With prayer and song, more than 1,000 Lutherans from across North Carolina gathered at Charlotte’s Christ Lutheran Church on Saturday to install the Rev. Timothy Smith as their first new bishop in 18 years.
Smith, 55, succeeds Bishop Leonard Bolick and will preside over the 200-plus congregations in the North Carolina Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). It’s one of 65 synods in the national denomination of a church that traces its roots to Martin Luther, the German priest who sparked the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century.
Just before the opening procession Saturday, the packed sanctuary rang with the sound of the 100-member choir and those in the pews joining in the singing of one of Luther’s most famous hymns, “A Mighty Fortress (Is Our God).”
And in their words to the worshippers, Smith and ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, who delivered the sermon, urged their flock to keep their eyes and hearts on a mighty and loving God – and on each other – at a time when the ELCA and other mainline denominations are declining in membership and often divided.
“Fear not, because the Holy Spirit is with us, empowering us,” said Smith, who asked those in the church for their prayers, support and financial backing. “This is a great time to be church. ... We have to trust solely in God’s presence in our lives.”
In May, Smith – born in Lenoir and educated at UNC Chapel Hill – was elected to a six-year term. After leading churches in Newton and Boone, he left five years ago to become pastor of Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in Atlanta.
But he agreed to “come back home,” as Eaton put it, to head a North Carolina synod that has struggled in recent years. He’ll be based in Salisbury.
The synod lost 40 congregations after the ELCA’s highest legislative body voted in 2009 to allow for the ordination of gays and lesbians in committed monogamous relationships.
In the last decade, the synod shrank from 80,000 members to about 60,000, according to spokesman Robert Shoffner. And after his installation, Smith said that unity is important at a time when more than half of the congregations in the synod have fewer than 100 worshippers each week and half of those have fewer than 50.
“Yes, it’s different. Yes, it’s difficult. That seems to be our challenge moving forward,” the new bishop said. “So we’ll work together as we move along.”
During his installation, Eaton asked Smith a series of questions, including whether he would pledge “to love, serve and pray for God’s people, nourish them with the word and sacraments, and lead them by your own example in faithful service and holy living.”
After each question, Smith’s answer was the same: “I will, and I ask God to help me.”