The Smith family—descendants of Cleveland Theodore Smith (b. 1884) and Lillie Beach Smith (b. 1888) [ pictured above ]—gathers each year somewhere in NC in early August. My dad (b. 1931) is the only surviving of their eight children. He came along so late in their lives as an “oops” baby that he has several nieces and nephews who are older than he is. My Smith cousins are all quite a bit older than I, but I saw most of them every August and at a number of weddings, and eventually, at funerals.
I wonder sometimes why we keep up that August tradition of getting together for watermelon at two and covered-dish dinner at four. I sort of got it when most of the eight siblings were still living and able to attend, but why now? Our lives have gone in different directions. Most of us hardly know one another at all, and were it not for obligatory Facebook friending, we don’t communicate most of the rest of the year.
Bewildering remnants of family reunions of old remain. We have a business meeting after the meal. To what business does this family need to attend? We own no joint assets and we run no programs. We elect officers…for what? My dad was not amused when I jokingly observed 30 years ago that we elect a president to run a business meeting for which we have no business and therefore do not need a president. He then promptly nominated me to be president, an office which I held for three years and in which I did nothing except “call” and “run” the meetings at which we did—you guessed it—nothing.
Still, there’s something about those family ties. There’s something captivating when the older ones begin to tell stories, sometimes with laughter, sometimes with tears, about Cleve and Lillie, or Lillie’s brother Harold Beach, the twin of Hubert, who married a woman named Myrtle. You can’t make this stuff up. And, oh, wait…there were twins, and triplets, and more twins in the family background? And our daughter has twins and two of my sisters have thyroid problems, as does our son, as did Lillie.
It’s important on all sorts of levels to know from whence you came, like ages ago our name was Schmidt, but it got changed to Smith when nobody would do business with Germans for world-stage political reasons. And Cleve was a Baptist but Lillie was a Methodist and they worshiped in separate congregations in Hudson, but the Lutheran Church was right across the street and everybody in town went to all funerals and most baptisms and everybody’s Homecoming and VBS, and shared a community cemetery, so they really weren’t quite sure what denomination they were. When you start thinking about those things and begin to realize there are people of all sorts of variety and quirkiness who share your same story and your same DNA and some of whom even look like you, well, it’s not just because it makes Dad happy that we still go to these. Being family draws us in.
All of which leads me to our NC Synod Assembly June 2-3 in Greensboro. Just because I work in the synod office doesn’t mean I don’t know how those conversations go down in congregational council meetings sometimes. Big, small, rural, city, and in-between, sometimes it can be like pulling teeth to get people to go to synod assembly, much less the (constitutionally-required) Spring Conference Meeting for the pre-assembly briefing. Like with me and my family reunions, sometimes we wonder, “What’s the point? Is it worth the investment of our time? Will it be a brainwashing session in which the synod tries to convince us, maybe even guilt us, into why our congregation really needs to send more Mission Support to them?
Besides, what does the synod do for US? Not to mention the outright antagonism toward all things Church-wide and synodical that some express, mostly due to misunderstanding of our polity—things like “The Synod wants to shut you down (we can’t) so that they can take all your property and money (we don’t and won’t),” or “The Synod’s going to force you to do same-gender weddings (we can’t),” and so on.
So what’s the compelling reason for being at Synod Assembly? To speak your mind on controversial resolutions? As opposed to last year, there aren’t any of those this year, though the deliberative conversation is in fact a critical way that we come to make decisions. Unlike my family reunions, there really is “business of the synod” to be conducted: elections for boards of various affiliated institutions, Synod Council (governing body between assemblies), a spending plan to be approved, and so on.
Like me in my family, you are part of the NC Synod family. It is far more the 200 congregations and all of their members and ministries than it is an office in Salisbury (or in the case of churchwide, an office in Chicago). It is far more the ministries that we can and do pursue together like Candidacy, Campus Ministry, Conflict Management, Call Process, Camps and Conference Centers and other affiliated agencies and institutions like Lutheran Services Carolinas (LSC), Lenoir-Rhyne (with Southern Seminary), Women of the ELCA, Lutheran Men in Mission and Home Mission Foundation. It’s new mission starts (six in NC) and re-developments (four in NC), Global Mission and Lutheran Youth Organization and Leadership School/Leaders Learn and Social Justice & Advocacy and Ecumenical Relations and ELCA World Hunger and the Lifeline Fund and Peeler/Casey Funds and Stewardship and Evangelism/Outreach mentoring and coaching and workshops and Worship & Music planning and helps. We are more and stronger together than we are apart.
Ask not what your synod can do for you; ask what you can do—for Christ’s mission and ministry through our Lutheran heritage and grace-centered theology for the sake of the Church and the World—better together than you can by yourself. That’s what a synod is. That’s what the churchwide organization is. The #1 priority of both the churchwide organization and the NC Synod is to help ELCA leaders be as healthy and faithful as they can be and for ELCA congregations to be as vital as they can be. You help us learn and carry out how best to do that.
My other grandfather, a Lutheran pastor in NC, used to go to synod assemblies primarily to re-connect with friends and colleagues he hadn’t seen in some time. Like a family reunion, all the family shows up, each with her or his own quirkiness, priorities, and positions on issues, but we share a common heritage, a common mission. When we gather for worship, workshops, and even “business,” we share laughter, tears, information, and ideas. Rarely does someone come to synod assembly for the first time without being overwhelmed and saying, “I had no IDEA we do all that!” We network about how best to be healthy leaders and vital congregations. Some people and congregations look a lot like us; others don’t look like us at all. The water of our baptism, the freedom of the Gospel, and 500 years of Lutheranism, along with all of those ministries we do together mentioned above, draw us together, if only once a year, to the family reunion and business meeting. And we’re all better for it. See you there!
Walking with you,
Bishop Tim Smith