September 2012

A Letter to SEPA Lutherans

 ELCA please feel free to read, as well.

Dear fellow Lutherans,

By now you should be aware of the horrific conflict being waged in your name by the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America against the Lutherans of East Falls.

For four years, it has been the forbidden topic — ignored and danced around—everyone making nice like nothing terrible is happening.

Litigation as a ministry tool creates this climate. It’s a bullying technique and it works!

For us in East Falls, it has been a daily part of our lives for half a decade. Clergy skedaddled early on, leaving lay people to take the heat. SEPA wanted our property to meet their budget. The 2009 Synod Assembly approved taking our property at the same time they approved a $275,000 deficit budget. And yet SEPA denies that closing churches is a plan. There is ample evidence that it has been part of a plan for some time. Money from closed churches was laundered through its Mission Fund — there supposedly for mission purposes but regularly filling the six-figure operating deficit.

Voting on a congregation’s property by Synod Assembly is forbidden by SEPA’s Articles of Incorporation. The consequences of this ill-advised and improper vote is devastating to both SEPA and Redeemer. But let’s not talk about it!

Why is it OK with SEPA Lutherans to treat fellow Christians so heartlessly?

The only way to justify this is to demonize Redeemer members. Bishop Burkat as much as said so in a letter to pastors back in February. It’s heartbreaking, she wrote, but they didn’t do as they were told.

We deserve this?!

The Lutheran Church, born of dissent, historically allows for stands based on conscience. Redeemer challenged the decisions regarding our ministry on constitutional grounds and conscience. We were sued as a congregation and some of us as individuals before the constitutional provisions for dissent could be exercised. The process was manipulated and SEPA Lutherans followed like sheep. Leadership in Chicago turned blind eyes, siding with hierarchy with no regard for the laity.

SEPA used its position and power to create an unfair process that they hope can be replicated. They sent SEPA legal counsel, John Gordon, to Chicago to teach their process to all Synod Counsels. If this process is right and part of Lutheran polity, why must it be taught as something new and innovative?

SEPA is so focused on power and attaining our property that in 2009 they ignored all other issues we brought to Synod Assembly’s attention. They used this improper vote on one of many issues to justify every action before and since—voted on or not.

The behavior of SEPA synod is wrong. Going after a member congregation to the point of attacking individual lay members and threatening their homes and livelihoods is wrong. ELEVEN Redeemer members face the loss of our homes while SEPA maintains an empty property which could be generating income to pay the congregation’s debt (as the congregation had planned). By the way, eleven is just two shy of Redeemer’s total membership, according to SEPA. The ruin of every Redeemer member is OK with SEPA—as long as their assumed power is recognized. SEPA trustees reported our membership as 13 when their own records listed 26. But Redeemer had grown significantly since the figure 26 had been reported. SEPA has recognized this in court, holding the congregation to a quorum for a membership of more than 70.

There is a powerful disconnect between what SEPA Lutherans preach and what they practice.

SEPA’s actions are wrong

  • theologically
  • scripturally
  • ethically
  • constitutionally
  • and two appeal judges wrote a dissenting opinion that suggests they are also wrong legally.

One judge pointed out to Synod Counsel that this was not a “slam dunk” for them. There was room for honest disagreement.

The answer is so simple that a third grader could advise us where concepts fail the learned theologians. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

SEPA Lutherans talk about doing the right thing but are powerless to check their own leaders.

This conflict is unnecessary. Peaceful remedies are available. SEPA leadership has no interest in peace or reconciliation. They want to win—win at any cost. Pride, power and greed have fueled the conflict. Apathy and fear keep the engine purring.

Redeemer has maintained its ministry as best it can for the last four years. We’ve done well, following the mission plan presented to SEPA trustees in 2007 with adaptations for the hostile circumstances. There were never constitutional grounds for SEPA’s actions against Redeemer.

SEPA wanted our property to pay their bills. That end is the only justification of their means.

We believe from our many visits that SEPA Lutherans know better, but they are too insecure to question the leaders they elect as servants.

Our faith is meant to empower us all to look beyond our own interests. Christian leaders are expected to embrace servanthood. Christian followers are not expected to be passive.

Not in SEPA.


Are there any blessed peacemakers in SEPA Synod? Does anyone have a vision for ending this?

Ambassadors Join Team Jude in Charity Walk

The Ambassadors split up today. A couple of us joined the Charity Walk to benefit Children’s Hospital. They’ve been good to one of our legacy families facing serious health challenges, so we rallied to support Jude.


Seven Baptized in Pakistan

Our Friend in Ministry, New Life Fellowship with Pastor Sarwar, baptized seven recently. See their 2×2 page.

The Theology of Winning

Downgrading Your Ministry

Downgrading in ministry seems like an odd concept. Ministry is all about gearing up. Yet the economy of the church is forcing the downgrading of ministry which leads to conflict if church members are expected to care — and we do!

The first move in downgrading is to move to part-time leadership. This is so effective in killing Christian community that congregations rarely return to full-time ministry.

Part-time leaders are forced to prioritize ministry. They are paid for doing only so much. The priorities are usually taking care of the existing parishioners. They even call themselves caretaker ministers.

Downgrading is the function of management. Management wants numbers to work in its favor.

Evangelism, on the other hand, is activated by passion. Right brain/Left brain.

Managerial thinking snuffs the fire of the Spirit. New ideas are NEVER part of a budget.

Managers in the church run the strong risk that their pursuit of viable numbers will hurt the people who support the numbers. Downgrading ministries does just that. Soon subsistence ministry is expected. If it is done well, it is rewarded. The Church is populated with thousands of congregations that are just getting by.

Church is different from any other human endeavor. Passion makes it different.

Closing a church is not like closing a business. If the corner hot dog stand closes, we buy hot dogs somewhere else, make our own, or start eating pizza. Passion and faith are more difficult to replace.

In matters of faith, we want to live by different standards. Our Scriptures and constitutions are written to nurture evangelical passion.

Today’s church managers operate under legalities. Synods have legal counsel on retainer. In our synod, the legal counsel is usually seated at the right hand of the bishop in meetings. This is intimidating to congregations — and it is meant to be!

The role of legal counsel is to ensure winning. Here’s the problem in the Church. Legal counsel hired by the regional bodies or the national church are often used in conflict with congregations. They are paid with the offerings of the congregations. Congregations in conflict with a regional body must not only pay their own legal counsel they have also contributed to the payment of legal counsel of the regional body. (This is why an early step in church conflict is for the regional body to “terminate” their opponents, so the congregations do not have the rights afforded to them as church members.)

This has proven to be a prescription for a mess.

Taking conflict to the courts may seem like a good idea, but as the Bible predicts, it replaces the values of our faith (reconciliation, peace, forgiveness and love) with the values of society (win at any cost). Better to be defrauded, the Bible wisely says.

The theology of winning doesn’t really exist, but we practice it all the same.

The Hidden Agenda of Church Transformation

You must change so we can stay the same.

Interesting Video on the Future of Church

A missionary team from Sweden shared this link with us. We think it’s worthy of discussion in every congregation. Enjoy!

Change in the Church Can Be Difficult for EVERYONE

Take the Regional Assembly of many denominations. We’ll call it Synod Assembly, since that’s what we know best.

Synod Assemblies are constitutionally mandated gatherings — the business meeting of the Church. They have two major functions—to elect regional leadership and approve the regional budget.  

It’s almost October. Seven or eight months from the next rash of Synod Assemblies in the ELCA— plenty of time to plan for the hundreds of delegates who will gather in one place to discuss the ministry of the Church.

Attending the Assembly are Synod staff, every rostered leader and 2-5 lay delegates from each of about 150 congregations. They will spend the bulk of two days, mostly listening to reports. Not much more happens for all the expense. Spectacular worship experiences will start and end the gatherings. Pump people up; leave them feeling good.

Many delegates will leave long before the end of the Assembly. All will return to their congregations and report the most inspiring moments. We are supposed to feel as though we were represented and part of the process.

Truth be told, we are being shut out.

The agenda of most Synod Assemblies is controlled by the current leadership who are elected to serve but who have self-interest. The flow of information is top down even though the purpose of the Assembly is to generate bottom up involvement.

Why is this?

Function of the Synod Assembly follows form.

The form was created before the information age. It was once unwieldy to poll members of 150 congregations scattered over 100 or more square miles. Communication with every member was costly and awkward. No more. But we are stuck with the form of the past until there is a vision that this isn’t the way it has to be.

Here is what has happened in church governance in the last two decades of decline (the entire life of the ELCA).

  • As church attendance declined, so did the pool of knowledgeable, seasoned delegates.
  • Replacing older members, who spent much of their lives in church and Sunday School, are people who have little experience — as enthusiastic as they might be. Event planners plan around the sensibilities of the inexperienced, steering away from hard discussions on serious questions and filling the time with frills to engage the newly initiated.
  • The typical Synod Assembly includes one-third clergy, who have considerable self-interest, and two-thirds laity with a broad range of life experience but a diminishing knowledge of church business.
  • The delegates are most likely people close to the pastor. When unsure of decisions, to whom will they turn for advice? People with self-interest. (The ELCA has even imposed a level of control over who the delegates can be, requiring that they meet gender requirements and giving additional votes to minorities and youth.)
  • The Synod Assembly becomes a forum ruled by self-interest — the opposite of its purpose.

Function has followed form.

A large percentage of delegates haven’t a clue of the ramifications of the issues presented to them. They know little or nothing about the names presented on ballots. Face it, some lay delegates come because they are the only people in the congregation willing to take Friday off and donate a Saturday. Some are enthusiastic newbies being groomed for church involvement, but not knowledgeable about church history, protocol, or issues. The Church encourages this (and it’s not all bad), but the fact is many votes are taken by people who don’t know what they are doing.

Function has followed the form. Good news! The form can change. Here’s how!

  • The process can be opened up to include ALL the people of the church. Events can be planned to take advantage of the at home audience. (SEPA’s Assembly is already streamed live. Great move. But this year you needed a password to watch. Control!)
  • Make key presentations available a month before the Assembly. Post them online so congregations can watch and discuss issues. Delegates could attend the Assembly knowing what the people of their congregation think — which is how it is supposed to be. Air the same presentation at the Assembly and give the presenters an opportunity to field questions from people who have actually had time to study their message.
  • Make schedules of presentations available so people can watch at home.
  • Allow for feedback from the people. Use Twitter and Facebook. Nurture involvement and purpose.

Synods are great at demanding change at the congregational level. Can they change?

Adult Object Lesson: Mark 9:38-50

The lesson today is about creating boundaries.

Today’s object is a goldfish in a bowl.

In Mark 9:38-50, the disciples are upset with some copycat miracle workers who are exorcising demons in Jesus’ name. The disciples bring the matter to Jesus’ attention. Someone is stepping on your (they probably meant “our”) territory.

Hey! They had tried to stop them. But the scoundrels just weren’t listening! Surely, Jesus would put the demon chasers in their place.

The disciples wanted Jesus to draw a line — decide who were the true followers of Christ. Keep the kingdom tidy.

But Jesus dismisses the disciples’ concerns. He focuses on them.

He encourages the disciples to loosen up. These new miracle workers aren’t going to diminish His abilities. Why bother drawing lines between people who are working for the same cause?

Here’s a little known fact about goldfish. They were naturally plain old, grey carp.

Japanese and Chinese hobbyists carefully bred their pets to bring out the bright colors.

Today, goldfish are known for their splendor.

And where did it get them? Today most of the beautiful goldfish, chosen for their color and carefully bred to ensure colorful offspring, are kept in a bowl. The chosen fish are destined to live their lives separated from other fish and the world. They will swim all day, every day, in circles peering through their concave barriers at the world they were part of back when they were grey. Their beauty has indeed set them apart — to what end?

Talk with your congregation about the walls they might be putting up between themselves and the rest of God’s glorious creation. Why do the barriers seem like a good idea? When the harshest barriers are at last broken, what result was feared? What result actually came about?

  • The walls between faiths.
  • The walls between denominations.
  • The walls between genders and races.
  • The walls between educated workers and manual labor.
  • The walls between old and young.
  • The walls of culture and language.

Think about the disciples. Did their special status as chosen children of God divide them from the world or prepare them to join the world?

What about us? What walls do we put up? What purpose do we think they serve? What unintentional purposes result?

photo credit: Bob.Fornal via photopin cc

Are We Ashamed of Our Faith?

Today’s Alban Institute forum is back to the same old, never-changing challenge for churches — facing change.

Today’s writer points to “shame” as an element that keeps congregants from being effective evangelists. We greet newcomers with suspicion. That’s no way to build a church!

The writer cites the many scandals the church has faced in recent years and out-dated worship practices as causes, but she correctly suggests that there is more to it than that.

The post drew a number of responses. One writer asked the question 2×2 has addressed a number of times. Do the clergy and hierarchy take any responsibility for the decline in today’s Church?

The answer we see to this question is NO. The problem, as defined by most clergy, is stick-in-the-mud lay people, who attend church for selfish reasons and just don’t do the things needed to guarantee the prosperity of the congregation, clergy and hierarchy. (No one is ever very clear about what those things might be. It usually means “they aren’t taking orders.”)

That’s a pretty big bill for anyone to pay. As numbers decline, the per capita obligations grow and grow. Clergy and hierarchies still have salary demands and budgets to meet and they don’t care if the salary is paid by 40 people or 400 people or if churches must close to meet their deficits. It’s hard to attract new worshipers when an honest assessment of their potential membership involves meeting budgets over which they will have little control—and the reality that in the end, all their work may be for naught if the regional body decides they need your property more than you do.

Another commenter pointed to another reality. Critics of church-goers often have little knowledge of church traditions. Their visits are as those of aliens. The value of singing old hymns and adjusting to church language clashes with modern sensibilities, where things have to be new and stretch our experiences.

Sometimes the lack of familiarity of a younger generation becoming involved in church is comical. A college-trained musician, who took a job as church organist, once commented that in every hymnal he encountered the phrase “As pants the hart for cooling streams” the word “heart” was spelled wrong.

At other times, the attempt to meet new church-goers where they are leads to wrong teaching. A new translation of the Bible replaces the word Hosanna with Hooray. Church-goers know that Hosanna is a prayer.

The lack of young people in church is only going to widen this cultural gap. If they are ever to become involved in church, they will have to learn the ABCs of their faith.

Shame is going to get us nowhere. Wise church leaders will work at building the self-confidence of members so they can welcome visitors with true hospitality. Knowledge of faith builds self-confidence. We have to know what we believe!

That’s a challenge for every church and worrying about change isn’t going to address it!

Devotions for this week have been added to the Daily Devotion Page

Daily Devotion Page