COP lays groundwork for ‘Ministry of Visitation’

By David L. Strand

Resolutions adopted at last summer’s Synod convention gave rise to a number of task forces and study groups, some involving the LCMS Council of Presidents (COP), including the directive “that the president of the Synod, with the aid of the vice-presidents of the Synod … visit with every district president and district board of directors at least once every triennium.”

This same assignment, stemming from Res. 7-01A, also calls for the visitation of congregations by the district presidents, with the help of district vice-presidents and circuit “visitors.”

Hopeful of completing this two-sided visitation task before the next round of district conventions begins in 2015, the COP spent a sizable amount of its meeting time Nov. 19-21 in San Antonio laying the groundwork for what it called “The Ministry of Visitation.”

Providing historical context was the Rev. Dr. Robert Kolb, Missions Professor of Systematic Theology Emeritus at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.

Skyping in from Germany, Kolb spoke on “The Saxon Visitation Articles,” authored by Martin Luther and Philipp Melanchthon, as a means of explaining “where the Lutheran church historically has been concerning visitation.”

By 1528, said Kolb, Luther had realized the necessity of doing something practical regarding visitation. While a chief reason for visitation in Luther’s mind was to help parish pastors care for their people more effectively, more “in the spirit of love,” he also saw the need to help pastors understand their theological responsibilities. He was concerned with proper preaching, with getting the right books into pastors’ hands, and with introducing the Reformation — still in its early stages — to them.

‘Types’ of visitation

“So,” said English District President Rev. Dr. David Stechholz, “there were two types of visitation back then: the first to help pastors with pastoral care, especially toward the poor and weak, and the second to help with their doctrine.

“I would suggest a third area for us,” he continued. “Mission and church planting: This is critically important, too.”

Northern Illinois District President Rev. Dan Gilbert agreed. Through this systematic visitation exercise, he said, the COP can “learn more about how the mission is going in the districts. What are congregations doing to bring about new believers, with the Holy Spirit’s help? How’s the mission being done?”

Following Kolb came the Rev. Michael Newman, San Antonio-based mission and ministry facilitator for the Texas District, speaking on “The Mission of Visitation.”

Newman pointed out how “God was the first visitor.” He asked the COP to cite examples of God visiting His people “for purposes of care, blessing, relationship, rescue, salvation and punishment for sin.” The group had no trouble coming up with many illustrations from both the Old and New Testaments — starting with the Lord walking in the Garden of Eden.

“He is always a visiting God,” said Newman. “The Bible is fraught with examples” and many “are laden with Messianic meaning. … The crescendo of visitation in the New Testament is met in Jesus Christ … who still visits us in the Lord’s Supper.”

Stechholz, noting that Jesus and the Apostle Paul also received visitors, said “visitation fuels the mission of the church. A house-going pastor helps the church move forward.”

And even though people don’t visit as much in one another’s homes anymore, said Missouri District President Rev. Dr. Ray Mirly, “they still want relationships. In fact, they crave them, including with their pastor.”

“The doctrine of visitation is found in Paul’s letters,” said Synod President Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison. “It depends on long-term relationships. Paul knew those he visited.”

Koinonia Project update

Synod First Vice-President Rev. Dr. Herbert C. Mueller Jr. gave an update on the Koinonia Project, the goal of which is to help the church deal in a spiritual way with theological and personal issues causing division in the Synod.

The project continues to be a “collaborative effort,” said Mueller, based on identifying and responding to legitimate concerns on all sides. It is “broad-based,” he said, “not coercive.” The dialogue is “nonpolitical … all framed by the study of the Word and prayer.”

One component of 2013 convention Res. 3-01A calls for the president of the Synod to divide the COP by random draw into three study groups for the purpose of studying koinonia together. This the president did, whereupon each group appointed a convener to lead it when the groups gather during the COP’s February 2014 meeting, which will take on more of a retreat feeling to help the men immerse themselves in their study. Each group also will choose a chaplain from outside the COP to lead it in worship and prayer.

In part one of his report to the COP, Harrison said he wants the LCMS “to be theologically strong and united, mission oriented and with a vastly increased footprint internationally.” He said he would like to see a full-time church-relations person in all five of the Synod’s world regions, because (citing a theme heard often in San Antonio) “relationships are everything.”

Overseas matters

Concerning matters overseas, Harrison introduced the Rev. Dr. Albert Collver, LCMS director of church relations and an assistant to the president, just returned from Vatican City, Rome, where the International Lutheran Council (ILC) — of which the Synod is a member and Collver the executive secretary — had been invited to meet with the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

Collver said the “informational international dialogue went very well,” and that both groups agreed to hold future meetings to continue discussing topics of common interest and possible cooperation.

He moved on to the topic of Africa, discussing his recent talks with leaders of the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus and the Malagasy Lutheran Church in Madagascar.

Mekane Yesus, 6 million members strong, wants to strengthen its relationship with the LCMS, said Collver. In fact, it is requesting fellowship with the Synod, though Collver advised that further discussions will be necessary before that day comes.

Meanwhile, in Madagascar, the 4-million-member Malagasy Lutheran Church is planting a new congregation every week, according to Collver. It’s a “very liturgical” church, he said, its people “following their hymnals throughout worship.” Though this church, too, is not yet in fellowship with the LCMS, Collver said there are “several areas of possible cooperation between us.”

Concordia visits

Back on the microphone, Harrison spoke of visiting the Synod’s educational institutions (he had recently traveled to Concordia University Chicago, which, like Concordia University Texas, currently is searching for a president).

Overall, he said, while “a few outliers of concern” remain, the Concordia University System is in “tolerably good shape.” Its debt stands at $16 million, but “we’re going to start taking bigger bites out of that debt” until it’s retired.

Finally, he said he expects to have the Wittenberg, Germany, facility “up and running within the next year to 18 months,” adding his hope of having an ILC office there in the next five years.

Part two of the President’s Report, following custom, was held in executive session, while part three would find Harrison continuing a study of the Rev. Dr. C.F.W. Walther’s The Church and the Office of the Ministry.

Once again sounding the theme of “it’s all about relationships,” the Rev. Dr. Ely Prieto, executive director of the Texas District’s San Antonio LINC (Lutheran Inner-City Network Coalition) office, described his agency’s work in “intentionally reaching the multicultural and urban people in San Antonio with the Gospel.”

He touched upon an array of groups (the elderly, homeless, youth, latchkey kids) and venues (mission congregations, midweek Sunday schools, Bible-study groups, spiritual retreats) — all part of LINC’s efforts to “link people to people, and people to Christ.”

LINC — ‘building relationships’

LINC is building relationships with people already in the LCMS, too, Prieto said, gratefully noting how more San Antonio-area LCMS congregations are taking an interest in working with LINC.

People appreciate the fact “that we don’t put anyone in a box,” he said. “We may start a Hispanic mission, but Anglos are welcome, too. We don’t think in terms of something being a black church or a Hispanic church; it’s just a church — a Lutheran church reaching out into the neighborhood.”

Prior to adjourning the meeting to allow the COP to convene with the Synod’s Board of Directors (see story on Page 1), COP Chairman and Pacific Southwest District President Rev. Dr. Larry Stoterau provided a summary of the latest recommendations of the Seminary Admission Task Force.

This group, chaired by the Rev. Dr. Glen Thomas, the Synod’s executive director of Pastoral Education, includes the admission directors at both seminaries as well as the members of the COP Program Committee. Its charge is to suggest guidelines to improve the effectiveness of the admission process at the seminaries for would-be pastoral students and deaconesses.

Upon hearing the task force’s recommendations to date, members of the COP added a few of their own, which Stoterau promised to take back to the task force.

COP Secretary Rev. Dr. Chris Wicher, president of the Eastern District, gave the following tallies of calling congregations:

  • Those seeking sole pastors: 303; senior pastors: 39; associate or assistant pastors: 64. Total: 406.

The number of church starts in the last quarter was 18; the number of closures, 11.

David L. Strand is executive director of LCMS Communications.

Updated Dec. 20, 2013

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