Synod School 2016

Lakes and Prairies’ week-long midsummer ministry draws 630

by Duane Sweep | Special to Presbyterian News Service

EAGAN, MINNESOTA – The sounds could be coming from any busy school office responding to the myriad requests of all those who enter the doors.

Deb DeMeester, director of leadership development for the Synod of Lakes and Prairies, works the desk in the Synod School office. Photo by Duane Sweep.

Deb DeMeester, director of leadership development for the Synod of Lakes and Prairies, works the desk in the Synod School office. Photo by Duane Sweep.

But this school is different. It’s Synod School, the annual midsummer ministry of the Synod of Lakes and Prairies. It’s a week-long event – Sunday afternoon through Friday noon – that always runs the last week in July at Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Iowa.

This year 630 people – including ages from 5 weeks to somewhere in the 80s – took part, most living on campus and some taking up residence in local hotels.

Synod School is the last one of its kind in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). This year’s attendance mark established a new record, surpassing the previous mark of 620 set in 2011.

“I don’t know where my mom and dad are,” says one young boy, who walks into the office Tuesday afternoon.

Deb DeMeester, the synod’s director of leadership development and lead staff support for Synod School, lends the lad her phone — situation resolved.

The Synod School office, tucked into Siebens Forum on the BVU campus, is a hub for routine queries and the unexpected.

Someone else waits for first aid for a scraped elbow. And someone else turns in the missing nametag.

DeMeester, in her first year as the go-to person for all things Synod School, says, “I’m just not that organized.” But she is.

Sarah Dickinson, pastor of Discovery Presbyterian Church in Omaha, Neb., stops by to tell DeMeester Synod School is “going wonderfully.” She has attended Synod School 13 of the past 14 years, often helping with worship, teaching classes and providing “support where I can.” This year she is attending Synod School without any of those responsibilities.

Pam Prouty helps out in the office while she assembles that evening’s announcements. Photo by Duane Sweep.

Pam Prouty helps out in the office while she assembles that evening’s announcements. Photo by Duane Sweep.

Dickinson’s husband, Jeff, provides tech support for Synod School, running projection from the back of Schaller Chapel for packed morning and evening worship services. He also fills the same role for convocation presentations, this year featuring John Bell, the renowned preacher, teacher and lecturer who is a member of the Wild Goose Resource Group, an autonomous project of the Iona Community in Scotland.

A young girl comes in to claim a name tag that has been turned in at the office. “Chocolate or red licorice?” Pam Prouty asks. The girl picks chocolate — and gets her name tag.

Prouty, the synod’s stated clerk, who also fills that same role in the Presbytery of Minnesota Valleys while serving as parish associate at First Presbyterian Church in Redwood Falls, Minn., where her husband, Scott, is pastor.

She’s in the office to put together the announcement slide show for that evening’s worship – things like the mini-classes that night, the Star Wars movie, coffee-house entertainment, the upcoming open mic session, and the “huge” collection jar where contributions small and larger are adding up for the Presbyterian Hunger Program.

“You sit here and there’s everything,” DeMeester says.

A dad comes in. He needs a ride to Walmart to get his daughter, who’s been in a fender-bender. She’s fine, but the car can’t be driven. He gets a ride.

“We’re all new this year,” DeMeester says. “The staff here, me, we’re all new, but I think it’s going really well.”

Then someone stops in to pay fees for the golfing outing slated the next afternoon.

Synod School offered 70 classes this year, ranging from the serious to the more light-hearted – from “Embracing Conflict” to “Go Dutch,” or the versatility of cooking in a cast-iron Dutch oven or skillet, and from “Stress Management in Ministry” to “God at the Box Office.”

“I want to change classes,” someone says. She gets the other class.

John Bell, renowned preacher and lecturer from the Iona Community in Scotland, leads morning convocation in Buena Vista University’s Schaller Chapel. Photo by Duane Sweep.

John Bell, renowned preacher and lecturer from the Iona Community in Scotland, leads morning convocation in Buena Vista University’s Schaller Chapel. Photo by Duane Sweep.

There are all-morning classes, all-afternoon classes and one-hour classes Monday through Thursday. Class times are compressed on Friday to allow for lunchtime departure. Mini-classes, sometimes on subjects attendees develop during the day, take place in the evening. Convocation speaker Bell also met for continuing discussions in the evening.

Worship takes place Sunday evening and in the morning and evening Monday through Thursday. Burns Stanfield, pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Boston, along with his wife, Lorraine, and numerous friends, led evening worship. Leading morning worship were Stephanie Anthony and Jody Branson from First Presbyterian Church in Hudson, Wis., where Anthony is pastor and Branson is organist, accompanist, and director of music and liturgical arts.

Everyone eats in BVU’s Siebens Marketplace Food Servery — breakfast, lunch and dinner — and when the menu doesn’t suit an individual’s palate, there’s always the ever-present hamburger offered from the grill. And then there’s typically a line for the soft-serve ice cream.

A group of junior high students come searching through the office for classroom supplies and they spot the candy bowl on the table. But before they can get to the candy, someone says, “Only if you take broccoli from the salad tray, too.” Most do.

Every now and then someone comes through the door wearing a tie-dyed T-shirt — a staple of Synod School.

Erin Blair of Lake City, Iowa, holds her 5-week-old daughter, the youngest attendee at this year’s Synod School. Photo by Duane Sweep.

Erin Blair of Lake City, Iowa, holds her 5-week-old daughter, the youngest attendee at this year’s Synod School. Photo by Duane Sweep.

In recent years, Synod School has begun incorporating an artist in residence into its program. This year it’s Cathy Newcomb of Sioux Falls, S.D., leader of the PC(USA) new worshiping community, “Through the Lens.” She shares the spiritual and visual aspects of photography as a form of worship. She also taught the class, “Visio-Divina: Bringing Cameras and Christ Together.”

And, much like Synod School, the story goes on.

When Synod School wrapped up Friday, the countdown began to next summer’s event. Someone will make a Facebook post about the number of days regular attendees have to wait until next year’s last week in July.

Planning is already underway for the 2017 Synod School. J. Herbert Nelson, stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), will be the convocation speaker at next summer’s Synod School, which runs Sunday through Friday, July 23-28, 2017 at Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Iowa.

Nelson was elected in June to the PC(USA) stated clerk post at the 222nd General Assembly (2016) of the denomination. He had been serving as director of the PC(USA) Office of Public Witness in Washington, D.C., a position he filled in 2010.

Claudio Carvalhaes, a well-known speaker and worship leader, will lead evening worship at the 2017 event. Carvalhaes, a native of Brazil and faculty member at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, has previously served on the faculty of Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and McCormick Theological Seminary.

Synod School is never really too far away from those who keep track in the Facebook group. It has the fun name, incorporating a famous quote from the movie, “Field of Dreams.” You may recognize it:  Synod School — ‘Is this heaven?’ ‘No, it’s Iowa!’

Duane Sweep is associate for communications for the Synod of Lakes and Prairies and a contributor to Presbyterian News Service.

 


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