Here We Go Again: History Revisited

sadHave you noticed Washington commenters are increasingly referencing history? They are reminding us that we’ve seen chaos in government before and managed to right the course.


True! We have seen abuse of power and flagrant disregard for the constitution and rule of law before.


In the Church.


Similar stories are commonplace in our denomination (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America-ELCA) but none more dramatic than the history of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod (SEPA) and the little, self-supporting congregation—Redeemer in East Falls, Philadelphia.


Washington is following SEPA’s playbook.


We know the drill.


  • PR attacks that create doubt among those who want to believe their leaders and know little about the topic being discussed.
  • Truth twisted until little fibs become bold, outright lies. Truth is of little value when the prime goal is to build support for the impending abuses of power.
  • Jockeying of key leadership positions to guarantee leaders are in lock-step with the bishop.
  • Battles to control Synod Assembly procedures. Rewriting rules, if necessary. Ignoring them if you can get away with it (and they can!)
  • Boasts of accomplishments that wouldn’t withstand scrutiny—if anyone was tempted to ask questions and have their loyalty doubted.
  • Letters to supporters painting any opposition as personal attacks on leadership (when the personal attacks were the other way around)


SEPA repeatedly practiced the ecclesiastical version of the Saturday Night Massacre, making a sham of the call system just as the current president makes a sham of the confirmation process. We saw it three times.


  • Pastor Matthias signed an 18-month term call and the bishop removed him after three months. He was needed in Bucks County. A year later, the same pastor who should have still been OUR pastor used his familiarity in the neighborhood to visit our bank and withdrew $90,000—check written to the synod without the congregation’s knowledge.
  • Pastor Muse met with bishop’s office with no representative from Redeemer and was gone in 10 days—20 days short of the constitutional requirement.
  • Pastor Mutashobya, whom we had formally asked to call, had a meeting with a synod representative and never stepped foot in the church again. During his seven months with us we had accepted more than 40 new members. One of the first things Pastor Mutashobya did was meet with the new members and read to them the constitution.


In a fourth instance, the reverse happened. SEPA insisted we issue a call without the support of either the congregation council or the congregation. “Approve this call or there won’t be any pastor for a very long time.” The bishop demanded repetitive votes, giving up only after the third failed vote, rather like the recent health care votes.


The pesky laity don’t fall so easily. Most will run for cover. SEPA counts on that. But then there was Redeemer. Usually, the synod is in and out before people know what they are agreeing to. Bishops refer to this as things “going smoothly.” But Redeemer had experience. There were attempts to seize our assets every 10 years from formation of the ELCA. We know the tactics and strategies. We’ve seen synod leaders infiltrate our congregation council, looking for the weak links. A synod staff member actually wrote letters of resignation for our council. The congregation was unaware there were any issues. Bribes of various sorts sealed the deals. Clergy found new calls. For the laity there were tangible bribes—a computer or two, a gravestone, and a set of tools—for cooperating council representatives.


Bullying threats follow when bribery doesn’t work.


Young people watch and form their faith as they see “Stand Up for Jesus” reduced to a T-shirt slogan.


Revenge is sweetest when it is most complete. Vengeance is theirs!


In Washington, wayward staff are fired in the most humiliating ways. In the Church, you can’t fire volunteers. But you can make tough on them and their families. You can belittle them in private circles, No one needs to know.


SEPA sued our members, some of them personally, in cases that dragged on for six years. There was never any attempt to resolve issues peacefully. Every decision was the most aggressive imaginable. It still amazes me that SEPA clergy accepted as proper a visit to the congregation for the first time required a lawyer and locksmith.  This outrage should have been stopped by synod council before it happened—but a good number of the synod council came along for the show.


The congregation’s resistance to such behavior was taken as a personal attack rather than what it was— the elected leaders acting diligently to represent the congregation who elected them. Doesn’t this sound like reaction to the failure of the healthcare bill? If you don’t support the party, you won’t be reelected. If you aren’t up for reelection, we’ll find other ways to hurt your state.


All this fancy footwork—and to what end? Not the good of the congregation or the neighborhood. Not  the good of the synod (ask for an accounting of the costs of six years of litigation and the loss of almost all mission assets in Northwest Philadelphia). Not the good of other clergy and congregations who were afraid to speak up and now face the same likely future. “Time will tell. Time will tell.”


The only winner was a bishop who could carve a notch in her gun handle and boast of her successes. No one notices that the stated goal: ministry in East Falls was a total failure.


Yep, we’ve seen it all before. Learn from our experience. It will get uglier before it gets better. The strategies of bullying leaders is predictable. We know what it takes to stop them. A little backbone. That is starting to happen in Washington. Unlikely in a regional office.


There are two huge differences between the national leadership chaos and church leadership chaos. The courts DO have jurisdiction and the authority to correct the course in national issues. In the church, the checks and balances are all theory. It’s a regulatory honor system that is only as honorable as the players.


The second difference is that more people care about their nation than they do their church.


As our president likes to Tweet: SAD