Report of the Bishop: Synod Assembly 2023

Apr 27, 2023

The Lord has done great things
and we are filled with joy.
Psalm 126:3

Unless the Lord builds the house,
those who build it labor in vain.
Psalm 127:1

Which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?
Luke 14:28

Then the Lord answered me and said: “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end and does not lie.
If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay.”
Habakkuk 2:2-3

Strategic Plan

The need for planning is obvious, and yet, if your congregation starts working on a multi-year plan, people will inevitably ask why. If you’re planning a master garden, you begin with planning. Where will it be? What will it cost? (Luke 14:28) What will we plant? When will we plant it? Sun or shade? If our plans are too much for the first year, what phases will we have over the next three years?

A vision to replicate the past is no vision. Congregations and synods planning only Sunday to Sunday need to look up, to the horizon, and ask God, “Where are you calling us to go? What are you doing in the world and how can we be a part?” Vision and planning begin with prayer, for unless the Lord builds the house, we labor in vain (Psalm 127:1).

Then you listen to the world. God in Christ has a vision for the world, and you are the body of Christ. There is a vision for the appointed time (Habakkuk 2:2-3). It’s not a fancy building or a perpetuation of our club or club houses. God is doing something in the world. Will we join in, even if it is costly?

Then we listen to our people, because God speaks in the hearts of all the faithful in the body of Christ, not only those on staff and council. What dreams has God placed in their hearts? What bee in their bonnet? What is on fire within them? What will they be willing to do? What hill will they climb? What will they support with time, creativity, and money, even when the going gets rough?

Then the leaders sit down and write the vision so plainly that even a runner can read it. The vision makes hearts beat faster, palms sweat, and imaginations begin to erupt. The vision sets a course for the future. It aligns the team and the work.

A congregation sets a vision and makes a plan for its specific community and context. A synod looks out over a wider geography and asks, “What does the Lutheran presence look like here in the Gulf Coast in the next 5-10 years?” To keep us from myopia, we asked the Blackberry Collection to help us. They did the listening, because inertia is strong, and leadership teams sometimes can’t see what is in front of them, and then don’t want to hear it when told. We will discuss the findings of the listening phase at assembly, then a strategic planning team will begin to write the vision. Spoiler alert, one of the things I am told Blackberry heard the most from you is a sense of God’s call for a church that looks more like the communities we serve. More to come…

State of the Synod

The question I continue to get asked – quite frequently – is, “So, how is the synod doing?” The answer is complicated. For some the pandemic has been devastating. A couple struggling congregations did not make it. Some find their leaders are worn out and filled with malaise. We all know this reality: grief. Everyone grieves differently. Some take more time to move on, some less. Empathy, compassion, and hope can help us through.

For others, it has been less traumatic. Some have launched new ministries and are seeing great things. Campus ministries went to zero. Three years later, most of their students had graduated. They are starting over. The key is accepting this reality, planning the garden, then beginning the work.

This assembly, instead of keynote presentations, we are going to listen to a number of stories of ministry – real stories, from this synod. These folks will share the challenges and how they have chosen to engage them in their context. These are not prescriptive (you must do this), but descriptive (we did this). I hope they spark your imagination for what God is calling you to do in our unique context, because God is doing great things, and we are filled with joy.

Companion Synods

Last fall Bishop Felix Malpica (LaCrosse Area Synod) and I were able to visit the Lutheran Church of Peru for the first time since the pandemic. It was his first visit. COVID his Peru hard, and the death of President Adita Torres weighed heavily on them. It was a soulful time to reboot our relationship, but then the political woes hit, making travel impractical. More on this to come.

Things have settled down a bit in our other companion synod, The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Central African Republic. And an anniversary celebration of the first Lutheran missionaries to that area is taking place in Minneapolis this summer. We had hoped President Ngoe could come and also visit our synod, but he has been unable to secure a visa. Hopefully later this year. An anniversary celebration will take place in the CAR next year. If no armed conflict is active, we may send a group.

Assembly Offering

Last year, thanks to your generosity, we had our largest assembly in the history of the Gulf Coast Synod, over $50,000. This year, we hope to raise $75,000 to provide several internships in this synod. Gifted seminary students need internship sites that will prepare them to serve God’s church with creativity and energy. Congregations hosting interns benefit from their ministry. In this synod we have ministries that would serve as exceptional training centers, yet don’t have the funding capacity to afford a seminary intern. There is a great demand for interns to serve in the Gulf Coast Synod.

Help us reach this goal. Your gift will allow the Gulf Coast Synod to provide partnership grants to vital ministry sites that will allow them to train the next generation of rostered leaders. Rural congregations will benefit from the gifts of interns while preparing them for future service in rural America. Ministries amid the homeless will train interns in love and service. New starts and redevelopments will show creative ways to become the church of the future. Interns will benefit as they receive vital experience. Internship congregations will benefit as they utilize the intern’s gifts. The whole church will benefit as these interns bring their new gifts to their ministry. Gifts of all sizes matter. We have some lead gifts that have gotten us started toward the goal already. Can your congregation take a love offering to help us get there? Give here:

Congregational Mission Share

Thank you! Mission Share increased this year by $54,000, with 43% of congregations growing in giving. Together those congregations grew by $112,800. 24% congregations maintained their giving. Between them, 67% grew and maintained Mission Share. I find this remarkable given our post-pandemic realities.

A shout out to a few congregations who grew by notable percentages:

  • Alvin Lutheran – 550%
  • St John, Cat Spring – 300%
  • First Taiwanese – 100%
  • St. Paul, Shelby – 74%
  • Covenant Houston – 35%
  • First, Sommerville – 33%
  • Lutheran Church of Our Saviour – 33%

And these congregations grew by these notable amounts:

  • Lord of Life, The Woodlands – $22,390
  • Living Word, Katy – $18,000
  • Faith, Bellaire – $11,713
  • First, Lafayette – $10,000

Thank you!

Synod Staff

Your synod staff work tirelessly at growing and supporting ministry for you in this synod.

  • Beth Morris, Executive Administrator
  • Evangeline Dai, Disaster Ministry Coordinator
  • Beth Vu, Bookkeeer
  • Lizbeth Johnson, adjunct, with the Lutheran Foundation of the Southwest
  • Bishop Mike Rinehart
  • Pastor Tracey Breashears Schultz, Bishop’s Associate for Leadership
  • Brother Chris Markert, Bishop’s Associate for Mission
  • Pastor Ele Clay, Advisor to the Bishop for DEI

We are also grateful for the work of Peggy Hahn and Jessica Noonan (LEAD), who helps with planned giving, Pete Reuss (GSB) who helps congregations with stewardship and generosity, and Beth Hartfiel who has helped with synod assemblies for 14 years.

The staff of a church or synod is an ever-growing and changing body. We rejoice that Aimee Elles completed her Masters in Diaconal Ministry and is now serving a residency as a hospital chaplain. We welcome Beth Morris who has jumped right in. Lizbeth Johnson was the top gift planner in the ELCA last year, gathering over $17M in planned and realized gifts for Lutheran congregations and other ministries. As she retires, we welcome John Roalson. Evangeline is a blessing. You made this possible with your increase in Mission Share, and so did Lutheran Disaster Response, with a $240,000, three-year grant. Pastor Chris Markert, ever with a heart for mission, will go to half time with the synod as God calls him to launch a new congregation out of Redeemer, Houston. He will retain his mission oversight and we will bring on a part-time person or persons to cover his other duties. In time, as the new mission grows, he will eventually go full time there. The Spirit is always on the move!

Who is Welcome?

Last year, the assembly voted to enter a year of discernment about becoming a Reconciling in Christ (RIC) synod. This entails creating a statement of welcome. A team held regional gatherings and drafted a statement of welcome for your consideration at assembly. This is not your congregational welcome. That’s work each congregation must do. This is an aspirational statement for the synod. It is who we aspire to be and who we wish to welcome. I ask you to prayerfully consider this as we prepare for assembly.



A Word of Thanks

My sabbatical was scheduled for summer of 2020. Ha! When it became obvious I could not step away or even travel during this time of crisis in the synod, the Council gave me permission to enter a Doctor of Ministry program at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago and the Catholic Theological Union. I studied practical theology with a concentration in Intercultural Studies and Ministry. All classes were online. The moment assembly ends on Saturday, I head to Chicago for graduation on Sunday. This has been the most intensive and focused learning I have had in years. Thank you. We are lifelong learners. No one wants a leader who learned their last lesson ten years ago. So again, thank you for the time and space to do this work and thank you for the privilege of continuing to serve as bishop in this amazing synod, 16 years now.

The Lord has done great things for us,
And we are filled with joy!

Respectfully submitted,
Bishop Michael Rinehart