He leads off bemoaning that schools are dealing with bullying but churches barely broach the topic.
I read his post with interest as our congregation has a great deal of experience with church bullying.
Just as I feared. His examples of church bullying overlook a key problem.
What did he miss?
Every example of bullying he cites is a lay person. It is comprehensive in a sense. It spans a bullying teen to a bullying businessman, a bullying mother, a bullying staff member—even a bullying old lady. But he totally overlooked the possibility that the church bully might be the pastor—or even a shepherd of pastors.
His commenters picked up on this serious omission—shortly before comments were cut off!
Church leaders cannot effectively address church bullying until they spend time in front of a mirror.
Pastors are ideal candidates for temptation in this area.
They typically operate in a top-down power structure.
The structure of their power is protected by the First Amendment.
They can exercise significant social control as they have access to every member and the ability to court support at will.
They also have direct access to and familiarity with authorities over them.
Their job description includes creating a following.
They work in relative isolation. Abuses can go undetected for a long time.
They can control most forums within the church—even voting forums.
They have the power to manipulate for personal advantage in venues created by them and with a following that instinctively trusts them.
Pastors who seek advancement—bigger salaries, positions in larger churches, greater influence—can be tempted to use bullying—especially if things aren’t going their way. Perhaps that is why the Bible stresses humility.
Pastors are more likely to use bullying tactics when they feel threatened. Other clergy blog posts (even the comments to the referenced blog post) reveal that many pastors do feel threatened. Commenters here turn to a favorite stand-by—a one-sided documentary about “Clergy-Killers.”
Make no mistake. Church leaders can be bullies. Like all bullies, they are supported by fearful enablers who look the other way. This can include both members and colleagues.
He is right. The Church needs to address bullying. But it must take a wider view. There will be little progress until it does.
One of our members contacted the ELCA legal offices repeatedly and finally got an answer: We feel no obligation to respond. That’s the way of lawyers. Litigation shuts down dialog.
If we believe the Church should live by biblical principles of love, forgiveness and reconciliation, dialog is necessary.
Keep in mind—Each of these non-responders collects a salary paid with congregational dollars—some of it in offerings, some in seized property.
Our congregation’s experience in the ELCA, mirrored by other congregations in several other synods, merits the time and attention of the whole Church. There is no reason to believe any congregation is exempt from the misuse of unenforceable Church laws. Unfortunately, the response of most member churches is to look the other way and accept the financial benefits—less burden on them, less risk when dealing with predatory leaders.
So, I wrote to the presiding bishop again in August, one month ago.
This time, my concern is sparked by SEPA’s interference in 2×2’s mission work in our community this summer.
SEPA abandoned our neighborhood six years ago, claimed our land, and set about selling it. Still SEPA found time to come back to orchestrate a defamation campaign when our congregation attempted to offer summer programming for neighborhood children. They used familiar tactics—gossip, bribes, and threats—not entirely against us but also against people who worked with us. SEPA prefers no mission to our mission.
We are still Christians. We still live in our neighborhood. We are still mission-minded. We always were. We have a right to pursue mission ventures in our own neighborhood without SEPA and the ELCA.
SEPA excluded us by decree five years ago. They bypassed all church procedures for working with congregations in mission. As a result, we are no longer subject to their authority in any way. They voted us closed without our knowledge. They seized our land and bank accounts. We, as Redeemer, no longer exist as far as the ELCA is concerned.
We reincorporated as 2×2 Foundation. Now, when SEPA leaders interfere with our mission, they are interfering with the work of a separate entity. The First Amendment, their defense for all actions, may no longer serve their cause.
In this cloistered world of Church, there is no reason to respond. Regional bodies can claim rights to congregational assets, regardless of Church rules. Under the interpretation of “Lutheran Interdependence,” each bishop is an unstoppable entity, subject to no reasonable authority, free to break and write the rules of interdependent engagement at will. They simply defend their actions by claiming Separation of Church and State. In other words, no one can stop them.
There is little incentive to listen to congregations. This may seem safe—for now. Bury your head in the sand deep enough and you’ll soon be gasping for air.
So, this will be our policy. When 30 days pass with no acknowledgement, 2×2 will publish letters.
Here is our recent letter. In it we make a few recommendations for restructuring what might keep the ELCA from ending up on life support within a few decades. Some of them are ideas that worked in previous Lutheran entities. Others may not have been possible back in 1988 when the ELCA was formed but are very possible today.
Here is the excerpt that lists these recommendations.
Protect congregational polity. Predecessor bodies of the LCA and ELCA expressly forbade regional bodies from owning property. They were not to be in the real estate business. Synods are tempted to covet what does not belong to them. Mission ceases to be a consideration.
Establish an independent ombudsman’s office. (also part of predecessor bodies) There are two sides in every conflict. But bishops control the voice and venues for resolution. Bishops need to know they can be challenged in a forum they do not control. Lay leaders need enforceable constitutional protection. This would help create an atmosphere where clergy and laity can innovate with less fear of reprisal. Recognize Synod Assembly is not capable of dealing thoroughly and fairly with problems between a bishop and congregation.
Get rid of Involuntary Synodical Administration.It violates founding Articles of Incorporation and is a euphemism for theft. At the very least, review how bishops use this concept.
Define “interdependent.”It should strengthen ties not absolve responsibility and numb conscience.
Provide congregations equal access to the expertise of legal offices funded with their offerings.
Discourage the use of courts by church leaders. Bullying threats of litigation side-step scriptural alternatives and cripple mission.
Consider a non-geographical synod that congregations can opt to join. (Yes, it is possible. There is already one nongeographic synod organized for ethnic reasons.) Bishops might be more inclined to work with congregations if congregations had options. Congregations need an environment where they can innovate without designs on their property. Alternatives might preserve mission outposts that geographical synods are content to abandon for short-term monetary gain.
Respect lay leadership. If our congregation’s lay initiatives had been inspired by clergy, they would be praised.
Denominational structure is something like this. Imagine the congregational offering plate as a big juicy pie. That pie feeds the entire church.
The congregation keeps a large percentage of the offerings. There is usually little more than what it costs to pay a pastor and maintain a property. (These costs are similar for every church with a moderate size building regardless of size.) If a congregation wants to expand programs or build, they typically have fundraisers. During economic downturns, costs remain the same, but offerings dip. That means trouble for everyone.
A sizable slice of pie is sent to a regional body.
The regional body pays its salary and office expenses with this money and allocates a portion to agencies working within its geographic borders. They also send a portion of the congregation’s offerings to a national entity. Lutherans call it churchwide. Grander sounding.
From this smaller piece of pie, the national entity pays its salary and office expenses and also sends money to denominational agencies serving nationally or worldwide. Their small piece of pie is enough because thousands of congregations are sending pieces of pie. These slices of pie, though small, pay hundreds of salaries, office expenses, seminaries, local charitable agencies and worldwide relief organizations.
All of these entities are hungry for more.
So what do the hungry national and regional offices, seminaries and church agencies do?
They go back for seconds.
But there is only ONE pie!
They sweep past the wait staff—the congregations. They head for the kitchen—looking for members with the deepest pockets. Someone has to bake another pie!
Contributions of the local churches are used to create development offices. Hundreds of church entities, starting with regional bodies, but including, retirement homes, seminaries, special services, relief agencies, colleges, camps, etc. hire an expert in fund-raising, who hires a staff.
All of these entities compete with one another, hoping to find bakers of additional pies.
The pie-bakers, so to speak, are the same people giving to the local neighborhood churches.
Organizations with development offices have some advantages. They can appeal to members with poignant stories of how their dollars benefit needy causes. They can afford sleek, professional communication. (Development and Communication Offices work together so closely that they are often the same thing!) They can maintain a growing database and contact members directly.
Congregations have spent spare dollars that they might use for development and their own mission to others.
The appeals are enticing! They make the congregations feel that paying for a pastor and a building is enough. Send the rest their way.
The ultimate target? Estate gifts! Pie in the sky!
The wining and dining begins. How can these agencies gain the support of church members outside of congregational giving?
Assistance in estate planning is a favorite offering. Lifetime status in some sort of giving “club” is another. (I gave to one once. A few years later, they discontinued the “club”—well before the end of my lifetime!) A room or wing of a new building dedicated in the donor’s name is yet another. Names listed in the annual report carefully stratified is yet another. Are you a silver, gold, or platinum angel?
And there is also the lure of popular and very well managed secular mission efforts such a Habitat for Humanity. These totally bypass the ecclesial support funnel but they nibble at the same pie.
Innocent tactics, for sure. But are they wise?
They erode the financial foundation of the neighborhood church. They are probably hurting the regional and national offices, too. The denomination support funnel implodes. This may be why denominational leaders are so eager to grab small church properties. They need to get to congregational wealth before all the development officers do!
This affects mission. Churches have little voice as it is. Now, they dare not vote with their pocket.
Seminaries face the greatest need, perhaps, because they have little direct contact with the people who fund the offering plates. They exist in a clergy-dominated world.
Religious charitable agencies may be in better shape than the regional and national bodies. They forsook church-related mission for the Almighty Tax Dollar long ago. They still get Church funding, but they are not dependent on it. Ken-Crest, a Lutheran agency serving the developmentally delayed rented space from our congregation. They turned our mural-sized painting of Jesus and the children to the wall.
Why consider this? After all, these entities are doing good work. Kudos if they can find ways to fund more.
But so are the local churches. We directly represent the Word in the communities. We do it with less and less every year. All the development expertise our offerings pay for competes with (rather than complements) mission. Developing the neighborhood congregations might be a way of baking a bigger pie! That takes time. Everyone is hungry now!
It is almost guaranteed—neighborhood churches eventually will be devoured with the last crumb of the last piece of pie.
Feel that? The Church is biting the hand that feeds it.
As for us little churches—Stick a fork in us!
Maybe it is time to reevaluate church structure in relation to mission!
“They [faith communities] must also recognize that their job
Another celebrity spokesperson’s fall from grace has shaken the foundations of the company he represented.
It’s happened before. It will happen again.
I predict these companies will survive. Hertz survived OJ Simpson. Nike survived Michael Vick. Subway will survive Jared Fogle.
Will the role of celebrity spokespeople continue to thrive? Probably. The temptation to ride one charismatic individual’s success is difficult to resist. It gives us an excuse to hide our own talents under a bushel. We'll gladly credit the leader if it eases our burden!
What does this have to do with Church?
Congregational culture traditionally relies on one major influencer—the pastor. If the pastor is charismatic and stays out of trouble, the chemistry can help the congregation. In fact, many congregations rely on this. Some denominations purposely foster one pastor staying in one congregation as long as possible. (They are called Settled Pastors.)
The name of the pastor becomes better known than the name of the congregation. Some congregations are forever tied to a long-deceased charismatic leader. Marble Collegiate Church is rarely mentioned without mentioning Norman Vincent Peale. Unfortunately, there are many more congregations than there are charismatic preachers.
There is a “trickle up factor”—a sort of ecclesiastic Peter Principle—that takes advantage of the Christian nature to follow. Charismatic leaders can use charm to deflect criticism—rising in influence to major leadership roles based on little but likability. If and when scandal results, the whole congregation (and perhaps the whole denomination) suffers. Compare Billy Graham’s influence to that of his grandson.
Every church of every size places its reputation in the hands of its pastor. This can be particularly perilous to small congregations. Innocent parties, often the laity, can spend years trying to repair Humpty Dumpty.
The power structure of the Church typically leaves the members shouldering the blame. The pastor has voice and visibility. Local control and a direct pipeline to church authority works in his or her favor. Members who discern potential problems are easily dismissed as malcontents. As evidenced in recent clergy sex scandals, fear of retribution is not unreasonable.
When issues finally hit the fan, pastors in hot water are reassigned. They can start fresh! Congregations stay in place, dealing with the problems they left behind for a very long time.
What are today’s businesses learning from their experiences relying on one celebrity spokesperson?
A New Reliance on Micro-Influencers
Companies are exploring other avenues. Instead of banking on one name, they start working with several.
Some companies nurture a stable of “ambassadors.” Apple may have led the way with their “evangelists.” That was the actual job title! Apple evangelists are key enthusiasts with only one claim to fame—they love Apple. Guy Kawasaki made his name helping Apple make its name.
Other companies approach existing clients and entice them with perks that keep them favoring the use of their products, trusting their clients will notice and follow suit.
Micro-Influencers and the Church
Micro-Influencers were always part of Jesus’ mission plan. He counted on each of the 12 disciples and each of their social connections to spread the Word.
What if today’s Church paid more attention to its micro-influencers—members who can navigate the social climate of your neighborhood? What if they gave them more voice in the Church and provided tools to help them share?
This was never more possible than today. Are we confident as community to motivate mini-infuencers? Or do we keep our micro-influencers in the shadow of our pastors?
2×2 Virtual Church has been open for four and a half years. I noticed in reviewing our analytics and statistics that there is alway someone visiting our site—even on slow days. Most days see visitors from all over the world. Sometimes we have hundreds, sometimes just a few, but someone is always in our church.
I noticed this image (below) from a post from a marketing blog I follow. (You can learn a lot about evangelism by studying marketing!)
These statistics should shock every Church and spur them to action. Your posts, pins, and tweets can be part of the millions of “likes.” Your images can be part of the “shares.” Your videos could be one of those downloaded.
You aren’t still waiting for people to come to you, are you?
Study these statistics and never lock your church doors again.
Many congregations work hard to draft mission statements that end up with some form of “To Make Christ Known.” That’s hard to define and harder to measure. The result? Congregations work at finding more members to fund old ideas. Nothing really changes.
We can’t demand change without defining goals. Goals of laity are often very different than those of clergy. All the more reason to have a meeting of the minds to choose and prioritize goals.
WHAT TO DO: Define your goal. How do you want to change? Don’t just say “We want more families.” Look at your community realistically. Forget for a moment what you want. Instead ask: Who can we serve? How can we serve? Set multiple goals—attendance, budget, inclusiveness, service, and most important, effectiveness.
2. We assume tradition defines the rules.
Laity get frustrated with demands for change. It often seems we are expected to produce miracles while everything around us stays the same. Churches hold more than God sacred!
What is allowed to change? It is likely that there are possibilities that are never considered because people assume things have to be done in certain ways.
What must remain the same?
Can we change the relationships between clergy and members? Can we divide the work load differently?
Can we change the way we use physical space? The sanctuary? The classrooms? The surrounding land? Are there benefits to doing things off-site?
Can we change the way we spend and invest money?
Can we change the ways we deliver the message? Can we use social media? Can we change worship style? Can we change the schedule? Who is in charge of these decisions? What oversight is needed?
WHAT TO DO: Spend time asking and answering these and other questions. You might find there are hidden possibilities.
3. We cannot visualize change.
Sometimes the cries for change are rooted in nostalgia. We make better use of our rearview mirror than our crystal ball. A return to the past is impossible. So what will the Church of the future look like? Visualizing this will help us look outward.
WHAT TO DO: Check your mission statement. Does it demand anything of your congregation? If it doesn’t, start over. A mission statement should point to action. When you are satisfied with you mission statement, USE IT! Measure every action taken by you governing board or auxiliary groups by your mission statement. Refer to the mission statement at meetings and worship. Recite it together whenever you gather.
4. We don’t allow for failure.
Failure is part of change. Failures are stepping stones. Congregations have to be able to work through difficulties. That means taking risks. They cannot do this if regional bodies are monitoring them for failure and if leadership, local or regional, sees its role as protecting assets.
WHAT TO DO: Have an ongoing discussion with your congregation about what you are willing to risk to achieve mission. Be flexible in making plans. Always have a Plan B. Help your congregation celebrate success and honor efforts that seem to fail. Sometimes efforts that seem to have failed are necessary steps to eventual success.
5. We expect change to happen on a prescribed schedule.
Progress is best made with baby steps. Any leader who comes into a congregation with an action plan that uproots everything and dictates prescribed steps and timetables is putting a congregation at serious risk. Putting process before results fails to recognize the unique character of each congregation. When it fails—and it will—the congregation will be left feeling inadequate, when in reality they weren’t really part of the process at all.
Congregations need confidence. That confidence will radiate their message. If they are in a downward trend (and most congregations are), they need to rebuild their sense of worth and security in order to succeed at welcoming others.
WHAT TO DO: Study the work of B.J. Fogg. The role of leader is to motivate and facilitate change not to issue orders. Help your congregation identify abilities. Find what motivates and triggers or activates your community. Help your congregation love itself again—all the better to love others.
6. We protect what we create.
Recently, a denomination created worship resources to help congregations address the tragic killings in American churches. In an effort to address a timely issue, they put the resources online. Great! But they password protected the resources so only their denomination or people who paid could access the worship resources. (We assume God has the password.) The thinking is economic. Pay to pray. We wrote this conversation with God. If there is money to be had in sharing, it belongs to us.
Remember, they were addressing a current national crisis. The message they sent was that they have answers to current problems but won’t offer them without compensation—either monetary or to add to an email list. Is peace an issue we want to copyright?
You don’t want the people to think you care first about your bottom line and helping others second. Think of the message they would send if they distribute resources to churches for free in a form that encouraged sharing—especially in times of crisis.
WHAT TO DO: As you plan for change, consider how your efforts are perceived. Be prepared to give without expecting financial benefit.
7. We expect change to be led by large, healthy congregations.
Large, flagship churches have the means for change but they lack motivation. Money is still available. Bills are paid regularly. They can try to reach the troubled, but they are often isolated from the threatened and disadvantaged. Meanwhile, things will be fine for them whether or not they change.
Change almost always comes from unexpected places and often from people whose authority is outside convention. The Bible is full of examples. Abraham and Sarah. Jacob. Moses. Ruth and Naomi. Saul. David. John the Baptist. Mary. Peter, Paul. A host of saints! Is this type of serendipity possible today?
WHAT TO DO: Look for change agents in your neighborhood within and outside your congregation. Create an atmosphere where they can prosper. Explore teamwork. Network with other groups, religious and secular.
8. We look to clergy to lead change.
Clergy are probably the professionals slowest to embrace modern change. They entered a profession with ancient roots and have a vested interest in things staying the same or returning to how things used to be.
WHAT TO DO: Ask your leaders what they need to lead change? Do they need help with the internet? Do they need training? Do they need partners? Demand that clergy use modern tools! Let your seminaries know what you need from professional leaders in order to change. Seminaries are used to hearing from clergy. If congregations never let them know what they need, they will keep training clergy in what they think we need!)
9. We assign the role of follower to all laity.
Ironically, today, when the laity are often as well educated as clergy, we still think of laity as a volunteer pool to fulfill traditional roles that barely tap their talents.
Laity have been instrumental in major church movements in the past. Start with 12 disciples. Move on to Paul and friends. Now jump ahead 1700 years. The Sunday School movement started in the late 18th century and prospered through the 19th and early 20th centuries. The Sunday School was responsible for the sense of community and service that grew the Church of the 1940s and 1950s. Ah! The halcyon days! The Movement was lay-led. Even today in some areas Sunday Schools operate separately from the governing structure of host churches with their own budgets and boards.
WHAT TO DO: Unleash your laity. Give them ownership of mission. We might surprise you! Let them develop internet ministry. Let people in on the planning. Here is just one small idea to use as a test. Each week, run a poll online. List five or six hymns appropriate for your next week’s worship (you still have control). Then poll the congregation. Use the top two or three. People will feel some ownership of their worship.
10. We market resources to those with the ability to pay for them.
Makes sense—unless your mission includes reaching people who are less advantaged. Small church leaders often complain that resources provided by their denominations aren’t helpful to them. Yet church publishers develop and market to the stereotype and to their vision. Statistically, as many as 80% of congregations are small. How can we provide quality resources geared to their situations and budgets?
WHAT TO DO: Experiment. Leaders of small churches may be on their own for a while but the internet opens possibility.
11. We don’t measure.
And when we do, we don’t measure the right things! When things aren’t going well, we stop paying attention to statistics. We accept and pay for years of ministry with no progress.
WHAT TO DO: If your congregation is spending all its resources without measurable improvement, figure out what can be changed. Don’t expect magic. Start small. Chalk up some measurable successes even if they are very small.
12. The voice of the Church is carefully controlled.
There is no place in free society that makes freedom of expression more difficult. Worship is generally prescribed by the denomination. Pastors work with carefully chosen support staff to shape the experience. Homogenous congregations are more likely to accept and thrive this way. Reaching people who are unaccustomed to this control will be an uphill struggle. As our society restructures from the vertical leadership model of the past to a more horizontal, participatory model, this will become harder to sustain.
The web creates voice. Many pastors don’t have the skills to evangelize on the web and don’t trust anyone else to do it. And so we stick to communication styles of the past. Church publications are clergy led. Letters to the editor are moderated by clergy. Voting is representative but the representatives are likely to be chosen by a stellar ability to follow. Change agents are not welcome—no matter what the sign on the door says!
One of the most popular bishops in church history was called without being either baptized or particularly interested in Church. (St. Ambrose)
The number of saints who flunked Choirboy 101 are many (Francis, Augustine)
WHAT TO DO: Invite speakers from unusual places (other faiths, different neighborhoods). Find the people in your congregation who can use the internet. Give them room to work. If a valuable viewpoint surfaces in Bible Study or over coffee, encourage the person to share by writing a post or speaking.
13. We suffer from “not my job syndrome.”
Many churches are trapped in this hideous cycle. Congregants look to pastors to do the work of creating change. Pastors expect the laity to provide manpower to implement prescribed strategies. No one takes responsibility. Fingers are pointed. Peace is found in prayer without action.
WHAT TO DO: Start a conversation in your congregation about roles in the Church. Ask people to identify their interest and skills. Don’t just look for people to fill pre-defined needs. Ask: How do you see your talents serving God? Then help them do it.
14. We equate peace with health.
Change requires tension—tension that might be resolved in great ways. Truly healthy churches allow healthy tension and learn to deal with it in nonjudgmental ways.
WHAT TO DO: Create a safe place for differing viewpoints. This is tricky. The first unintentional, patronizing comment will shut down all dialogue. Visionaries need time to test the water,
15. We believe that someone has all the answers.
If there were someone in church leadership with all the answers, their wisdom would be packaged and distributed throughout the Church with success close behind. Answers are more likely to be found within your community.
WHAT TO DO: Make sure there opportunity for people to weigh in on issues facing your congregation. Make room for them to act on their ideas. Side with faith and hope, not blind tradition.
16. We rely on labels.
This is particularly prevalent among church leaders. They characterize congregations and assign labels. Oddly, labels usually emphasize the negative. Psychologists know that people live to labels. Congregations do, too. Are your women labeled as teachers and social hosts? Are your men labeled as board members and property experts? Are your youth labeled? How about your visitors? Labels limit.
WHAT TO DO: Stop thinking in terms of labels. Love one another.
17. We don’t believe our message.
Although last on the lift, tackling this is foundational to success. It is difficult to ask others to believe in God when we feel lost, weak, and forsaken. Church failure reflects insecurity. We want to believe God loves, redeems and empowers. Our doubt has us measuring success by our own well-being. If we are OK with God, that’s enough.
WHAT TO DO: How empowering was the revelation that Mother Teresa wrestled with doubts! We all need encouragement. Small steps. Small successes. Less criticism. Less judgment. Education is also key. Explore challenges faced by biblical leaders and the saints. The internet makes it possible to do this without expecting people to come out for formal classes.
The Bible tells us to talk about it, take it up with those who have hurt you. But Church often makes its own advice impossible.
Our church members, excluded from our denomination eight years ago, are no less faithful than we were when our doors were not padlocked.
We’ve been effectively shunned for nearly a decade, as un-Lutheran as that is.
Most of our members are still in touch despite other Lutherans voting to close our congregation and claiming our land (against their own governing laws). Some of us meet every Sunday morning. Some drift, catching up occasionally in smaller gatherings. We were working on a community project this summer and members we hadn’t heard from in a while were showing interest. Then Lutheran leaders returned to our neighborhood, which they had abandoned in mission, to cause more trouble.
We visited more than 80 churches after we were locked out. None went out of their way to attract us as members, even those nearby.
We are a spiritual people. Even at social gatherings, someone is likely to pull out a reading or news item and start a conversation—the kind we used to have in church. We can count on one of us stepping in to temper heated conversations. But then that was always a strong Redeemer trait. We made peace just as easily as we argued, so we had no reason to avoid confrontation—as healthy as it is unusual in the Church.
A member of one church that befriends us comments that we seem to be a joyful people—that we have met bad treatment with strength and good humor.
A good observation. We are positive and we continue to use our various talents.
As reassuring as this is, it doesn’t erase the pain that we experienced at the hands of our regional body. It’s been eight years for some. Those of us with longer involvement can remember back to the earliest days of the synod, when we first had to defend our endowment from the claims of a struggling Lutheran agency. We were successful. Ten years later, and after two years of working at it, we were successful again when the synod raided our bank account. We were unsuccessful (so far) in the latest attempt that followed the last by another ten years. Every ten years seems to be the cycle. (Two years to go to the next!) Our money and land values were centric to all problems. Hateful rhetoric fueled the cause. Had no outside eyes coveted our assets, there would have been no conflict.
Most of the time we get by without thinking about it. We like being happy. Nevertheless, eight years of struggle are not easily forgotten. Nor should they.
Last week, I saw an advertisement for a holiday choir. I suggested we try it. We’ve been locked out of church on Christmas Eve for six years now. It might be nice to have some way to enjoy Christmas together, doing something we were pretty good at—making music.
Rehearsals were in a Presbyterian Church—safe ground. I always say, I could be Presbyterian, but I was predestined to be Lutheran. So two of us went to a rehearsal. It seemed like a good group with excellent musicality and the potential for new connections and friendships.
But then, we encountered our former choir director. She has been gone from our congregation for nearly 20 years, but we know she still has Lutheran connections and some of those connections are to people who were involved behind the scenes in hurting us. It was discomfiting. Would our presence feed the insatiable appetite of the Lutheran gossip mill?
Excluded for so long, we were suddenly present with someone who knew us. She knew what was being done to us. She may have done nothing to further that, but as far as we can tell, she and hundreds of others did nothing to stop it. We’d have to overlook the elephant in the room at every rehearsal, pretending to not be hurt.
Lutherans, those who don’t ignore us completely, give us cheap, self-serving advice. “Just move on.” Translation: “Make taking what belongs to you easy for us, please.”
There are no suggestions for how to do that. Forgiving is easy. We have not been allowed to forget. Every time we try to reestablish ourselves in our own neighborhood, carpet-bagging Lutheran leaders return and start defaming us to our neighbors (as evidenced this summer).
There is lots of talk about us and very little talk to us—a tactic of all bullies.
What do we do with our feelings? Ignoring bad behavior gives it license.
And now, how do we sing together of love and peace when we have experienced so much hurt?
If we can feel so vulnerable after only a decade of abuse, how lonely those in our society must feel after centuries of hate and prejudice.
How do hurt Christians deal with such feelings? We continue our mission with what was left to us. Fortunately, time and talent have more mission potential than dollars!
No one is born hating those of a different race or religion. A babe in arms will gaze into blue or brown eyes with equal expectation that the face looking back will smile.
Hate doesn’t cause us to take advantage of other people. Selfishness and opportunity seize that moment. Power sustains it.
We didn’t enslave black people because we hated them. We enslaved them to solve economic problems. Hatred justifies obvious injustice. It embeds itself in our culture when the advantages we claimed as rights are challenged. Hatred is a weapon.
Hatred is never far behind fear—fear of losing status, way of life, riches and power.
Hatred has an eye for detail. Hatred focuses on details that threaten us in no way—clothing, facial features, taste for music, food—things which identify differences. We teach our children to recognize identifying characteristics in the jokes we tell. We playfully justify our need to do maintain supremacy.
Every crime is a hate crime. Hatred is a tool of evil.
In our country, hate often focuses on race. Racial differences are no longer threatening. Today’s residual racial hatred stems from a dying past. As it dies, it is likely to flare up now and then, attacking the weakest—unarmed children or small groups. Although it is dying, it is still powerfully hurtful.
Today’s perceived threats are cultural. We fear those who worship differently, speak different languages, or live differently. Loving them might cost us jobs, opportunities and value systems that we accept as God-ordained.
We worship a God that sent His Son to teach love. There is a reason part of His message is to live without fear.
A nearby suburban church posted a sign on their property. Three words. You’ve heard them before.
People saw the sign. Some were outraged.
The three simple words seem harmless enough. The terse message leaves enough room for people to draw unintended conclusions—not necessarily the same conclusions. Some felt personally criticized. Some felt the sign was disrespectful to law enforcement.
It might just be that the sign linked them to issues they thought they had escaped.
Race is a sensitive issue! And complicated. And difficult to recognize close to home.
The pastor wrote a letter to the editor of the local paper apologizing and inviting conversation.
This raises a question. Is the Church in a position to lead this discussion? Our record for dealing with racial issues and ministering in inclusive ways is not olympian by any means!
The ELCA is at the lowest rung among predominantly white denominations on inclusion. We are 96% white and the 2% that is black is largely living in some ecclesiastic version of Separate but Equal. The rest of society faced this inequality long ago!
Our congregation’s experience with the ELCA and race has been horrific and can illustrate many of the shortcomings Lutheran leadership probably doesn’t recognize.
Taking the Pollyanna View
One obstacle is the tendency to assume that leaders automatically make wise decisions. Leaders can stand in the pulpit, high above the people, and propose remedies that are based on NO experience actually dealing with the challenges and blessings of racial diversity. Most Lutherans who reach regional and national leadership positions get elected because of the name recognition that comes from serving larger churches. White Lutherandom!
Did they live close to the crime that resulted from the government-sponsored high-rise housing projects that imported and isolated new populations in neighborhoods almost overnight? Did their children attend public schools dealing with sudden, widespread change with little time to prepare and poor funding.
Yet many Lutheran laity remained in urban neighborhoods, dedicated to trying, with little voice within the denomination and inadequate professional leadership. Our needs were not a priority and were ignored for decades.
The Prejudice Created by White Flight
I was in junior high school in 1968 when streets in cities across America erupted in violence following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
White Flight began. Many Lutherans pursued happiness and hoped to find it in the suburbs. There is nothing wrong with people seeking better lives, but can suburban congregations now lead discussion on issues they left behind?
I went the opposite direction. I left a 100% white village in coal-mining, steel-producing western Pennsylvania and moved to Philadelphia, where I stayed for 35 years. The first neighborhood I lived in was Southwark—a predominantly low-income, black neighborhood. I moved to East Falls, a changing working class neighborhood within a year. (The headquarters of the Lutheran Church in America were here. Ironically, the pastors who worked there and lived in our neighborhood attended churches in other neighborhoods.)
The worst aspects of White Flight happened long after early waves of departure. I believe they are still happening today.
A friend of mine from Philadelphia’s Black Catholic community speaks with bitterness of how the Catholic Church targeted black congregations for closure, favoring neighborhoods with white members. The properties in the black neighborhoods were sold to benefit the diocese.
The same thing is happening within the ELCA.
Suburban churches became comfortable places to serve. It wasn’t long before urban congregations had to make do with retired or part-time pastors.
“Changing Demographics” Is A Racist Euphemism
Most urban neighborhoods remained well-populated, but the faces are darker and the languages spoken are not English.
Instead of seeing this societal change as an opportunity to spread our denomination’s influence (mission), the strategy of Church leaders was to mark time. Be kind to congregations as they waited for death (anti-mission). Invest nothing; do nothing to reach changed demographics. The message from the Church is clear. Black and brown lives do not matter as much as white lives.
Little effort was put into mission. Pastors continued to be trained to serve the congregations that resembled the past—suburban congregations. Laity had a better grasp of what was going on in their neighborhoods but had no voice. As things worsen, Church Consultants are called in to prepare the congregation for doom. The congregation will be required to pay the hefty consulting fees, but the consultants will report to the regional body. They’ll talk with the congregation to gain support for their fore-drawn conclusion. They will issue a report that cites “changing demographics,” referencing for $1000 or more the census statistics that are available to anyone for free. They will officially recommend and validate closure, the only plan all along.
Mission requires vision. Dollars cloud vision. Serving changing demographics is work many denominations are ill-prepared to take on.
Regional Bodies Abandon Changing Neighborhoods
This published strategy is taught to regional leaders (Transforming Regional Bodies): Triage the congregations. Provide only palliative care to the smallest. Assist them in dying.
This last step creates legal challenges. Lutheran congregations are allowed to disperse their assets to qualified organizations as they choose. But regional ELCA leaders devised methods to make sure they had first and exclusive dibs. They require congregations to accept mission status in order to receive any services from their regional body. Mission church property goes to the synod. If the congregation realizes this, things can get nasty. Other Lutherans benefit from seized assets of other churches and have incentive to look the other way. Guns are not needed when unfettered power can do the same damage.
Our bishop made an outrageous suggestion when we started to successfully reach our changing demographics. She saw ten years of neglect going down the drain. We were growing when we were supposed to be dying! They were counting on our endowment and property saving their deficit budget.
She, a coauthor of the book referenced above, asked a retired pastor and member of our congregation to lead black members of our congregation to a church she identified as a place where they “would better fit in.” When the congregation learned this, one of our black members shared that a synod representative had approached him ten years before with the same suggestion. Our black members were treated as if they were not able to choose their own faith community—twice in ten years. This is not a mistake. It’s a serious character flaw.
Why did SEPA take this action? It wasn’t direct hatred of black people. Neither was slavery. Hatred comes when a once-reliable power system breaks down. Racism is usually rooted in politics and economics. In early America, rich land owners needed cheap labor. In the Church, regional bodies can no longer depend on offerings. They covet land and endowments. There is a constitutional provision that gives the bishop the right to interfere in a congregation’s mission if the membership is scattered or diminished. She and SEPA needed our numbers to be diminished to justify seizing property and bank accounts. So our bishop attempted to orchestrate the exodus of 60+ black members. In fact, even though they never left, the report given to the Synod Assembly excluded them!
Interestingly, the approach is about making the regional body strong—not making congregations strong. Regional bodies exist to serve congregations. Topsy turvy thinking!
Dollars matter more than lives: black or white!
The Theology of Squandering Urban Assets
Many a congregation’s assets were squandered on years of salaries paid to clergy who had no intention of doing any more than caring for existing members and preaching to dwindling numbers on Sunday morning. I’ve heard seminary leaders refer to these congregations as “on life support.” The pastors serving them are called “caretaker” pastors. Some leaders even jokingly call them “undertaker” pastors. Congregations aren’t in on the jokes. They think they are paying for the real deal—pastors who will lead them into the future. They might take matters into their own hands if they learn they are paying for planned failure.
A theology was created to justify the approach. The Resurrection Story is routinely cited as justification. Resulting strategies are not biblical! They will insist that the existing congregation close. They’ll make members feel like they weren’t good enough—like their lives don’t matter. This serves an unstated purpose—gaining rights to property and control of bank accounts. They might try to reopen the church under their management, but they are likely to fail and more likely to not try at all. The practice perverts the Resurrection Story. Jesus died so that we can live.
The ELCA should study these strategies to determine if they have any mission value that is sustainable.
Play the Race Card
Ironically, church leaders play the race card. It has emotional power and emotions are valuable when reason needs to be avoided! Much of this will take place without the knowledge of the congregation. Pastors gossip about the congregations they are eyeing for closure. No one will ask questions if they violate constitutions while fighting racism! This pamphlet describes our experience. Congregations that are called racist can expect harsh treatment, whether or not the charges are true. In our case 160 congregations including at least 200 clergy followed leaders without question. Only one congregation voted with the constitution. They left the ELCA shortly afterwards. They were as small or smaller than Redeemer. They were mostly white. They left with their property.
Racism and hatred go hand in hand.
Perhaps the Church should listen and conduct some serious self-examination before trying to lead others?
05 Sep 2015
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We were all once strangers, the weakest, the outcasts, until someone came to our defense, included us, empowered us, reconciled us (1 Cor. 2; Eph. 2).
Be calm. Wait. Wait. Commit your cause to God. He will make it succeed. Look for Him a little at a time. Wait. Wait. But since this waiting seems long to the flesh and appears like death, the flesh always wavers. But keep faith. Patience will overcome wickedness.