When the 110 delegates from Western District congregations and agencies arrived at Mt. Morris for their 2016 Synod, many were pondering the District’s “Aspirations for the Future.” Three days later, many were on their way home having made commitments to see those aspirations come to light.
The 2016 Synod, held for the first time at Mt. Morris, brought together delegates from all Western District congregations, along with agency representatives, denominational leaders and special guests to learn, share, envision, worship, pray and legislate.
As outlined in the Northern Province Book of Order, the main purposes of a District Synod are to confirm and renew Christian love and fellowship with one another and to discuss the mission, vision, and purpose of the Western District. Attendees did that and more.
A learning opportunity
The 2016 Synod offered a unique opportunity for delegates to learn about many of the agencies and activities of the District. In their time at Synod, delegates received an update on Tricklbee Café, an outreach ministry in Milwaukee led by the Rev. Christie Melby-Gibbons; news from the Board of World Mission presented by the Rev. Judy Ganz; an update on the work of the Northern Province’s Identity, Purpose and Organization Task Force; an outline of the Healthier Congregations Task Force; and a message from Northern Province PEC President the Rev. Dr. Betsy Miller.
In sharing the work of the District’s two eldercare communities, presentations were combined with worship. Mike Sneden from Auburn Homes joined the Rev. Amy Gohdes Luhman and Matt Mauthe from Marquardt Village teamed up with chaplain the Rev. John Fritts to share informational updates as part of a worship service. The liturgies and sermons highlighted the work of Marquardt and Auburn and sought prayers for residents and staff at each.
The Rev. Dr. Frank Crouch, dean of Moravian Theological Seminary, offered group Bible studies during Synod based on Luke 11:9-13 and Matthew 13:51-52. In these sessions, Frank looked at the language and words used in each to better understand the passages’ meaning and put each into context of the work at Synod.
And the director of Mt. Morris, Joel Jarvis, welcomed Synod delegates and guests, provided an update on how Mt. Morris has expanded its uses and programming, and discussed thoughts on expanding and updating the facilities.
Aspirations for the Future
In the fall of 2015, the Western District Executive Board engaged pastors, joint boards, synod delegate and agency members in an assessment tool entitled “Landscape.” The assessment results pointed to five key priorities for the District:
- Develop a discernment process to rethink how to be vital Moravian churches in our various regions;
- Take a leadership role in working with churches that are struggling;
- Improve the programmatic resources the District makes available to congregations to ensure that they are the most effective ways to do ministry in the church today;
- Equip pastors and other leaders in congregations to help members become growing, vital disciples; and
- Equip pastors and other leaders in congregations with strategies that enable them to reach new members.
The assessment was a centerpiece of the topics that the Synod delegates discussed when breaking into small groups. Each group sought to find ways to make these aspirations reality and made commitments to help bring some of those aspirations to life.
On Friday night, delegates “listened in” on a case study discussion that asked members of the outgoing Western District Executive Board and a group of Western District pastors to share their thoughts on the assessment’s findings.
A central theme that came from the study was “fence-sitting”—defined as waiting, expectancy, or curiosity about what’s next—and how it is impacting the work of Western District congregations and agencies. The “live” case study, led by consultant Bob Johnson, executive director of American Foundation of Counseling Services, featured the Rev. Kerry Krauss asking questions of the WDEB members and the pastors to uncover the possible sources of the hesitation being felt and discuss how to move past it to improve the District’s ministry.
While District Synods aren’t like their provincial counterparts—that is, focused on governance and legislation—there were several pieces of legislation handled by Western District delegates.
The Western District Synod gave its stamp of approval on two capital campaigns for district agencies. For the first, the 2016 Western District Synod approved, affirmed and permitted Marquardt Village’s request for a capital campaign with a goal of $2 million to build a new chapel, aimed at increasing Marquardt’s ability to minister to the spiritual needs of its residents and the surrounding community.
The 2016 Synod also gave its approval for Mt. Morris Camp and Conference Center Board of Directors’ request for a capital campaign with a goal of $600,000 to expand the capacity and function of Arrowhead Lodge in an effort to allow Mt. Morris to be more flexible in the hosting capabilities that it offers.
Delegates to Synod approved a resolution to evaluate investments in fossil fuels. Based on concerns about the environmental and financial impacts of investments in fossil fuels, the 2016 Synod resolved to direct the Western District Stewardship Committee to develop resources for congregations and agencies to discuss the matter and commend the 2018 Northern Province Synod to consider a resolution requesting that the Moravian Common Fund develop a socially-conscious fund option.
And the 2016 Synod elected new leadership for the Western District. Among those elected was a new president of the Western District Executive Board, the Rev. Bruce Nelson (for more on the elections, see the June issue of the Moravian). Bruce replaces the Rev. James Hicks, who is stepping down from the post after 10 years. Jim is retiring, but has also accepted an appointment to pastor the Daggett Moravian Church in Michigan.
Meeting at camp
Instead of a hotel or events center, the 2016 Synod was held at what many consider a spiritual center of the Western District: Mt. Morris Camp and Conference Center. And while there were some concerns, the facility proved adept at hosting Synod.
Plenary sessions were held in Arrowhead Lodge, the largest building on the camp grounds. Delegates had the opportunity to stay in cabins (that’s what this writer did) or in Sandhill or Black Oak Lodge. Others stayed in local motels.
To accommodate meal times, an event tent was erected next to the Lodge, making for an interesting and festive place to eat. The Mt. Morris staff provided delicious meals and helped make those who stayed onsite comfortable during the event.
And what’s a camp experience without a campfire? While held inside in front of a roaring fireplace instead of outside by a firepit, the campfire recalled the fun, music and laughter of a camp event.
Messages from Synod
Each of the nine small groups assembled at Synod provided their thoughts and commitments as Synod progressed. These thoughts, which took the form of epistles, open letters and resolutions of gratitude, best illustrate the spirit coming out of this event.
One group shared, “We lived in the nurturing presence of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. We reviewed the results of the Landscape Assessment and case study provided by the Western District Board. We focused primarily on the fourth “aspiration for the future” from the Landscape Assessment: ‘Equip pastors and other leaders in congregations to help members become growing, vital disciples.’ We were moved knowing 4 out of 10 respondents indicated that they felt that they had a gift to give and didn’t know how to give it.”
From another group: “In Acts 10, Peter and Cornelius were freed by God’s grace to experience the “new thing” God was calling them to undertake. We believe God is calling the congregations of the Western District to embark on a “new thing,” a way of leadership that is collaborative and congregationally-led. We believe that we are all called to share the joy of mission and ministry with one another, reaching out with courage and humility to learn from one another.”
A third group shared, “As the 2016 Western District Synod convened with the theme “Embraced by Resurrection” our small group felt the leading of the Holy Spirit to have conversation around relationship: our relationship with God and with one another. As we shared among our group the pain and loss that conflict within a congregation or within a denomination brings, we sensed a reconciliation, acceptance and embracement. Our group defined embracement as clasping or holding close with arms and heart. We feel this embodies the part of our Moravian motto which reminds us that in all things we are to love. We ask and encourage the members of the churches of the Western District to accept each other in love as children of God and to serve as brothers and sisters in Christ.” This sentiment was offered at several congregations following Synod.
And one group pointed to the future: “We appreciate the vision of the WDEB in the last four years in the area of pastoral development. We want to affirm the implementation of this vision that has made use of leadership groups, Spiritual direction and coaching and hope that you would continue the support of pastoral development.
“Now is the time to build upon the foundation laid with the pastors and pursue a greater commitment to congregational revitalization. The congregations will always be looking to the district board to be visionary. We encourage the WDEB, at an initial meeting, to begin to develop its vision for the district and invite congregations to be partners in this vision. You might consider using resources available such as the Healthy Congregations Initiative and the MWCEC (Midwest Christian Education Commission).
“It is vital that the district board and the congregations be the hands and feet of Jesus. It is also important to be able to love one another in spite of our differences. There is still a lot of ministry to be done, and our congregations need to be empowered in such a way that people of all ages in the congregations feel energized for Christ, living in faith, love and hope.
“As our Moravian motto says: In Essentials, Unity; In Non-essentials, Liberty; and in ALL THINGS Love.”
The 2016 Western District Synod was held April 28-May 1, 2016. Article and photos by Mike Riess, IBOC.