A Remarkable Palm Sunday
A member of Redeemer was honored this Palm Sunday. Pastor Luther Gotwald helped to lead St. David’s commemorative Palm Sunday Parade in Davidsville, Pa. Pastor Gotwald (my dad) was St. David’s pastor for 20 years.
St. David’s was a small neighborhood congregation that was divided in 1965 when he accepted their call. They had a building with an educational addition within walking distance of most of the village.
Half of the congregation wanted to continue ministry in the existing building. The other half wanted to build a new building at the edge of town.
Many pastors might turn down such a challenge. These days, the prevailing wisdom is to assign interim pastors to work out problems so “called” pastors don’t have to.
Pastor Gotwald knew that controversy dealt with, not ignored, can lead to good things.
During his first year in Davidsville, Pastor Gotwald visited every member of the congregation. He did little but listen. “I never told anyone which way to vote. I just made sure every voice was heard.”
The congregation decided to build a new building. On Palm Sunday, 1966, the congregation marched from the old building to the new site, singing hymns all the way. Young people led the parade that day, carrying the altar cross and chancel accoutrements.
In the past 50 years (20 of them under Pastor Gotwald’s leadership) St. David’s has grown to be one of the largest congregations in the Allegheny Synod.
With development, the new building, opposed in part because it was on the outskirts of town, now sits once again in the middle of the village.
On this occasion, I asked my dad about each of the four churches he served.
He spent seven years serving a two-point charge in Northumberland County, Pa. Two small churches shared his time in ministry. Trinity, he said, didn’t grow while he was there, but he added that the church was filled every week. Grace doubled in size during his tenure.
He then accepted a call to another small neighborhood church in Emigsville, near York, Pa. The tiny church was bustling with activity. The church was located on a back street of the village. Pastor Gotwald led the church in considering relocating—an obvious need if the congregation was to change with the neighborhood. A plot of land had been donated. Plans were drawn. The Synod looked over the plans and nixed them. They wanted the church on a major road. The donated land was just off a major road, situated prominently on a hill, visible from the main road.
The lack of synod support doomed plans for growth. St. Mark’s is still a small congregation on a back street of a village that has now been swallowed up by York. Major businesses relocated nearby as did one of York’s major high schools.
That donated lot that could have been the new church home is now in the middle of all the development. Its steeple, had it ever been built, would dominate the view from the main thoroughfare.
Church “experts,” who had to have things their way, squandered a congregation’s best chance at growth.
In his retirement years, Luther Gotwald actively advocates for Redeemer. He joined the congregation in 2009 when his congregation in western Pennsylvania voted to leave the ELCA. He supported Redeemer’s mission plan. He knew something about growing churches and uniting congregations in mission.
When he joined Redeemer, he asked to have his clergy roster status transferred from the Allegheny Synod to the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod. SEPA’s Bishop Claire Burkat denied his request.
No independent thinkers need apply.
Sadder things were to come. When Bishop Claire Burkat decided to remove Redeemer from the SEPA roster of congregations without consulting with the congregation, the congregation opposed her actions—as is their right. Bishop Burkat chose to sue the congregation and individual lay members (including me). Luther Gotwald sent letters pointing pastors to the Articles of Incorporation and constitutions, which forbid these actions. He was publicly ignored but sharply ridiculed behind the scenes. Go home, Yankee.
With nothing more mission-minded to do, the Synod Council of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod (elected to represent congregations) wrote to the Bishop Gregory Pile of the Allegheny Synod. They were upset that Luther Gotwald was addressing an issue they were all avoiding—the treatment of Redeemer, East Falls. Most, if not all, signed a letter requesting Bishop Pile to officially censor Pastor Gotwald.
This is the Lutheran church, the denomination that grew from dissent. We used to be proud of that.
They might have looked into things a bit before taking such embarrassing action on behalf of all the churches in SEPA Synod.
Pastor Gotwald left St. David’s to serve as the only assistant to the bishop of the newly formed Allegheny Synod, where part of his job was making sure constitutions were followed. He had also served for many years as the parliamentarian at Synod conventions. He knows church rules.
SEPA Synod Council probably didn’t know Bishop Pile succeeded Pastor Gotwald in service to St. David’s. He also succeeded the bishop Pastor Gotwald had worked with. These men have high regard for one another.
Bishop Pile was not pulled into SEPA’s hateful vendetta.
In the photo below, Bishop Pile is in the center and Luther Gotwald is on the right. Pastor Gotwald is still respected as a faithful, loving pastor, who occasionally takes an unpopular stand based on his experience, knowledge of church history, and ELCA constitutional structure.
The Church needs more pastors like him.
Great day in Davidsville, Pa. Congratulations, St. David’s—and you, too, Dad.