December 2012

New Year’s Resolutions for Church Social Media

13 Resolutions for 2013 

It’s a new year. 2013. No better time to refresh our thinking for Redeemer’s ground-breaking ministry in social media evangelism, otherwise known as 2x2virtualchurch.com.

Redeemer, East Falls, Philadelphia, began its social media ministry in February of 2011, reaching 1,994 people its first year—most of this number during the last two months of the year. We projected that we would reach 12,000 in 2012. We have reached more than 13,000. With steady growth in the last six months, we project that we will reach 20,000 in 2013.

Between 50 and 100 people visit 2×2 each day. 300-600 each week. Redeemer (which the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America no longer recognizes as existing at all) reaches more people than most of its congregations.

Resolutions for Our Social Media Ministry

Here are some things we resolve as we approach a new mission year.

  1. We resolve to honor the Gospel imperatives to reach the world with a message of love.
  2. We resolve to be mindful of the needs of others as we create content for small congregations.
  3. We resolve to respond to every comment posted on our site.
  4. We resolve to think beyond our membership to provide helpful resources for seekers.
  5. We resolve to energize the laity and provide a voice for the lay point of view.
  6. We resolve to strengthen the mission bonds that were planted during the last year in Pakistan, Kenya and Sweden.
  7. We resolve to keep minds open to new mission ideas and opportunities.
  8. We resolve to add video and podcast content to our editorial mix.
  9. We resolve to assist other congregations in entering the rich but unknown territory of social media.
  10. We resolve to not desert East Falls and stand idly as the assets and resources contributed by Redeemer members and friends for mission purposes are seized to pay the operating expenses of a Synod that failed to serve us.
  11. We resolve to explore making 2x2virtualchurch.com a ministry that can support the work of Redeemer, East Falls, should the Lutherans of the Southeastern Pennsylvanian Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America ever stir its collective conscience to revisit its horrific behavior in this neighborhood.
  12. We resolve to help find active ministry solutions for small congregations and put an end to SEPA’s selfish “stand and watch while they fail” policies.
  13. We resolve to be ready for a day of reconciliation with a ministry plan that is ready to resume speed.

Redeemer has never stopped following its mission.

Redeemer is not closed.
We are locked out of God’s House by SEPA Synod.

Illustration 3: SEPA’s Mythical Mutual Discernment

Bishop Claire Burkat justifies her actions in East Falls, citing a process of mutual discernment that she suggests was long and involved, having spanned both her term and that of Bishop Almquist.

We’ve provided two illustrations of how the mutual discernment (1 and 2) process excluded the members of Redeemer.

Here’s a third illustration. In this case Redeemer was not only never consulted, we were totally unaware that another congregation was engaged with the bishop in discussions that affected Redeemer’s future and property.

In 2005, Redeemer was approached to help a neighboring congregation, Epiphany in Upper Roxborough, more than two miles away.

Epiphany had to vacate their building. It had been condemned because of termite damage. They had been sharing space unhappily with a neighboring Episcopal Church. Rev. Timothy Muse, their mission developer pastor, was a member of SEPA Synod Council.

We agreed to work with Epiphany and jointly drafted a covenant that we hoped would lead to the merger of our two congregations within a few years. We were careful to put no timetable on the covenant. We wanted both groups to be confident of any decision to merge and such confidence could not be fostered with mandated deadlines.

The covenant called for Redeemer to share Epiphany’s pastor. Epiphany would provide most of the salary. Redeemer contributed. Epiphany would have free access and use of Redeemer’s property, for which Redeemer would continue to bear the expenses. We would worship separately and consider joint worship on special occasions as a starting point.

This system worked well for 18 months. Our councils met together every other month. Individual councils and leaders occasionally met with Pastor Muse separately to discuss matters that involved only one of the congregations. (The trustees represented this period of time to Synod Assembly as if Redeemer’s council was not meeting and decisions were being made by a few in isolation. Not true. The minutes of meetings were kept by Epiphany’s secretary. They never asked for them.)

Redeemer bided time for the first year as Pastor Muse was admittedly preoccupied with Epiphany’s need to sell their condemned property. We were encouraged when the sale at last was completed with a benefit to Epiphany of about $600,000.

Epiphany expressed an interest in moving the merger ahead a bit more quickly. Redeemer was looking forward to a bit more of Pastor Muse’s attention. The worship committees met jointly during the summer to explore merging worship. We wanted to preserve the traditions of our East African members which we had incorporated into our worship for several years and we wanted consensus on decisions as Epiphany was not only larger in number but they had worked with Pastor Muse for much longer than Redeemer had. They had an advantage in their long-term relationship while we were just getting to know him.

We recognized that Epiphany had been through a lot with the loss of their building. Their lay leadership appeared to be much more dependent on Pastor Muse, while Redeemer who had not had a pastor for years, was used to lay leadership. We discussed this with Pastor Muse. He encouraged us. He said that Redeemer’s strong lay leadership was a gift to the covenant.

Redeemer drafted a proposal which we hoped would jumpstart working together. We presented it as a starting point. We modeled it on the proven success of two other ELCA congregations who had successfully shared a pastor and programming for many years. It called for even sharing of worship leadership, alternating Sundays, with joint planning of special events and one jointly planned service per month. We saw this as a honeymoon period that would help us grow to know and trust one another.

Pastor Muse reviewed our proposal. He mailed it to Epiphany members without our knowledge, although we would not have objected. Epiphany members mistakenly believed that Redeemer had sent it to them as an ultimatum for their acceptance, which was never Redeemer’s intent. There was a meeting to attempt to clear this up. Pastor Muse made it clear at this meeting that Redeemer did not know that he had mailed the proposal to Epiphany’s members.

It became clear at this meeting that Epiphany viewed Redeemer’s East African membership as not part of the merger. Conversation ended when we insisted our East African members were full members of Redeemer and their preferences for worship needed to be part of the discussion.

Pastor Muse suggested we let some time pass before we talk again.

Shortly thereafter Redeemer’s leaders received an email from Pastor Muse that Epiphany had voted to break the covenant and close. He would be gone within ten days (the constitution calls for 30 days notice).

Breaking the covenant was never discussed. We were given no opportunity to continue with Pastor Muse, whom everyone liked.

We learned that Pastor Muse and Epiphany’s president had met privately with Bishop Burkat.

Would it not be reasonable to assume that a bishop would encourage congregations in covenant to talk? Would it not be reasonable for synod, as leaders, to help facilitate such a meeting?

Redeemer was never part of any discussion about breaking the covenant.

Pastor Muse, true to his word, was gone in 10 days. He even left the Synod! Redeemer was abandoned.

Bishop Burkat would not meet with Redeemer until a year later and then only for a few minutes, promising to get back to us in three to five months. Eleven months of silence passed during which Redeemer drafted a mission plan and began to implement it with immediate success. Do the math. That’s nearly two years of non-involvement with Redeemer added to the six years of Bishop Almquist’s second term, during which he intentionally ignored our church. Claiming this is a time of heavy interaction and mutual discernment defies the truth.

What can explain this bizarre history?

SEPA’s recurring deficit budget is surely a consideration. SEPA needed money. It was easier to gain access to the congregation’s money by encouraging closure than to provide the services that would help a congregation grow and thereby foster long-term contributions.

All was going well until that $600,000 windfall from the sale of the property became a temptation.

The first sign of discontent from Epiphany brought encouragement to close — not to keep their ministry promises. And SEPA was to be the immediate beneficiary of $600,000.

Redeemer’s investment in the covenant—nearly two years of work down the drain! Epiphany’s covenant with Redeemer was broken with no consultation with Redeemer. NONE!

Synod, also with no conversation with Redeemer, allowed Epiphany six months to “wind down” their ministry. During these six months, Epiphany used Redeemer’s property as if it were their own — only now they were not contributing to the covenant any longer. Redeemer was left to coexist with Epiphany as non-contributing and somewhat hostile tenants.

Redeemer paid the freight for Bishop Burkat’s policies with Epiphany.

Even so, Redeemer cooperated without complaint.

Since we were not included in any discussions, we do not know exactly what transpired. But we’ve heard a few things since.

We learned during our Ambassador visits, that when Epiphany voted to close, they assumed they could allocate their assets to ministries and charities of their choice — which is Lutheran polity.

One ex-Epiphany member shared with us that Bishop Burkat had informed them after the vote was taken that SEPA would be the beneficiary of all but 5% of Epiphany’s assets. They were told this is an ELCA “rule.”

Synod’s Articles of Incorporation expressly forbid the Synod from conveying ANY congregational property without the consent of the congregation.

SEPA’s definition of “mutual discernment”: comply or good-bye.

When There Is Only One Way

No one comes to the Father except through Jesus Christ.

One way.

The Church tends to take that admonition from the lips of Christ and make that road as narrow as possible.

Jesus said ONE way. Not OUR way. (tweet)

The way Jesus described is not narrow except as we mortals with all our individual and collective baggage make it.

Defining the rules of the spiritual road worked for centuries. It is not working now.

Read Seth Godin’s blog entry this morning. The renowned marketer’s message for the day speaks volumes to the church. Here it is (minus one sentence).

The pitfall of lock in

When you believe your customers have no real choice, either because they’ve signed a long-term contract, or the technology locks them in, or they’re stranded in Fargo with no other options, you’re likely to drift away from delighting them.

When you believe that people are stuck in their seats, it’s not essential, it seems, to keep cajoling them to stay there.

And while you might be correct that this particular customer is locked in, it doesn’t mean she doesn’t have friends, colleagues or a blog.

Word of mouth and recommendations don’t come with a lock-in feature. Generations change, and if you’re here for the long haul, there is no lock in.

Seth’s words complement our posts on replication and mission by the book. The replication process, touted by regional bodies as innovative, is really just a last-ditch effort to recreate ministry models that are failing at a slower rate in other neighborhoods.

Of course, the failure is first assigned to the laity. There is something wrong with them that can’t be fixed.  

Shutting churches down and reopening them in the same form with different people in the pews and pulpit is actually an admission that professional leadership has failed.  “Let’s let the people who have failed to lead for decades take control. They must know what they are doing,” is flawed church-think.

Healing (reconciliation) is too much work.

The Church doesn’t understand how neighborhoods work.

Links to the past don’t disappear because the Church held a service proclaiming their demise.

Go ahead and change the name. You can bet the neighborhood will call it Old Trinity or Old St. John’s for decades.

The Church is creating terrible word-of-mouth ministry — the kind of ministry tactic that spread the Gospel to the farthest reaches of the known world within a century or two back when there was no other way to reach people.

The lasting impression the leaders of the ELCA (its greedy bishops and spineless clergy) create in the neighborhoods where they swoop in, lock doors, confiscate assets and punish their life-long supporters with lawsuits is not a billboard for the road to Christ.

Here’s what the neighborhoods think when they pass the locked doors every day.

The Lutheran Church—ahh, yes. They’re the ones who sue their members and threaten their livelihoods and exclude them from participation with other congregations.

The next thought is not going to be

“Let’s join.”

Listen to Seth. Just because we are locked in—or locked out as has become the new ELCA’s  protocol—doesn’t mean we don’t have friends, colleagues, neighbors and a blog.

The ELCA way makes sense only to clergy who believe in their own isolated power. When you include the people of the church — the ones who put money in the offering plate each week, the ones who sacrificed a productive lot to build a building, the ones who show up every Sunday for decades, teaching and singing and serving — then it is wanton foolishness.

Remember, the WAY that is taught to us within the walls of the church includes standing up for what we believe.

Adult Object Lesson: Christmas 1

Boy Jesus in the TempleDo You Know Where Your Children Are?

1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26   •   Psalm 148   •   Colossians 3:12-17   •   Luke 2:41-52

Today’s object is a GPS tracker.

This is an occasion to talk about trust in God’s plan for us.

Once upon a time, part of growing up was running free in the neighborhood or the nearby countryside. “Be home for dinner” was the only parental warning.

Fewer and fewer modern parents can remember the days when we didn’t know where our children were every minute of the day.

It was a mere ten years ago that cell phones became affordable and pocket-sized. Soon every caring parent was making sure their child had one — emergencies and safety were the parental excuses. But whatever the excuse, the tether between and child and parents is stronger today than ever. It might not be until the child is away in college that he or she finds the will and the power to ignore the phone call from Mom or Dad.

It is hard for today’s parents to imagine losing track of your child for three days or allowing a man of the temple to take charge of the welfare of a son as Hannah did in the Old Testament (especially a man who had as dismal a track record with his own sons as did Eli!).

We’ve lost the sense of trust in our religious bodies, in our communities and even in our children. Sadly the loss of trust has been earned in many cases.

Have we also lost our faith in God to lead and guide us through an untrustworthy world?

Both the Old and New Testament stories for today’s readings demonstrate parental trust. Hannah and Mary relied on God’s intervention in their roles as mothers.

In the early church or medieval era it was not unusual for the first son and daughter in a large family to be relinquished to a monastery or nunnery. We are actually living in the tail end of that custom today.

What does that say to modern parents? How much do we trust our churches? How much do we trust God’s will in our lives?

Both Hannah and Mary were parents before God’s gift and sacrifice of his Son.

We don’t need a cell phone to talk to God. Do we think to use the direct connection allowed us?

Mary and Hannah were left to ponder similar questions.

Lutheran Soup on Christmas Eve

xmas eve copySEPA: Christmas Humbug!

Last night was Christmas Eve and the doors to our church were locked by the Southeastern Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

O Holy Night! Love and Joy Come to You. Let earth receive her King. Noble words were being sung in other SEPA Lutheran sanctuaries.

We gathered around the soup pot as we so often do at Redeemer. (Still)

The ladies of Redeemer once supported our ministry with monthly soup sales. A rich beef vegetable soup was produced in Redeemer’s kitchen which we were renovating so we could cook more soup.

Redeemer lives as long as those soup recipes live. Last night I enjoyed Lutheran soup for 25th Christmas Eve.

On 21 of those Christmas Eves, we also went to church.

God and sinners reconciled.

We’ll gather again this morning for Christmas breakfast. But not in our church.

We’ll be back in church on Christmas Eve when the hymns people sing actually mean something.

Meanwhile, I suggested we change the name of the soup. Lutheran Soup just doesn’t sound good anymore.

photo credit: smithrw1 via photopin cc

Have a blessed Christmas!


Ambassadors Visit Faith, Montgomeryville

Faith Lutheran Church, Montgomeryville

The sun was not cooperating with us and we didn’t bother to get both our Ambassadors in the picture this morning.

Congenial, Upbeat Worship Atmosphere

The Ambassadors were just two in number today with last minute cancellations from some of our usual number. We had decided to stall our visits until after the holidays as it is difficult for us to worship standing next to Lutherans who are suing us not only as a congregation but as individuals. But earlier in the week, the Ambassadors changed their mind and wanted a Sunday visit. This was our 53rd visit to a SEPA congregation.

Our choice to visit Faith Lutheran Church on Cowpath Road in Montgomeryville proved to be a perfect choice for us at this time.

We noticed on their website that the fourth Sunday is designated as “Old Time Gospel” worship. Other weeks of the month include Communion Sunday, a Sunday led by youth and a family Sunday.

We entered the church to find happy people. At least four people greeted us in the narthex and a few more made a point to stop and say hello once we had found seats in the sanctuary.

We don’t know how much “Old Time Gospel” Sunday differs from other weeks, but we noticed a decidedly casual atmosphere that seemed to be accepted by all of the approximately 60 worshipers. We sat in the next to last row. Most of the worshipers in front of us were in our own age group. But behind us was a healthy group of youth and a section of the sanctuary devoted to the trappings of a  praise band—a trap set, an organ and a piano.

The casual atmosphere extended to the community wardrobe. Many of the worshipers were wearing Faith Lutheran sweatshirts or T-shirts with Bible messages on them. This included the pastor, the Rev. Joyce Nelson, who cheerfully led worship wearing a Faith sweatshirt.

Pastor Nelson opened worship by reminding the congregation to enjoy Christmas and Advent music on a different plane, looking beyond the familiar tunes to pay close attention to the words. Very good advice for all Lutherans — clergy and laity alike.

The stained glass windows are a tribute to the faithful, depicting the symbols of many of the early apostles, with bold inclusion of a modern-day memorial for more recent saints from their community.

The sanctuary already appeared to be partially decorated for Christmas, but part of today’s worship included transforming the festive trappings from Advent colors to Christmas colors. At each musical interlude, the youth appeared like elves, and added an additional touch to the sanctuary’s holiday decor. During the first hymn, the wreaths were given bows. Later the Advent banners were taken down and replaced with white Christmas banners. I like the one that depicted a Christmas tree as a cross. Poinsettias were carried in and placed along the communion rail. A display, which I couldn’t see was arranged in front of the altar and at last the blue Advent candles were carried out, replaced with white candles.

Some of the music was “old time” and people seemed to be enjoying the opportunity to clap and feel good. Some of the hymns were more standard and parts of the service were from the new “red” book, not to be confused with the Common Service Book and Hymnal which we still find in some of the churches we visit and which we at Redeemer kept around, mostly to reference the hymns. They used the choral benediction which I hadn’t sung since high school choir but they didn’t use the crescendoing Amens that I recall ended our rendition.

A playing of Jesus Loves Me was a cue for the children to leave, but we saw only one or two children in worship. (We often sang Jesus Loves Me in Swahili in our worship and the Swahili chorus still comes to mind now.)

We wonder if the family attendance is better for some of the other theme weeks and how the themes seem to work overall.

The sermon was a dialog between the pastor and a man depicting the prophet Isaiah. It appeared to be part of an Advent series of conversations with Isaiah.

The music team (they didn’t use the word choir) was very nice with good deep voices opening the anthem and strong women’s voices.

We were given a nice visitor gift on our way out. We weren’t clear whether there was fellowship scheduled after worship or not, so we left to enjoy our own Sunday morning fellowship.

We had an impression that there was some affluence in the congregation as they are promoting a trip to the Holy Land for $3500, but their treasurer’s report indicates that they are very similar to Redeemer, with a smaller endowment, similar mortgage debt and running a $4000 deficit, which will likely disappear with Christmas giving. So they really aren’t much different than Redeemer as far as their financial viability. So many congregations no stronger than Redeemer were asked to decide who should own our property and assets.

We enjoyed our worship, but we always wonder if the good people we meet on our visits know that they are part of ongoing harassment of a church which includes equally good Christians in East Falls.

This will be our fourth Christmas locked out of the Lutheran Church with the permission of the Lutherans of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod.

All the prayers, peace-passing, welcome messages and good wishes ring with a very hollow sound when they are backed up by years of apathy to a horrific situation which they contributed to—perhaps innocently at first—but with general avoidance of the consequences since.

Still, we had a great visit, enjoyed our time with Faith, and wish them well.

Illustration 2: The Folly of Blindly Replicating Mission Strategies

Replication is King

During the six years of Bishop Almquist’s term, during which SEPA was all but absent in its relationship with Redeemer, the Rev. Claire Burkat was making a name for herself as an assistant to the bishop.

She had a success of which she was particularly proud. She worked with a failing church and devised a plan. Synod would close the church with its aging members’ cooperation and reopen it weeks later with a new name.

In 2006 in her early days as bishop, Bishop Burkat came to Redeemer eager to replicate the experience which had been so successful (by her reports) before her election. In truth, it was too soon to tell if the mission strategy was actually successful. There were no statistics to support whether or not it was a good idea.

We have checked the current statistics of this congregation. They are not impressive. Membership seems to be under 50. About half the statistics of Redeemer in 2007.

Nevertheless in 2006, the experiment was touted as a promising innovation. Bishop Burkat was eager to replicate it and add another “success” to her résurmé.

The problem was Redeemer was not at all like the congregation that had agreed to pioneer this technique.

Remember, SEPA had walked away from Redeemer six years before and their memory was that the congregation consisted of a dozen old ladies. Their waiting game strategy should have been ripe for implementation, in Bishop Burkat’s view.

Things had changed at Redeemer. The elderly members who had met with Bishop Almquist had in fact gone to their heavenly reward. But there were now three times as many Redeemer members as when Bishop Almquist had released us from synodical administration—and that would soon double. Our members were mostly young families, most of whom had joined within the last ten years. Many were Tanzanian immigrants, but there were other new ethnic backgrounds new to Redeemer’s membership as well. Bishop Burkat even suggested removing the Tanzanian members to create statistics to justify the strong-arm tactics she planned to implement. Some had been members for a decade, some had been born into our community. This was (and is) insulting to Redeemer’s Tanzanian members as it should be to every Lutheran. As one young Tanzanian member noted at the time: SEPA is big on ministry to the Tanzanians — as long as we stay in Tanzania. (The statistics presented to Synod Assembly by the trustees excluded the Tanzanian members.)

Redeemer’s interest in working with SEPA was to build on its success. SEPA wasn’t listening. They knew best.

Closing Redeemer and reopening it under a new name was the only plan they would consider. Why?Their way gave them control of the congregation’s assets.

Here we go again! Mutual discernment at work!

Bishop Burkat made this proposal. She would close the church down, have a grand closing ceremony, and reopen it a few weeks later. Renaming the church was key to this strategy. There should be no confusion that the old church was dead and gone. The new name had to meet with her approval. Oh, and the current members would not be permitted any leadership roles. From where the new leaders were to suddenly emerge to take control of our ministry was not made clear. Meanwhile, Synod would reign with no one to answer to — hardly the Lutheran way.

Of course, this was offensive to a congregation that had worked hard to recover from the mess created by Bishop Almquist — and was succeeding.

The first proposal was the church should close for two weeks. That became six months by the time they saw us in court.

Well, in 2009, Bishop Burkat finally got her way and has control of Redeemer’s property. It has been locked to Redeemer and the community for three and a half years.

Redeemer remains active through 2×2 Foundation, waiting for the day that the Lutherans of SEPA recognize that maybe, just maybe, they were part of a big mistake.

The strategy of replicating one success in a different neighborhood has been disastrous for both East Falls and SEPA. Redeemer bears the popular blame, but SEPA with its selfish policies is responsible. Bishop Burkat defends her actions, citing the process of mutual discernment.

Once again, the definition of mutual discernment is “comply or goodbye.

How Self-interest Stands in the Way of Mission Innovation

2×2’s previous post addressed how the interests of a regional body can hinder mission. Here’s an historical example.

The Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod (SEPA) of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and its relationship with Redeemer, East Falls, provides many interesting illustrations of how the structure of the ELCA, intended for good, actually impedes creative ministry.

Its attempt to structure itself interdependently quickly becomes crippled by the reality that the regional body is dependent on congregations funding its budget, heavy with salary obligations and an expensive, outdated infrastructure. Meanwhile, congregations must meet their own budgets and support the regional and national bodies.

Years of hard work and “mutual discernment”

Bishop Burkat talks of years of working with our congregation under her leadership and that of her predecessor. She calls the process “mutual discernment.”

Sounds good. Only it didn’t happen quite that way.

  1. There were more years of neglect than of working together.
  2. There were so many hidden agendas that mutual discernment was impossible.
  3. Attempts to ignore the wishes of the congregation were routine.

With interdependence comes the jockeying of self-interest. Congregations may be unaware that the synod has self-interests. They may assume that the synod has their interests at heart.

Meanwhile, the regional body expects the unquestioning deference of congregations.

Mutual Discernment at Work

Redeemer was always a small but self-sufficient congregation. SEPA did not support Redeemer financially as many people have been led to believe. It was the other way around.

When the ELCA was created in the late 1980s, Redeemer had a part-time pastor who also worked in the Synod offices. Redeemer was seen as not likely to ever support a full-time ministry. Any part-time pastor filled the bill in their eyes—a pulse was the primary qualification. They were marking time.

Then Redeemer received a $300,000 endowment. Suddenly, there was an interest in Redeemer. Pastor Wm deHeyman left the synod offices to work more fully with Redeemer. He served Redeemer 11 years. (Synod represents that Redeemer had just short-term pastors. Not true. His predecessor served 7 years.)

Wm deHeyman retired in 1996. His last years were difficult and factions had formed with some rallying around the pastor.

Redeemer looked forward to a new start.

Bishop Roy Almquist proposed that the congregation call one of his staff members, Rev. Robert Matthias, for an 18-month term call as an interim pastor.

Redeemer cooperated whole-heartedly.

This was a tumultuous time at Redeemer for other reasons. There was a series of personal tragedies that impacted congregational life. A tragic death of one family’s child. Another family was wracked with grief when its youngest child was paralyzed in an accidental shooting. A third child and family faced serious issues. The families of four council members were in crisis. During this time, a newer member volunteered to help with the financial books as the treasurer was one of the affected parents. It was soon discovered that the volunteer was embezzling money. The crime was noticed and rectified quickly—within months—but it added to the congregation’s sadness. This incident is sometimes used today to justify SEPA’s interest in Redeemer, but at the time they took no action that indicated they had concern that Redeemer could not rectify this on its own.

What was SEPA’s response in the face of unusual tragic circumstances in a small congregation?

They walked away and left the congregation with no pastor for nearly a year.

Three months into the 18-month term call agreement, Bishop Almquist returned to Redeemer and asked to break the call contract. He had an assignment for Pastor Matthias in Bucks County.

Redeemer cooperated even though it meant its investment in Pastor Matthias was wasted. Naturally, the congregation was hurt. Why was Bucks County more important than the promise SEPA had made with Redeemer?

During this year, Assistant to the Bishop Sue Ericsson was meeting with the council unbeknownst to the congregation. She encouraged the council (half of whom were in personal crisis) to convince the congregation to close. A plan was drafted. If the congregation did not go along, the congregation council would submit resignations providing grounds for SEPA to take over. Mutual discernment was being dictated behind the scenes.

The congregation’s annual meeting, usually held in February, was announced for January.

Three guests were introduced, Pastor Matthias, Gordon Simmons and Rodney Kopp.

Some reports were made. At the point when the budget should have been presented, the congregation council submitted the resolution to close (drafted by synod). This had not been discussed in the congregation who thought they were holding a routine annual meeting. They voted to table the resolution for further study—a reasonable response. A congregation should study an important issue before voting!

On cue, council members placed letters of resignation (drafted by synod) on  the table. They were swooped up by Pastor Matthias who announced the meeting was over and the congregation was under synodical administration. While Pastors Simmons and Kopp spoke to angry congregation members who were feeling ambushed (Pastor Kopp used the term “blind-sided”), Pastor Matthias left with the letters of resignation and the church books.

Pastor Mathias was known at the local bank. He and a former Redeemer treasurer visited the bank the next day and conveyed $90,000 to SEPA. SEPA asked our tenants to send payments to them. Mutual discernment included trickery.

But paying the bills was the extent of synodical administration. Redeemer kept its offerings and there was significant money in savings available to the congregation. Activities at the church continued to be run by the congregation.

The congregation felt betrayed by their council and SEPA. The members who resigned ended up leaving, some after long years at Redeemer. SEPA had used them at a time when they were vulnerable.

SEPA refused to share the letters of resignation. We learned three council members had not resigned. Two pastors helped the congregation appoint members to fill vacant seats as is allowed in the constitution. Redeemer’s council continued to meet and run the daily affairs of the church and plan its own worship and mission which included an ambitious summer program, totally lay led.

Redeemer protested the synodical administration for a year.

Several supply pastors led worship, including Rev. Harvey Davis. Our first Tanzanian members joined during this time. Bishop Almquist at last released the synodical administration. But he did not return the money for an additional year. At last, SEPA returned about $82,000, keeping some to cover their legal expenses. The fact that they were able to pay the congregation’s bills without depleting the $90,000 in two years, proves that the congregation was financially viable.

When the synodical administration was lifted, Bishop Almquist asked the congregation to call Rev. Jesse Brown. He was the only candidate presented. Bishop Almquist suggested a one-year term call.

Redeemer cooperated.

Things were fine with Pastor Brown, but at the end of the year he announced that he wanted to cut his hours to just ten per week, the minimum needed for him to retain his ordination credentials.

Redeemer did not wish to regularize a call with a pastor who wanted to provide minimal service. Redeemer agreed to extend the term call, but Bishop Almquist insisted it be regularized—or there would be no pastor for a very long time. Mutual discernment included threats.

Why was this a deal-breaker?

What’s the difference between a term call and a regularized call? 

A regularized call can be ended by the pastor at any time with 30 days notice, but if the congregation wants to make a change, they must muster a two-thirds vote against a pastor. This can be very divisive, especially when a pastor is liked—as was Pastor Brown. Redeemer’s concern was his minimal level of commitment and what that meant to Redeemer’s ability to grow in mission. For Redeemer’s lay leaders, it was not enough that a pastor was “liked.” The congregation had to make progress. Redeemer’s leaders were looking wisely into their future. A regularized call would become problematic if Pastor Brown’s outside interests minimized the effect of his ten hours per week. Locking into a regularized call under these circumstances was not in the interest of the congregation, no matter how much the pastor was liked by individual members. In fact, it was likely to be a greater issue if the pastor was liked. The congregation’s leaders would be frustrated with lack of mission progress, while the more minimally committed members of the voting congregation were content. Redeemer was being forced to make a foolish decision that was predicated on the synod’s dismal vision for the congregation, which happened to have a healthy endowment, while they were operating with a deficit.

The congregation council rejected the synod’s proposal. Bishop Almquist asked for a second vote overseen by a staff person. That vote failed, too. Bishop Almquist deemed that the congregation should vote on the call — never explaining the wisdom of asking the congregation to vote for something the church council was against. That vote failed too.

If the vote hadn’t failed, it would have strained relationships between the council and the congregation. This was pointed out to Bishop Almquist, but he insisted on taking the issue to the congregation anyway. He was interested only in getting the vote that served his purpose—finding a call for Jesse Brown.

Bishop Almquist kept his promise. Synod ignored Redeemer for Bishop Almquist’s entire second term.

The congregation worked with Pastor Harvey Davis for three years until the pastor needed to retire. He was influential in attracting several young couples with diverse ethnic backgrounds and our Tanzanian membership continued to grow. Redeemer was becoming multicultural and was making significant innovations successfully. The ministry showed promise despite synodical neglect.

Let’s look a the motivations behind this history that is so often referenced as reason for Bishop Burkat’s actions a decade later.

Why was it important to SEPA that Redeemer’s call be regularized? Term calls are a constitutional option.

The synod’s interest in a regularized call solved some of its problems.

  1. Pastor Brown could retain his status as an ordained pastor while he ran for public office and operated his own business on the side.
  2. His minimal service would solve SEPA’s problem of staffing Redeemer.

Redeemer’s mission and interests were not really considered.

SEPA’s view of Redeemer was that its elderly population would die within 10 years. Minimal ministry would speed the process along. This thinking takes on signficant importance when the targeted congregation has assets and the regional body is operating with deficits. The regularized call gave SEPA more control over Redeemer and the fate it was tacitly seeking. 

Declaring synodical administration gave them access to congregational assets.

After SEPA returned Redeemer’s assets, Bishop Almquist issued an appeal letter to all congregations for almost exactly the amount of money returned to Redeemer.

Redeemer had supplied SEPA with an interest-free loan.

Synodical administration had been used as a tool to benefit SEPA. Mission in East Falls was never the objective. 

Lasting damage was done to Redeemer. Gossip created an unjustified cloud that hangs over East Falls to this day.

At all times in this conflict, Redeemer cooperated when it was reasonable to do so. It showed initiative, flexibility, and a willingness to accept change — all the things regional bodies look for when striving for transformation. But the congregation knew that Bishop Almquist’s insistence on a regularized call was not in the congregation’s interest.

Redeemer was consistently making choices that pointed them toward new and innovative ministry. SEPA was prescribing solutions that would benefit SEPA.

And that is still the case today.

Definition of Mutual Discernment: Comply or Goodbye

Mission by the Book: A Sure and Steady Path to the Past

Following the Mission Manual 

There are such things, you know. Mission Manuals. They tell us exactly how to start a church or revive a faltering ministry.

Frequently, mission is all about replication. We try to do the same thing that worked so well, perhaps just a few years ago, but in a different place.

We follow flagship ministries that succeed because of unique vision and herculean passion and try to pull off the same success with no unique vision and the part-time commitment of clergy.

At times we go so far as to attempt to import people into neighborhoods. That early “manufactured” success can be measured. It might attract the regional body’s interest and their investment (coin, time, or talent). Perhaps the statistics will attract some unsuspecting part-time pastor!

Why do we try to replicate—and call it innovation?

  • There is comfort in routine.
  • We know how to measure routines.
  • We know what to measure in our routines.
  • We already have the training to do things the old way and the training to do things in new ways might not exist.
  • Who doesn’t like a roadmap?

Neighborhoods are not the same. In decades past, there may have been more similarity and more stability within a geographic era. Church mission concepts are geared to such commonalities.

But neighborhoods vary greatly these days. Change used to be generational. Now it can be expected, especially in urban neighborhoods, within five years.

Look at Philadelphia. There are whole neighborhoods where virtually everyone is in their mid-twenties to mid-thirties with just a few toddlers in tow (Fairmount). There are ethnic neighborhoods that are shifting ethnicity (South Philadelphia, once heavily Italian, is now the home of Southeast Asian immigrants). There are collegiate neighborhoods (West Philadelphia). There are neighborhoods that are very mixed racially, economically, and socially (East Falls).

No amount of forcing will make neighborhoods stay the same. Congregations must learn this. So must professional leaders. We must also learn that a successful replication may have a life of only five years — if ongoing changes are not recognized as part of the mission model.

The act of replicating means that a great deal of energy and resources are devoted to recreating the same model. By the time all of the pieces are in place and showing the first signs of stability (if not progress) there are few resources or energy for initiative. Congregations may be locked into the leadership that brought them thus far but will not be able to take them into the Promised Land.

So how can the church foster innovation when so much thinking and resources are designed to protect the status quo or the initial investment?

If we want innovative ministries. we must stop measuring old statistics. New ministries can’t live up to them. But they CAN forge new ground and show impressive advances.

The day will come when you can apply the old measuring tools. But, if you wait for the old measurements to be in place before you innovate, nothing new will happen.

We can illustrate many of these points by looking at the recent history (15 years and counting) of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod (SEPA) of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)’s attempts to do ministry with the people of East Falls. We’ll publish these separately. They are worth looking at if not for Redeemer’s sake (which would be welcome) but to learn what doesn’t work in the single-minded quest for transformation. There are many lessons to be learned from this one, largely misunderstood, ministry.