What It Is Like to Be President of the Synod

by Matthew C. Harrison 

If I told you it wasn’t stressful and challenging, I’d be lying. I’ve often joked about writing a bluegrass tune, “Walther’s Breakdown.” The second Synod president, F.C.D. Wyneken, wrote to C.F.W. Walther about his lifelong struggles with depression and shared that he was so exhausted at times that he had to be roused out of his moods by friends.

I remain in awe of everything those dear men suffered to establish a church on the inerrant Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions. I also have some inkling of what they faced. The congregations of the Synod have given me the sacred duty to ensure that the district presidents, congregations, pastors and other workers teach and live in accordance with the unchanging confession of the LCMS.

Love is central to our confession and doctrine! I believe that confession with all my heart. The Gospel is the chief article upon which the church stands or falls, as our forefathers repeatedly said. When we believe in Jesus for the forgiveness of sins, we recognize His precious words in the Bible. “My sheep hear my voice … and they follow me” (John 10:27). Come what may, I shall not depart from Scripture. This is the treasure of our church body. Despite the cultural pressures to depart from the clear Word of God, we will never bend with the winds of culture. If I or anyone else does, there must be a call to repentance and a return to fidelity. If we lose our biblical teaching and confession, we will sink into confusion and conflict, and worse, finally lose the Gospel.

Years ago, a person working for the Synod openly urged an individual, in my presence, to pursue something absolutely contrary to the Scriptures and the oft-repeated confession of the LCMS. I pulled that person aside and kindly but firmly stated, “The Synod does not put us into these significant positions so that we subvert her biblical teachings.” It didn’t happen again.

The most difficult part of being president is that decisions almost always disappoint someone. Decisions that come to my desk always involve people, lives, deeply held convictions, dreams and aspirations. They often involve people who have been disappointed, people who have been wronged or hurt, sometimes very seriously. I often approve individuals under consideration for significant positions in our seminaries and universities. Even when made in concert with others, decisions for seminary and university presidencies are challenging but have resulted in two terrifically faithful and effective seminary presidents and a significant strengthening of our universities.

Many problems seem unsolvable. A long time ago, I visited the retired Bishop Schöne of our German partner church. I noted his kneeler, worn where he knelt, candles burned low and Bible with pages transparent from oil from his fingers. “I’ve gotta learn how to pray,” I told myself. I built a kneeler for my office. I pray the psalms mainly. Over the years, I’ve written people and issues on sticky notes and put those notes where I see them as I pray. It’s a wonderful discipline. Over time — sometimes over years — I see how God answers prayer, in His own time. Always under crosses.

I get up every day and try to do the right thing. I’ve failed. Many critical and potentially controversial matters come before me. I try not to make a significant decision, particularly in a critical or emotional moment, without plenty of counsel and at least a night’s sleep. When possible, I refrain from taking immediate action on critical issues until I can receive counsel and gain more clarity. I work to keep the LCMS out of the negative press.

The job has its amazing joys. I work with remarkable and capable people implementing the decisions of the congregations of the Synod for the spread of the Gospel at home and around the globe. Few people have any idea how vast and excellent the work of the Synod is. I’m involved in the joyous task of sending missionaries and mercy care around the globe. I’ve represented the LCMS all over the world in partner churches and mission fields. I’ve been in every district and met pastors and people from all over the LCMS. I’ve attended over 100 district conventions. I love the Q&A time with delegates. The Council of Presidents has become strong, spending significant time together studying the Scriptures and the Confessions while addressing urgent needs of pastors, workers and congregations. The Synod’s Board of Directors has handled business and legal challenges with the utmost fidelity and wisdom. Our auxiliaries — the Lutheran Laymen’s League and the Lutheran Women’s Missionary League — are powerhouses for mission and confessing what it means to be men and women of God.

We have been blessed phenomenally. I would love to preach in every LCMS congregation, but that would take 125 years. I love meeting folks from all over the Synod. It’s been an honor to represent the LCMS on critical issues in D.C. It’s been a joy to stand up for life for and with the LCMS at annual marches. It’s a joy to see all the schools, visit the universities, speak with myriad professors and students also at the seminaries. I see the amazing work of our residential seminaries around the globe. We affect millions in the mission of sharing the Gospel, all in the name of Jesus.

It is a privilege to serve you. But it is also a costly privilege. When people ask me about what it’s like to be LCMS president I have said, “Well, it’s pretty much like being a regular pastor. You can’t please everyone. But the voters’ assembly is a whole lot bigger.” In many ways, I don’t feel much different from how I did as a young pastor in Iowa at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church. I couldn’t please everyone there either. But I could be faithful. And I could, by the grace of Jesus, preach Him and love my people. People often ask if I would pray for them. I do it on the spot. I believe in prayer and blessings in Jesus’ name.

People often ask me what I need prayers about. I often respond, “Please pray for my wife and family.” And so many of you have done so. My two boys are happily married. I have a precious little 14-month-old granddaughter. And they all love Jesus, their mom, their LCMS church and me. And wonder of wonders, my wife loves me too, after trials and challenges too numerous to mention. I continue to ask folks to pray the Lord would grant me wisdom, patience and kindness. Your prayers for me — both private and during the church service — are supremely humbling and comforting to this poor sinner.

–Pastor Harrison

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