Shape Shifting Conventions

This last weekend was spent in the Delta Hotel in Toronto for the last biennial Synod Assembly for the Eastern Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, of which I am a member. This is the last because our church will be moving to triennial conventions after this. One member told me that these events used to be annual up to the 80s. Things change, and I have noted many changes in the nature of these events.

I remember going to my first church convention while I was on my internship, in Alberta, in the late 1980s. I recall sitting beside my mother-in-law’s cousin Ralph Jorgensen, since we sat alphabetically – in rows. I also recall being numbed by a barrage of changes to by-laws and such, and reports being read out loud, even while they had been distributed by mail in advance. Business filled out most of the events, and worship was clearly demarcated from the business sections, all taking place in ordered pews with worship rather like what one experienced at church most Sundays.

These days we sit at tables in circles and Julio Romero was by my side – so the naming was clearly random in character. I had been invited to lead some bible studies, along with my colleague Mary (Joy) Philip. Three sessions were allotted for this, as well as some learning events around inter-religious dialogue (involving a panel with a Muslim, a Buddhist, and a Sikh), in addition to the learnings around racism and poverty. The racism event involved some truth telling by delegates, and an interactive experiential learning event – in a addition to one of the bible studies germane to the topic. The presentation on poverty involved a presentation by Raffi Aaron, a Jewish activist from Toronto. Worship was antiphonal in style and involved some global music, as well as some traditional hymns. We still did business, but it was peppered with prayers and song. Things are so very different from what they once were. Reports are distributed electronically well in advance, and there is a consent agenda to deal with issues that really do not demand much attention.

The other night, over a beer, a few of us were discussing these changes, and noted that the renewed focus on learning and worship reframed how business sessions were experienced. During the presentation of the budget, reference was made by speakers to themes presented in the bible study and worship. A kind of synergy, I think, shaped our time together. As I think over the 30 years, or so, of Synod assemblies I have attended I like the trajectory of the event. The arc of meeting is moving, I think, in a direction that allows a kind of attentiveness to tradition and experience, to text and context, to the past and future.

I recall seeing, some years ago, a photo from a Synod Convention held in South-western Ontario in the 1930s. Everyone was male, in suits and ties, and sitting in rows in a room without air conditioning. We have come a long way, but I think it important not to dismiss the experience of our ancestors. They did, in their time, what seemed right while we respond to our culture, context, and needs. But in either event, the commitment to spending time together in an effort to discern where God calls communities of faith remains a perdurable character, and one to be celebrated.

I sometimes grumble a little before these events – in that they are a big investment of time – and I usually come home a bit exhausted. But I always, always, look back on them and recall some profound Gospel moments. The opportunity to meet new friends and re-connect with distant colleagues and former students is so very important. As I imagine the next 10 years or so of my career, I know that such events will continue to be a part of my duty and delight, and I look forward to seeing how they shape shift in response to our ever-changing context.

10 thoughts on “Shape Shifting Conventions

  1. Kathryn Smith says:

    It was a good experience seeing how the Bible Studies, the presentations, prayers, songs and worship all wove together. Thank you for your contribution both at assembly and the ideas and dreams before hand.

  2. shoreacres says:

    This caught my attention: “attentiveness to tradition and experience, to text and context, to the past and future.” Perhaps a little more such attentiveness could ease tensions in other areas of our modern life. As I heard someone say recently, “Not every suburban mom who doesn’t agree with you is Hitler.” Instead of endeavoring to understand the past, it’s too often being used as a cudgel. I worry a bit about where it’s all leading.

    • agjorgenson says:

      That is a great quotation. It is easy to demonize those who disagree with us. It seems a commitment to community gives those so inclined a bit of courage. I suppose the question is whether we can sustain that commitment on a global and/or national stage. Some days it doesn’t seem so very hopeful.

  3. There’s so much truth in your words….like you, I remember the “old days” of company-style conventions. I enjoy and appreciate the ways they’ve evolved with us and our needs, even if they’re sometimes still long and draining!

    • agjorgenson says:

      Thanks again for your contribution to the Good Samaritan piece. It was beautiful and very well received! Yes, I always grumble a bit about going to them and come home tired, but find them important at a few different levels. You were sorely missed, by the way.

  4. Sigh. I both agree and disagree. I attended one as a volunteer in the late 80s and all since 2000ish.

    Doing bible study is the business room is good. However, it was another time someone was talking and all were listening. I think we need more Think-Pair-Share sessions.

    I also think we ought to have some Birds of Feather sessions and / or Miistry area gatherings. For the ones where geography is an issue, the Assembly would be an opportuity to met as a Ministry area. But it would also be good to have other groups – those focused on downtown core issues, those considering merging with an Anglican group, churches dealing with a next generation who lives in another language etc…

    The business sessions are worsening. We have a lot of jargon. It worries me that we rarely had people asking where we were or asking what we meant. Our format also means we can’t react to any of the learnings with actions.

    • agjorgenson says:

      Thanks Miranda. I have memories of very, very dry conventions, so these seem much more engaging. But you are right, there is lots of room for improvement. I hope you can give some of this feedback on the convention evaluation form. I was also thinking about the experience of new delegates. There is a new delegate orientation, but perhaps these folk should meet a few times over the course of the assembly. It might allow them to connect with others. I really like the birds of feather idea. It also struck me that we were not given that much time for the studies, and the discussion was cut short a couple of times, and then on a couple of other occasions we went to coffee early because we finished voting etc early. So, some sort of inventory of how we use time would probably be good.

  5. Personally I think the next change should be to reconsider the banquet. Once it was there to pull in the spouses who were attending the event but not participating. But I’m not convinced a $70 meal and a 3 min clap is much of an honour.

    Should we be spending as much to gather reflections on video from our honourees and playing them throughout assembly? Should the dinner be smaller and more intimate? Do new delegates feel included or alienated by the event?

    What exactly are we trying to do in these events? Does it work for honourees, for people who know the honourees AND for those who don’t know the honourees?

    If we are going to be a church of new Christians, how do we make this portion of the event something which welcomes those new to this church as well as cradle Lutherans.

    • agjorgenson says:

      Again, I agree and I think some people don’t show up for these. Also, while we honoured two lay folk, the bulk of attention was on clergy, which reminds me: please consider reading and responding to the “Public Ministry” document that Faith and Order put forward in draft form. I am afraid that the only people who will respond to this will be clergy, and given that the purported thesis is the empowering laity, I would hope some voices from lay folk would weigh in on the document.

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