As members of Trinity Lutheran Church, we are part of something much larger than ourselves. Any Lutheran has probably heard the word “synod” before, but if pressed for a definition may not so readily offer an answer.

Who better to discuss this than one of Iowa’s synod bishops? The Northeastern Iowa Synod bishop just happens to have a huge tie to Trinity since Bishop Kevin T. Jones is “one of our own!” Trinity is lucky to also call retired Bishop of the Western Iowa Synod of the ELCA, Rev. Michael Last, one of “ours” as well. Both the current and former bishops have been kind enough to explain exactly what they do (or have done) and end the mystery of a synod once and for all.
This month will focus on Bishop Kevin T. Jones, and next month will focus on former Bishop Michael Last. It’s indeed a “tale of two bishops,” or a “Now and Then,” and will offer a glimpse into what a real bishop does.

L TO R: PASTOR DAN GERRIETTS, BISHOP KEVIN JONES, PASTOR DANIEL HANSON

First, Jones differentiated between being a pastor and a bishop: “As a bishop I am disconnected from the rhythm of congregational life: Worship on the weekend, weekly Bible studies, Wednesday evening, then prep for the weekend. The regularity of the liturgical calendar (Advent / Christmas / Epiphany / Lent / Easter / Pentecost) is also more distant and replaced by the regularity of church meetings in the spring and fall.”

The duties of a bishop are many. Jones explained some of them: “I oversee all of the congregations and clergy in the Synod. My staff and I do a lot of HR work with congregations, pastors, and deacons. We work to help congregations find clergy in times of transition as well as support congregations who go an extended period without a pastor.  I am responsible for investigating and discipline in cases of misconduct. We consult with congregations who are in conflict. I also serve as an intermediary between congregations and the ELCA churchwide expression. I serve as a representative for the Synod to the whole church and to our companion Synods in Hungary and Namibia/Angola. My office also plans Synod-wide events like the Synod Assembly, the upcoming Creative Collaborative Congregations ministry festival, and continuing education events for clergy like the fall theological conference, spring day of renewal, and boundary training.”

The experience of being a bishop involves the whole world…and a little thing called RAGBRAI. “I have thoroughly enjoyed worshiping across the Synod at dozens of congregations. My travel schedule is much more intense than I originally imagined it would be. In January of 2023 I was invited to participate in a visit to the Holy Land and Jordan. As part of that trip, I met the Prime Minister of Palestine, The Head of the US Office of Palestinian Affairs in Jerusalem, and had tea at the royal palace of King Hussein in Jordan. In June of this summer I will lead a delegation to Budapest, Hungary and in July will be in New Orleans for the ELCA Youth Gathering. RAGBRAI 2023 was another highlight as the three Iowa bishops raised almost $100,000 for anti-hunger ministries in Iowa and around the world. The people of Iowa are so generous!” Jones elaborated.

With the worldwide job requirements comes the importance of stressing the value of our Lutheran churches being a part of a MUCH larger denomination. Why do we as Christians choose to be part of it all, and what’s the value of it? Bishop Jones clarifies: “Participation in a denomination is something that is often inherited. Among Lutherans in the United States, there is a long history of divisions and unifications around a number of theological issues, many of which are forgotten within a generation or two. Belonging to a denomination provides support for congregations for things that are often beyond their ability to handle effectively – things like vetting and training clergy.”

He continued: “The ELCA is connected to Lutherans around the world. We have some of the most dedicated and respected service organizations (Lutheran World Hunger, Lutheran Disaster Response) among churches in the world. The ecumenical partnerships that have been forged over the past decades are proving to be extremely advantageous as we seek to provide ministry to smaller congregations and shrinking communities. As a member of the ELCA, congregations receive support in times of pastoral transition (i.e. assistance finding a new pastor or deacon), support for clergy, and networks for ministries (The NEIA Synod has networks for Care of Creation, Substance Abuse issues, Racial Justice and
Advocacy, Youth Ministry, and more).”

Trinity is indeed part of something so much larger than ourselves. Being connected to Lutherans around the world puts our spiritual life into perspective. Why is this important and what are the benefits for a regular church-going Lutheran?

BISHOP JONES GIVING THE CHILDREN’S SERMON

Again, the Bishop knows best:  “The ELCA is a church where people have the opportunity to shape their church through mutual prayer, conversation, and discernment. Decrees do not come down from a single person but the whole church is invited to participate in discerning where the Holy Spirit is leading. The ELCA’s social statements, documents that guide the work of the whole Church, are created in processes that allow everyone in the church to participate. Leaders are chosen by the people they will serve, not by someone “higher up.” A congregation’s ministry is decided by the people who are doing the ministry, not by the bishop – although, to be fair, that ministry has to fall within certain expectations of the whole church. People can be involved at whatever level they feel called.”

To back up a bit, Bishop Jones defined the structure of the ELCA: “The ELCA has three expressions: Congregation, Synod, and Churchwide. Each expression has its own constitution, unique purpose, and leadership. Leaders are called through elections at each level. Congregations have congregational meetings to call (by voting) a new pastor. Synods elect a bishop for a six-year term at Assemblies. The Churchwide expression elects a Presiding Bishop at Churchwide Assemblies (again for a six-year term). The next election for Presiding Bishop will be in July 2025.”

With different denominations of Lutherans, the age-old question pops up: Which Lutheran is the REAL Lutheran? Of course, Bishop Jones weighed in on this: “Someone told me recently that there are 28 Lutheran denominations in the US. I was aware of about six, so I can’t speak to all of them. Lutherans have a distinctive voice among Christians in that we strongly emphasize the gifts of God’s grace through faith. It is God’s work among us through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and the Holy Spirit’s guidance so that we are set free from sin to serve the neighbor. As long as this distinctive voice is coming through, then that is the real Lutheran. The differences among real Lutherans of different denominations happen to fall around important issues of women’s ordination, LGBTQIA+ ordination, church structure, and the usual human-centered conflicts around who is in power.”

We can’t let this perfect opportunity to ask Bishop Jones to explain this whole “Synod” thing. He said, “A congregation is the people who participate in community centered around Word and Sacrament (worship). A Synod is the congregations that participate in community in a geographical area. It is known as a middle judicatory – between the churchwide expressions (National level) and the congregation (local level). The Synod is a bit like being a State within the Nation. The Northeastern Iowa Synod is comprised of just over 140 congregations in 21 counties. There are over 60,000 ELCA Lutherans in Northeastern Iowa.  They Synod staff includes five support staff, two clergy and one lay Assistant to the Bishop, a Director of Evangelical Mission (DEM) who is a deployed staff from the ELCA, and the Bishop. Each Synod has a unique staff arrangement that is guided by the Bishop and the Synod Council (which is comprised of elected lay and clergy from across the Synod).” So there, you have it…straight from the Bishop!

Finally on a more personal note, how has “Pastor Kevin” changed since becoming “Bishop Jones?” He shared: “I have spent more time on the road and away from home than ever before. We still live in Mason City, which surprises some people who haven’t seen Amy or me in a while. I am also getting to meet so many people who love Jesus and are doing incredible ministry across the Synod and around the world. So inspiring!” He continued: “My family is well. We learned recently that Amy and I will be grandparents for the first time early this fall as our son and daughter-in-law are expecting.” And what does he do in his “spare” time?!? Jones shared, “I’m still doing a bit of wood carving when I can!”

Thank you, Bishop Jones, for sharing a little more about being Lutheran, being part of something more than we ever thought, and dedicating your life to enlightening others in Iowa and around the world about Jesus. We are proud of you!†