It’s the Ninth Anniversary of an Ugly Day in Lutheran History
The disciplines of religion and history rarely mix.
First, theology gets in the way. Anyone can find justification for any whim by finding a crack between the lines of Scripture.
Then tradition gets in the way, followed by human nature. It makes life easier to just follow the leader.
Perhaps Christianity’s biggest failing is the tendency to never, ever revisit the past. New ministry initiatives are touted in the unchallenged church press. When they fail ten years later, no one notices.
Leadership gaffes happen every day on many levels. Even small missteps that appear to affect few can have long-term consequences. The Church won’t notice. Individuals and neighborhoods do.
Christians are suckers. We like to play nice. We like to believe that leaders have pure motives. It can be hard to tell.
Christians are sucked in by language. How do you question the proposals of leaders who preface every presentation with “After prayerful discernment”?
The Church rarely revisits its actions. Nothing new. The Crusades are still remembered as noble warriors gallantly fighting for the faith. Most were patsies for rulers, hoping success would earn status and land at a time when the common people had no way of achieving either. Result: Christianity and Islam are still at loggerheads centuries later.
Most church gaffes are more isolated and smaller—bad choices. They, too, can have long-term effects that go unexplored, thus paving the way for replication of bad ideas.
In this true story, a bishop comes into office facing a financial crisis. Deficit spending has gone unchecked for years. Where can money be found when even affluent churches are no longer giving at needed levels? The Great Recession is on the horizon. Money problems everywhere! AAAUUUGGH!
Things could have been worked out except for the ELCA’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. The bishop didn’t want to work things out. She wanted what this congregation owned—everything. Standing in the way were two things: Lutheran law and the membership of the targeted church.
Where were the clergy that should have known better? Where were other congregations that could be (and some have been) in the same position? Prayerful discernment steps had been taken and
Lutherans were primed with “alternative facts” and “fake news” that justified looking the other way.
It wasn’t for lack of time. The dispute was in the courts for six years with the ELCA shamefully using attacking church members individually.
Question: If two sides of a dispute engage in prayerful discernment and the answers are God-directed, shouldn’t the two parties end up working together?
The events of this day, moved the still new issue immediately in the courts. This created an “us against them” environment with leadership using every power to defeat a small congregation.
The six years of legal actions resulted in a decision which has the potential to overthrow all Lutheran tradition and jeopardizes all lay leadership:
RULING:Although the congregation was within its rights to protest, secular courts cannot enforce church law.
This means lay leaders (of all denominations) are protected only by the integrity of leadership, which is not guaranteed by ecclesiastic electoral systems or the vested interests of hierarchy.
The result of this one day in church history puts every congregation and every faithful church member at risk if they dare to defy any decision of church leadership.
It is worth revisiting on the ninth anniversary.
PS: As a result of this decision, all members of Redeemer Church were locked out their building. The property was seized by the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod and sold after standing empty for seven years. The popular, 25-year-old, Lutheran-related day school closed and the educational building was razed for townhouses. The sanctuary, never desanctified, is being gutted for apartments.
Ironically, the neighborhood is experiencing a renaissance. The property Lutherans provided at considerable sacrifice for mission and witness at the main corner of town is now gone, Mission for Lutherans in all Northwest Philadelphia is all but abandoned. Oh, and we started our online ministry which has a wider reach than most Lutheran churches that took from East Falls what is not theirs.
Christianity is based on one single momentous and miraculous event. The Resurrection.
Christ died, once and for all, that we might live. There is no need to repeat this event—even if we could. What a gift!
Yet the Resurrection story has become the fundamental argument in church circles for—of all things—failure.
Here is a characteristic logical progression.
Every congregation/ministry has a lifespan. This may be true, but what does this mean? Some congregations have been around for centuries with all kinds of ups and downs. Some last a few years. Without an analysis of what this means, it is deflection designed to intimidate.
Quote Ecclesiastes 3. There is a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot. Sometimes a New Testament analogy is called upon—new wine in old wine skins. Christianity is the new wine.
Remember the Resurrection. Only by dying can there be new life. New life doesn’t always require a corresponding death. The miracle of the Resurrection is all about us not having to die.
The teaming of these passages creates justification for ministry tactics that otherwise are not biblical. The Bible condemns any effort to discourage the faithful. Matthew 18:6, Mark 9:42, Luke 17:2.
The Resurrection and Ecclesiastes passages are about hope—realistic hope and miraculous hope. Belief in the miraculous should energize the realistic.
He argues that congregations sometimes need to look at the effectiveness of existing ministries. He never argues that change should be forced. Instead he argues that those who appreciate the ministries should take responsibility for their continuation and allow others to experiment with different ideas. Makes sense.
He argues that troubled congregations be helped along in their dying so that re-planters have better odds of success without those troublesome laypeople. It sounds very practical in a world where clergy and lay leaders rarely reason together. In truth, the arguments are attractive to replanters for one reason. They want no one standing between them and church assets.
Theory hits the fan when it comes to implementation. Sometimes congregations don’t agree. It gets ugly and hateful. Communities (church and neighborhoods) are damaged long-term. While clergy come and go, church members still live in the neighborhoods where the strong-arm tactics were employed. The Church rarely revisits actions taken popularized theories. It is easier to leave the blame for failure with church members.
Our congregation heard these arguments. Oddly, we were growing quickly, but our regional body hadn’t been around to see our growth. They were practicing intentional neglect. One bishop said, “Ten years without a pastor and you’ll die a natural death.” His successor didn’t bother to check if that was the case or not! Both were blind to reality and hope by their own financial needs.
Church leaders buying into this cockeyed logic are betting on failure, squandering the sacrifice Christ made for all of us.
These arguments are lazy theology. They prey on trusting lay people. Regional bodies exist to assist congregations. That begins by listening. It continues by collaborating. It thrives on empowerment of lay leadership.
Denominations rarely revisit controversial decisions. They continue despite failure. The damage endures—mission opportunities squandered for decades.
Most lay people want to believe professional leaders know what they are doing.
Reality: Often regional bodies haven’t a clue how to lead in the modern spiritual zeitgeist, have failed to train the leadership for the realities of today’s ministry—and most dangerously—are struggling financially themselves.
Every year for the last seven years, the Lutherans of East Falls—locked out of our own property by the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod (ELCA) in a budget-balancing land grab—checked in with the Lutheran Grinch to see if conscience had yet to kick in.
Year eight. An opportunity to do the right thing in a way that was right and feasible and perhaps in keeping with mission is now gone.
But Redeemer Whoville is still here! We’ll gather around the relics we saved from the church—not allowed by the synod but by the developer that purchased our land for a song.
The Grinch of Whoville was able to breach the wall between evil and good. That Grinch pondered the effects of his greed and changed his ways. He at last could stand with the people of Whoville and sing with joy and a growing heart. It’s supposed to make us think of the Christmas message if the Bible doesn’t hit home.
Neither is likely to happen in Lutheran Whoville.
There will be no reflection. The Lutheran Grinch sits on the hill overlooking their 150 or so congregations and never sees the people of their Whoville.
Reflection is not part of the popular “discernment” process. The need to win and save face stood in the way of reason and principle. There were no doctrinal differences, no issues requiring church discipline, no financial distress necessitating intervention. There was plenty of “fake” news—unsubstantiated stories about horrible things that simply were untrue. We were probably the fastest growing church in a synod where numbers are down in almost every congregation. The synod had ignored us since 1998, following their published strategy of ignoring small congregations for ten years to facilitate decline. They didn’t know anything about us in 2008. They cited 1990s statistics to the rest of the synod. We pointed out the “big lie.” No one was listening. No one was asking questions—nor were they encouraged to.
SEPA was successful in their land grab. At what cost? Six years of lawsuits—during which the building deteriorated in appraisal value from $1.5 million to $350,000—ate up the coveted pie.
Leaders without a strategy, tend to rely on destruction to demonstrate power.
The long-term effects set an unhealthy precedent. Much needed innovation will not happen in congregations for fear of intervention.
SEPA’s tactic to sue individual church members should be very disturbing to all church leaders. A desire for safety and security clouds the sense of right/wrong.
In most historical contexts, there are people who look back at the decisions of leadership and measure the results to see if popular decisions ended up to be foolish or wise. Leaders with perceived mediocre promise (Harry Truman) end up wearing history’s halo. Popular leaders (Hitler) are condemned.
Churches don’t examine church history in the light of self-discovery or improvement. Did that pastor that everyone loved move the congregation forward or were those happy years the onset of decline? Were those lay people who raised questions trouble makers, or did their concerns prove to be valid?
The Redeemer decision—made with overwhelming acceptance of a synod assembly acting outside their constitutional powers—wise or even Christian? Only one church asked back then (Old Zion). None have asked since. It became Church at its worst, something akin to a Lutheran Hunger Games, with fluid rules and and tactics designed to inflict maximum damage.
The now eight-year-old decision that SEPA won in a weird way should give all Lutherans pause. The final court decision was that if the law were applied Redeemer’s arguments have merit, but the courts cannot enforce church law. In other words, Redeemer was right to challenge SEPA! SEPA’s actions were questionable. Our fellow Lutherans failed in their duty to provide the checks/balances.
Let’s look back at a few of the results of a power run unchecked.
ROOTS OF THE DECISION
SEPA Synod was routinely operating on a significant deficit budget. Closing churches in a way that guaranteed the assets went to the synod became a goal. Problem: it violates the founding agreement between the synods and congregations. Congregations have the right to vote on their future and to disperse property as the congregation wishes (within charitable guidelines). SEPA Synod usurps this right by invoking an unconstitutional tactic they call Involuntary Synodical Administration. This violates the agreement member congregations that joined the ELCA made only 27 years ago. The founding constitution allows for VOLUNTARY synodical administration, done with a vote of the congregation. But SEPA made up an INVOLUNTARY form to side-step congregational rights and take control of congregational assets. It is a form of theft. Even the wording: Taking the control of property and assets without the consent of the congregation and administering assets for the synod’s benefit is the definition of theft. Use fancy words. No one notices.
POTENTIAL IMPACT: Sooner or later, church leaders can expect to be challenged. This happened in East Falls. Christian beliefs and teachings ceased to matter. Winning mattered.
The leadership theory that was published in a book by Bishop Claire Burkat a few years before she put it into practice in East Falls states that the best way to manage a struggling church is to close it for a few weeks, remove signage, and reopen under a new leadership with NONE of the existing members permitted to participate. Where did they get such nonsense?
Church leaders see things from a clergy point of view. When a pastor leaves a church, they are advised to stay out of their previous parish to avoid conflicts with new leadership. This theory does not transfer to church members. Church members still live in the community and church leaders are likely also to be community leaders. Banishing them is easier said than done. Interestingly, another such SEPA experiment in which the synod closed a church and took possession of congregational assets received acclaim in the early years. They reopened to great fanfare with 70 or so charter members. A few years later, the parish statistics reflected far fewer members. No fanfare about this. Reported success. Unmentioned failure.
All the theory obscures the real reasons to wish church members gone.
UNFORESEEN IMPACT: Leaders fail to understand the value of land and tradition. They also fail to realize that in small churches, a lot of people are related by both blood and social circles. Scratch off a few problem lay members and you’ve riled a whole neighborhood. Working class East Falls residents sacrificed to provide prime real estate in our community to ensure a faith presence beyond their own lifetimes. They didn’t just build a shack. They invested their labor and wages to create beauty. Bishop Burkat’s attack on our congregation ended up predictably with the sale of the church. They sold it at least twice. An early sale was to a nonprofit that was willing to work with Redeemer members to establish Christian day school in the space they once owned. When the synod found out, they used tactics that would embarrass faithful Lutherans to regain rights to the property. Then they sold it to developers, of course. Urban land always has greater commercial value than monetary mission value. These developers were also willing to work with Redeemer members. Remember, we still live here! We were close to raising the money, but it was difficult. After all, SEPA took our endowment funds, too. We had only a few months and came very close. The land so carefully provided for mission in our community will be apartments. Our school has already been leveled for town houses. That’s the impact on Redeemer. For all regional Lutherans, it will be almost impossible to influence all of northwest Philadelphia (population 200,000+ and where SEPA is headquartered) will soon be next to impossible.
The loss to the community is even worse. The school we had planned is needed far more than five new houses. Our land as a cultural hub for many community groups is now gone and difficult to replace as available land in urban neighborhoods is now economically steep.
THE REALITY FOR URBAN LUTHERANS
Our experience is representative. Most of our members were life-long Lutherans—some in America, others from Africa. We remain Lutheran in a neighborhood where other Lutherans have been unkind. We are still active in our community and we speak up for our continued presence, our history and our traditions. We are learning a lot. We are seeing what the future of faith communities in urban neighborhoods are likely to look like. We learned we were dong a lot right. We were growing diverse in a natural, organic way. Our membership was young in a church body that is adopting a new liturgical color of gray. We would not have been growing had we followed the advice of church consultants. Their predictions made in the 1990s—that demographics did not favor mission—we now know were baloney.
Redeemer was here long enough to experience, understand, and be part of real societal change. During this time, the Lutheran church was unable to provide adequate leadership. The suburbs called. Redeemer, largely lay-led, worked through the problems. East Falls is now a melting pot of diversity. We have experience we could be sharing.
EAST FALLS and NW PHILADELPHIA TODAY
East Falls, along with neighboring communities of Manayunk, Wissahickon and Roxborough, are among the fastest growing neighborhoods in Philadelphia. They are also the youngest neighborhoods. SEPA’s leadership has positioned Lutherans to miss a true opportunity for long-term mission. The era of White Flight was a challenge! We turned the corner, partly because we stayed in the city. For the first time since the 1970s, people are finding urban neighborhoods attractive places to raise families. Redeemer would be in a position to be truly helpful as our neighborhood continues to transform. But SEPA administered our assets for their benefit.
The Lutheran Grinch still sits at the top or the hill in Northwest Philadelphia carefully waiting to sled down the hill and take as much as they can carry. Just three churches left. Probably not for long!
Whew! We just survived one of the most divisive elections in our young nation’s history.
The challenge now seems to be for newly elected leaders to unite a divided following. There is always another election to think about.
Despite passionate differences, our nation is likely to survive. The challenges facing the Church might be more formidable.
Oddly, small issues are surprisingly lethal to both congregations and denominations. Peaceful resolution is something church leaders preach but have difficulty practicing. While small issues are problematic, large issues are catastrophic.
Perhaps comparing Public Leadership and Church Leadership can shed light on why the Church struggles with leadership on both clergy and lay levels.
Public leaders are elected by a process that is well-regulated and overseen by both elected and volunteer groups.
Church leaders are elected by a process that is controlled by clergy and tradition and are difficult to challenge.
Public leaders are drawn from a deep and ever refreshed pool of potential candidates with varying backgrounds.
Church leaders are drawn from an increasingly shallow pool that tends to be homogenous. Laity who become involved at decision-making levels usually have proved loyalty to existing leadership.
Public leaders are elected after a long campaign. Those voting have a chance to research and follow a candidate for months. The rules are generally well known—part of a grade school education.
Church leaders are elected by an electorate with little opportunity to research decisions. Many of the electing body know nothing at all about the slate of candidates or church procedure.
Public leaders must respond to an elaborate check and balance system that includes independent media.
There is no independent media critiquing the views of church leaders as they rise to power. Most church “journalists” are paid by the people they write about.
Public leaders are elected by a process that includes a diverse electorate.
The church electorate consists of clergy and a few representatives of each congregation—many of them have no background in church governance and are unfamiliar with church issues.
Public leaders are part of a process that is divided by party lines. Dialog is guaranteed.
Church leaders can be viewed as just one party—or as having each congregation acting as its own party. Either way, the opportunities for effective dialog are limited.
The dialog continues after election. Public officials must remain engaged with all the electorate.
Church leaders can operate with little or no engagement with member churches or members until the next assembly (the structure of which they control.)
Public leaders must operate within the law or face legal consequences.
Church leaders operate with considerable distance from the people they serve. They can (and do) claim exemption from secular courts under Separation of Church and State. Secular courts do not want to be involved in church law. It is up to the church electorate to keep church leaders honest. In many cases, the people charged to oversee church legal matters are on the church payroll. Church leaders can abuse power for a long time before being challenged. The clergy segment of the electorate relies on friendly relations with church leaders for calls. Lay people don’t like to think the leaders of their church might stray!
Most public leaders face reelection and/or term limits.
Rules vary, but many denominations consider calls to be permanent.
It is difficult to leave your country when unhappy. There are ways out of messy situations.
It is difficult for devoted Christians to leave the Church. Often, it is the only option as there is no effective course for redressor grievances.
Bill Maher, host of Real Time with Bill Maher, interviewed President Obama recently. One of the topics that appeared to be nearest and dearest to the comic’s heart was the topic of religion—or more precisely atheism. He questioned President Obama on the role of religion in politics.
Maher is an atheist who feels treated as a minority in society. He seemed eager to promote his position by citing statistics he feels reflect a growing number of atheists. One statistic he quotes has to do with the number of people who check “none” when asked to identify with religion.
There may be some confusion.
“Nones” are not necessarily atheists.
Many “nones” are a growing group of Christians who believe in God but feel shut out by today’s church. In this case, “none” means they feel they don’t fit in. They may very well be passionate about faith.
“Nones” have been hurt. They may feel labeled or excluded. They may feel judged or marginalized. They may feel bullied by church leadership. They may disagree passionately with views voiced by clergy without an equal platform to speak. In the case of our church, our denomination locked our entire congregation out in a land grab. Many of our members are lifelong Christians who are now “nones”—by edict of a bishop that wanted to benefit from the value of our land.
“Disenfranchised” may be the better word.
The growing number of “nones” should concern denominations. However, denominations are often too busy plugging the dike of membership loss to address the problems that cause the leaks.
Clergy were once able to shape church policy, but recent troubles have increased the numbers of sycophants—an oddity among Protestants and especially Lutherans who owe their identity to leadership that showed no fear in challenging the church of its day. Luther fought hierarchy in an age when church leaders actually wielded power in society. It’s harder to challenge power that exists in a system that has little power outside its own carefully defined worlds. It is much easier to discourage malcontents and keep the dwindling number of happy people happy.
Those in the church who don’t want to spend their lives whipping dead horses find it easier to adopt the label “none.” It’s sad. The church’s loss. The church needs to be challenged from time to time.
Voters correctly points out that denominations play favorites with larger churches—an oddity since as many as 80% of all churches are small. We are like one big family—eight of the ten children are stepchildren.
There is only one reason mainline denominations emphasize mid-to-large churches. A church of 300 members or more theoretically provides financial security for professional leaders. In a sense, the primary mission becomes the support of leadership. But small churches provide unparalleled mission opportunity.
All churches start small. Most churches stay small. Most talk about growing but know that they will never be big. When they think of growing it is more in terms of being better able to serve where they are. They aren’t looking to migrate to the suburbs and the luxury of parking lot space. They want to witness where they are.
There was a time when small churches could expect to find adequate professional leadership. Today, not so much.
I was reminded of this over the weekend. Redeemer Lutheran Church’s property was seized by the ELCA synod and sold to a developer. There was a never a congregation vote as required. They plotted to bypass their own rules and locked out the congregation.
We are still here and still have a sense of mission.
Our denomination has a bad case of arrested development. They are stuck in a time warp that dates to the social changes of fifty years ago. Churches were among the leaders of the urban exodus known as White Flight. Some congregations simply relocated to the near suburbs. Others lost their younger members as they set out on their own. Denominations were ill-equipped to provide leadership for changing neighborhoods. They still are.
Make no mistake—changing neighborhoods are now the norm—everywhere.
Our locked out congregation was part of a neighborhood festival this weekend. With the help of volunteers, we restored our 30-foot wooden sliding board for the community Oktoberfest. We also had a bake sale and this gave us an opportunity to talk to new neighbors and visit with Redeemer veterans.
Two thirds of Redeemer’s 30-foot slide.
One Redeemer member recalled a search for a pastor that had to date to the 1960s. She told of how the congregation showed the parsonage to a candidate. The parsonage was a row house on Midvale Avenue — one of the most beautiful blocks in the neighborhood. These houses sell today in the mid $300,000s. The candidate said he could never live in row house and likened it to living in a slum.
Most of Philadelphia lives in row houses.
Clergy often look for calls that promise a lifestyle they envisioned when enrolling in seminary. If their heads have been filled with suburban prejudices about cities, the city can be viewed as undesirable.
A funny thing has happened since the turbulent 60s, 70s, and 80s. City neighborhoods are now viewed by young people as the place to be. Our neighborhood—East Falls—is booming!
Saturday’s crowd was young. Many of them shared their faith experiences and their hopes for a long stay in the city. There is great potential for ministry. But the potential has been largely squandered by leadership that made decisions about our neighborhood with self-interest in the forefront.
Our situation is not isolated. The same leadership that squandered Redeemer’s ministry just “celebrated” the closing of St. Michael’s in neighboring Mount Airy—one of the most vibrant neighborhoods in Philadelphia.
Church closings have their own rituals and liturgies. Clergy dress to the nines and process down the aisle in celebration of—well—failure. A lot of nice words will be bandied about, but they are celebrating failure—their failure.
When mission opportunities are served to today’s leaders on a platter they haven’t the slightest plan where to begin.
Then there are those of us who stayed. We are here today, ready for mission. Our leaders took our seed assets (their seed assets, too)—endowment funds and property. They squandered the physical assets that Lutherans of East Falls sacrificed to provide for the future. They viewed lay members as enemies rather than local leaders.
We may be a century-old company, but we need to move quickly, take risks, fail fast and behave like a startup to keep winning. …until recently our management could make every decision in the headquarters. Those days are over.
What he describes applies to most organizations in the modern age. If you are not embracing the mindset of a startup and not prepared to perpetually live as if starting over, your survival is in jeopardy.
What good news for the church!
Most churches are small and have been struggling to find a place in a fast-changing world that still idealizes “large.” All small churches should be well-acquainted with the start-up mentality. They have probably been living in start-up mode for decades.
The problem is that this has been seen as undesirable, a challenge, or interpreted as congregations in death throes. In reality, what small churches faced decades ago was a harbinger for what was to come for all churches. They/We were on the frontline of learning to deal with fast-paced change.
Today, we are coming to understand every organization faces the challenge of change. Fundamental change.
Back to the Cities
Read the entire post surrounding this quote from GE’s leader. You’ll find more good news. GE is moving from the comfort of the suburbs to vibrancy of the city.
The city is no longer viewed as a wasteland to be avoided. The illusion of the city as festering with crime and poverty is suddenly stripped away. GE wants to be where the hospitals, research, and universities are. Immelt calls it “an ecosystem made by and for innovation.”
This movement (and GE is not alone) reveals where the Church has made major blunders. The church wrote off its urban neighborhood churches when the suburbs began to attract young home buyers. In the best cases, they neglected the cities and country, providing status quo leadership. They call it caretaker ministries. In the worst cases, they provided next to no leadership and either strong-armed the congregations or eroded the lay leadership to get the desired result—a closed church with the property and financial assets benefiting the regional body and the suburban mindset.
So here we are four decades after the great migration from the cities to the suburbs.
What is happening? City neighborhoods are once again seen by today’s young people as desirable. They are moving back to neighborhoods like East Falls in Philadelphia. They are determined to stay and not take off when the oldest child is school age. They love being close to the cultural choices and diversity that differentiates city from suburb. They are passionate and vocal. They have discovered the power of the internet.
We are seeing this in East Falls, where the newcomers to our neighborhood are so dedicated to making East Falls a neighborhood where they want to stay that they started a competing civic group with Facebook pages dedicated to the issues that concern them. It is exciting to watch.
But our denomination is behind the eight ball. They followed other denominations and worked the last two decades to close congregations, making sure any remaining wealth went their way.
The strategy appears to have backfired. The regional bodies are now stranded in the suburbs by decades of cloudy vision and poor decisions. The land and endowment funds that could have helped them regain a fold hold in the city are gone.
The city is once again right down their demographic alley. But they have sold the land—dirt cheap in many cases. They have spent the endowment funds that were given for ministry in these neighborhoods and squandered them on their own survival.
Now, if they are to regain a presence in the city, they will have to shell out at least five times their short-term windfall. Mission in the city has been made all but impossible.
The article interviewing GE’s CEO is part of a series. It goes on to talk about how GE is working to change its culture. They are working to create an environment where every decision need not be dictated or blessed by the management. Employees are encouraged and empowered to share insights and act upon them quickly—without years of jockeying to be noticed and approved. They are accepting that failure is to be expected somewhere along the way.
Did you ever hear of Redeemer Lutheran Church in the East Falls neighborhood of Philadelphia?
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 inChristianity 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.)
This is the first in a series of articles on the concept of agency and how it affects the church.
Agency is what people within an organization feel they can contribute without oversight.
Agency is always part of organizational structure. In the past it was more a lack of agency that characterized many institutions. But things are changing.
Agency kicks in the minute a person thinks, “If I am going to be part of this organization, how will I be able to contribute?”
People who grow up in the Church already have a sense of place. Often it has been the same place all their lives!
The Church needs newbies—not just because we need numbers to survive. Shame on us if that’s how we approach seekers. We need newbies because that is the mission of the Church.
Today’s Church challenge is to reach the vast majority who were not raised in the Church. Seekers will look at the question of church involvement far differently than those who grew up knowing what to expect.
Today’s seekers grew up with the internet.
The internet expands the concept of agency. People participate in media without editorial approval. Customers take their complaints global if business fails to recognize that they have agency to do so. Students start businesses online.
Women may have a better understanding of this new-found freedom—especially women of the boomer age. Boomer gals were witnesses and participants as women gained agency in many aspects of American life.
When I was 13 or so, I wanted to earn my own money. A newspaper route in our little town was available. I wanted that route, but girls were not allowed to carry newspapers. Going door to door, even in a town where neighbors were well known, was considered unsafe. OK for boys. Not for girls. My brother dealt with the newspaper office on the few occasions this was necessary.
Today, we recognize the dangers girls encounter are just as threatening to boys.
In school, I learned the meaning of agency when we girls were using the school gym. If a group of boys came into the gym, we were expected to vacate immediately.
When I got to college, the restrictions on co-eds were just being lifted. We no longer had to sign in and out of the dorm or hold to a curfew.
I could continue to give examples of agency in the secular world. But let’s look at agency in the church.
The topic comes to mind as I recall conversations over the last few months with a few of my friends, both men and women—all spiritual and faithful to their church. Each of them told a story about their involvement in church that was eerily similar. They even used the same words. “I was told I had to step back.” In several cases, the people were elected to congregation councils and had an obligation to serve the congregation for their term. The expectation that they should step back was bypassing the congregation’s agency. Ah! Agency can get complicated!
Some were told this by a pastor. Others (including me) by a bishop.
In every case, there was only one reason. We had earned status in our congregations over time. We had influence. Professional leaders (pastors), usually newly arrived on the scene, felt threatened.
Instead of empowering the most able members of the church and benefiting from their talents and passions, the leadership preferred no involvement from anyone that might challenge them or those above them. That leaves them to work with the least committed and less able, but that’s OK. They find comfort in knowing their leadership will not be challenged. (It also won’t be effective.)
Failure is then set to trickle down throughout the congregation. But leadership rarely recognizes the results of their decisions. It is so easy to assign the blame elsewhere. Church members learn from example. They ask themselves, If the most giving people are asked to step aside, what will happen to me if I succeed?
The Church must realize that today’s Christians live in a society where they have agency in their homes and in their secular lives. We expect agency in an organization that teaches us to let our lights shine. We are not gong to understand or relate to an institution that asks us to be less than who God made us to be.
Agency is a gift. Churches need to stop seeing it as a curse.
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.