In the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prays for future believers and asks that they have unity to let the world know God has sent him. In his 21 years as bishop of the Allegheny Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Rev. Gregory R. Pile has strived to do that.
He will retire Aug. 31, and as he reflects on more than two decades as the leader of 116 Lutheran churches in a seven-county area, Pile shares ways he emphasized unity from working with individual churches to the Christian community worldwide.
Within the synod, he established a Ministry of Reconciliation Team to assist churches in working out internal disagreements. It has worked so well that in the past few years, Pile said the team has had little work to do. When other bishops in the ELCA learned about it, they asked Pile to explain how the system works.
(Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec) Bishop Gregory R. Pile of the Allegheny Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America will retire after 21 years as bishop and with a total of 39 years in ministry. The Allegheny Synod is made up of 116 congregations with more than 35,000 baptized members in Bedford, Blair, Cambria, Centre, Clearfield, Huntingdon and Somerset counties as well as Grantsville, Md.
Pile said he likens a congregation to a family and the reconciliation team teaches them how important it is to live together and move beyond their problems. The team, consisting of laypeople and clergy, listens to the issues, but does not try to solve them. Instead, the team stays with the congregation as it develops its own way to work out conflicts with resolution taking anywhere from six months to 1 years.
"The team helps the congregation to renew itself," Pile said.
Pile said it is often conflict with a pastor's style that causes an issue, adding that not all conflict is bad.
"Tension can help us to grow, but tension that is nonproductive hurts the system," he said.
Perhaps oneness is most obvious on Sunday mornings, another area Pile believes is important to the church.
"When we gather to worship, I see this as a significant time," he said. "God very clearly comes to us through Scripture and the meal of bread and wine."
With that in mind, he said the pastor and the members of the congregation need to bring the best of themselves to worship.
"God calls us and gathers us with congregations being fed by God's word and the sacraments. He renews us, feeds us and enables to go out and serve," Pile said.
He believes Lutherans serve in several capacities - as individual disciples of Jesus, as congregations and as a synod community and beyond.
To him, Lutherans are part of a much larger Christian community where they serve with other Christians in the area, the state of Pennsylvania and globally.
As a way of expressing that bond, Pile has continued to co-sponsor the Ecumenical Worship of Praise, Preaching and Prayer along with the bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown and the bishop of the American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Diocese of the USA. In addition to the sponsors, judicatory leaders representing the United Church of Christ, the Presbyterian Church, the Church of the Brethren, the Mennonites and United Methodists are among those invited to participate. A second service is held west of Blair County in an area that is still part of the synod and the diocese with the services open to all Christians, regardless of faith traditions.
"The two liturgies say to the world that we are not just separate communities. Jesus unites us and we are one in Jesus," Pile said.
Because it was Martin Luther who established the first Protestant church during the Reformation, Pile believes the Lutheran faith serves as a bridge to other Christian traditions. In light of that, he has facilitated an annual meeting for about a dozen judicatory leaders and bishops during the past 15 years. Although the leaders represent different traditions and practices, they realize in their discussions that they deal with the same issues.
"It's kind of refreshing," he said.
On a synod level, Pile oversees the annual assembly where rostered leaders and representatives from the congregations meet at the Blair County Convention Center to learn and make decisions on matters affecting the body.
"Assembly is like a family reunion," Pile said, adding that the church leaders bring with them a spirit of cooperation. "It is not competitive. It is a spirit of community."
It is that spirit that seems to be helping the synod progress during these quickly changing times.
Pile noted that congregations, which could stand on their own 20 years ago, may no longer have the financial means to support a full-time pastor. Instead, they may share a spiritual leader with another congregation.
Another change occurred about five years ago, when the ELCA agreed to allow Lutherans in lifelong monogamous same-gender relationships to serve as rostered leaders. Much study and input went into the national decision at the local levels with Pile involved in discussions with the people of the Allegheny Synod.
Pile, 65, who also served four years of his predecessor's term, is retiring with one year to go on his third six-year term. Since his ordination in 1975 by the Central Pennsylvania Synod, he has served Lutherans for 39 years. He believes it is a good time to leave.
"There is a renewed sense of moving forward as God's people, and a new bishop should lead the church on new initiatives," he said.
As a matter of fact, he will follow the advice he gives retiring pastors and that is to stay away from the churches they served for at least a year to give their successors time to get established. He, in turn, will not be involved in synod life.
Instead, he and his wife, Barbara, who live in Davidsville, will travel and spend time together and with family. The Piles have three children: Nathan, a pastor and director of Camp Sequonota in Jennerstown; Aaron, an attorney in the Allentown area; and Elizabeth, an occupational therapist of Davidsville. The Piles have six grandchildren ranging in age from infancy to 7.
Pile said he has no specific plans, but he enjoys refinishing antique furniture and hopes to restore a Hoosier cabinet he inherited from his grandfather. Although he will leave organizations related to the church, including the board for the Lutheran Seminary at Gettysburg, he will continue serving on the board of Tableland Services Inc., the Somerset County Community Action Agency.
On Sundays, he and Barbara will worship at their home church, St. David Lutheran Church in Davidsville.
A humble man, Pile looks back on his years as bishop and gives the credit for all that has been accomplished to the one he serves.
"God created it. I simply fostered it," he said.