Five Years—No Stone Rolled Away Yet!Some Redeemer members gathered for scripture and prayer in front of our forbidden church. It was our fifth Easter locked out of God’s house by edict of Bishop Claire Burkat of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (SEPA/ELCA).
Two years ago, a SEPA representative addressed the East Falls Community Council and pledged to start a Word and Sacrament Church in East Falls, never mentioning why they locked the doors on the 82 members of the 117-year-old congregation. In the five years in control of Redeemer’s property, they’ve taken NO actions toward opening a Word and Sacrament Church. They posted a For Sale sign the very month that the property was free of liens.
Yes, the back row of this photo montage is difficult to understand. Say one thing to gain support of people who don’t want to think too much about what’s going on — then get as much cash for East Falls property as possible.
The front row includes the people who are actually maintaining a Word and Sacrament Church in the East Falls neighborhood of Philadelphia (with the help of others not depicted). This dedicated group has grown the ministry with the broadest reach in the entire synod and perhaps the entire Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. But SEPA sees only dollar signs in East Falls.
We had checked the web site before setting out. The service was listed for 10 am. We had run into a detour and were afraid that we were a little late. In fact, we were only two minutes late.
We could hear a praise band practicing and one of our ambassadors caught a glimpse of three musicians, but otherwise there was not a soul in sight.
We looked around the narthex for a few minutes. The sign on the narthex wall said WORSHIP 10 am. The Ambassadors took a quick vote and decided not to hang around waiting for the unknown. We were concerned that another ambassador was planning to come independently, but since he is never late, we soon set out. This morning would be a Fellowship Sunday.
On our way to the parking lot, we passed the pastor and his wife (at least they seemed to match photos from the web site). They were just arriving. We said hello. But there was no turning the Ambassadors around at this point. It was clear that worship was not going to begin anywhere near on time, and we are a restless bunch.
Last week, when we visited Redemption in NE Philadelphia, there had been an announced change in worship time that wasn’t on the web. We waited an hour for the service to begin, but we waited with other people. The pastor talked with us for a while and explained why there was a mix-up. This morning we had no idea what was going on.
We retired to our favorite local diner and discussed the gospel lesson of the lost sheep.
We were disappointed.
Spirit and Truth’s ministry interested us because their story was told to us when SEPA was trying to find a less messy way to acquire our property five or six years ago. We wanted to see their ministry for ourselves.
This is what we did in Yeadon, they said. The existing church (Trinity) had only a few old ladies left as members, they explained. The old ladies voted to close. We had a grand closing service to provide them closure. Then we reopened the church under a new name a few weeks later with new management—synod. They called the church a mission development church. Rev. Patricia Davenport (who was part of the Redeemer fiasco) canvassed the neighborhood for four or five years. SEPA rechartered the church in 2005 with 179 charter members. But the new charter would forever list the church as a church with mission roots (which we are guessing Trinity didn’t have). This is a bigger deal than it may seem. Read on.
For this strategy to work, it was explained, all memory and ties to the past must be severed. They make it sound likes this is to aid mission. It’s not. It’s about legally acquiring certain congregational property rights.
Spirit and Truth’s web site history begins: In 2000, the Trinity Lutheran Church of Yeadon, PA closed. That’s all folks. Trinity is history. Spirit and Truth rose from its ashes. The saints of Trinity would soon be forgotten.
This was the new flagship strategy of Bishop Burkat when she took office in 2006. Redeemer was to be the first of six churches to benefit from her innovative leadership—or so their lawyer stated in court.
This is why Spirit and Truth is sometimes called a Church and sometimes called a Worship Center.. Worship Centers are synod-controlled. Churches have rights. Unfortunately, those rights have been watered down (with muddy water) in recent years.
SEPA presented their sanitized intentions to the courts in 2009. They left out the part where they tipped their hand by trying to sell our property behind our backs in 2008.
Their plan included a stipulation that was not acceptable to Redeemer. None of the existing members could play a leadership role in the Church of the New Name. We could do no more than attend. We found no constitutional basis for disempowering local leadership and no reason to go this route as we had plenty of existing and developing lay leadership. The proposal was, in our view, a way of gaining control of our property by getting influential church members out of the way and scaring marginal members and pastors into submission.
There are three problems with this strategy.
There is no evidence that the strategy works. While Spirit and Truth grew for a few years under Rev. Patricia Davenport’s leadership, it has been in significant decline since she left in November 2007. Within three years of her departure their average attendance was less than half what it was in 2008 (and statistics were not reported in two of those years). Their statistics had dropped below their charter membership just a few years before. It was during these years that the great Yeadon experiment was starting to fail that Pastor Davenport and Bishop Burkat were trying to take Redeemer down the same road.
If leadership is dependent on clergy, then consistent leadership seems to be pivotal to success. There are no guarantees in today’s church that mission-capable pastors are going to be available long-term. Therefore, relying on clergy to be the sole provider of mission leadership is foolish.
Spirit and Truth’s ELCA Trend Report has current membership at 136 with average attendance of 35, but if you add up the itemized membership column, the membership comes out to only 70—about 12% smaller than Redeemer. Redeemer’s cash and property assets were more than four times theirs. Yet they got to vote on our property. We didn’t.
Thirteen years have passed since SEPA tested this new strategy.
Looks like Redeemer was smart to be wary.
Redeemer was not anything like Trinity in Yeadon, the predecessor of Spirit and Truth. Their members agreed to the arrangement. We were given no choice.
Our membership was statistically young. Only three or four of our 82 members were over 70 (just over). While Bishop Almquist waited six years (2000-2006) for our older members to die, we had actually become a young church. In 2007 the new members led a membership drive which resulted in 49 new members. Most of our newer members were young families and with a good percentage of young unmarried people and young couples from a wide variety of backgrounds joining. We were growing quickly. No reason to act like we were failing when we weren’t.
We didn’t need a new entity with a new name and Synod-approved leaders. Synod did.
Many churches don’t realize this:
If you allow your congregation to be listed as a mission development church, you lose important constitutional rights.
The Synod gains rights to the property and disbursement of assets if you vote to close.
The congregation loses the right to withdraw from the Synod to join another Lutheran body with their property. EVER—even 100 years from now.
The Synod wants churches to have mission status—even for a short length of time—to constitutionally secure the property for their future enrichment.
This strategy puts the control of assets in their hands. It also puts success or failure in their hands—since they now control all aspects of ministry. That’s why SEPA needs knowledgeable lay people out of the way. That’s why Trinity, Yeadon, was encouraged to close and deed the property to Synod before new outreach began. SEPA needs old churches to close to gain rights to property. It has nothing to do with mission effectiveness being hindered by previous ministry or history. It’s about creating new entities to secure property ownership under mission status. All those new church members in Yeadon may not know that they no longer have the rights the old members in Yeadon had.
Very sneaky, indeed.
We can only wonder why the current residents of Yeadon are considered less able to run their own church than the previous demographic of Yeadon. Redeemer was dealing with a new demographic too. Our members, mostly from well-educated professionals from East Africa, were viewed as unable to manage their own affairs without synod’s help.
And all of this is why SEPA’s dealings with Redeemer have been secretive, underhanded, vindictive beyond reason and litigious. They don’t want people to really know what’s behind their “mission” strategies.
Redeemer has members well-versed in the church constitutions. We knew it was not in our ministry’s interest to give up our rights as Lutherans. SEPA was the only beneficiary of the plan.
SEPA would have to find another way to take possession of our property—and they did. But it has been an ugly unChristlike LOSE-LOSE situation. It is an embarrassment to our denomination.
The Ambassadors didn’t attend a worship service today. We don’t know what went awry.
One thing we know:
Redeemer leaders were always ready for worship at the appointed time.
Today’s church is in trouble. Everybody in the church knows it. Some (fairly few) congregations are still large enough to get by without facing the new age but most churches are feeling just how tough the next two decades are likely to be.
The answer in our area of the church (the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) has been to check out on the people who have brought the church this far. They prefer to look for new faces to deal with—if they can find any. New faces will be easier to manage. They have no heritage at stake.
That was said to us at Redeemer in so many words by Bishop Claire Burkat.
White Redeemer must be allowed to die.
Black Redeemer . . . we can put them anywhere.
Beyond this, when it looked like the judge was going to rule in our favor, Synod scurried and wrote a proposal to the judge. The proposal was that they would reopen Redeemer under their control and our current members were welcome to attend but would not be allowed any leadership role.
The judge sidestepped all the issues and ruled that he has no jurisdiction in church affairs. The appellate court ruled in its dissenting opinion that if the law were applied, Redeemer’s arguments should have been heard.
SEPA has hidden behind this dubious win and interpreted it as having free reign. In fact, they have free reign as long as members do not exercise their constitutional roles in running their church. The courts don’t want to do this job for you.
The problem with this conflict is that from the start, SEPA refused to deal with members. If they were to have any presence in our community, they wanted it on their terms with different people, who we can presume would thrive as long as they voted the right way.
When we want to deceive or lash out, it’s easy to do. Hey, there’s always someone else we can start over with, relationships and even reputations are disposable. We don’t have to look you in the eye, it’s dark in here, and we’re wearing a mask.’
He calls this approach “an experiment in fake.”
It turns strangers into actors on a screen, and sometimes we help them, but often, we become inured to their reality, and treat them with a callousness and indifference we’d never use in our village.
Recently, I was cleaning out the home of a deceased pastor. I found a folder on a prominent table. In that folder was The Lutheran article about the life and death of one of the founding leaders of the Lutheran Church in America, Dr. Franklin Clark Fry. With it was an article from Time magazine that called him “Mr. Lutheran.” There was also a bulletin from his funeral.
Then on June 6 of this year, someone from this pastor’s family called me to honor Dr. Fry’s “glory day.”
I was surprised that anyone would recall a death of a church leader in 1968 and that they would think to call me. I am only remotely connected to Dr. Fry. His grandchildren are my cousins. But I was struck by the power of his leadership and influence. I’d heard plenty of stories about him as I grew up—mostly about how he insisted that congregations and clergy follow the rules. He would meet personally with people when he could have mailed a letter or picked up the phone.
His leadership had lasting influence.
That influence is waning as Lutheran leaders exert less and less power with more and more force.
The people they lead are treated as expendable. If you don’t think so, try disagreeing.
When this happens in the church — an institution that is supposed to matter — things get phony fast.
Our leaders no longer know the people they are leading. They never deal with them. They use clergy as intermediaries. They don’t respond to mail or email. They speak to us through letters and email blasts and call it “mutual discernment.” They deny us voice and vote in Assembly and rely on no one enforcing the rules—or even knowing what the rules are.
They are afraid to look their own people in the eye.
As Seth says. When you look people in the eye, you own the results.
You want to resolve things in East Falls? Look us in the eye.
At the 2013 Assembly of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod, Bishop Claire Burkat exhorted member churches to take risks. Start small. Just take one risk in mission.
I beleive in risk-taking.
Many of the risks that need to be taken in the Church are long overdue.
The climate of SEPA Synod is not conducive to risk-taking.
If congregations are to take risks they must be assured that failures
will not be used as excuses for hierarchical seizure of everything they own.
will not cause them to be excommunicated from Lutheran fellowship.
will not put their personal welfare and that of their families in danger.
SEPA cannot provide these assurances.
Consequently, risks will not be taken.
The biggest obstacle? Involuntary Synodical Administration.
Involuntary Synodical Administration, now so common that it is referred to by the acronym ISA, did not exist in the founding documents of the ELCA. The Articles of Incorporation still forbid it.
ISA is the determination of the bishop that a church cannot survive. The Synod assumes all cash and property assets. Trustees are appointed. They serve the bishop’s interests, not the congregation’s. It is theft by constitutional tweaking.
The original constitutional statute allowed for synodical administration only with the consent of the congregation and as a temporary measure.
Synodical Administration was intended to be a tool to help struggling congregations overcome difficulty. Congregations were part of the process—the Lutheran way. Help was offered, but assets remained owned by the congregations.
Involuntary Synodical Administration is a monstrous contrivance.
The Synod’s model constitution has been tweaked to negate the promises made to the congregations when they joined the ELCA.
Consequently, congregational polity, precious to Lutherans, no longer exists in SEPA Synod.
Too bad. Congregational polity encourages risk-taking.
Without congregational polity every congregation must consider what big brother or sister will do if their risks fail —as measured by the bishop not by the congregation.
If congregations are to take Bishop Burkat’s advice and take risks, they should seriously review and revise their own governing documents.
Taking risks, after all, is risky. You could fail.
Failure leads to knowledge which can then be put to new ministry use. Innovation is usually the result of multiple attempts that failed.
But in the world of SEPA, failure of any sort, as measured by no one but the bishop (who has minimal knowledge of congregations), leads to long-term Lutheran assets lost to short-term synodical needs.
Here’s what I know about SEPA and their ability to accept congregational risk-taking:
Once upon a time, not so very long ago, there was a small urban congregation facing the same challenges many small congregations face. The founding members who predated decades of urban unrest were dying off. The landscape for ministry was changing dramatically and at a faster pace than the “settled” Church had ever encountered.
This congregation had resources. A founding member had left an endowment with the stipulation that it be used for ministry in that neighborhood.
That endowment had already been an attractive target for s financially troubled synod, but that had been resolved eight years before. However, the memory was still fresh. The Synod refused to follow the call process after the resolution. They were betting that without help, the congregation would fall apart. SEPA need wait only a bit longer to get to the assets.
This congregation had unusually strong lay leadership. The absence of professional leaders had actually helped develop the congregation’s sense of mission. They knew they had to serve a multicultural neighborhood. Without the burden of salaries, they were free to engage pastors for specific tasks as needed.
Money was not yet a problem, but it was clear that it would become a problem if congregational leaders didn’t address the needs of the future immediately.
The congregational leaders spent six months drafting a plan. They consulted pastors, real estate experts, an accountant and a lawyer in drafting a five-year plan. Funds were needed to bring facilities up to modern standards. The congregation was willing to risk a third of their property for a short-term mortgage that might catapult them into a solid future.
The congregation had been renting its educational building to a Lutheran agency, but the congregation knew that this was no longer in their interests. The property had more potential for congregational ministry if the congregation ran its own school with the important added benefit of being able to witness in mission as the Lutheran agency was unable to do.
Two members of the congregation already experienced in childcare took the training necessary for licensure. The school was projected to bring in $100,000 annually to the congregation’s ministry within two years. Meanwhile, other sources of income were also identified and a stewardship program was implemented.
Previous pastors were not comfortable in multicultural settings. They promised to find help but reported regularly, “There is no one.” When the last pastor left, the congregation found excellent, qualified professional leaders within a few weeks.
52 members joined in the first year and there was every indication that this was only the start of a vibrant new ministry.
Meanwhile, the congregation presented the mission plan to Bishop Claire Burkat along with a resolution to call one of the pastors who had already been working with the congregation successfully for seven months.
There were risks, but there were strong indications that the risks would pay off.
Bishop Claire Burkat accepted the resolution and ministry plan and promised to review them. She also promised that the congregation could work with the Synod’s Mission Developer. Four months passed with no communication from anyone in the bishop’s office.
Was there to be a period of discussion and review of the 24-page mission plan? Would the bishop make suggestions or offer help?
Bishop Burkat abruptly sent a letter to the congregation announcing the church was closed and all assets were to be assumed by her office (which had recently announced they were within $75,000 of depleting every available resource).
The risks quickly escalated with law suits and personal attacks on members that continued for five years. Although Bishop Burkat wrote to clergy that all issues are settled, the fact is the case is still in the courts.
If Bishop Burkat truly believed in risk-taking, she could have taken a chance on Redeemer’s carefully crafted mission plan. She could have joined interdependently in a carefully calculated mission adventure that was already succeeding. She could have taken credit!
Bishop Burkat couldn’t risk Redeemer’s resources slipping from syndical control twice in one decade. Some of the motivation was SEPA’s own financial needs. Power and pride also entered the picture.
Risk-taking does not happen in this atmosphere.
Lay members are sitting ducks for abuse. Clergy will protect their standing.
If SEPA congregations truly want to be risk-takers for mission, they must revisit their constitutions and make risk-taking a little less risky.
Redeemer is still ready to take risks.
We’ve been pioneering mission while SEPA has been attacking us. There is nothing stopping Redeemer’s mission plan from being implemented even today.
SEPA prefers the expenses of locked churches to the expenses of mission. They spend more than $170,000 a year keeping those doors locked. Taking a risk on Redeemer’s mission plan would have cost them nothing (and it was already succeeding!)
I received an anonymous letter from a member of a SEPA congregation this week. The writer added a note that she was sending the letter to ELCA Presiding Bishop Hanson and several other church leaders including our local bishop.
She noted that she doubted letters make any difference. True, anonymous letters give the recipient an excuse to blow off any point the writer makes no matter how valid.
We understand the need for anonymity. We live in a Synod that is funding its ministry with seizures of property and lawsuits against laity.
Clergy have no room to criticize. Their universal silence on these issues is a form of anonymity.
We at Redeemer have written many signed letters almost all of which have been ignored. The single exception was the first letter we wrote to Bishop Hanson, probably early 2008. The Bishop glibly dismissed our very serious issues. Lots of God words, no God actions. His attitude trickles down to his staff and clergy. The ELCA legal offices, funded with parishioner offerings, responded to a Redeemer member’s letter with a note that they feel no obligation to get involved. Bishop Burkat has never responded to any of our letters. The people we pay to be there to make sure the congregations are protected spend our offerings protecting themselves.
We are going to reprint this anonymous letter because it has value. This writer took the time to understand the issues — something SEPA clergy, the Synod Council and Synod Assembly and the courts have failed to do. This writer nails the issues. Write on!
Here’s the letter (with minor spelling/grammar edits):
Dear Bishop Hanson,
I belong to Peace Lutheran Church in Bensalem, Pa., which is part of SEPA Synod. I recently attended a charity event in Philadelphia and met a woman from a church in Lansford, Pa. We got into a conversation about Redeemer Lutheran Church and Bishop Claire Burkat and how sad that their church was taken from them and how their valiant fight to regain their spiritual home was knocked down by the Pa Supreme Court, citing “church vs. state.” The woman I sat with told me that her church belongs to the Slovak-Zion Synod and that their Bishop (Rev. Wilma S. Kucharek) was investigated by the authorities for making improper withdrawals from a congregation’s accounts, causing the downfall of a church in New Jersey. She locked them out of their own church, like Burkat, and then sold their properties for a huge sum of money, forcing the congregation to now worship in a rented facility when they already had a mortgage-free church and parsonage of their own. She heard this from some people she knows that had attended a Synod Assembly cruise. Are you even aware of this in Chicago?
What kind of organization allows the taking of church properties that were built and paid for by the members of these congregations without any help from their synods. Just because you have hidden clauses in your constitutions that allow Synod Bishops to abscond with properties does NOT make it morally right. It is actually criminal to take by force another’s possessions for your own profit or gain. These clauses do not appear in the congregation’s constitution (I checked) but appear in the Synod’s constitution. How sneaky. Why didn’t you put this language in the congregations’ constitutions and spell it out more clearly so the average parishioner can understand the language? “That the Synod Bishop may close, at his/her discretion, the congregation’s church, seize their property, sell it, and then distribute the funds as he/she sees fit.” Wouldn’t that be more befitting to a religious organization to be honest and more forthcoming with the followers. You should also point out to the congregation to NOT come to you with their problems because you are an “interdependent” organization.
I am ashamed of how the ELCA has disgraced the Lutheran religion by ignoring Martin Luther’s principles of fair play for all. He would never condone abusing the weak by taking their possessions to further enhance one’s already lofty standing. Greed is a terrible sin. God knows who these bishops are. They can’t fool him with their empty prayers and their false justifications that they are doing this for the overall good of the Synod. These thefts of properties will be seen for what they are by the Lord.
Bishop Hanson, I’m sorry to say, the ELCA is now being run by bureaucrats and lawyers who don’t know what it’s like to honor the Lord by doing what is right in the Lord’s eyes and not the courts. There can be a happy medium but right now there isn’t. By the interdependent nature of the ELCA, you’ve divorced yourselves from your followers (the mass that supports the organization) by taking away their right to a fair an unbiased hearing regarding the closing of their churches. They can’t go to the courts because of the “separation between the church and state.” The Synod assemblies are a joke. The people who sit on these assemblies have no training in judicial matters in order to make proper judgments. They are just parishioners of local churches who volunteer to attend a yearly gathering and are clueless as to what’s going on. They are heavily influenced by the bishops, plus I don’t think that the bishops even need their approval to close a church.
It’s just so wrong that just one person can decide the fate of so many. At least the Catholics can go the Vatican Council in Rome where they have already overturned church closings in places like Cleveland, Ohio, by over-ruling local Bishops. The Lutherans have no such recourse.
Claire Burkat may have sued some members of Redeemer for standing up to her abuses, but she will not be able to sue me.
Here are a Few More Supporting Points
This writer describes the problems fairly accurately. The interdependent constitutions leave parishioners vulnerable to various self-serving interpretations, putting anyone who raises an issue at risk. Parishioners are the most vulnerable.
The writer also does not mention the founding Articles of Incorporation of ELCA Synods. These foundational documents forbid bishops from taking property and limit the power of the Synod Assembly. The writer is dead right that Synod Assemblies don’t know enough about church law to make decisions. Also, about a third of the Synod Assembly (the clergy) have a built-in bias. They owe their next call to their relationship with the bishop.
The clauses in the Synod constitutions have been altered over the years. The original model Synod Constitution calls for synodical administration to be temporary in nature and with the consent of the congregation. It was intended to help struggling congregations. Tweaks here and there presented to unsuspecting Synod Assemblies have reversed the intent of the constitution and violate the Articles of Incorporation—which was further compromised by Judge Lynn’s order regarding Redeemer, issued without hearing the case. Saint Paul knew what he was talking about when he advised church people to stay out of court!
Consequently, a clause intended to help congregations find their way through difficult times is now used to seize assets and help the synod through troubling times.
In Redeemer’s case, Redeemer appealed the issue of Synodical Administration to the Synod Assembly. The Synod Assembly never voted on the issue we appealed. Synod officials used our appeal to present a question allowing them to take our property (which we had not addressed in our appeal). Like lemmings the Synod Assembly voted on an entirely different issue—and an issue over which they have no constitutional authority. All SEPA Lutherans were victims of bait and switch.
Because of Synod Assemblies unquestioning decision, no Lutheran congregation really owns its own property anymore. A long-standing Lutheran tradition is gone. Your bishop needs only to make a claim on your property and your congregation is toast. There are no standards to be met. If Bishop Burkat needs your property to meet her budget (including her salary) she can claim it.
Back when Redeemer’s money was taken (1998) we were told the money would go to a Mission Fund. It was later reported that Mission Fund money is tapped by the Synod to fill deficits. When our Ambassadors visited Holy Spirit in NE Philadelphia, the week before they closed, their pastor explained that their money would go the the Bishop’s Discretionary Fund. At least that’s more transparent if not nobler. We suspect there is even less control over that fund than the misnamed Mission Fund.
We hope there are more letters written and we encourage you to sign them. Send them our way. As long as they are factually accurate, we will consider publishing them. At least you’ll know your letter has a chance of being read. Right now, the ELCA’s circular files are wide and deep!
The best people to put an end to the travesties of SEPA Synod are SEPA Lutherans. Ask your Synod Assembly to revisit the issues with Redeemer. We are still alive and well. We have grown a base of support during our years of exile and are ready to resume our ministry with our property— if SEPA Lutherans can ever manage to deal with the issues for which they have accepted responsibility.
It should be obvious to SEPA Lutherans that the sad story of Redeemer’s lack of viability was always a crock. Redeemer, even with many of its members in hiding, is stronger today than ever. We reach more people each week than any church in SEPA. We are positioned to restore our endowment to its 1990s high point—before SEPA cast its line over our waters (and they weren’t fishing for men).
There is more economic potential in open churches than in closed churches.
In the story of the good Samaritan, the religious people (the priest and the Levite) find reasons to pass by the poor soul who has been robbed and hurt. In each case, their failure to act with compassion is prompted by fear for their own hides.
It is the Samaritan—the outsider, the person at whom the religious people of the day would collectively thumb their noses—who offered help—ongoing help, not just a quick fix.
We lived the Good Samaritan story this week. We needed help. One of our good members faced the imminent loss of her home and income due to the reign of terror inflicted on Redeemer and its members by the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Our little church, which SEPA insists doesn’t exist, rallied.
We asked for help from churches who helped create this situation. They were prayerful but unhelpful. It’s so easy to find excuses to do nothing.
“We’ll pray for you” is the universal excuse of SEPA Lutherans. Their prayer, we suppose, is that someone else will fix the mess they created. How tiring all that prayer must be!
We went to unrelated Lutheran churches. We don’t do that sort of thing, was their answer.
At last we found the help we needed. One local church who has been helping us for the last four years offered major assistance with no expectation of return. A church some 200 miles away (and smaller than Redeemer!) both contributed and guaranteed what we couldn’t raise locally. Four individuals also helped graciously. As far as we know, only one has any church affiliation.
Two of them used the same phrase: “A wrong has been done and it must be righted.”
And so little Redeemer, raised the money we needed to satisfy Redeemer’s debt—twice what SEPA expects to pay. This debt would never have been a problem to anyone if our school were operating for the last four years and contributing to mission and ministry in East Falls. But SEPA, hungry for our assets, interfered with and ruined our 25-year relationship with a Lutheran agency and stopped us from opening our own program. They have kept the doors locked on both the sanctuary and school for nearly four years—no ministry is better than a neighborhood church they can’t control.
SEPA Synod took our property under questionable legality. A court split decision ruled in their favor, saying the courts could not be involved in church issues. The dissenting opinion pointed out that the legal arguments seem to favor Redeemer and the case should be heard by the courts. In five years, court room after court room, the case has never been heard.
We have always claimed that SEPA’s interest in our property was entirely a result of their failing finances and mission—not Redeemer’s.
This week is further proof.
We’ve been saying in our posts on social media that the power in the church is shifting. There was a day when congregations had to band together to provide services and perform effective mission. Individuals now have the power to do much more on their own. Support of hierarchy is more expensive than effective.
Redeemer (and yes, we do exist) proved that this week.
Don’t get us wrong . . . we appreciate prayer. But we appreciate even more those who help find answers to prayer.
Thank you to all who cared enough to do more than pray. You are a living parable.
Today Bishop Claire Burkat of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America will gather her little chicks under her wing at Holy Spirit Lutheran Church in NE Philadelphia and celebrate its closure. They’ve been moving toward this date for the last year, since they sold the property to the United Church of Christ—and probably still longer.
This is also the fifth anniversary of Bishop Claire Burkat’s attempt to stealthily seize Redeemer’s property in East Falls. It was on February 24, 2008, that Bishop Burkat invited herself to our church supposedly to plan a closing service for a congregation that had never even discussed closing much less been given an opportunity to vote on it as is constitutionally necessary. She brought about nine or ten people with her with no notice, despite the fact that the congregation had warned her that the date she had chosen with no consultation with church leaders was already booked and that the congregation did not wish to meet at that time. The two members of Redeemer who met her that day were soon to discover that her plans had nothing to do with planning a worship service. Among her posse was SEPA’s lawyer who was waiting behind the building and out of sight in a locksmith’s van. When their strategy called for the lawyer and locksmith to make their presence known we don’t know. We had been forewarned by someone in Chicago that she was intending such a move and so when we saw the locksmith van go by, we were prepared.
The bishop’s embarrassment that day, which sparked five years of vindictive law suits, has cost mission and ministry in our neighborhood dearly.
There was never an attempt to work with us — we were not valued enough to be part of the discussion of our future. The names of our lay leaders were dragged through the mud—an attempt to validate Synod’s actions. The work of the laity was treated with total disregard. The people of Redeemer deserved the opportunity to work with and be in discussion with SEPA just as the people of Holy Spirit have been.
SEPA’s Articles of Incorporation forbid the Synod from confiscating congregational property without the consent of the congregation.
The more SEPA congregations allow this very important foundation of Lutheran polity to be ignored, the more endangered each congregation is.
Redeemer’s Ambassadors have now visited 56 SEPA congregations. We know that many of them are no stronger and more than a few are weaker than Redeemer. If Redeemer’s statistics were the reason for closing, about ten to twenty percent of the remaining 160 congregations should also be closed with more suffering the same fate within a decade or two if innovative steps aren’t taken.
We have always known that Redeemer’s property and endowment were the real attractions. In April of 2008, we discovered that Bishop Burkat had offered our property for sale to a Lutheran Agency without a word to our congregation. We learned this from a letter from the agency, dated in early April (only about 40 days after the February 24 showdown), informing us that they had done an extensive site evaluation and were denying the offer of sale. The timing suggests that the property, owned by the congregation, had been offered for sale even before Bishop Burkat came to the congregation—all without the knowledge of the congregation. Clearly NOT Luthean polity.
SEPA needed our money—quick and easy. This devious situation fueled the character assassination, personal attacks and refusal to work with Redeemer that has characterized the court battles. But SEPA seems to be unable to check and balance their leadership — as their constitutions call for.
In September 2009, Bishop Burkat at last achieved her goal. She locked out the members of Redeemer.
Undaunted, Redeemer continues its mission, achieving its greatest success with our online ministry. We have broken new ground in mission which is being recognized by other denominations if not our own!
While some members of SEPA Synod are celebrating the closure of a church, others are meeting on this date in Lansdale and on Monday in Burholme to talk about communications. Redeemer and its website, 2x2virtualchurch.com, could contribute a great deal to a discussion with church communicators. We have a ton of experience!
The Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (SEPA / ELCA) has become a disciple of Seth Godin, the leading authority on marketing and societal change with a voice on the web. They have quoted him to their congregations.
Some organizations demand total fealty, and often that means never questioning those in authority.
Those organizations are ultimately doomed.
Respectfully challenging the status quo, combined with relentlessly iterating new ideas is the hallmark of the vibrant tribe.
SEPA begs its congregations to innovate and change. When they don’t change the way the synod has predetermined that they SHOULD change, they close them down and claim their property.
Redeemer is a case in point. Redeemer was growing quickly when SEPA saw their longed-for chance at claiming our property slipping away. Bishop Almquist had made an attempt to close us and seize our assets in 1998 and backed off after two years. But he refused to work with us in ministry if we didn’t accept the part-time pastor he had chosen for us. His call or no call.
We continued to grow without his help.
SEPA has a mission plan for small churches. They call it triage — shoving the smallest churches to the side and waiting for them to die, while attention is spent on larger churches with more promising prospects for supporting the hierarchy. Property values and assets DO enter the equation. A small congregation is better off if it has no assets than if it has an endowment! Compare Redeemer’s story with Faith/Immanuel in East Lansdowne.
Bishop Burkat loves to call Redeemer “former Redeemer.” We are not sure if she means Redeemer of the 1960s, Redeemer of the 1980s, or the Redeemer she visited with a locksmith in 2008 and spent the last five years suing. We exist if only so we can be sued!
Or maybe she thinks because Synod Council voted to close Redeemer in 2010, never bothering to inform the congregation, that Redeemer is closed. We notice in the latest ELCA yearbook that we are still contributing to the national church! Sounds like we are open!
Synod Council does not have the power to vote congregations out of existence. They’d know that if they read their founding documents. We reserve our constitutional right to challenge synod council’s actions when SEPA can provide a fair forum for hearing a challenge.
We recall very well our appeal in 2009 — which the Synod Assembly never voted on, substituting a vote about our property (not within their authority) when we were appealing Synodical Administration. Check the Synod Minutes and read the question that was voted on. It had nothing to do with our appeal!
Bait and switch. Then claim immunity from the law to pull it off in court.
Redeemer still exists in every way. Redeemer meets weekly — sometimes more often. Redeemer worships weekly —sometimes more often. Redeemer’s efforts to continue ministry— even as SEPA locked us out of the church we built and excluded us from all rights and fellowship within its fold—have grown our congregation in reach and influence despite persecution.
Today two Ambassadors revisited Trinity, Havertown. One of the Ambassadors had missed the last visit and had a special interest in visiting. In 1949, he had completed his seminary internship training in this parish. He didn’t expect to find anyone who remembered him from 64 years ago, although they have one congregational pillar who is about 101 who might recall him.
We found little had changed since our first visit. They still have a great choir which was about one third of the congregation, which numbered about 45. We were impressed with their dedication to their youth during our last visit. Today they were having a fund-raising spaghetti dinner to fund a mission trip for their youth to South Dakota.
So that’s why there is a picture of buffalo on their website!
Their web site has been upgraded in the last year and they are venturing into social media. Since December they posted about five blog entries. They seem to be posting them on their neighborhood patch.com, which we recommended to congregations some time ago.
We know social media ministry is work because we have done it. Web sites become effective evangelism tools when you post as close to daily as possible. (2×2 now has about 150 readers each day with 2000 new visitors per month. We’ve been posting daily for about 18 months now.)
The Book of Nehemiah Tells Our Story
The Rev. Dr. Dolores Littleton is Trinity’s pastor. For her sermon, she retold the story of Nehemiah and the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. She did a faithful retelling, but we noted that she left out the intrigue, which is what makes the book of Nehemiah so interesting to us at Redeemer.
The people of Redeemer were (are) intent on rebuilding the church in our community after decades of neglect. You might think our denomination might support the work of its members but over the years our only meetings with SEPA were intent on wearing down the people of Redeemer, while SEPA carefully calculated how our failure might benefit them.
There is a chapter in Nehemiah where those in opposition to restoring the temple try to trick Nehemiah. Understand that 140 years had passed with no one lifting a finger to restore the temple. They hadn’t cared a fig that the temple lay in ruins.
Nehemiah shows up and sets out to do the impossible. He enlists the support of people who are willing to sacrifice to see ministry restored. Many of them have no Jewish roots! Only now do we find people, including religious leaders, interested in cleaning up after 140 years of neglect. They intend to take advantage once and for all. Failing that, they want to stop Nehemiah at any cost.
Frustrated that their early attempts to discredit the temple rebuilders are unsuccessful, they at last try to arrange meetings to “talk.” Nehemiah sees through the ruse and refuses to meet with them.
This is precisely SEPA’s strategy in trying to destroy the ministry in East Falls.
The ensuing five years has been little more than attempt of Bishop Burkat to save face and punish the people of Redeemer for making her attempts to take our property and cash assets more difficult than she projected.
The people who supported Redeemer’s rebuilding have been taken advantage of — just like Nehemiah’s workforce. Nehemiah put a stop to this, demanding that the people toiling and sacrificing for the temple be treated fairly. Sadly, there has been no such voice in SEPA Synod.
It is OK with the Lutherans of SEPA Synod if the people of Redeemer are left homeless (a real possibility, folks!) as SEPA claims all the congregation’s assets and pursues them in punitive court cases, which they undertake as they plead immunity from the law for themselves.
Like the Book of Nehemiah, the opposition has no real plan for Redeemer’s property now unused for worship or any other good purpose for nearly four years. They simply don’t want someone else to succeed where they never bothered to try.
We only hope that the story of Redeemer ends with ministry restored and the people revalidated— just as the book of Nehemiah ends.
The hard-hearted SEPA Synod shows no sign of returning to the word of God. There is no passion and voice to defend the workers.
Here’s the difference between Nehemiah and SEPA leadership. Much of the Book of Nehemiah is a list of names that would otherwise be forgotten today. This difference is probably the reason most people don’t read this book very thoroughly.
Nehemiah valued the people. He carefully recorded the names of the workers who risked their lives to complete the restoration of the temple. Their ancestry and affiliations are recorded for all time. Nehemiah cared about the people and their relationship with God. They were worth his attention, his work, and if necessary, the sacrifice of his life. He did all he could to protect them as they served the Lord.
The value of Nehemiah is in its detail. A lowly servant in the court of a foreign king had the wherewithal to restore Jerusalem.
The Book of Nehemiah — all of it — it should be required reading for Lutherans!
Bishop Claire Burkat of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod (SEPA) of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) has frequently criticized Redeemer for “resisting” her leadership. With scant detail, she seeks to create the illusion of a renegade congregation that must be reined in for benefit of the whole Church. Her mission is easily accomplished in a synod where the rank and file is passive.
In her words, she sensed “resistance”—a definite taboo in her leadership style—but definitely allowed within the church’s democratic processes and under the beliefs of our faith.
In another tirade Redeemer was “adversarial.”
Adversarial. Resistant. Not bad words. By definition, nothing for Redeemer to be ashamed of — except by innuendo and the surety within the ELCA that no one will investigate.
Redeemer was placed in an adversarial position by unreasonable and unconscionable behavior of a bishop who uses name-calling to disguise self-interest.
Congregational leaders should stand up for the people they lead (be adversaries) and resist selfish outside agendas.
If congregational leaders are not permitted to represent their congregation’s interests, they serve no purpose. This may be the problem in SEPA and the ELCA. Its governing structure is ineffective.
If you read the three illustrations we recently posted about SEPA’s concept of mutual discernment, you will notice that Redeemer was very cooperative whenever SEPA leadership asked them to do anything that made sense and would further their mission efforts. Redeemer often sacrificed self-interest in its cooperation.
Redeemer resisted when the congregation was asked to do things which would endanger their ministry.
Redeemer cooperated with Bishop Almquist’s proposal to call Pastor Matthias for 18 months. Bishop Almquist broke the call agreement three months later.
Redeemer cooperated with Bishop Almquist when he declared synodical administration. Redeemer resisted within Lutheran rules but worked with Bishop Almquist and the trustees, bringing the matter to peaceful resolution within a year. Redeemer resisted when he failed to return our money upon the release of synodical administration for an additional year.
Redeemer agreed to accept the only pastor Bishop Almquist offered. Redeemer resisted locking in to a term call when the pastor announced his intentions to provide only the barest amount of service. Redeemer supported a term call, which Bishop Almquist refused to consider.
Redeemer cooperated when we were approached to help Epiphany when its building was condemned. We worked in good faith for 18 months. Redeemer was not given the opportunity to resist when SEPA began working with Epiphany in secret to close down their ministry, without considering the covenant made with Redeemer.
Most of the attention of the covenant for the first year was on settling Epiphany’s pressing problems. As soon as the covenant began to show some promise of benefitting Redeemer—the covenant was broken with all benefits to SEPA. Redeemer did not protest the inequity, but we felt used.
Redeemer cooperated for an additional six months, allowing both Epiphany and synod ready and rent-free access to our property. Less than a year later synod tried to lock us out!
Redeemer brought our successful outreach ministry to local East African immigrants to the attention of Bishop Burkat. She told us we were not allowed to do outreach ministry and refused to recognize our East African members—some of whom had been members for a decade.
Redeemer met with the trustees in good faith and shared our ministry plan with both them and Bishop Burkat, unaware in the beginning that the trustees had lied to us for five months. We learned from a synod staff member that Bishop Burkat never intended to give Redeemer’s ministry consideration.
Redeemer followed ELCA and SEPA constitutions, asking to withdraw from the ELCA, which clearly was not serving the congregation.SEPA resisted, refusing to allow Redeemer the 90 days of negotiation called for in the constitution.
Many of the continuing travesties of this sad and horrific chapter in SEPA’s history—that everyone just wishes away—would not have happened had SEPA worked with Redeemer. That’s the subject of another post.
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.