Why I’m Skipping Synod Assembly

This weekend, the Southwestern Texas Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is gathering in San Antonio for its annual Synod Assembly. It is a time of worship, fellowship, and decision-making for the sake of ministry. As a pastor of the synod, it has been a way for me to keep connected with colleagues and mission partners.

However, this year, I decided not to attend Synod Assembly for a variety of reasons: 1) The registration fee of $180 per person is hard to manage for a congregation in a community of poverty that already struggles for everyday ministry expenses. It basically becomes an ecclesiastical poll tax. 2) I was already planning to be gone several Sundays this spring and didn’t want to be away from worship too many times. 3) Increased fear about Border Patrol and ICE presence makes some parishioners nervous about traveling.
 
Perhaps I am being a colonialist gatekeeper pastor myself, but I don’t want this to be my Spanish-speaking congregation’s experience with the wider Church. When parishioners have attended Synod Assembly in the past, it has not always been a safe space or a pleasant experience. Spanish translation, if available, is not always the best quality. Micro-aggressions abound. In my eight years in this synod, I’ve long felt the unspoken rule that one must be German before being Lutheran. It has improved slightly, but it still feels to me like an ethnic insiders club. Polka music and sauerkraut are not uncommon. There is nothing wrong with honoring German heritage. The problem comes when that culture is assumed to be normative, to the exclusion of others. 

I know that by not attending Synod Assembly this year, I am disenfranchising the congregation and am avoiding collegiality with other leaders, but I am also avoiding the physically-draining geographical commute of five hours round trip across desolate Texas backcountry, as well as the emotionally-draining cultural commute.

My decision to not attend was reaffirmed when I saw the bulletin for worship on Saturday morning. I think a polka service could be fun every once in a while. I think it would be a great opportunity to reflect on the mixing of cultural influences that has happened in the course of Texas history. The accordions and oom-pah rhythms that I hear on the local ranchera stations have roots in the musics of the German and Czech immigrants of a century hence.

I understand the desire to honor heritage. I realize that German was the primary language of San Antonio in 1870, but it is not anymore. There are people in our synod who speak German, but I imagine that they also speak English very well. German is not a survival language. There are people in our synod who only speak Spanish. Including Spanish is a matter of hospitality and welcome. Including German is a matter of grasping onto nostalgia. 

My discomfort comes from the litany, “Thanksgiving for Our Heritage.” It’s not all our heritage. If the author were to read it himself during worship, that would be one thing. However, goading the congregation to respond, “May Jesus Christ be praised” at the end requires worshippers to affirm words that are not necessarily theirs. The litany celebrates Biblical heroes—women and men—as well as reformers and European immigrants. It seems to assume that those present share that German heritage or those other White heritages from “a more civilized North.” This is not the heritage of the Spanish-speaking Lutherans in places like Eagle Pass, Laredo, Pharr, and San Juan. This is not the heritage of the “incredulous faces” of the Coahuiltecan, Karankawa, and Comanche whose lands the synod’s territory claims. This is not the heritage of the African Americans whose ancestors picked cotton on plantations in our synod’s territory. This is not all our heritage.  The #decolonizeLutheranism movement is not about denying European culture. It’s not about pretending that German immigrants didn’t exist. Rather, #decolonizeLutheranism is about recognizing other parts of the story. It is about celebrating a theological identity based on God’s grace instead of a cultural one based on our human divisions. I long for a day where there is not this disconnect, where I don’t have to exude so much energy to deal with all the layers of cross-cultural mission.

In my absence at Assembly, I know I will miss out on the opportunity to be collegial. Parishioners will miss out on the chance to meet folk from other congregations. I don’t want to spend my congregation’s precious financial recourses perpetuating the ELCA Marriot culture where decisions happen in expensive hotel ballrooms. I’m skipping Synod Assembly this year because I don’t want to culturally commute to a context where “all are welcome” doesn’t always seem to include me and the parishioners with whom I serve.

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16 Comments on “Why I’m Skipping Synod Assembly”

  1. I agree 100%
    After the country service last night and the announcement of the polka service it is no wonder that there are few people of color and few young people. I had already asked why it would again be in San Marcos next year at yet another exorbitant hotel. Thank you for using your words and living your truth. I will miss seeing you.

  2. Kathy says:

    I live in McAllen and worship at Our Savior. I can relate to some of your concerns. However, if you don’t attend and stay involved in the larger group – how is your voice heard?

  3. canoeistpastor says:

    Thank you for your thoughtfulness and your faithful leadership. I’m glad and sad that I’m not the only one who considers synod assembly registration fees to be a poll tax. Blessings to you and your congregation.

  4. Mark Hill says:

    Good for you. Now; nail this piece to the church doors. (THERE’S some Lutheran heritage worth keeping.)

  5. John Fox says:

    I understand, and you have my heart, so remember that when I say that as accurate as is this post, it ignores one important fact, Luther 500.

    Question, this piece of the weekend described, is it truly all that is happening? If there is absolutely no celebration of working with you in our expanding church, or celebrating the people you serve directly, even within the Luther 500 celebration, then you are correct. From a glance at a bulletin, can you honestly judge this?

    Where are you in effecting change in this. I do understand. I have fought this battle in 43 years of service, nowhere nearly as valiantly as you. Frustration is part of the fight.

    Our GLBT brothers and sisters identify with your concerns. So does this Irish man who also asks why, in Texas, one has to become German before becoming Lutheran – or, make that a Straight German Ultra Conservative before becoming Lutheran.

    I retired early from a congregation that was one of the few bastions of non-Hispanic power in the area (the rest were other dieing mainline churches). I went to teach at the local branch of an area community college that accurately represented the population of the community, I moved my ministry to there. So, I know something about whereof you speak.

    Do not allow your frustration to destroy the other side of your Prophetic calling to the Synod. There are two sides to the sword. Find, celebrate, enrich what good is there. Pick up your yoke and work among them to remind them. Do not become as narrow as those who appear ignorant and uncaring about the specific mission field to which you have been called, while still having a call to the entire Body of Christ. Bless you in your work.
    Bless you in dealing with sisters and brothers who do not YET understand.

  6. Charles Streisguth says:

    Luther worked to bring the Gospel in the language of the people and so should we. As we embace other denominations should should be working equally to embrace other cultures. I think that is supposed to be part of your job, I think your Synod should be making it easier for you and your people to attend.

  7. Judy Bergeson says:

    Thank you for your thought-provoking honesty, Border Pastor.

  8. Sharon Wilson says:

    Dear Pr. Bailie (Paul), Thank you for your integrity in this matter. Blessings on you and your Congregation. May I reprint and distribute your statement (for TLC Justice Groups and Metro
    New York ELCA Synod and Justice Members? Peace, Sharon Wilson

  9. Beth Aiken says:

    I live in MN. Here everyone is Swedish or Norwegian. LOL I don’t know if I know any German Lutherans, but probably. I am Irish, but no longer comfortable as a Catholic. I understand what you mean, but I think a lot of it is unintentional. I have talked to my fellow Lutherans about feeling like an outsider, and they have been very supportive of my feelings. They want to be welcoming, but what is welcoming to one person is not welcoming to another. We all have to work together to improve our relationships. I think I can understand where you are coming from. But if you aren’t there, you can’t make your voice heard or speak for your parishioners….Just my thoughts.

  10. Paul Demant says:

    Thank you for your insights. They resonate with me. I spent 27 years serving in the central valley of California were over 50% of all surnames are Latino and where way less than 1% of our synod membership is Latino in heritage. Your words are, like our Baptist brothers and sisters would say, convicting.

    The cost issue (very real to me and the congregations that I serve now) might be mitigated if we went to biennual or triennual meetings. Thanks again.

  11. Marie says:

    Well written truth and heartbreaking.

  12. Thoughtful piece that well-frames important matters. Thank you for sharing it!

  13. Samadhi Metta Bexar says:

    I think it’s quite possible to be here yet be quite disconnected socially and culturally and also astonished at the lack of self-awareness on a hierarchy level, not to mention one on one. I’m appalled at some of the colonial- minded POV of some people here. I’m appalled at the lack of awareness of not the diversity and sheet size of the synod. I’m appalled a mere assumption Spanish is my first language is assumed, or that me being brown and female implies I don’t understand both being in the majority (as I have been most of my life) and that I can’t possibly at my relative youth know anything about religion, theology, colonialism. I’m just overall appalled, and I am grateful I have met one person to speak at length with who was not my pastor or friend. Yeah. This church has a long way to go but perhaps it should begin by looking inside, in all levels. Thanks for your work. Saw you in Seguin, and wish you well

  14. Thank you for your words and for your integrity. I continue to pray for you and your very important ministry.

  15. Chere Kjrsten-Kifer says:

    Dear Border Pastor.
    Your thoughtful response to the Synod
    advocating for your Parishioners and relating in solidarity their challenges at this time.
    I have friends who tell their parishiones, ” What would Jesus do”
    Your love, care, and respect for your flock
    to me sounds like what Jesus would do.
    I hope & pray your parishoners weather
    the politically fearful climate we sadly are experiencing.
    May God keep You & Your Beloved Congregation in his care.
    Our prayers embrace you as you minister
    to your flock.
    Chere Kjrsten-Kifer, Psychologist & Chaplain.

  16. Duane Olson says:

    My heart aches for you. I am writing this from the SouthEastern Minnesota Synod Assembly. We were feed today with a great preacher from New Jersey. She is black and spoke to a mostly white assembly. And she opened our eyes to some of the same concerns you have expressed. We had a great panel discussion on diversity. By discussing the issue and making the statement by our key note speaker, we are raising the issue and making people aware of the need to make sure not only is everyone welcome, but we need people of color to also be involved in leadership roles. We work together for a better day!


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