By Rebecca McDonald
As the synod assembly planner, I have been asked this question many times since the conclusion of the event on May 21. If you attended the assembly this year, perhaps you’ve been asked the same question. My nutshell answer is usually, “Great, it went really well!”
From the perspective of synod staff, the event did go well. But more importantly, what was the perception of those who attended the assembly? What information can we take back to our congregations? Let’s take a moment to recap the assembly and look at some of the post-event survey data.
Synod Assembly 2016 started with opening worship at the Hilton Houston North. Our ELCA churchwide representative, Rozella White, delivered a powerful message on the Samaritan woman at the well. Energetic worship music was provided by a group of talented musicians who came together solely for the assembly, from various places within our synod.
The opening day also included the annual State of the Synod address from Bishop Mike Rinehart. Besides reviewing highlights of the past year, Bishop Mike encouraged us to look for the cross not only in history but also today in our world, to find God in the wilderness of life, to reach out to the marginalized and the suffering. He made five asks of each of us:
- Build a bridge with a faith community different than you.
- Listen to your young people.
- Participate in the strategic planning process.
- Tithe and take some special offerings.
- Do a spiritual growth campaign.
Thursday concluded with a truly dynamic and compelling keynote address from the Rev. Dr. John Nunes, in which he helped us delve deeper into what it means to reimagine spirituality from the edges. Monique, his wife, closed the session with her soulful, electrifying singing. In the post assembly survey, 86% of respondents rated the keynote address as “Excellent”. Eighty-six percent is perhaps one of the highest ratings any portion of the assembly has ever received. This result echoes the overwhelming verbal acclamations by attendees that John and Monique’s presence with us was the absolute highlight of the assembly. One seasoned pastor commented that it was the very best keynote he had ever heard, at any event.
On Thursday evening, Lutheran Seminary Program of the Southwest sponsored a wellness reception. The event featured chair massages (very popular!), free blood pressure screenings by Linda Schone (Christ the King, Houston), delicious food, and great music provided by Adrian Joseph, Richard Birk (St. John, Angleton), and Chris Gilford. This talented combo also kept the assembly energized by providing music during breaks between sessions.
Throughout the assembly, attendees enjoyed visiting the 30 exhibitors and partner organizations. An exhibitor game helped raise money for the World Hunger Campaign; worship offerings went to support World Hunger as well. Linda Utecht (Holy Comforter, Kingwood) made a very generous donation of her time and talent by providing gorgeous handmade prayer beads to every attendee. And during break times, the synod’s Worship Excellence Team led Taize singing in the chapel, to provide moments of quiet and reflection during the event.
On Friday morning, the assembly resumed with synod staff reports, business sessions, the Lutherhill board meeting, and a report from Rozella White. Results of the previous day’s elections were announced, with one run-off election being needed. Newly elected council members include Pr. Liz Hanley (Covenant, Houston), Pr. Rodwell Thom (Peace, Pasadena), and John Turnquist (St. John, Waller), our new synod secretary. Robert Rivera (St. James, Houston) and Valerie Lloyd (Christ the King, Houston) were re-elected for second terms on council.
Friday afternoon was mentioned by many as another high point of the assembly. The entire assembly was dispatched to participate in service projects both at the hotel and throughout the city. Groups visited the Houston Food Bank, Keegan’s Kids Kitchen, Montrose Grace Place, and the Habitat for Humanity ReStore. Others stayed onsite to make cards and blankets through the Christian Community Service Center. Hundreds of pounds of food and hundreds of supplies were sorted and prepped. Children were able to eat because food was prepared for them that day. Walls were painted, facilities were spruced up, 20 blankets and over 900 cards were made. One attendee commented later that while she was originally not looking forward to her project, she was humbled and moved by the experience.
On Saturday morning, the assembly gathered to finish synod business and to recognize important milestones and anniversaries. Carlos Pena and Diane, his wife, (First, Galveston) were special guests, as we honored Carlos for twelve years of service as the ELCA Vice President. Rev. Dr. John Nunes led us in conversation about the previous day’s service projects and what meaning we might take away from them. The assembly closed with worship and another powerful message from Dr. Nunes, and featured beautiful music from the worship band at Chinese Lutheran, Houston. The worship experiences (both opening and closing) were rated “Excellent” by 63% of attendees, with 29% rating them as “Good”.
Experiences at the Hilton also improved overall, up by 12% in ratings of both the facilities and the food and beverage department. While attendees continued to enjoy the resources in our Guidebook app, sponsored by the Mission Investment Fund, there was definitely frustration this year with slow wifi speeds at the hotel. We’re in conversation with them already to find solutions to this issue for next year.
Overall, the survey numbers showed an improvement in attendee satisfaction with Synod Assembly from 2015 to 2016. This year, 56% rated the assembly as “Excellent” overall, and 37% rated it a “Good” event, with 7% finding it “Fair”. In 2015, the ratings were 47% Excellent, 42% Good, and 11% Fair.
Many thanks to all of the staff, coordinators, and countless volunteers, who helped to create an excellent synod assembly. The mission of the assembly is not only to accomplish the constitutional responsibilities of the church, but also to learn, to network with others, and to be inspired and encouraged. It is our prayer that those who attended Synod Assembly 2016 were indeed inspired and encouraged to re-imagine spirituality from the edges.