the interim four years. One of the key duties of Synod is to elect the Provincial Elders’ Conference for the upcoming four years.
Covenant with Hand and Heart
The 2014 Northern Province Synod will be inspired by the theme, “We covenant with hand and heart.” The theme, chosen jointly by the Synod Planning Committee and PEC, focuses on God’s covenant with us, and how we live that out.
The theme also calls to mind a favorite hymn: “We covenant with hand and heart to follow Christ, our Lord/ with world and sin and self to part and to obey his word/ to love each other heartily, in truth and with sincerity/ and under cross, reproach and shame to glorify his name.”
“We were intentional with the selection of this theme,” explains Betsy. “We know that we have some challenging work ahead of us during this Synod. ‘Covenant’ reminds us that it is God’s love for us that binds us together. ‘Covenant’ also reflects our capacity to discern God’s will for our church together based not on our agreement with one another, but in our common love of the Lord. It is that love of Jesus that allows us to love each other.”
Decisions on many topics
Among a broad array of topics, the Provincial Synod of 2014 will be addressing two important matters raised during the Synod of 2010. While most Synod proposals come from congregations, groups or committees, these two matters have resulted in proposals coming directly from the PEC.
Ordination of gay/lesbian pastors—The first of these was the 2010 Synod’s directive to provide a summary report and corresponding legislation regarding the Christian service of homosexual persons for consideration by the 2014 Synod of the Moravian Church, Northern Province.
Based on that 2010 legislation, the Northern Province engaged in a series of conversations at many different levels on the topic of the ordination of gay or lesbian pastors in committed relationships. A Human Sexuality Task Force was convened to guide the process under the auspices of the PEC.
In regional and congregational meetings, church members had the opportunity to discuss and discern together in sessions called “Holy Conversations.” Time was set aside for additional conversation and input at each of District Synod in 2012, followed by a gathering of Northern Province bishops, district executive boards, members of the Human Sexuality Task Force and the PEC for further discernment and discussion in April, 2013.
“We followed the direction of the 2010 Synod to ensure we had an opportunity to hear as many voices as possible,” says Betsy. “And the 2010 synod legislation did not come out of a vacuum. It is one more step in a long series of synod resolutions regarding the church’s view of homosexual persons in our culture and our church. As early as 1974, the synod of the Northern Province declared that homosexual persons are under God’s care. At many synods since then, delegates have addressed the topic of homosexuality.”
The result of the work since 2010 is a proposal to the 2014 Provincial Synod regarding the ordination and pastoral service of gay and lesbian individuals, whether single, married or in a covenanted relationship. The proposal was distributed to pastors, synod delegates and alternates and Joint Board Members of congregations in the Northern Province this fall. Those attending pre-synod meetings had opportunities to discuss it with PEC and District Board members during those meetings around the Province. The PEC proposal, along with any other proposals on this matter, will be referred to a committee at Synod, reviewed and prepared for being brought to the floor of Synod for a vote.
“We know Moravians of good faith hold differing opinions on this topic,” says Betsy. “We know that Moravians who deeply love God, who honor the authority of Scripture and love the Moravian Church may not agree. When you meet Moravians who hold a different perspective than you do, please remember that they love God, respect the authority of Scripture, and love the Moravian Church just as much as you do. This is often difficult to do, but we can pledge together to listen and learn.”
Identity, Purpose and Organization—The second major proposal to the 2014 Synod also addresses a mandate from the 2010 Synod. Four years ago, Synod directed the PEC to establish a study commission to engage the congregations of the Moravian Church – Northern Province in discussion about how the current Provincial structure does or does not meet Provincial needs. The commission was also to gather recommendations about suggested changes to the Provincial structure; to report their collective findings and to make recommendations based upon their study to the PEC. The PEC was then to prepare a recommendation for the 2014 Provincial Synod for consideration at that time.
Over the past three years, the Identity, Purpose and Organization (IPO) Team has met to brainstorm, study, discuss, review and recommend potential changes to the Northern Province. Discussions were held during District Synods and with congregations, too.
This work resulted in a report from the IPO Team to the PEC. The resulting proposal from the PEC, along with their full report, is being presented to delegates, alternates, and Joint Board members at the spring pre-synod meetings. A committee will then consider this proposal at synod.
Much more to work on
While these two may be the highest profile topics for this Synod, there is much more work to be done at the gathering. Other key areas to be discussed and decided include health care and pension, care of pastors and staff, new ways to extend God’s reign through emerging ministries, election of leadership, financial matters, provincial resources and questions of faith and practice.
Synod actions originate in a variety of ways. Sometimes a single individual who feels strongly about an issue prepares a proposal for Synod consideration. Sometimes a congregational board or a district or provincial committee prepares a proposal or requests that Synod acts. Sometimes a Synod committee itself, after discussing issues that members place on its agenda, proposes action for Synod to consider.
Working in committees
To help address all of these issues, each delegate to Synod will be working within a committee. Synod committees give in-depth consideration to areas of special concern to the larger church in a setting that allows for prayer and seeking God’s direction and blessing in their area of focus on behalf of the larger Province.
The committees review proposed legislation and reports pertaining to their area of focus, choosing whether or not to forward items to the floor of Synod for further action.
However a proposal originates, at Synod it is referred to the appropriate committee for consideration. The committee discusses the proposal, edits it to its liking, and votes on whether to submit it to the whole Synod as a committee report. The report is debated, perhaps amended, and ultimately approved or disapproved by a vote of the Synod. They may also create new proposals for action.
If approved by the entire Synod, it becomes a Synod directive, to be carried out as the report itself says.
Delegates are elected by congregations’ church councils; each congregation can send one lay member for every 250 confirmed communicant members (or fraction thereof). All Northern Province clergy under call or appointment are named delegates, as are members of the PEC and the Eastern, Western and Canadian District Executive Boards. Six retired pastors are elected as delegates from the more than 60 eligible. Two youth delegates selected from each district also attend.
Unlike delegates to a government legislative session, however, Synod delegates are not given a mandate to vote a certain way or “represent” the views of their congregation. All delegates should be open to how the Holy Spirit guides them and not be beholden to opinions coming in to Synod.
A time of fellowship, worship and fun
While delegates to Synod should expect long days and hard work—after all, Synod is not a conference, but a time to do the work of the Province—they can also expect to have a fun, faith-filled experience and great fellowship.
Synod brings together Moravians from many parts of the U.S. and Canada. Delegates get to meet new people and renew old friendships. Each day of Synod includes spirited (and spiritual) worship and music. Activities and meals offer opportunities to relax, learn and celebrate being Moravian. There’s a sense of common purpose, where everything one does during their time at Synod is to guide the Northern Province into the future.
This year’s Synod Planning Committee, including the Rt. Rev. Blair Couch, Hank Naisby, Karen Naisby, the Rev. Melissa Johnson and the Rev. Keith Harke, along with the provincial staff, are hard at work preparing for the event in June. A small army of volunteers, including Synod pages, tellers, logistics support and others will be on hand to help Synod flow smoothly.
Hopes and expectations
“We understand that like all Synods, the matters being discussed and debated at this Synod can be difficult,” explains Betsy. “Throughout our four days, we expect delegates to be open to the leading of God’s Holy Spirit, be ready to listen and speak with care and love, and to bring their best abilities and thinking out of love for God’s church and our future together. Over the course of our time together, we need to answer the question, ‘How do we develop ways to equip the church and its people to be agents of hope and reconciliation in God’s world?’”
“My hope is that we come out of this Synod embraced by God’s love, covenanting to move forward together,” continues Betsy. “We are people held together by the love of Christ, even on diverse matters. What binds us together is stronger than what threatens to separate us.
“By working together to shape and better understand our identity and purpose, we can then go forward to participate in God’s ongoing mission to the world, helping us be more faithful in following Christ’s call.”
Ed Note: This article first appeared in the January/February issue of The Moravian Magazine. Updated June 12, 2014.