We are reprinting Bishop Burkat’s recent letter to SEPA professional leaders. It is impossible to comment on all the allegations here. Some are still in the courts. But we are responding to many and if any reader has a specific question, we will be glad to provide a thorough answer.

Our comments are inset and in italics.

Dear Partners in Ministry,

This letter is to alert our synodical leaders to a possible upcoming newspaper article regarding the ongoing legal action concerning the former Redeemer Congregation in East Falls, Philadelphia. 

Recently, David O’Reilly, a reporter from The Philadelphia Inquirer, asked to meet with me concerning continuing grievances by Judy Gotwald, who contacted him to make public her issues with the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod.

Judy Gotwald did not go to the Inquirer. The Inquirer came to her after a member of one of the churches visited by our Ambassadors contacted Reporter O’Reilly. More than a year ago, Judy Gotwald responded to an article that ran in the Philadelphia Inquirer which incorrectly identified the Lutheran Church as hierarchical. She also wrote a note many months ago in response to an article that ran about Catholic church closings. No story resulted from Judy’s contact with The Inquirer. She did not pursue one.

Bishop Burkat has been jumping to conclusions about Redeemer for years.

The Redeemer saga has drawn out for four-and-a-half years, and has been the subject of many third-party communications to our congregations, rostered leaders, and to the bishops and church council of the ELCA. I have resisted responding publically to the allegations and misrepresentation of the Redeemer narrative, however, now since Judy Gotwald is wanting to have this story made public, I feel I must reply with my understanding of the facts and issues. Feel free to share this letter with others in your congregation if the newspaper article is under discussion.

By third party communications, we assume Bishop Burkat is referring to letters sent by  Rev. Luther Gotwald. He is a member of Redeemer, hardly a third party. Judy Gotwald has been writing about these issues on this blog for some time.

SEPA made this public a long time ago when they sued our congregation and members even before we were able to exercise the grievance process prescribed in the constitution.

I want to share with you the points I made in my conversation with Mr. O’Reilly, as you may be reading about this shortly in the newspaper.

It saddens me that time, energy, and funds are still being spent on the issue of the synodical administration and subsequent closing of Redeemer, East Falls.

I have witnessed and empathized with the pain and sense of loss that people experience when their congregation closes. We always attempt to work with struggling congregations to strengthen their ministries, and when things don’t work out we help the remaining people to appropriately grieve the end of their congregation’s life, achieve a healthy closing, and move to new faith communities. Sadly, we have walked this journey with a number of congregations in recent years.

Normally the process goes smoothly and respectfully, enabling people to remember the faithful ministry that served that community for many years. In the case of Redeemer, leaders did not cooperate with us and instead resisted tenaciously in an adversarial manner that publically tarnishes the wonderful memory of ministry that has taken place in the East Falls community since 1891. Certain individuals have gone so far as to personally accuse me of somehow conspiring to intentionally close Lutheran congregations.

The stage for the relationship of Redeemer with SEPA Synod was set by Bishop Roy Almquist, who DID NOT work with the congregation in any process even remotely like that described here. In the late 1980s Redeemer had received a large bequest from a former member. That endowment began attracting synod’s attention. When the pastor at that time, Rev. Wm deHeyman, retired, Bishop Almquist signed an 18-month term call agreement between Redeemer and Rev. Robert Matthias. So far, so good. We are working together!

Three months later he came to the congregation and told us he had other uses for Rev. Matthias’ skills and broke the term call with 30 days notice. We were left with no pastor for the following year. In January 1998, Rev. Matthias, Rev. Rodney Kopp and Rev. Gordon Simmons, visited our annual meeting. Unbeknownst to the congregation, Rev. Sue Ericsson of SEPA staff had encouraged seven council members to resign to create conditions to use as grounds for synodical administration. On cue, seven of ten council members produced letters of resignation (drafted by synod). Rev. Matthias rose and declared Syndical Administration without a Synod Council vote. That came later that afternoon — after the fact. Rev. Matthias visited our bank within a day or so, taking with him a former Redeemer treasurer, and withdrew $90,000 from Redeemer’s account, which was conveyed to the Synod against the prohibition in SEPA’s Articles of Incorporation. With the help of two sympathetic pastors, the three remaining council members restored the council and negotiated with synod in a comparatively peaceful manner. Bishop Almquist released the synodical administration a year later, but took an additional year to return our money, keeping some for “expenses.” A letter was issued to all congregations shortly afterwards, requesting contributions to make up a deficit of almost exactly the amount returned to Redeemer.

The need to administer Redeemer seems to coincide with Synod’s cash flow problems. A few months prior to the most recent episode, Synod treasurer reported that SEPA was within $75,000 of depleting every resource. Nevertheless, Synod Assembly was presented with a six-figure deficit budget, which they approved, even reporting that deficits are filled with money from closed churches. CLOSING CHURCHES IS A PLAN!

As further evidence of SEPA’s plans to close churches, we heard a lay member in a distant Philadelphia suburb tell of how his company was trying to help an urban congregation with a property problem. He told us that his company received a phone call from Bishop Burkat asking them to NOT help the congregation because it was the plan to close the church and sell its property. This congregation, apparently targeted for closure, is still open. The Ambassadors have visited it twice and found a fairly healthy attendance at both visits (70 and 50).

We have never heard Bishop Burkat refer to any wonderful ministry at Redeemer. She labeled our congregation as historically adversarial from her first encounter with us. She made sure that label stuck!

HOW DARE Bishop Burkat accuse us of tarnishing the memories of our loved ones who bought the land, built the building, grew and cared for the congregation for decades often with no help of SEPA. We knew these people and know they would be standing right beside us. Bishop Burkat couldn’t wait to dismantle our sign board. She told us from the get-go that she intended to change our congregation’s name.  She very clearly wants our congregation dead and forgotten and to invoke the memory of our friends and family now departed in her cause is outrageous, insensitive, offensive, and unnecessary.

That accusation hurts the most. I want to be as clear as possible with you that, as a former Mission Director, I like to birth churches, not close them. In twenty years, I helped start 16 congregations with three judicatories in two denominations. I was not the mother, or even the godmother, but something of a midwife, in each case bringing a small worshipping community through birth to a healthy start.

It amazes us that with all the indescribable pain caused by Bishop Burkat’s ill-conceived actions and tenacious implementation that her concerns are for her personal pain.

Her actions have divided families. Her attacks on those who withstood her intimidation tactics have drained the budgets of several of our members’ families to the point of threatening them with homelessness. While she could never find time to meet with us or respond to our letters, she managed to find the time and resources to drag us from one courthouse to the next. The most devastating and long-term damage to our community is that her actions tested the faith of good Christians, many of them new to America and the Lutheran church.

Bishop Burkat wallows in her own self-inflicted “pain.” She should be helping all find a way out of this mess without the courts. That would be leadership. Redeemer presented many ideas for reasonable settlement . . . all ignored!

Bishop describes herself as something of a “midwife” in helping churches. In Redeemer’s case she was more of an “abortionist,” deciding on her own the potential, value, and destiny of our church.

As a Synod we are committed to equip the saints and congregations for the work of ministry for building up the body of Christ. In addition to many equipping events, our staff and deans work diligently with congregations in difficulty to seek different means and opportunities for health and wholeness. Synod staff, working with two previous bishops, had in fact attempted to work with Redeemer’s leadership for a dozen years before the Synod Council approved taking the congregation under administration in 2007. We never approach these situations with a plan to simply close a congregation.

In 2000, Bishop Almquist informed Redeemer that if we didn’t agree to regularize a call of a pastor who wanted to work only 10 hours a week (we had asked for a term call) that there would be no pastor for us for a very long time. He kept his promise. The plan, we believed then was to let us die a natural death. We have since read in a book written by Bishop Burkat, that this is precisely her philosophy. This book was published in 2001, just as we were resolving issues with Bishop Almquist and Claire Burkat was serving as his assistant. She calls this intentional neglect “triage.” Do not waste time and resources on congregations that will die within ten years, she writes.

Nevertheless, we grew without the help or apparently the knowledge of SEPA.

Redeemer in 2007 was a much different congregation than that of Redeemer in 1998.  If any dean had visited us in 2007, 2008, or 2009, they would have found only two adult members who had been active in 1998. 95% percent of Redeemer’s members had joined in the most recent 10 years. But prejudice is more powerful than facts. Redeemer had no relationship with any dean since 2000. Redeemer made special efforts to work with Synod from 2006. We were proud of our growing ministry. After months of no response to our calls and letters, we were at last informed by the mission director in the early days of Bishop Burkat’s term, “It doesn’t matter what your congregation does, the Bishop intends to close your church.” 

As further evidence that Bishop Burkat was planning church closures, Synod’s attorney stated in court that Redeemer was the first of six congregations slated for closure. 

When we, in conversation and mutual discernment with a congregation, determine together that the time to die has come, it is always as a last resort, not a first option. When a church closes it is a loss to our entire Synod, and to the ecumenical Christian community.

Believe us! There was no working with us, no mutual discernment, no conversation, no attempt at a vote as is required by the constitution. We invite Bishop Burkat to document this activity if she feels it happened. We have a written record of monthly letters to Bishop Burkat, proudly reporting our progress and making suggestions for how to work together (these have been on our website for years!). They were all ignored by Bishop Burkat. Again, if she disagrees with this assessment, we welcome the evidence.

These are the facts that precipitated the newspaper’s interest:

In June 2010 Epic Mortgage and Funding LLC filed suit against the Synod seeking that a lien of $325,000 be placed on the property formerly occupied by Redeemer. This loan had been taken out in January 2009, for $275,000 at 14% interest, with a balloon mortgage of one year, and secured with personal guarantees by two individuals, members of the former Redeemer. In addition, this loan was originated at the very time the leaders and we were following our ELCA ecclesiastical appeal process. Simultaneously the Redeemer leaders brought the matter of building ownership through the civil courts in a lawsuit initiated in 2008 by Redeemer.

The land formerly “occupied” by Redeemer? It was the land we bought and owned, built and grew, and which Bishop Burkat clearly knows little about.

Two individuals signed documents as officers of Redeemer nearly one year after the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod Council and I directed leaders to refrain from doing congregational business. In addition they changed the name of the church on the property title and, in the summer of 2009, attempted to declare Redeemer an independent Lutheran congregation.

Redeemer was not informed of Synodical Administration until nearly FIVE MONTHS after it was voted on by Synod Council. During this five months, the trustees came to Redeemer but lied to us and told us they were “fact finders”—never mentioning Synodical administration. The trustees never administered anything during the time they were criticizing us for continuing our ministry.

Yes, we were fed up with SEPA and approved a resolution to leave SEPA Synod. The new Lutheran denominations were just forming and we had not made a choice. We intended to join another Lutheran body. We took this step holding out hope that SEPA would honor the 90 days of negotiation called for by its constitution. Instead, for the first time, Bishop Burkat responded to one of our letters. We received, with lightning speed, a letter from Synod’s attorney that we could not withdraw because we were officially terminated.

It was by decree, not mutual discernment, that Redeemer’s time to die was determined.

In October 2008, a Philadelphia Court dismissed a lawsuit that Redeemer filed against the Synod, in which Redeemer asked the Court to overturn Synod Council’s previous decision to appoint Trustees to take control of the Redeemer property. But, it was only after a second Philadelphia Court ruled that Judith Gotwald and Stanley Meena must give the Synod all of Redeemer’s books, records and financial assets, in September 2009, that we discovered that individuals at Redeemer had, in January 2009, taken out a mortgage on the Redeemer property in the amount of $275,000. In January 2010, when we finally received the Redeemer bank account, we discovered that the remaining balance from that $275,000 loan was down to about $26,000.

Synod locked Judith Gotwald and Stanley Meena and every other member of Redeemer out of the church on Sunday morning after the Friday afternoon court ruling, making it impossible for us to assess what was needed to comply. This was not required by the court order but was clearly a goal of Bishop Burkat for a very long time. We provided things we had in our homes. The court also ruled that every other member provide things as well. Any information provided to Synod was provided by Gotwald and Meena.

The bank records show that those in charge of the Redeemer loan funds continued to spend down that account even after the Philadelphia Court ruling in September 2009, which specifically ordered them to refrain from the custody or control of any money held by, for or on behalf of Redeemer. Between September 2009 and January 2010, when we discovered the whereabouts of this Redeemer account, more than $60,000 was disbursed by Redeemer. Those responsible ignored the Synod Council’s directives and my instructions as bishop, and disregarded a specific Court Order.

Meanwhile, since March 2010 Epic Mortgage and Funding, LLC, has been attempting to collect this defaulted loan, and added $50,000 of their court costs to the loan, to bring the total to $325,000. This civil case continues even after two Philadelphia court judges ruled in the synod’s favor for retaining the property. The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court, an appeals court, affirmed the ruling in the Synod’s favor. Last November, the state Supreme Court rejected Redeemer’s further appeals, thus making the earlier court rulings in favor of the Synod binding.

Bishop Burkat is overlooking that the appellate court gave a mixed verdict. Two judges agreed with Redeemer’s position. The most recent judge made a point of calling synod’s attention to this. Redeemer’s position has legal merit. Thoughtful churches might realize that their “victory” actually puts their future entirely in the hands of the bishop which is totally against Lutheranism’s historic polity. Be careful in your victory celebrations . . and remember, the case was never tried. The court rulings were made without a hearing. What the courts are really saying is that churches must find ways to settle disputes, a ruling which relies on pastors and congregants to be personally engaged and responsible.

Epic Mortgage now has two suits going simultaneously: One to collect from the individual guarantors, and another against the Synod, for a lien on the property of $325,000, just in case they do not collect from the individuals who took out the loan.

It is heart-breaking that individuals have placed themselves and their assets at risk to secure a congregational loan. But this was a highly irregular loan. I have never heard of an individual using their personal resources to secure a loan to a congregation. Normally financial institutions assess credit by looking at the assets, history and financial viability of a congregation before granting a mortgage. Why Epic Mortgage would even make such a loan is a question, which needs to be answered.

Epic looked very closely at Redeemer. They actually read our mission plan and were impressed. They visited the neighborhood and saw our potential. They met our members. Most SEPA churches did none of this before rushing to judgement.

Bishop Burkat, there is no reason to feel heartbreak for Redeemer (and you have not demonstrated that you care at all). We are not closed; we are locked out of God’s house by SEPA Synod. Redeemer has remained an active congregation and our mission work for the last three years of exile has laid the groundwork for a well-funded ministry, which could help solve the problems rather than just litigate for blame.

ALL of this litigation could have been avoided just as all the heartbreak could have been avoided, had you treated our congregation with Christian love and respected our ministry and members.

We are contesting Epic’s claim against us because the individuals who arranged for the loan had no authority to borrow against the Midvale Avenue property, and because the lender should have been able to determine that the property was the subject of both ecclesial and legal disputes. We do not feel responsible for the payment of a loan we did not approve, condone, or of which we were not even aware.

Since the legal challenges to synodical administration were finally resolved last November, representatives of the Synod have been in conversation with leaders of the East Falls community about moving forward with Lutheran ministry in the neighborhood.

The legal issues were not really resolved. They were kicked back to the church and its congregations to resolve in keeping with its rules. Hence, the issue which brewed in the courts, has spilled into other arenas. The courts want churches to work problems out themselves. But SEPA Lutherans have been unwilling to get involved. Only retired pastors have been part of the open conversation. 

Synod is acting like the 80-some members of our community, who have been locked out of their church for three years, evaporated because of a court decision. Bishop Burkat, we still live here. You are in conversation with our friends and neighbors about how to decorate our grave. Is this the foundation upon which you hope to build Lutheran mission?

The Bible calls for things like forgiveness and reconciliation, does it not? Bishop Burkat’s comment to us before this escalated into Civil War was that we would not be allowed to participate in any new ministry in East Falls except to sit in the pew. This is not in any bishop’s authority.

Rest assured that this long and convoluted process is not part of any plan by the Synod to close congregations. This unfortunate situation is the result of the former Redeemer’s history of dwindling attendance, loss of missional focus, and questionable fiscal practices. Our desire is always for the health and vibrancy of ministry.

Redeemer’s attendance was growing with an innovative multicultural ministry — supposedly a goal of SEPA Synod. When we announced to Bishop Burkat that this was an interest of our congregation (2006), she responded, “You’re not allowed to do that.” When it was made clear to Bishop Burkat that our membership had been steadily growing over the last decade, she changed her tactic. Now she counted only “white Redeemer.” Sitting before about eight of our African and African American members she looked at the membership list and said, “White Redeemer must be allowed to die; black Redeemer . . . we can put them anywhere.” Synod Assembly was presented with false statistics when they were asked to vote on this issue.

Redeemer had presented a thorough mission plan to Bishop Burkat on November 1, 2007. The plan included (also on our web site for years) fiscal projections and our intention to borrow money so that we could continue to serve our neighborhood. We doubt any SEPA congregation has as thorough a ministry plan as we presented to Bishop Burkat. She promised to read it over a cup of tea. She never discussed it with us. Four months later with no interim communication with any of our leaders, she sent letters announcing the church is closed.

It is my prayer that those who remain wrapped up in the former Redeemer might find healing, and a congregation where they can worship the Lord and be able to use their passion for mission. It is also my prayer that we as a Synod, partnering with Lutheran congregations, institutions, and agencies, may move forward with creative, courageous and faithful missional purpose to equip the saints and congregations for the work of ministry for building up the body of Christ.

What! An admission that Redeemer has a passion for mission! What happened to the previously stated lack of missional focus given as reason for closing our church?

When we started visiting other churches in August of 2010, Bishop Burkat wrote a letter to clergy warning them to watch out for us!

Which SEPA congregation — almost all of whom have stood by, condoning the closing of our church, excommunication of our members, confiscation of our property and offerings and the degrading and threatening our leaders — should we join? Do any of you really want us?

Many churches we have visited have long “Welcome” statements that list the many human conditions that are welcome in their church. We haven’t found “disagree with actions of the bishop” on any of their lists.

Take away SEPA’s need to fund a significant deficit budget and the conflict makes no sense. Small church assets are needed to fund SEPA’s anticipated debts.

This conflict was foolish and unnecessary. It was facilitated by good Christians who have failed in their diligence. It has created huge problems which many SEPA member congregations WILL, in all likelihood, face very soon.

Any constitutional provision for synodical administration is presented to congregations as a temporary measure to HELP congregations through rough times. It is not intended to be a tool to help the ELCA or its synods accumulate property or control congregations. That is evidenced in its founding document, the Articles of Incorporation as well as hundreds of years of Lutheran practice. Predecessor bodies were actually forbidden to own property!

We, as excommunicated Lutherans, intend to insist that the ELCA follow its own rules, including its Articles of Incorporation, which promised its member churches that their property could not be confiscated.

As the law now stands, because of this court case, your congregation owns its own property until Synod says you don’t. They don’t have to give a reason — just their opinion. It is clear in the wording of this letter that Bishop Burkat sees SEPA congregations as “occupying” land, not owning it.

This ruling creates many problems for Lutherans. Lutherans historically own their own property. Now Synods can pick and choose which congregations they will target to own or control congregational property. You will have a class system — some congregations will own and control their property, others will have to follow Synod’s leadership on every decision. 

We suspect the recent move to long interim ministry is a step in facilitating this decision-making process. Synod places an interim pastor who is under their authority in congregations supposedly to facilitate change. But that interim is also reporting to Synod and can be doing so without the knowledge of congregational leadership. That report may include information to help Synod in goals that are not in the interest of the congregation but in the interest of Synod.

This is a mess which only the voting body of SEPA can fix. We recommend that the next Synod Assembly appoint a committee with strong representation from small churches to sort out just what is going on in Lutheran governance.  

We were kicked out of SEPA Synod by questionable authority. We don’t have a vote, no matter how much we care. You do! 

In Christ,
The Rev. Claire S. Burkat