Friday, January 23, 2009

Stacking the Deck in Favor of the Blue Ribbon Proposals: Forewarned is Forearmed

Buckle your seatbelts. It’s going to be a rough ride. The Blue Ribbon Task Force on Synod Structure and Governance (BRTFSSG for “short”) is in the months-long-process of giving a presentation to each of the Synod’s District Conventions on their proposed restructuring of the Synod. Earlier in the week I was told by one of my friends that officials in their district were discouraged by someone higher up in the Synod from spending much time at the District level discussing the restructuring issues. Since this was essentially hearsay, I didn’t mention it. Now, however, this “rumor” seems as though it may be valid.

The North Dakota District Convention was held this week. In attendance was Pastor Arie Bertsch, the pastor of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Minot, North Dakota. Here is what Pastor Bertsch had to say, which I reprint with his permission and encouragement:

To all,

The North Dakota District Convention closed yesterday. Be aware that the Blue Ribbon Task Force does a survey the first hour of their presentation. As they present the 20 points of restructuring you are asked to respond with "Strongly Agree" "Agree" "Unsure" "Disagree" and "Strongly Disagree". That gives you about 3 minutes to think through and make a decision. After the first hour presentation we had a break. When I returned to change some of my responses the survey had been collected. The second hour of presentation was the chance to question any of the 20 points. There was not enough time to get through them all. There were 4 overtures that the floor committee were holding until after the Task Force presentation and the floor committee decided that they were irrelevant after the presentation, and they were not going to bring them to the floor. I tried to bring them back to the floor but the question was called before there was opportune time to discuss if they should be brought to the floor. The vocal vote was close but was decided in favor of keeping the overtures from going to the assembly. The overtures were in the Convention work book. My concern for the rest of the District Conventions is that you do not allow them to ask for a survey without proper discussion first. Also, watch your floor committees on overtures that they do not keep the overtures offered from reaching the floor.

Rev. Arie Bertsch
Now, 2nd Vice President North Dakota District
After receiving Pastor Bertsch’s note, I corroborated his statements with several other pastors who were in attendance. One pastor said “I can verify that what Arie said about how things went down is 100% accurate and his opinions are well founded and well thought out.” A second said “I believe that Pastor Bertsch’s comments are accurate.” A third said “Yes, I can confirm that what Arie says is accurate.” Pastor Michael Swofford stated “The comments made by our 2nd Vice President, Arie Bertch, are most defiantly true and I agree with him and stand behind him 100%.”

Pastor Scott Hojnacki had this to say:

The presentation to the North Dakota District Convention was made collaboratively by President Kieschnick, Vice-President Diekelman, and Task Force Chairman Greene. Two hours were allotted for the presentation on Tuesday afternoon, January 20.

At the beginning of the first hour, delegates were provided with a survey and invited to respond to each of the twenty points of the proposal (some of which were divided into subpoints), using a numerical ranking system: Strongly Agree (5), Agree (4), Not Sure (3), Disagree (2), Strongly Disagree (1). No space or opportunity was provided on the survey for written comments.

During the first hour, the presentation was given as it appears on the Synod website. The presenters primarily read verbatim from the slides, occasionally adding an explanatory comment. At the conclusion of each of the twenty points, delegates were instructed to respond on the survey to that particular point, and were given approximately 15-20 seconds to do so. Questions or comments from the floor were strongly discouraged, with the assurance that the second hour of the presentation would be available for delegate questions. With twenty points to cover in one hour, the presentation needed to proceed efficiently and without interruption. At the end of the first hour, the surveys were collected by the Task Force and the convention took a short break.


The second hour of the presentation was designed specifically for questions of clarification. Personal opinions or evaluations of the proposals were discouraged, with the explanation that that was the function of the surveys, and again, time was of the essence. The twenty points were once again addressed in order, with the three presenters answering clarifying questions to the best of their knowledge (some of the proposals were still incomplete). At the end of the hour, discussion was ended and the convention proceeded with its other business. Delegates were invited to address further questions to the presenters privately at a later time. During the second hour, there was only enough time for questions on the first seventeen points. Points 18-20 were not addressed, and no additional time was given.

A congregation of the district had submitted overtures to the convention regarding the Task Force proposals (based on the August 20, 2008 document). The floor committee declined those overtures and did not propose any resolutions regarding the Task Force. A motion was made (and seconded) from the floor to bring those congregational overtures to the floor as resolutions, but the motion failed.

Those are the facts. Now, a few personal comments:

The timing of the distribution and recollection of the surveys was peculiar. Delegates were asked to respond to each point immediately, after only two or three minutes of information, with only a few seconds to think, and without the benefit of any clarification. Several delegates complained during the second hour that their responses would have changed if they had been allowed to ask clarifying questions before filling out the surveys. Based on the general reaction of the convention, this procedure may change at subsequent conventions, with the surveys being collected at the end of the second hour.

The inherent insufficiency of numerical responses may make it difficult for the Task Force to receive accurate feedback. There is little ambiguity connected to positive responses (“agree”), but a great deal of uncertainty regarding negative responses (“disagree”). Why did the delegates disagree with one or more points? Do they like the current system? Is the proposal mostly good with one or two untenable details? Do they just not understand it? There’s no way to know why a delegate disagreed with a proposal on the basis of a simple numerical survey.

This uncertainty is only compounded by the various ways in which more detailed and specific responses were disallowed. There was no place on the survey for comments or rationales beyond the numbers. Personal comments from the floor during the presentation were strongly discouraged. The floor committee rejected detailed, specific responses in the form of overtures because the presentation and surveys were deemed to be sufficient. Unfortunately, it was only a minority of the convention delegates that believed such thorough responses were needed.

What did North Dakota think of the Task Force proposals? No one knows, since nothing has been or will be made public. And I think that’s a shame.

Thus my advice to delegates to the remaining thirty-four district conventions is this: Study the twenty proposals ahead of time. Have clarifying questions prepared in advance. Understand not only whether you agree or disagree with a proposal, but also why you agree or disagree. Avail yourselves of every possible opportunity to respond to the Task Force, not with just a number, but with a clear, detailed rationale.

Above all, let us have a public discussion of the pros and cons of the Task Force proposals, and not limit the permitted responses to a few circled numbers on a stack of papers in an office somewhere in St. Louis.
There is a well established play book of convention tricks that are often rolled out to squelch protest and steamroll through items that those in power have selected for approval. Waiting to bring the subject up until the waning moments of the convention is a favorite. Delegates are eager to go home and less interested in debating the topic at hand; some delegates have already left the building. Strategically timed delegate actions, such as “calling the question,” and other moves that block resolutions of protest can be employed. Refusing to recognize delegates on the floor is another. Lumping protest resolutions of multiple congregations, circuits, and districts into one resolution can minimize the “damage” and silence dissenting points of view. Minimizing the time allotted for discussion and creating a “let’s hurry through this in the interest of time” atmosphere prevents discussion. All of these types of tactics are unbefitting of Christians, no matter which side of the aisle you are on. To purposely maneuver in order to avoid a fruitful discussion of the matters confronting Christ’s Church is nothing other than a sin.

The Task Force’s twenty recommendations are available here on the Synod’s website. They are presented in bullet form, each as a goal, challenge, recommended solution, and rationale, and are woefully short in providing any detail. At the end of the online document is this statement: “For more information, please visit www.lcmsorg/lcmsfuture.” Ironically, or perhaps not, when I clicked on the link, I ended up at a page which read: “Sorry, the page you were looking for cannot be found.” The correct link is www.lcms.org/lcmsfuture.

Please take the time to study these proposals within your own congregations, circuits, and districts. Be prepared when you head for your District Convention. These proposals, if implemented, will impact our Synod for decades to come. Forewarned is forearmed.


Also posted at The Brothers of John the Steadfast and The Wittenberg Trail.

photo credit: wrhowell

4 comments:

I. M. Abaldy II said...

Thanks for this valuable info, brother.

One problem, however, the corrected link you provide is the same as the original and there appears to be a Catch 22 built in at www.lcms.org/lcmsfuture.

Scott Diekmann said...

That link seems to work, but it redirects you to another link:
http://www.lcms.org/pages/default.asp?NavID=13795

The Rebellious Pastor's Wife said...

Thanks for your work, Scott. I'll be posting a link.

Gene White said...

Scott, thanks for the work you do. I am printing these out for review, as I will be a delegate to the NOW convention in July. One main point of interest of mine is the structure of Synod Inc. Where are the checks and balances there? Where are the sound fiscal policies, including budgeting, that would preclude going into debt up to 13 million (I understand this to be true) and lowering the net worth of Synod Inc. from $7 million down to $160,000, as recently reported?

IMA, the whole lot should be discharged for malfeasance in office.