SEPA Synod Assembly Gears Up for Annual Meeting

shutterstock_174573782Time for a Troubled Synod
to Make Hard Decisions

Will They?

It’s almost time for the 2015 Annual Assembly of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. They’ll meet May 8 and 9 at the outskirts of the synod territory in convenient Franconia. You know where that is, don’t you?


We’ve been excluded from the SEPA’s Annual Assembly by decree since 2007. That’s not supposed to be possible, but who can stop it? Not Synod Assembly!


We still care!


ELCA Synods meet annually for business. Truth be told, not much business is done. The limited amount of time will be spent

  • listening to reports
  • engaging in impressive worship
  • chatting with colleagues
  • rubber stamping a few pre-packaged resolutions
  • showboating, to distract attention from the dire state of SEPA and many of its congregations


SEPA Synod AssemblyDebate will be limited. Those raising questions will get a minute or two at a microphone.


In better times, Synod Assemblies were working meetings. There were actually ways to raise issues and be heard. Today, with ministry failing and SEPA scrounging for money, the Assembly will divert attention from serious problems with featured feel-good moments. Grand organ music will fill voids. A guest speaker will be brought in to inspire.


There will be lots of talk about mission. Talk.


SEPA—The Synod that sues its members

SEPA is in survival mode. Congregations need their dwindling offerings. They don’t have money to send to distant and ineffective hierarchy. Will SEPA consider serious down-sizing as their congregations have? Or will they seek other sources of revenue?


Today, SEPA Synod devotes a lot of resources to the Real Estate business.

Disposing of valuable congregational property keeps the office running and salaries paid. SEPA operated with significant deficit budgets for years, making up as much as 10% of their expenses by selling properties of member churches. In a move toward transparency, they now operate with a balanced budget and report “budget shortfalls.”


Way back in 2005, our pastor who was serving on Synod Council, told us about SEPA’s Church Closure Team. Church Closure Team? Aren’t they there to support their congregations.


We would soon encounter this team as have other congregations. It consists at least of a lawyer, a former SEPA treasurer, and an archivist. Others are enlisted to do the upfront dirty work. Scouting.


SEPA relies a great deal on its relationship with this team. There is a problem here. Bishops are supposed to lead with love and respect, nurturing congregations. Lawyers look at the world in a far more black and white way. We heard synod’s lawyer refer to the Synod as the good guys. Guess who were the bad guys! Lawyers don’t care about nurturing and mission. They are not working for the congregations (even though congregations employ them). They are working for the Synod. Congregations are the enemy.


Can bishops lead effectively with a lawyer seated on their right side?


This same cast of characters, The Church Closure Team, goes about assessing congregations not for mission but for the prospect of closure. This should be repugnant to the rank and file of SEPA, but they are slow to connect the dots about what this means to the overall health of their organization—and to their own future. Judging from the criteria we’ve seen used, as many as a third of the congregations voting at Synod Assembly may be the next targets—any congregation that cannot afford $80,000 a year for a full-time pastor.


This creates another problem. How do congregations influence Synod Assembly to forsake this management strategy if it brings attention to them, making them the next target of the Church Closure Team.


Congregations are targeted.  SEPA officials will object. “There is no list.” But there is.


SEPA Attorney John Gordon said so in court with our congregation. “Redeemer is the first of six.”


Are you on the list?


Don’t expect the list to be published. Look for the signs. Here’s how they work.

The ideal prospect is a small, debt-free church in a neighborhood where land values are high. Endowments are nice, too!


  • A synod representative will appear unannounced at worship. He or she will spend little time talking to anyone. They may or may not introduce themselves. If they do, they will say they are making routine visits. It’s just something they do.
  • They will report what they see. In many churches that will be fewer than 30 in worship. They will not be looking for strengths. They are looking for weakness—any excuse to interfere for their own enrichment.
  • Relax if you have an old graveyard. No one wants a property with an old graveyard.


OK. The ground work is laid.


Now for the strategy. How to get congregations to abandon mission, faith, and love for their community and convince them to hand over their property and bank accounts?


We write from experience. SEPA Synod delegates may think Redeemer was an isolated attack. SEPA is in court today even as I write—suing lay people.


SEPA delegates should address their leaders’ behavior.


SEPA Synod’s attorney once flew to Chicago to share his strategy for church closure with all ELCA lawyers. Save the air fare. Here it is for free!


11 Tactics for Having Your Way
with Church Transformation

Pretend to help

Offer the church “mission status.” Sounds good. The overworked church council sighs with relief. Finally, someone in the synod office cares.

Watch out! They are betting that you do not know that churches accepting Mission Status forfeit property rights. Accept Mission Status for one day and your property will be claimed by Synod a hundred years from now if you decide to close. With Mission Status they are likely to send in a pastor that will answer to them, not your council. Their appointed leader might do an evaluation that (no surprise) indicates investment in your congregation is not good use of their resources after all.


Offer Synodical Administration

The original constitution allows for congregations to ask for administrative help. It is supposed to be a temporary option to assist congregations experiencing difficulty. It must be approved by the congregation. The constitution does not detail how you get out of it!


Ignore Congregational Leaders

Do not return phone calls. Ignore letters. Make public claims that the congregation is not cooperating.


Remove the pastor

Your pastor will suddenly disappear. He or she may get a plum assignment a good distance away. They may flee the synod entirely. We’ve seen both happen. This hurts morale, wears members down, and makes everyone feel vulnerable. There is more work for the laity, who are probably already doing most of the work.


Bypass Congregational Leaders

A favorite tactic. Both Bishop Almquist and Bishop Burkat employed this tactic at Redeemer. If the Congregational Council objects to what Synod wants, demand a congregational vote. They’ll  make it sound democratic.

Democracies do not put every issue to popular vote. They rely on selected people to take special interest in issues and act for the whole—like Synod Assembly! In most congregations there are a healthy number of people with equal vote but who are less involved, want to avoid unpleasantness, and can be more easily swayed.

This bullying tactic makes it very difficult for local leaders. That’s the idea!


Impose Involuntary Synodical Administration

Pastors, who know something about church procedure, are now out of the way. Congregational leaders, already bypassed, are now replaced by synod-appointed trustees, pledged to serve the interests of the synod—not the congregation. Those words have actually been added to the constitution even though they violate the founding charters. Involuntary Synodical Administration is a thief’s workaround! The word Involuntary is not in the constitution. All such actions are supposed to be with the consent of the congregation.

There are certain criteria that must be met to employ this strategy. There is no reliable way to assess or verify. Our congregation experienced this tactic twice. We had grown six-fold between the first instance and the second. It didn’t matter. It was deemed that we were scattered and diminished when almost all our 82 members lived within four miles—most within two. Ask the bishop how far she lives from her congregation.


Declare the church closed.

Synod is now in charge. They will lose no time declaring your congregation closed. The congregation wasn’t voting the way they wanted, so they took the vote out of their hands. This is constitutionally murky, but no one outside the targeted congregation will question it. The courts don’t want to be bothered. Members are now denied voice, vote and access to the church lawyers their offerings paid for. All fellowship with other congregations is denied. Lutheran shunning.


Change the locks

Shut out the legal owners of the property. Be as sneaky as possible, then act outraged when members seek legal help. Get the deed transferred to the Synod before the congregation can organize to stop you. This isn’t as easy as it sounds!


Sue the congregation

Pastors are out of the way. Sue the lay people. Shooting fish in a barrel. Name those with the most congregational influence personally. This scare tactic, actually escalates conflict. Dialog is shut down. The lay people are forced to defend themselves.


Rely on Separation of Church and State

Cry First Amendment! There may have been no doctrinal or discipline issues, but it will help in court if the synod makes lay people appear to be “bad guys.” Quick, create some issues. Personal attacks are fine. Filing criminal charges is not going too far. Anything to win! Synod is exempt from the law. Lay people aren’t.


Allow the constitutional appeal process

Up until now, the synod has probably been stonewalling lay leaders’ attempts to work within the rules. But they don’t want to appear in court without having followed their constitution. Only now, when the prejudice, defamatory rhetoric and self-interests have peaked, permit the congregation to approach the Synod Assembly. Make the congregation appeal to the body that is suing them. Make sure things go Synod’s way. Change the question at the last minute if you have to. Substitute an unrelated issue. In the hyped-up atmosphere of a SEPA Synod Assembly, no one will notice.


Some variation of this is in the experience of most of the churches who have encountered the imposed closure process and land/asset grab. Some give in earlier than others. After all, nobody goes to church to be treated like this! Most lay people can find better things to do with their time.


SEPA Synod Assembly has the ability to address the on-going foul practices perpetrated in their names, but they will be kept busy. No time for business—or justice.


Please rise as you are able for the benediction.


Go in peace. Serve the Lord.