This blog is mainly a “Missional Church” blog with helpful insights and conversations about how congregations can deepen their understanding and participation in God’s mission. However, this series of three posts are more personal. I believe them to be beneficial for the broader church, but for different reasons. You decide for yourselves.
Here’s the situation: I was recently a “middle of the pack” nominee for the office of bishop in the Rocky Mountain Synod of the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America). I’m sharing the journey of that process with you from the inside. I hope you find it beneficial at whatever level you are open. You can catch up by reading Part 1 here and Part 2 here.
At the Rocky Mountain Synod Assembly, almost 500 voting members gathered, sent from each congregation in the 4+ state territory that comprises this synod. The big agenda item was the election of a new bishop as our current bishop, Allan Bjornberg, was retiring after 18 years of faithful service in that office.
The first ballot was a nominating ballot. All of the pre-nominated 17 were, in fact, nominated. Myself included. At this point nominations were closed, and one of the 24 people who accepted this nomination would be called as the RMS bishop.
The second ballot required voting members to vote for one of these 24. The top seven would move on to the third ballot and would be asked to address the assembly the next day. When the votes were tallied, there was a tie for seventh place, therefore the top eight would actually move on to the third ballot. Yours truly was in ninth place, one vote behind seven/eight.
I’ll admit I was a bit disappointed. And yet, I swear, at the moment it sank in that I was out of the running, the colors in that large conference room became brighter. Kind of like the allergy medicine commercial on TV where the hazy filter is peeled away to reveal how bright things can be. My breathing became noticeably deeper. I felt like I had suddenly lost ten pounds. And I was aware that anytime I wasn’t conscious of it, I was smiling. I think I actually skipped out of the assembly gathering for the dinner break.
That night I slept like a rock for the first time in months. Finally, this ordeal was over for me. The eight candidates remaining were all solid, wonderful, faithful people. And none of them were me. Whew. As far as my participation was concerned, this process was finished. I had been faithful to the leading of the Holy Spirit, learned some things, and moved past some personal obstacles. Thank you Jesus. Let’s elect a bishop, finish up the assembly, and go home.
The Rev. Jim Gonia was elected on the fifth ballot. My experience of his election was deep, spiritual, and moving. It seemed that the Holy Spirit had truly worked through this gathering of amazingly diverse Lutherans who gathered from the ranches of Wyoming; the urban centers of Denver, Salt Lake City, Albuquerque, and Colorado Springs; the border community of El Paso, and many other communities—large and small—that make up the territory of the Rocky Mountain Synod. I was taken aback at the powerful effect his election had on me. This person had truly been called by God to this office. It was a win/win. God had called someone who had responded, and it wasn’t me.
As I gathered one evening with a few other colleagues toward the end of this election process, one of them asked that since I was out of the running, what I was going to do now. “What do you mean?” I asked. “It seems self-evident. I’m out of the running. I don’t do anything.” No, this colleague answered. It’s not over. It’s just beginning. You were a viable candidate for bishop of this synod. Like it or not, Rob, you owe it to this church to speak out. Apparently, you have something to say that this synod wants to hear.
In my 27 years of ordained ministry, I think I’ve spoken into a microphone at a synod assembly once. Not my forte, not my comfort zone, not my desire. I’ve not expressed any aspiration to serve on any synod-wide committee, council, or task force. Although I allowed myself to be nominated for and subsequently elected to the synod’s Mission Outreach Board some years ago, I’ve never promoted that position or publicized my work there. I work as a team with my fellow board members, learning, speaking at meetings when necessary, and (as is so often my style) quietly influencing when I know something that’s relevant to the agenda or when I believe something ought to be on the agenda. I rarely “speak out” at synod assemblies, board meetings, or anywhere else outside of the pulpit.
Now I wonder, perhaps, if I’m being called to move beyond my own comfort again. If the demon that has kept me relatively silent for fear of ridicule has been exorcized (see part two of this blog series), then who knows what God will now call me to do and/or say? I am passionate about this church, I see God at work in and through us. I have the background, education, and experience to have a voice. I believe with all that is within me that the purpose of the church is not to do church, but to be the church God has called and gathered. And to be that church in the world. I can lead my congregation in living that out through new and fuller means. I can articulate that in any number of ways. I can imagine that in even more ways. Perhaps I can use a new-found voice to be more effective in encouraging and challenging others to be missional church as well.
Which is why this blog exists and how this series fits into it.
And that, my dear reader, is how God has used this bishop election in ways that I never could have imagined. Soli Deo Gloria!