But Love of Power Is the Nourishing Soil
The bishop of the regional synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, known as the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod, planned that by now the universal answer would be “Redeemer what?”
Bishop Claire Burkat was elected bishop of this struggling body of Lutherans in 2006. She set her sights on closing Redeemer from the outset. She wanted us gone—forgotten.
- At the time the synod routinely approved significant deficit budgets and made up for the lack of operating funds by targeting congregations for closure. (In recent years they adopted a policy of balancing the budget. Now they just report shortfalls at year end.) This practice is made difficult but not impossible by governing rules that forbid the bishop from taking authority over church property without the involvement and consent of the congregation. It is possible because courts hesitate to get involved in church matters—truth, justice and the American way. In addition, synod governing bodies do a poor job of maintaining constitutional decorum. Checks and balances only work if people speak up!
- Bishop Claire Burkat had co-authored a book about leading regional bodies before she became bishop. The book, published in 2001, was widely used in training regional leaders in several denominations. Now she was a bishop and could test her theories.
The result was a disaster all around. Her theories rely on ignoring the function of bishop—to foster mission and provide leadership support for both clergy and congregations. She concentrates on the health of the regional body — not the health of the congregations the regional body exists to serve. She also relies on the constitutional checks and balances to be ineffective. She got that last part right!
Her theory involves intentionally grooming congregations for closure—the opposite of the reasons bishops are elected. She advocates intentional neglect, placing pastors with given instructions to help the existing members but to wait for them and the congregation to die.
This is a deceptive lure—like feeding the congregation Quaalude— to bring congregations under synod’s power. No congregation thinks their pastor is there to watch them die.
Her theories clearly run against the polity of the Lutheran denomination she was elected to serve. Lutheran polity gives congregations ownership and oversight of property and endowment funds.
Bishop Burkat followed her own teachings. Mission, as far as professional leadership was concerned, was totally abandoned in East Falls in what became a power struggle—an unnecessary power struggle. Redeemer had several retired pastors among its membership and capable lay leadership that successfully grew the church while the synod thought we were waiting to die.
Our assets were the goal. Power was the weapon.
A pastor friendly with our congregation in 2006 reported to us that the bishop announced in a meeting at the national church headquarters: “I have the power to close that church and I intend to close it.”
Leaders who start with the assertion of power are not likely to consider working with the people they have declared as opponents.
But at least we were warned. Even so, we were labelled, our lay leaders vilified. The abuser was fully aware no one was likely to question her perceived power. Other congregations and all pastors depend on her good graces.
Similarity to Power Crimes
The controversial verdict in the Stanford Rape Case reminds us of the travesty in East Falls.
Rape is a crime that is rooted in the need to exercise power. There are many similarities—the minimizing and vilifying of the victims, the legal attacks on the victims, the use of constitutional rights to protect the abuser while victims have every detail of their personal lives raked over.
Take away the sexual nature of the crime. The words express the way we at Redeemer feel—and will always feel. That means forever.
The bishop coyly calls us Former Redeemer as if we just disappeared because she says so. We still live, serve and worship in the neighborhood her leadership “raped” for our property.
Like Emily Doe, we faced a legal system that minimized our congregation. The courts never heard our case. The final ruling reflected not that the synod and bishop were within their rights but rather that the courts could not stop them—the bill of rights and all. It is up to the church to police itself—unlikely in a hierarchy immune from secular law.
This excerpt from an article in Christianity Today describes how the people of Redeemer feel. The way we will always feel. You don’t just move on when you have been abused as we have.
One thing certain. The failure of the other member churches to address our situation guarantees that the thinking and methodology will continue to define the synod’s relationships with its smaller congregations. And most churches are getting smaller.
From a post in Christianity Today by Lindsey Bever—June 4
Quoting the witness statement:
“My damage was internal, unseen, I carry it with me. You took away my worth, my privacy, my energy, my time, my safety, my intimacy, my confidence, my own voice, until today.”
Like a hound with a bone, she wouldn’t let it go. She demanded justice. Emily Doe’s powerful example could mark a new era for victims of sexual assault. She’s carved the long, hard path to justice. Emily said words that thousands of others could not. She said words I could not say.
When I read her statement to her rapist, I grieved I had not the same fortitude, the same clarity of my innocence, to press charges against my rapist. Like so many other victims, the wall between my assault, my pain, my violation, seemed insurmountable. I was not equipped to scale it.
Maybe they wouldn’t believe me. Maybe they would blame me. Maybe it was my fault—didn’t he say so himself, afterwards? “Too pretty to resist,” he whispered. Maybe it wasn’t worth it, to be raped again in court, exposed, violated, vulnerable to penetrating questions. Maybe it was best to keep silent and try to move on. Maybe it was best to let it go.
But the thing about letting it go is that it never goes. You can’t escape your own body, your defiled body. You can’t discard it or exchange it or undo what has been done to it. Like ruined, wasted Tamar, we carry the desolation of our violation for the rest of our lives, and our silence, our shame, allows our rapists to go free.
The case of Emily Doe could be a watershed moment if more sexual assault victims follow the path Emily Doe bravely forged. We must refuse to accept blame for sexual assault any longer. Half of perpetrators believe their victim is “completely at fault” for the assault. Sixty-two percent of rape survivors “attributed the most blame to themselves.” For perpetrators, it is easier to assign blame than it is to accept responsibility for reprehensible behavior. For victims, it is easier to accept blame than it is to admit one is a victim, stripped of power and dignity. We must trade in our shame and silence for truth.
The case of Emily Doe could be a watershed moment if the public would finally open their ears and eyes to the experiences of rape victims. Her case, presented online and in and black and white for millions to read for themselves, underscores the deep violation at the heart of uncountable other stories of abuse that so often go unheard or get deemed untrustworthy.
Throughout the Scriptures, Christians are urged to pursue justice and defend the defenseless. The mother of King Lemuel urged him, “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly, defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Prov. 31:8–9). And in Jeremiah, “‘He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?’ declares the Lord” (22:16).
Emily Doe found her voice. Redeemer has been denied our voice in the church. We will always seek justice—because that is another mission of the Church.
And what came of six years of litigation and hateful behavior?
We are all losers.
Our congregation lost our building and our offerings. SEPA lost a church that was growing (fivefold in three years) and overcoming challenges all congregations face in diversifying. Since they sold our property and squandered our endowments, the synod will have a very difficult future serving in our area of Philadelphia. Really, that’s a pretty big deal! Northwest Philadelphia has a population nearing 200,000—a small city in itself with almost no Lutheran presence.
And guess what is happening in our urban neighborhood. The demographic shifts that SEPA cited to justify their actions to the rest of synod have reversed — big time.
Young professionals are moving back into the city and embracing urban lifestyles. SEPA is no longer in a position to influence mission in the fastest developing, youngest neighborhoods in their region.
(Demographics is a euphemism to hide prejudice and justify inaction. The gospel message is for all.)