I was privileged during the summer between high school and college to attend 23 days of Outward Bound in the Colorado Rockies. I was told that we would be climbing 14,000-foot peaks with very thin air, carrying heavy packs, and surviving on minimal food. Though I was a serious high school athlete in very good shape, I took seriously Outward Bound’s advice to run in our boots in advance to break them in. By the time my flight left for Denver from Charlotte, I was jogging on average 8 miles a day, 5 days a week, in my hiking boots.
There were three females and five males in my “patrol” group, none of whom previously knew each other. All of our ropes, food, axes, fuel for fires, stoves, clothing, tents, ice axes, hatchets, water bottles, and sleeping bags had to be carried. Water would be collected along the way from streams and melted snow. Since some of us were bigger, the gear wasn’t to be equally divided. The larger people carried more stuff. The plan was for my pack to weigh 51 lbs. as my “fair share.” As it turned out, when we left, I was carrying a 65-lb. pack.
The hardest part of that 23-day adventure was, for me, not the 14,000-foot peaks nor the minimal calorie intake, including a consecutive 80-hour period with no food at all. I was strong, motivated, and prepared. The hardest part was that some of the others, for a variety of reasons, weren’t. When you’re on such a program, the whole group has to rely on one another in life and death situations. When I was rappelling down a rock face, sometimes the tiniest member was holding my rope at the top. Sometimes we were all tied together on a snowy slope. We had to trust each other when it came to daily rations that each person took only his or her fair share. Sometimes that didn’t happen.
We had to, both as individuals and as a group, come face to face with a tough yet essential truth. Our patrol was only as strong as the weakest member, as fast as the slowest member, as determined as the most pessimistic member. Our “mission” was for our patrol to reach checkpoints along the way, not for individuals within the patrol to do so, and we had to find a way and adjust to that reality. In the end, with much communication and occasional conflict, we all made it. By the time we did, we were a solid unit. Each knew his/her role and his/her limitations. I lost 24 lbs. in 23 days, but I could dunk a basketball backwards when I was done since my legs were so strong and my body so lean!
How often life and culture and the church present these very challenges! Some of us either are or imagine ourselves to be better-prepared, privileged, entitled, deserving, while we look with disdain at others who aren’t. We also have a critical discernment to make. Is it every individual for herself? Or are we in this together? Do we leave some behind, expendable, so that I can get mine better, faster, higher? Or do we believe St. Paul’s admonitions in Romans and Corinthians that the body has many parts, and all of them have essential functions, and in fact we all are in this together?
Being a synod is to answer that question in the affirmative. It means we 198 congregations of the NC Synod, a few with budgets over $1 million and dozens with budgets under $50,000, are in this together, that our destinies are intertwined, that if one of us suffers we all suffer and that if one of us rejoices we all rejoice. So, ARE we? In this together, I mean? Or are we really a federation of 198 congregations of the Lutheran heritage who really do our own thing, make our own way, take our own lumps, realistically caring very little for the rest? I can tell you that I believe our best and most faithful way forward as church is together, but each of you has to answer that critical question for yourself.
The ELCA and the NC Synod are going to focus moving forward on two main priorities: Congregational Vitality (make congregations as strong as we can) and Leadership (equip rostered and non-rostered leadership to work toward the vitality of our congregations). There is no synod without congregations.
The ELCA has embarked on a couple of dozen “Holy Experiments,” mostly in pairs or clusters of congregations, aimed at Congregational Vitality. The NC Synod has been designated as the ELCA’s only pilot “Holy Experiment Synod” in which we gear our whole ministry here in working together to make our congregations and leaders stronger. Stay tuned for more from our new DEM (Director for Evangelical Mission), Danielle DeNise, and from Director of Leadership and Discipleship, Tammy Jones West. Stronger, weaker, bigger, smaller—we’re all in this together.
Walking with you,