The city whose claim to fame combines Homer Simpson, and Michael Jordan & Larry Bird jerseys was the location for my surprising election as Bishop of the New England Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America on June 9, 2012. As I begin this Bishop’s Blog post, the first of many to come, I’ve decided to write on the subject: What happened at our most recent Synod Assembly in Springfield, MA?
Not more than a few people have called it a movement of the Holy Spirit. While I agree, I would also make the same statement no matter who had been elected. In other words, the Holy Spirit was there, but just because it was I, who was elected, does not validate or invalidate the Spirit’s presence. But more on that at the end of this post.
I am going to describe what happened from my perspective, what I experienced and what was going on in my mind as the weekend unfolded.
It was a full year ago, while at Camp Calumet for confirmation camp that Pr. Joe Ekberg and I sat on the beach, when he suggested that I might consider being a candidate. My response was to laugh and say, essentially “don’t be ridiculous.” I write this, cause if things don’t work out so well, you can blame him. Months passed in which someone here or there would say something, and each time I said – not interested. That was genuinely my response to any hint or suggestion. I had no interest to serve the church in that capacity, nor did I believe the majority of the synod wanted me in such a role.
A few weeks before the assembly, a few others encouraged me. I began to think about it, pray about, wonder about it, wrestle with it. I went to the assembly, not knowing what would happen, but I had come to a place where, a few days before the Synod Assembly, I had decided regardless of what was to unfold - I was going to be myself. I was not going to fake anything, not attempt to persuade people, just simply define myself and my values. I had just been re-reading Edwin Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, a book I try to re-read every year. Friedman has a clear focus on the value of self-differentiation as a key to leadership.
As the ballots began and the delegates were voting, I was a little surprised to see my name moving up on the results. (By the way, I know they are not called ‘delegates,’ they are ‘voting members’, but that’s such an awkward and clumsy term. Besides, I enjoy watching people go ape-gazingo when I use the term ‘delegates’ Wish they’d get that worked up about God’s call to discipleship) Anyway. I made a very intentional decision at that moment. “Be who you are, Jim” Answer the questions as if you were in a living room talking with your closest friends, no filters, no pretending. “Don’t try to convince any body on any issue, simply say what you believe to true.”
I had two thoughts on this approach: First, there is no way they will vote for me, cause I’ll be too unorthodox. Second, if elected, there would be no surprises, and it would be a sign that the Synod is ready for who I am and what I value.
After the results of the third ballot, I suddenly went to the top of the candidates, three things happened: First, I realized at that point something was happening here that I had not fully expected. Pr. Ross Goodman and I had a brief conversation, in which I uttered a short two word sentence. Then Pr. Dave Rinas hugged me, I broke down and wept on his shoulder. Second, I got a text from my good friend, Pr. Kurt Christenson, who was watching online in California “I guess that being yourself thing, didn’t work out as you thought.” Third, I remembered a conversation my late father and I had years and years ago, in which he said, “well when you are bishop.” I responded, “Dad, they don’t elect people like me as bishop.” I was beginning to realize that something was happening in Homer’s hometown. Was it the television show or the Odyssey that was unfolding?
The day moved on between more questions, speeches and votes. Three of us on stage, not having had lunch, needing a shot of protein or sugar, they brought us water. “This must be a part of the testing period, like Jesus fasting in the desert for forty days,” Ted and Tim and I commented to one another. I focused more and more on just “be who you are, Jim, don’t fake anything.” Apparently, it was at this point, that I was making Lisa (my wife) very nervous cause she told me later, “you were really being yourself at that time.” She also knows how I get when I have not had anything to eat – cranky.
Hey, I had nothing to loose nothing to gain, as I said “I have a great gig going on in Charlestown at St. Andrew. I am not looking for a new call.” I meant it, I still mean it. St. Andrew has been the best community of faith, the best laboratory for 21st century mission, the most flexible and willing people I have ever experienced. Why would I want to leave it?
“But, if you,” I said to the assembly, “want to go on an adventure or experimentation, of trying to figure out where God is pulling us, and seek to ask questions about what it means to do and be church in New England in this time. That’s a different story.” Those may not be the exact words I said, but that was the essence of what I said.
During the final vote, as Pr. Tim Oslovich and I sat handcuffed by the security detail dispatched from the Synod Council in the dungeon of the Mass Mutual Center – where they finally fed us. Tim made an interesting observation, “you know, when you think about it, it’s interesting that the two more radical candidates are the finalists.” I had not thought of it that way, but I believe he had a point. Perhaps there was a spirit of openness to the next chapter that I had not anticipated. Perhaps it wasn’t so much a single person that the Holy Spirit was tapping, but rather a sense of direction and movement. I don’t know, heck, whom I to try to discern the Holy Spirit. Most of the time, I figure it all out in the rear view mirror, as opposed to seeing it out ahead through the windshield.
I do not know the workings of the Holy Spirit, but here is my more rational understanding of what happened in Springfield. Our church in New England, and across North America, is experiencing a seismic shift. Whether it’s declining participation in congregational life, shift in where people go for spiritual understanding, economic dislocation or just plain old general angst, you can easily see these are strange and un-understandable times. I think most everyone in the church, and certainly those at the Assembly in Springfield understood this to be the case. That was one line going through the place on June 8, 9 & 10.
The other line was my personal autobiography of not having grown up in the faith, living and breathing life as an unchurched kid in the post-wategate era of the 1970’s in Southern California. My story of baptism at a Lutheran Bible camp, and the understanding I have of how those outside the church think. This was another line going through the Mass Mutual Center.
Somehow these two lines intersected at a particular point in time, and/or the Holy Spirit brought them together. If this event had been held any number of years ago, I’m not so sure the results would be the same. In an earlier era, it’s possible I might have been seen as an entertaining fringe candidate. But, the times and the person were brought together.
Now what? (That’s the subject of the next post)