A Remarkable Palm Sunday

10246426_10202895967336001_2754904152152544148_n 10176055_10202895967576007_4888172750327810463_nCongregation celebrates Palm Sunday history

A member of Redeemer was honored this Palm Sunday. Pastor Luther Gotwald helped to lead St. David’s commemorative Palm Sunday Parade in Davidsville, Pa. Pastor Gotwald (my dad) was St. David’s pastor for 20 years.

St. David’s was a small neighborhood congregation that was divided in 1965 when he accepted their call. They had a building with an educational addition within walking distance of most of the village.

Half of the congregation wanted to continue ministry in the existing building. The other half wanted to build a new building at the edge of town.

Many pastors might turn down such a challenge. These days, the prevailing wisdom is to assign interim pastors to work out problems so “called” pastors don’t have to.

Pastor Gotwald knew that controversy dealt with, not ignored, can lead to good things.

During his first year in Davidsville, Pastor Gotwald visited every member of the congregation. He did little but listen. “I never told anyone which way to vote. I just made sure every voice was heard.”

The congregation decided to build a new building. On Palm Sunday, 1966, the congregation marched from the old building to the new site, singing hymns all the way. Young people led the parade that day, carrying the altar cross and chancel accoutrements.

In the past 50 years (20 of them under Pastor Gotwald’s leadership) St. David’s has grown to be one of the largest congregations in the Allegheny Synod.

With development, the new building, opposed in part because it was on the outskirts of town, now sits once again in the middle of the village.

On this occasion, I asked my dad about each of the four churches he served.

He spent seven years serving a two-point charge in Northumberland County, Pa. Two small churches shared his time in ministry. Trinity, he said, didn’t grow while he was there, but he added that the church was filled every week. Grace doubled in size during his tenure.

He then accepted a call to another small neighborhood church in Emigsville, near York, Pa. The tiny church was bustling with activity. The church was located on a back street of the village. Pastor Gotwald led the church in considering relocating—an obvious need if the congregation was to change with the neighborhood. A plot of land had been donated. Plans were drawn. The Synod looked over the plans and nixed them. They wanted the church on a major road. The donated land was just off a major road, situated prominently on a hill, visible from the main road.

The lack of synod support doomed plans for growth. St. Mark’s is still a small congregation on a back street of a village that has now been swallowed up by York. Major businesses relocated nearby as did one of York’s major high schools.

That donated lot that could have been the new church home is now in the middle of all the development. Its steeple, had it ever been built, would dominate the view from the main thoroughfare.

Church “experts,” who had to have things their way, squandered a congregation’s best chance at growth.

In his retirement years, Luther Gotwald actively advocates for Redeemer. He joined the congregation in 2009 when his congregation in western Pennsylvania voted to leave the ELCA. He supported Redeemer’s mission plan. He knew something about growing churches and uniting congregations in mission.

When he joined Redeemer, he asked to have his clergy roster status transferred from the Allegheny Synod to the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod. SEPA’s Bishop Claire Burkat denied his request.

No independent thinkers need apply.

Sadder things were to come. When Bishop Claire Burkat decided to remove Redeemer from the SEPA roster of congregations without consulting with the congregation, the congregation opposed her actions—as is their right. Bishop Burkat chose to sue the congregation and individual lay members (including me). Luther Gotwald sent letters pointing pastors to the Articles of Incorporation and constitutions, which forbid these actions. He was publicly ignored but sharply ridiculed behind the scenes. Go home, Yankee.

With nothing more mission-minded to do, the Synod Council of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod (elected to represent congregations) wrote to the Bishop Gregory Pile of the Allegheny Synod. They were upset that Luther Gotwald was addressing an issue they were all avoiding—the treatment of Redeemer, East Falls. Most, if not all, signed a letter requesting Bishop Pile to officially censor Pastor Gotwald.

This is the Lutheran church, the denomination that grew from dissent. We used to be proud of that.

They might have looked into things a bit before taking such embarrassing action on behalf of all the churches in SEPA Synod.

Pastor Gotwald left St. David’s to serve as the only assistant to the bishop of the newly formed Allegheny Synod, where part of his job was making sure constitutions were followed. He had also served for many years as the parliamentarian at Synod conventions. He knows church rules.

SEPA Synod Council probably didn’t know Bishop Pile succeeded Pastor Gotwald in service to St. David’s. He also succeeded the bishop Pastor Gotwald had worked with. These men have high regard for one another.

Bishop Pile was not pulled into SEPA’s hateful vendetta.

In the photo below, Bishop Pile is in the center and Luther Gotwald is on the right. Pastor Gotwald is still respected as a faithful, loving pastor, who occasionally takes an unpopular stand based on his experience, knowledge of church history, and ELCA constitutional structure.

The Church needs more pastors like him.

Great day in Davidsville, Pa. Congratulations, St. David’s—and you, too, Dad.


Redeemer Revisited: Part 3

In the last post we revealed SEPA Synod’s typical strategy as exercised twice in Redeemer’s history—once by Bishop Almquist and for most of the term of Bishop Burkat.

In short:

  • First eliminate clergy from the congregation. Wait for a change or force a change.
  • Second, cut the lay leadership down to size or eliminate them entirely.

Today’s post is about the third part of the Strategy—dealing with the congregation.

When both Bishop Almquist and Bishop Burkat decided to go directly to the people of the congregation they did so with an air of democracy. They were taking an issue directly to the people. Noble-sounding, indeed.

They were really manipulating the situation, using the congregation, and side-stepping the constitution.

The people they were approaching had followed their constitutions and elected leaders to—well—provide leadership. These leaders were authorized by the congregation to speak for them.

The pastor, too, had been called and could represent the congregation if he or she had the backbone.

The congregation doesn’t expect to be called together to deal with the regional body. They aren’t prepared and their interests have wide range—much of it personal, not corporate in nature. Leaders do a better job of sifting through the layers of congregational life to represent the “whole” people.

The bishop knows this. That’s why she needed these levels of leadership gone!

Redeemer knows it too. We have experienced it with both Bishop Almquist and Bishop Burkat.

In truth the congregation was being called together because the bishop and regional body knew that what they were proposing was not likely to be approved by the elected and called leaders of the church.

In Redeemer’s case, the congregation had just witnessed the inexplicable disappearance of pastors they had invested in both monetarily and emotionally.

This was followed by disregard and disrespect of the leaders they elected to act in their interest.  One church council member who had approached a Synod Council member on the congregation’s behalf had already been threatened. “Get out while the getting is good. We have no intention of negotiating with you.”

Now synod leadership was coming to them!

The message was clear: Vote our way or else.

Of course, the congregation was intimidated.

This was actually voiced by Redeemer members during Bishop Almquist’s tenure. When he called for a THIRD vote on a call question, the people said, “If we don’t vote the way he wants, he’ll shut us down for sure.” Fear would have controlled the situation, not reason.

Redeemer recovered from that time with able lay leadership taking the time to heal the congregation.

But in 2007, under Bishop Burkat, the Synod was resurrecting the same familiar tactics.

Bishops do not have the right to call congregational meetings. If they want to meet with congregations they are supposed to work with local leadership in doing so. That’s the way the constitutions are written.

Bishop Burkat never asked the local leaders for suggested meeting times. She just wrote letters saying she was coming. In her world, lay people are waiting for her to find a convenient time to pay attention to them once every decade or so.

The first time she tried this, in September 2007, she chose the local back-to-school night. Redeemer members decided they wanted to attend their children’s back to school events.

This was interpreted as resistance.

When we finally met in November, the meeting went very well. Bishop Burkat agreed to review our ministry plan and resolution to call a pastor. She promised we could work with the newly appointed Patricia Davenport. “You will love working with her,” she told us.

We were never given the opportunity. Bishop Burkat broke the promises made to us in her only meeting with our leaders.

Once again, Bishop Burkat scheduled a visit to Redeemer with no consultation with the congregation. This time she chose the Sunday of our Annual Meeting and luncheon and an afternoon birthday party for our pastor.

First, she announced the outcome of the meeting before the meeting was held. She was closing Redeemer with no congregational vote or consultation. NONE!

We informed her immediately upon notice that the date wouldn’t work. We reinforced this by email, fax and letter. We had hoped that she would meet with our leaders and work through any issues. But then NO issues had been raised.

The fabricated report that was read at Synod Assembly was written just a few days before Synod Assembly, three months after this. It was NEVER shared with Redeemer. It was inaccurate and untrue and would not have withstood scrutiny.

What happened at Redeemer was a property grab facilitated by pure bullying. It set the stage for all litigation.

Bishop Burkat arrived at Redeemer on February 24, 2008, despite our notice that the congregation could not meet at that time. She brought with her a lawyer, a locksmith and a host of witnesses.

Not exactly the atmosphere for an honest congregational vote.

Bishop Burkat was embarrassed that her plan to lock us out that day was thwarted in front of her company of witnesses. Any reasonable person could not have imagined it going any other way—but then they thought no one from Redeemer would be present. They could change the locks and surprise us the next Sunday when we all arrived for worship.

Had Bishop Burkat respected our leaders, this embarrassment would never have happened. Every subsequent action was face-saving and vindictive.

Bishop Burkat boasts of empowering laity. We have seen the opposite in her dealings with our congregation. Empowered laity are laity who comply.

Next: We will examine why Lutheran congregations own their own property.

Redeemer Revisited: Part 2

This is the second post in a series that revisits the last five years of court actions involving the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (SEPA / ELCA) and member church, Redeemer in the East Falls neighborhood of Philadelphia, Pa.

Understanding the Legalities  

Five years of costly and hateful  litigation have shed little light on the legalities of the land grab in East Falls.

The courts are far from united in the various rulings in all the cases of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America against member church Redeemer in the East Falls neighborhood and carefully selected members of the congregation.

The early rulings were that courts have no jurisdiction in church affairs.

This first ruling was upheld by a split decision of the Pennsylvania Appellate Court. Two dissenting judges strongly supported Redeemer. If the law were applied, they concluded, Redeemer should be heard.

Keep in mind that all this litigation was just about HEARING the case. It has never been heard.

A similar case WAS heard at the very same time involving a Presbyterian denomination and a member congregation in western Pennsylvania. That judge took five days to hear the case and ruled in favor of the congregation. The ruling came five days after the Redeemer “no jurisdiction” ruling. This decision has held through the appellate process and was last heard at the state supreme level this April with a decision due any day.

SEPA wasn’t satisfied with their default win. They wanted Redeemer to pay more. They went after individual members.

They held the cards now and they fixed the deck. The ace up their sleeve is “Contempt of Court.”

Synod locked the members of Redeemer out of the church within 36 hours of the ruling. Redeemer members had no access to anything in the church. Synod (again with no consultation with Redeemer members) sued members for contempt of court for not supplying things we still think ARE IN the church.

If they couldn’t find something they were looking for, they could have asked. But no! Straight to litigation where they are immune from the law and church members are not.

Redeemer members are in the position of not being able to prove that the items are in the church building.

Note to other SEPA congregations: They are likely to use this tactic again. Protect your church leaders now.

In the Redeemer case, subsequent judges have shown growing sympathy for Redeemer.

First, let’s ask, Where were the clergy?

Clergy fled at the first sign of trouble.

The pastor who had been serving us for nearly two years when Bishop Burkat was elected and who was well-liked, disappeared after a private meeting with Bishop Burkat and a congregation (Epiphany) who had been in covenant with Redeemer and was sharing our building. That church never discussed breaking the covenant with us, but after a private meeting with the bishop, they announced they were closing. The pastor gave 10 days notice by email (not the constitutional 30 days notice.) He never planned to talk with us about his decision. He left the Synod.

Epiphany continued to share Redeemer’s property outside of the covenant for six months, rent free. They were never locked out!

Redeemer found a pastor to replace him. Redeemer hand-delivered to Bishop Burkat the congregation’s resolution to call him in November 2007. In February 2008, he had just encouraged Redeemer members to “stand firm” in our ministry. He visited the bishop’s office hoping to talk things through.

This pastor had shared with us that he had been trying to talk to the synod for a year and couldn’t get a return call or a response to correspondence. (We had the same experience!).

So now he goes to talk to the Synod about serving Redeemer.

He never sets foot inside Redeemer again.

He suddenly has an interim call in Bucks County.

Clergy are out of the way.

Next. Lay leaders.

Let’s make this quick! All lay leaders, having had no hearing with Bishop Burkat on the subject of closing the church, were dismissed by letter from the bishop in February 2008. She had promised to work with us just four months earlier at a meeting which closing the church had not been discussed. No grounds were ever cited.

OK, lay leaders are out of the way.

There is still the congregation to deal with. 

We’ll tell you how that went in our next post.

Hint: Any claim that there was a process of mutual discernment is a lie.


Ambassadors Celebrate

Homecoming and Coming of Age

Today was the end of our third year of Ambassador visits. We stayed home and had worship, followed by a party. (68 church visits, BTW)

It was an especially joyous day as one of members was home from nine months overseas. It was good to be reunited.

We actually saw each other several times this week, bumping into each other just like the old days. It was especially good to see our young people trying to reconnect.

SEPA Synod’s view of Redeemer was that we were a bunch of old ladies who would be dead soon enough. We wouldn’t have the energy to resist. Need money? Easy pickings in East Falls.

But Redeemer’s demographics were actually the youngest of any Lutheran church our Ambassadors have visited. It was not unusual for children to outnumber adults on Sunday morning. We had very few people who could be considered old.

A lot had changed in the eight years since Bishop Almquist nurtured that indelible impression and during which SEPA Synod ignored us.

And then another six years passed while Bishop Burkat tried to destroy Redeemer one way or another.

A funny thing happens in eight years, followed by six years (two thirds of the history of SEPA Synod). Our children grew up.

Since 2007. Redeemer’s cradle role members are now in first and second grade. Redeemer’s grade school kids are now entering high school. Redeemer’s high school youth are now entering graduate school or the work force.

Synod has been so focused on destroying the adults that they never stopped to think about how their actions in East Falls affect the children. Land and money remains their only consideration.

I’ll never forget the Sunday after Bishop Burkat followed four months of silence with a letter announcing she was closing Redeemer. Our last meeting with her had been all about working with Synod. She broke every promise made to us without a word.

Of course, when all this ugliness was going on, we did our best to protect our children. On this Sunday, following the edict (don’t believe the “mutual discernment” nonsense), two synod representatives appeared at worship. Rev. Patricia Davenport and the Rev. Lee Miller were sitting right beside the children as they gathered for the children’s sermon.

The children came forward wanting to talk. We usually let them talk during the children’s sermon. We typically asked them what was going on in their lives before we settled in for a message. This week they were upset. You see they had seen their parents crying.  “Daddy got a letter and was crying,” one six-year-old said.

They were probably surprised and confused that on this morning, when they needed to talk more than usual, their concerns were deflected.

The sight of a parent crying, especially a father, is troubling to a child. We should have talked it through with the children right then and there. But then the people responsible for the family’s pain were sitting within arms’ reach. The word “smugly” comes to mind. They seemed clueless to what they were witnessing.

Awkward moments in worship.

But today the children are older. As we talk now, we make no attempt to hide anything from the young adults. At one point, I invited them to go off and enjoy kid talk.

“Nothing doing,” one boy said. “I’ve heard bits and pieces of this over the years, but this is the first time I’ve heard all this. This is really interesting.” And so we shared our story with a new generation — now old enough to vote in the church.

As the father told the son, I always thought that if our story were told, any reasonable person would side with Redeemer.

Lack of dialog has characterized this entire conflict. Reason has held little sway.

Redeemer is not closed. We are locked out of God’s House by SEPA Synod.

Our children still care about Redeemer. They will always know what it feels like to be shunned by their church leaders, excluded from the church that had once welcomed them in baptism, and how their parents were attacked in court for five long years.

We learned what they are doing. The young man who often helped lead Redeemer’s children’s sermons now holds a home Bible study. (Redeemer had no shortage of leaders and was grooming a new generation.) Another boy attends church with a school friend. Most remain unchurched as is typical of the membership of closed churches. Another falls back on his Quaker school upbringing. (A good number of Redeemer kids attended Quaker schools.)

Several families that were united at Redeemer are divided in exile.

Bishop Burkat was quite up front with her insistence that the memory of Redeemer be allowed to die. The church’s version of scorched earth policy. If the church was to reopen it had to have a new trendy name. The members of Redeemer could not play a leadership role in any “resurrection.” They would remain dead while SEPA searched for more compliant East Fallsers (good luck!) or shipped in outsiders.

She thought the death process would take six months. That was five years ago.

And now we know.

Redeemer’s spirit will live for another generation.

Let’s hope a resolution is reached that will restore our children’s faith in Christian community—for everyone’s sake. It’s high time.

Praise God for this special day.

Risk Taking in Today’s Church

SEPA Leadership Encourages Risk-taking

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!)

There is more mission potential in open churches than in closed churches.

There is more economic potential in open churches than in closed churches.


Ambassadors Visit Trinity, Havertown — Again

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 story of Nehemiah is the story of Redeemer.

After years of neglect from SEPA leadership, Redeemer found our leaders standing on the sidewalk in front of Redeemer with Bishop Burkat as she implored us to just meet with her and all would be fine. Meanwhile, she had a lawyer and a locksmith waiting out of sight ready to pounce. The people of Redeemer, like Nehemiah, didn’t fall for the trick, which only enraged the bishop.

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!

Plant It, Water It, Watch It Grow!

Last Sunday, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod (SEPA) of the Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) held a gathering they called

“Plant It, Water It, Watch it Grow.”

It was supposed to be a presentation on SEPA’s mission work.

Redeemer wasn’t invited. We are the weed, we suppose, in the SEPA garden.

SEPA Synod evicted a vibrant, growing congregation, locked everyone in town out of God’s House, and sent a caretaker to rake the leaves and shovel the snow. He does a good job, the neighbors tell us.

But GROW! That’s the part SEPA Synod has trouble with. Almost all of its congregations are in decline or flat-lined. In fact,  Rev. Hilgendorf of St. David’s, dean of the NE Conference, addressed the Plant It, Water It, Watch It Grow concept and talked mostly of helping congregations save money by consolidating purchasing. This really has nothing to do with planting, watering or growth.

Botanists describe weeds as flowers that are reproductively successful.

What SEPA Synod needs is more weeds — like Redeemer.

They wouldn’t know what to do if they had a garden filled with them.

That’s why Redeemer is about to celebrate its FOURTH Christmas locked out of the church. And none of the people who attended Sunday’s “Plant It, Water It, Watch It Grow” conference have demonstrated that they care.

While all those church leaders were together talking about mission, we wonder:

“Did anyone ask about East Falls?”

We’re guessing not.

Reviewing the Concept of Transformational Ministries

A review of the book
Transformational Regional Bodies,
by Roy M. Oswald and Claire S. Burkat

This review, written by Judith Gotwald, is offered from the viewpoint of one congregation experiencing its leadership philosophies.

In 2001, Bishop Claire Burkat of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod co-authored a book with Roy Oswald of the Alban Institute. The book, entitled Transformational Regional Bodies: Promote Congregational Health, Vitality and Growth, is a puzzling book, filled with typos, conflicting premises that go unnoticed by the authors, and a few good ideas. It gives the illusion of being scholarly but in fact builds on hypotheticals and limited firsthand parish leadership experience.

Ten years after publication might be a good time to evaluate this book.Why review this book ten years after publication? The co-author, Claire Burkat, was elected to lead a judicatory in 2006, five years after this book’s publication. The advice she gives in this book has been put to the test under her leadership with results the book does not foresee. While the book uses many “success” illustrations, there are notable failures which go unrecorded.

The opening pages contain a detailed analysis of two opposing judicatories it says are in the American Northwest. Pages of statistics of one’s failure and the other’s successes are impressive,  . . . but both examples are entirely hypothetical – statistics and all!

The book is written for middle management in the church. From the beginning the authors recognize that some denominations have no such thing as middle management and the book assumes middle management has powers its judicatories may not allow. The book spends no time discussing the judicatory’s relationship with any controlling influences, whether they be constitutional or structural. In this book, middle management IS the highest authority.

For example, the Lutheran Church (ELCA), by its own definition, is comprised of “interdependent” organizations. There is to be equality and respect among Lutheran congregants, congregations and leadership at every level. Constitutions mention congregational consent frequently. Although this is still the premise of Lutheranism, this book is a blueprint for ignoring its traditions and historical structure. Currently and perhaps following the advice of this book, middle judicatory is running roughshod over member churches, forcing closure against congregational wishes and seizing property and assets — all in the name of “transformation.”

The foundation of the book appears to accept a church view that is sharply divided into unnecessary factions — clergy vs laity. Much of the focus is on congregational relations with clergy, making it seem that congregations exist to support clergy, first and foremost.  Most congregations think pastors serve congregations. The premise is in conflict with reality from the start.

The management of church relations as described by this book assumes a congregation’s dependency upon clergy that is not healthy. The book teaches casting the weak and troubled to the side for the sake of judicatory health and staff/time/resource management.

 Do the many interim/redevelopment/bridge pastors operating in congregations work for the congregations who are paying them or for SEPA?“You do not have the luxury of giving everyone who asks for help whatever time you have available. Some tough decisions need to be made as to where your Regional Body is going to invest time, energy, and resources. Thinking in terms of TRIAGE is a most responsible thing to do at the present time. Congregations that will die within the next ten years should receive the least amount of time and attention. They should receive time that assists them to die with celebration and dignity. Offer these congregations a ‘caretaker’ pastor who would give them quality palliative care until they decide to close their doors.  It is the kind of tough-minded leadership that will be needed at the helm if your organization is to become a Transformational Regional Body.”

Turn your back on people asking for help is their advice for church leadership. Should this philosophy spread from the church to all struggling people in the world, the advice would be catastrophic. Expect the same within the church. This outlook is devoid of Christianity and the biblical imperatives to love one another. Should the Regional Bodies share this philosophy with the hundreds of small churches who vote for them and send them support offerings, they would surely be sent packing. Do the congregations targeted for death know that the pastor they are paying is there only to help them die? If not, the judicatory is behaving in a deceitful manner. The atmosphere created in a judicatory that practices this philosophy is bound to be fraught with distrust. The purpose of a Regional Body is not to make their jobs easier. Congregations must be confident that they can turn to their Regional Bodies for help. It is a key reason for them to be in relationship with any Regional Body.

The authors spend a great deal of time sympathizing with over-burdened clergy. A long list of statistics details burdens borne by clergy, including long hours, stress on family, burnout, etc.

There is no corresponding list or study cited on the burdens of the laity who work, uncompensated, under the same conditions and with no support system in the church. There are only passing references to the harm clergy can cause in a congregation. There is little recognition that whatever damages might occur will remain problematic for the laity for years, long after clergy pack up their problems and move to greener pastures.

The language of the book reveals something akin to distain for church members. For example, in discussing the training of clergy, the authors write:

“We as a church . . . will send men and women into battle against the principalities and powers of darkness within any congregation and expect that none of them to get wounded, seriously demoralized, stressed beyond their capacity to cope, experience family breakup, tempted beyond their capacity to resist, or be rendered mentally and emotionally unstable.”

If this medieval view weren’t bad enough, the authors think things are going to get worse – and it is going to be the fault of the laity. They write:

“It is our prediction that we are going to encounter more and more congregational conflict the further we move into the 21st century. It is clear that the stress levels of individuals within our culture are steadily rising with more and more pressure being placed on people within the corporate world. These people are going to bring their stress to their church and create more stress for their clergy.

All ye who are heavy laden — go elsewhere?

 Statistics show that most people  belong to smaller churches and that corporate churches are high on burnout. Perhaps judicatories need to pay  more attention, not less,  to small congregations. The authors judge congregations by size, the smallest being the “family church” and “pastoral church.” Most congregations fit into one of these two categories, but it is clear that the authors see these categories as undesirable and that small churches exist to become bigger and better. All that stands between them and becoming a wealthier “program church” or “corporate church” is the laity which, in their view, have a bad habit of focusing on their own spiritual needs.

They describe family churches as being controlled by a matriarch or patriarch and discuss ways pastors can be prepared to thwart their power. A healthier Christian way of looking at a family church with strong lay leadership might be to teach pastors to work with the skills innate in any church which has survived for decades with minimal help from clergy. Without strong lay leaders they would be lost — but perhaps that’s part of the transformational plan. Control! Oswald and Burkat spend no time discussing empowering the congregation. Their primary view is centered on the role of pastors and forcing congregations to feed into leadership from above.

At one point the authors recommend, “that Regional Bodies employ tough-minded, intentional Interim Pastors to intervene in their most important congregations.” (We can only assume that the “important” congregations are the bigger and richer congregations.) A translation might be “These congregations need a no-nonsense pastor to tell them what to do.” This seems to be at odds with the very process they describe for visioning and working with congregations and which they admit requires the consent of the people.

There are more troubling dichotomies in the book. The authors explain that as the book was nearing completion, the founder and president emeritus of Alban Institute, Loren Mead, produced a report they felt compelled to include in draft form as an appendix. It is so important, they state in the early pages of the book, that it should be read first.

It is, indeed, an interesting report and perhaps the best part of the book. Unlike the rest of the book, the laity is treated with respect. Loren Mead writes:

“Every congregation has a handful (hopefully more) of lay people who are opinion-leaders in the community as well as the church. When these lay people have had good opportunities to know and participate in important work of the judicatory, they will move the climate of the congregation toward the judicatory. Note that I say ‘important work,’ not ‘busy work’ or powerless and endless task forces. Judicatory executives need to be recruiting such leaders, listening to them and engaging with them. Efforts to that end will bring life to the relationship between congregation and judicatory, and will be an asset when there is a change of pastorate or some other congregational crisis.”

While it’s unclear why a change of pastorate is classified as a crisis, Mead’s thoughts are well-formed.

Mead also comments on the use of consultants in evaluating congregations in transition. He stresses that consultants are hired and paid by the congregation and should be responsible to the congregation. He writes:

“Judicatories often want consultants to operate as staff, carrying out the intentions of the judicatory. Such an understanding assumes that the judicatory controls what will happen. This may be in the best interests of the judicatory, but it violates the integrity of the congregation. In the long run, I think this is very bad for the connection between congregations and judicatories. It is dishonest.”

Mead’s advice is commonly ignored in SEPA Synod under Claire Burkat’s leadership and that of her predecessor. SEPA Synod uses consultants, requiring the congregations to pay for their services while the consultants report to SEPA. This book devotes a good portion to Physes, a consulting firm used in just this way by SEPA. This section of the book reads like an advertisement. The book extols Physes as an organization of great integrity, yet this “dishonest” methodology was used with SEPA, Physes and at least one member congregation, Redeemer, in the late 1990s, just prior to the publication of this book.

You might think  that a book recommending ignoring churches that ask for help and advising that they be given only a “caretaker” pastor might devote a chapter on  what that entails.  Not in this book! Just as Mead predicted, it damaged relations between Redeemer and the judicatory. It was not the only such incident. The SEPA relationship with consultants seems to be so entrenched that when Redeemer congregation independently hired a consultant to lead a workshop (which went very well) the congregation felt betrayed to learn that the consultant filed a report with SEPA without the congregation’s knowledge or permission.

Responsibility is just as murky with other SEPA-fostered relationships. Do the many interim/redevelopment/bridge pastors operating in congregations work for the congregations who are paying them or for SEPA? Discussions with both clergy and lay members reveal that these relationships are often strained because this is unclear.

Claire Burkat, in her role as bishop of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod, has ignored Mead’s excellent advice and much of her own. From her earliest days in office, she found ways to bypass local leadership and constitutional provisions to achieve Synodical goals. Her policies have encouraged church closings at an alarming rate and created long-term contention that has been damaging to Christian community and eroded trust for the judicatory. Her approach, devoid of love, has sparked numerous law suits which may outlast her tenure. Studies should be done on the real effects of this approach to ministry, but it is hard to interview churches experiencing modern excommunication.

Transforming Regional Bodies should be widely read in SEPA Synod, where statistics are, with few exceptions, following a downward trend. (Redeemer, forced into closure by the co-author of this book, was one of the few growing churches. Unbeknown to us, we had been placed on the ten-year death track. During that time, unbeknown to synod, we grew fivefold — but too late to change Synod’s tunnel-visioned view.) 

It is hard to interview congregations which have been allowed to die, but it is still worth the effort.Regional Bodies must rediscover that they exist to serve in a Christlike fashion. A study of this book’s ideas as compared to practice might reveal that it is the Regional Bodies that need transforming.