News crisis: when people agree (Lutheran edition)

I'm in St. Louis this week at the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod's 65th regular convention. The convention was largely peaceful and unified. And where it wasn't, the issues were extremely important but fairly unique to the LCMS. I keep thinking how difficult it is to cover a convention such as this. Religion reporter Tim Townsend, of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, was at the convention. He had a hilarious tweet the other day about the arcane language one must be familiar with when covering a denominational convention:

CCM approves reso to reconsider opinion 11-2598 and participation in 2010 Res. 8-30B -- at open hearing of Floor Committee 4. #lcms2013

It's funny but it's also true that this is a completely typical form of discourse that must be parsed if one hopes to convey any substantive information to readers. It's challenging to just get the acronyms, terminology, back story, theology and processes down. That's key even before figuring out if it's of interest to a general audience. Seen this way, it's much easier to see why there's more media coverage of those denominations that battle over sex and other cultural issues. Imagine what a disappointment it is to parse the debate only to find out that it's on a topic such as distance-learning education.

Unlike previous conventions featuring narrow vote margins, nearly every resolution here was passing with huge margins -- whether the topic was checks and balances of seminary faculty hiring, proper administration of the sacraments, review of non-seminary pastoral training programs, lay deacons, campus ministries, or other items. There's interesting subtext there -- we're definitely in a new era in the LCMS, but it's pretty tough to explain briefly. Which is probably why the St. Louis Post-Dispatch keeps publishing stories about how the Synod handled a First Commandment issue last year relating to syncretism, or worship with non-Christians at an interfaith worship service in Newtown, CT. ("Mono-maniacally obsessed" was how I heard one delegate refer to the reporter's focus on the topic. "Tell him to get off the Newtown template," was what another said. Consider it done.)

But you try to come up with something interesting to say about a huge convention taking place in your backyard when everyone is operating in peace and love (sadly, that might actually be big news when it comes to our church body and others ...). Here was the St. Louis Post-Dispatch lede for the excitingly headlined "Lutherans end convention downtown after taking care of business":

The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod closed its convention in downtown St. Louis on Thursday with the more than 1,000 delegates sticking to the event’s unofficial theme of unity.

Then there were, uh, four full paragraphs on "the Newtown template." The rest of the story up some highlights:

Among the other business conducted this week by the delegates — who include ordained pastors and lay church members — was a vote to expand its relationship with Lutheran church bodies in Liberia, Siberia and Togo.

The body also passed a resolution that “encouraged” the church’s regional leaders to oversee and supervise their congregation’s administration of holy communion so that “practices which are not in harmony with the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions be addressed fraternally and evangelically.”

I think the declaration of formal fellowship with the Lutheran churches in Liberia, Siberia and Togo were a big story from this convention. And these "encouraging" resolutions -- which will force my church body to have some tough discussions about doctrine -- are easy to pass with huge margins. Whether those discussions will result in some tough decisions down the line is another thing.

Lower in the story we get some notes on non-seminary training of pastors and whether seminaries should restore the checks and balances on hiring that they had until 3 years ago (the Lutherans voted to restore that check). It was one of the more contentious debates and closer votes. Still, it passed 61 percent to 39 percent. That would have been a landslide vote in the old days.

I sympathize with the many delegates I spoke to who were frustrated by the "Newtown template" coverage of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. It certainly wasn't worth focusing on again, given that it didn't come up once during the convention, apart from a brief reiteration from District President Tim Yeadon (pictured here with one of our church body's beloved Comfort Dogs) that everything's still resolved.

But I think this post-convention story is also a great case study in how difficult it is to cover non-political religious bodies, particularly those not embroiled in sexy debates about ordination or interpretation of Biblical passages on sexual morality. As one of my editors once told me, "continue" is not a very exciting verb for a lede.

News is about drama. I've been to our recent conventions. They were nothing but drama. We had a president who would barely get re-elected and debates so tense that you could feel it in your body. There were lots of serious debates full of theological subtext -- did we want to be a church body that retained its Lutheran identity? Did we want to adopt a more American approach? Were our doctrines on communion, the Office of Holy Ministry, etc. in need of revision? What were the theological implications of reorganizing our national headquarters? We still have those debates. The current administration and district presidents seem to want to work on handling those debates in a less contentious manner -- through discourse and open engagement. From the votes of our Synod, it's clear that this is being largely well received by the clergy, church workers and laypeople -- but it makes for very difficult news writing.

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