Evaluating the Synod

Jun 13, 2016

Bishop Michael Rinehart

No one I know likes to go to the doctor. But you cannot get better if you do not know what’s going on. Do you need more rest? Do you need more exercise? Do you need more chocolate? Do you need less chocolate?

Listening as a congregation or as a synod is like checking your vital signs. How are we doing: pulse, weight, cholesterol, blood pressure and so on? We want you to do this in your congregation. Three ways: (1) Listen to God in prayer; (2) Listen in to your congregation; (3) Listen out to your community. This way your perspective will be more honest and your plans will have more depth. Listen soulfully. Don’t be afraid. The facts are your friends. The truth will set you free.

We listened to congregational council members five years ago. I wanted their honest appraisal of our work together as a synod. I wanted the truth. When I started, I heard the frustration. Four years later were we doing better? Where did we need to grow? We heard tremendous affirmation, but also that congregations weren’t getting the resources they needed. We weren’t doing as well as we thought. It was hard to hear. We wanted to be proactive and help congregations move forward, but tended to spend a lot of time with congregational conflict. Then a hurricane would come along or a misconduct. In our listening, you told us the truth: we weren’t getting it done.

Out of the listening grew a strategic plan that called for us to start a separate non-profit organization to provide excellent leadership resources and coaching. This organization would be somewhat separate from synod functions, so they could stay free from synodical administration and focused on leadership development. The organization was birthed. LEAD was born.

It was a strange idea. We could not have imagined what would happen. LEAD has provided resources, like the 10-minute toolbox that have been used around the country in every synod, learning seminars, immersion trips, and much more. Other synods have come to LEAD. Today, our synod only accounts for 14% of LEAD’s budget.

That same strategic plan also called for us to start some new congregations, which we are doing. It called for us to restructure conferences, to appoint deans, to reconfigure staff, to move the office, and lower overhead, which we did.

One of LEAD’s resources is the LEAD Assessment; it’s a 20-question online tool that helps your congregation find its place on the leadership landscape. Take the LEAD Assessment as a congregation. It’s free for our congregations until June 15. Get a coach, create a plan, make some changes, and step boldly into the future.

Now you say, Bishop, you want us to get an honest assessment of our congregations and get a coach. Why don’t you do those things? Practice what you preach. Well, we are, and we have. We asked every pastor to send us emails for their council members this year. After Easter, we sent out a link to every congregation’s council member, for whom we had an email, asking them to assess the work of the synod.

The results are in. The report is 18 pages and is available online. There is more data than I can share here. What I am going to do is share with you some of the information.

The Landscape Survey was taken by 233 people: about 1/3 pastors and 1/3 lay people, mostly members of congregation councils. Overall, the satisfaction rate was very high, both in comparison with other synods and in comparison with your own synod five years ago. Forty-six other synods and diocese have used this same tool, so we have baselines.

landscape survey

For example, when asked to compare the synod to three years ago, 63% felt we were stronger, while 94% felt we were either stronger or about the same, and 6% felt we were weaker.

three years ago

Measuring energy and satisfaction, in 2011 you had above- average satisfaction, but low energy.


This time, energy went way up, along with satisfaction.

Let me give you an example: 87% agreed to one degree or another.


Here’s another: 85% agree to one extent or another.


This one is interesting, because, check out the 2011 numbers. Those who agreed that we communicate well with one another went up ten points. Those who strongly disagreed went down to zero.

Needless to say, we are delighted with these results, but we also learned some things that show us we have work to do. For example, one area where there could be improvement is in equipping congregations for financial stewardship.

Financial giving

The numbers are better, but we think a flat “3% strongly agree” isn’t great. We hear you.

There are also some other concerns. We had 233 responses this time, whereas last time we had 384 responses. The statistician told us the 233 was a good sample and that many more responses would not change the outcome much. However, we still wonder why participation was lower. Less interest? Less engagement? Less conflict?

Ninety-six percent of respondents were Caucasian. We have known for a long time this is a concern. One third of respondents were over the age of 65. Two thirds of respondents were over the age of 55. Of course church councils don’t involve children, so that will drive the average age up, but this is still pretty high. This is one of the reasons we are encouraging you to get young people on your council. One piece of good news, of the many council members that responded, about half were male and half were female.

This was a good report card. Better than we expected. Better then the people who administer the tool expected. My biggest fear was that we went through the motions of the last strategic plan, and people would be about in the same place. This gives me hope that we are making progress, while at the same time giving us important information for the development of this next strategic plan.

Yes, congregation councils are satisfied with their work together as a synod, but the demographics give us information underneath the data: We are an aging, white church, while Houston is the most multicultural city in the U.S., and New Orleans is 50% African American. Do we have the will to make changes in worship, administration, and attitude that will allow us to shift our outreach to the populations moving in or already in our communities? The strategic plan needs to answer the question: What are we going to do about this?

When asked where they believed we need additional energy to improve our work together, the top six responses were:

  1. Equip leaders to reach new members
  2. Work with churches that are struggling
  3. Equip leaders to help members become growing, vital disciples
  4. Equip congregations to address problems affecting their surrounding communities.
  5. Rethink how to be vital Lutheran churches in our specific region
  6. New Church development

So, the top three are equipping leaders to reach new members, help struggling churches, and equipping leaders to grow disciples. These are the same priorities as five years ago, though in a different order. Good news. It’s basically about evangelism and spiritual growth.

The next step in our strategic plan will be to form a team, and let them digest this data. We hope many congregations will do the LEAD Assessment, giving us information about how our congregations are doing on the ground. We will do some focus groups in every area of the synod, listening in to the church and out to the community.

We ask you to:

  1. Listening to God is the first and highest listening. The Spirit leads, guides, and directs. We want to be a part of what God is up to in the world.
  2. Take the LEAD Assessment. The Landscape reviewed the synod. The assessment reviews the congregation. Do it. The facts are your friends. The truth will set you free. It only requires 15 minutes or less to complete, and there’s no charge if taken before June 15. A representative from LEAD will debrief the assessment results with you by phone this summer. The results of this assessment can be invaluable for helping your congregation in gaining insights for moving forward.
  3. August and early September, congregations will be invited to be a part of the planning process by participating in focus groups, where you will be asked specific questions to help you consider how your congregation has been gifted to join God’s mission in the community. Details on when and where are coming, so be on the lookout!

Thanks for being part of this Gulf Coast team. Being church together is fun, challenging, and exciting. And thank you for the privilege of serving as bishop.