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‘The starter car was already going around the track’


Synod of Lakes and Prairies embraces the Matthew 25 invitation

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Synod School attendees typically  fill Schaller Chapel on the Buena Vista University campus in Storm Lake, Iowa, for one week each July. Synod of Lakes and Prairies officials say Synod School is one way the synod is building congregational vitality within the six-state synod. (Photo by Duane Sweep)

LOUISVILLE — Synod of Lakes and Prairies is home to 16 presbyteries and nearly 800 churches, all of them in the upper Midwest. One of its presbyteries, Dakota Presbytery, is considered non-geographical but is the oldest presbytery west of the Mississippi River.

Last week, synod commissioners voted to allow Lakes and Prairies to become a Matthew 25 synod. Synod Executive Elona Street-Stewart said that while the synod will embrace all three Matthew 25 focus areas — building congregational vitality, dismantling structural racism and eradicating systemic poverty — it’s that first item that is drawing the most initial attention.

“Based on our history, we know that strong, healthy leaders make for strong (worshiping) communities,” said Street-Stewart, the first Native American to be a synod executive in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). “We have to counter the impression this is fly-over land. We want to attract strong leaders and empower them to serve in rural community settings.”

She said Lakes and Prairies’ annual Synod School, the only remaining one in the denomination, creates a week-long intentional community every July at its longtime home, Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Iowa.

The Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II speaks during the 2017 Synod School hosted by Synod of the Lakes and Prairies. (Contributed photo)

A lineup of about 70 courses, twice-daily worship and quality keynoters — including the 2017 keynoter, Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly — is “about empowering and sustaining leadership,” she said.

“The 660 or so people who attend every year are from all over the Church, not just our synod,” she said. “When they go home, they feel fed and are full of ideas and energy to tackle ministry.”

As part of its efforts to dismantle structural racism, the synod awards 10 small grants annually to help students attend tribal colleges within the synod. In March, Street-Stewart helped teach a course at the annual White Privilege conference in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

It’s also working to eradicate systemic poverty by partnering with the Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People on projects within the synod’s six states as well as engaging in municipal housing and hunger collaborations.

Street-Stewart said she “also can’t overlook the fact” that the first PC(USA) church to officially accept the Matthew 25 invitation, Olivet Presbyterian Church in Cedar Rapids, is in both Presbytery of East Iowa and Synod of Lakes and Prairies.

“The starter car was already going around the track,” she said.

Duane Sweep, the synod’s communications director, said Lakes and Prairies’ five-year strategic plan, also approved last week, features three priorities that fit well with the Matthew 25 focus areas. The plan says the synod will partner with its presbyteries to:

  • Be the hands and feet of the PC(USA)’s mission strategy
  • Help attract, support and retain high-quality leadership
  • Provide resources and services that can best be done together.

Accepting the Matthew 25 invitation “is an opportunity for us to emphasize and expand on those ways we currently work with the marginalized and the impoverished — those in our society who are less well off than they should be,” Sweep said.

One example: a Minneapolis group called Grandmothers United received a $10,000 grant from the synod. The organization helps grandmothers and great grandmothers who are supporting their grandchildren and great grandchildren affected by poverty, addiction, mental health challenges and homelessness. “If that doesn’t fit with Matthew 25,” Sweep said, “I don’t know what does.”

The Matthew 25 invitation, he said, “has given us the opportunity to develop a plan like this,” he said, although technically the strategic plan was completed before the synod accepted the Matthew 25 invitation. “It’s hard to be a Christian if you don’t do anything but sit around and talk about it.”

“If the synod can make this work,” he said, “I think it will have something really special.”

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