For much of their history in America, Lutherans have divided church territories into regions called "synods,'' which means "coming together.''
But it's only been since 1988, after three major Lutheran faith groups came together to form the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, that the Lutherans have really lived the meaning of that word.
This year, the ELCA, consisting of 65 synods nationwide, will celebrate the 25th anniversary of that union.
They truly have overcome their differences and banded together to form a unified Lutheran church in America, said Pastor Elizabeth "Eli" Hess of Trinity Lutheran Church in Juniata.
"We can accomplish more as one voice that we could when we were all separate,'' she said.
It was not an easy journey because the three major faith groups - the American Lutheran Church, the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches and the Lutheran Church of America - had to give and take to form the ELCA, said Pastor Michael Rhyne of Newry Lutheran and Geeseytown Lutheran churches.
Lutherans have a tradition of being outspoken which dates back to the 1500s when Martin Luther broke with the Roman Catholic Church, Rhyne said.
"It's been the history of the Lutherans to say when there's something wrong,'' he said. "It's good in that Martin Luther said some things that had never been said before. But it can put a strain on things if people sense it as a threat.''
German and Scandinavian immigrants made up the bulk of the Lutheran churches in America, Hess said, which is why they kept their separate identities for so long.
But as America has changed, so has the need to keep ethnic identities separate, she said.
Another part of the process to form the ELCA was a change in the role of the bishops, said Bishop Gregory Pile.
Before the heads of the synods were called presidents. They basically saw to the pastors' financial and administrative needs but hardly ever saw the people. That's all changed in the past 25 years, Pile said.
"I'm able to know pretty much what's going on in all 118 congregations,'' said Pile, one of the most senior bishops in the ELCA. "Most people know their bishop more closely than in the past.''
Pile oversees the Allegheny Synod, which was formerly known as the Central Pennsylvania Synod.
He said the title being changed from president to bishop was intentional, changing the focus of the leader's work away from his desk and onto the congregation.
"Leaders are called to be presidents and 'bishops' speaks to being more pastoral,'' Pile said.
Both Hess and Rhyne said the churches have welcomed the support of the bishop.
"I think they started to see that the pastors, as well as the parishioners, needed that kind of pastoral care,'' Hess said.
The change has meant bishops put a lot of miles on their cars. Pile joked that his wife is amazed at the shortcuts he knows through the Allegheny Highlands.
He oversees about 35,000 people in seven counties: Blair, Bedford, Huntingdon, Clearfield, Centre, Somerset and Cambria. The Allegheny Synod also contains a small section in Maryland.
In contrast, the former Central Pennsylvania Synod had 600 congregations and covered a wider territory, including Harrisburg.
Like other churches, Pile said the ELCA has lost members since its inception and the Allegheny Synod is no exception.
When it formed in 1988, the synod had about 45,000 members. People have left for a variety of reasons, he said. Many people these days just don't like to belong to any religious organization, and others leave churches because of the abuse scandals, he said.
Still others left the ELCA because in 2009, it chose to accept members, especially pastors, who chose lifelong monogamous same-sex relationships, Pile said.
Rhyne said he was in seminary in the South when discussion about the topic of the same-sex relationships started brewing. Yelling matches broke out, but he said eventually, people were able to discuss the issue.
"One thing about this church is that we do have this dialogue,'' Rhyne said. "But it was a very painful decision for many people.''
The synod will celebrate the ELCA anniversary June 6 with a dinner at the Blair County Convention Center. It will be the beginning of its three-day annual synod assembly, a gathering of laity and associates in ministry, diaconal ministers and pastors for renewal and decision making.
The date marks the 25th anniversary of the Constituting Convention of the synod that was held at the First Lutheran Church in Altoona in 1987.