East Falls

The Lutheran Grinch Ponders His Evil Ways—or NOT!

grinch8Eight Years Locked Out of Church on Christmas Eve

and every other day, for that matter.


Every year for the last seven years, the Lutherans of East Falls—locked out of our own property by the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod  (ELCA) in a budget-balancing land grab—checked in with the Lutheran Grinch to see if conscience had yet to kick in.


Year eight. An opportunity to do the right thing in a way that was right and feasible and perhaps in keeping with mission is now gone.


But Redeemer Whoville is still here! We’ll gather around the relics we saved from the church—not allowed by the synod but by the developer that purchased our land for a song.


The Grinch of Whoville was able to breach the wall between evil and good. That Grinch pondered the effects of his greed and changed his ways. He at last could stand with the people of Whoville and sing with joy and a growing heart. It’s supposed to make us think of the Christmas message if the Bible doesn’t hit home.


Neither is likely to happen in Lutheran Whoville.


There will be no reflection. The Lutheran Grinch sits on the hill overlooking their 150 or so congregations and never sees the people of their Whoville.


Reflection is not part of the popular “discernment” process. The need to win and save face stood in the way of reason and principle. There were no doctrinal differences, no issues requiring church discipline, no financial distress necessitating intervention. There was plenty of “fake” news—unsubstantiated stories about horrible things that simply were untrue. We were probably the fastest growing church in a synod where numbers are down in almost every congregation. The synod had ignored us since 1998, following their published strategy of ignoring small congregations for ten years to facilitate decline. They didn’t know anything about us in 2008. They cited 1990s statistics to the rest of the synod. We pointed out the “big lie.” No one was listening. No one was asking questions—nor were they encouraged to.


SEPA was successful in their land grab.  At what cost? Six years of lawsuits—during which the building deteriorated in appraisal value from $1.5 million to $350,000—ate up the coveted pie.


Leaders without a strategy, tend to rely on destruction to demonstrate power.


The long-term effects set an unhealthy precedent. Much needed innovation will not happen in congregations for fear of intervention.


SEPA’s tactic to sue individual church members should be very disturbing to all church leaders. A desire for safety and security clouds the sense of right/wrong.



In most historical contexts, there are people who look back at the decisions of leadership and measure the results to see if popular decisions ended up to be foolish or wise. Leaders with perceived mediocre promise (Harry Truman) end up wearing history’s halo. Popular leaders (Hitler) are condemned.


Churches don’t examine church history in the light of self-discovery or improvement. Did that pastor that everyone loved move the congregation forward or were those happy years the onset of decline? Were those lay people who raised questions trouble makers, or did their concerns prove to be valid?


The Redeemer decision—made with overwhelming acceptance of a synod assembly acting outside their constitutional powers—wise or even Christian? Only one church asked back then (Old Zion). None have asked since. It became Church at its worst, something akin to a Lutheran Hunger Games, with fluid rules and and tactics designed to inflict maximum damage.


The now eight-year-old decision that SEPA won in a weird way should give all Lutherans pause. The final court decision was that if the law were applied Redeemer’s arguments have merit, but the courts cannot enforce church law. In other words, Redeemer was right to challenge SEPA! SEPA’s actions were questionable. Our fellow Lutherans failed in their duty to provide the checks/balances.


Let’s look back at a few of the results of a power run unchecked.



SEPA Synod was routinely operating on a significant deficit budget. Closing churches in a way that guaranteed the assets went to the synod became a goal. Problem: it violates the founding agreement between the synods and congregations. Congregations have the right to vote on their future and to disperse property as the congregation wishes (within charitable guidelines). SEPA Synod usurps this right by invoking an unconstitutional tactic they call Involuntary Synodical Administration. This violates the agreement member congregations that joined the ELCA made only 27 years ago. The founding constitution allows for VOLUNTARY synodical administration, done with a vote of the congregation. But SEPA made up an INVOLUNTARY form to side-step congregational rights and take control of congregational assets. It is a form of theft. Even the wording: Taking the control of property and assets without the consent of the congregation and administering assets for the synod’s benefit is the definition of theft. Use fancy words. No one notices.


POTENTIAL IMPACT: Sooner or later, church leaders can expect to be challenged. This happened in East Falls. Christian beliefs and teachings ceased to matter. Winning mattered.



The leadership theory that was published in a book by Bishop Claire Burkat a few years before she put it into practice in East Falls states that the best way to manage a struggling church is to close it for a few weeks, remove signage, and reopen under a new leadership with NONE of the existing members permitted to participate. Where did they get such nonsense?

Church leaders see things from a clergy point of view. When a pastor leaves a church, they are advised to stay out of their previous parish to avoid conflicts with new leadership. This theory does not transfer to church members. Church members still live in the community and church leaders are likely also to be community leaders. Banishing them is easier said than done. Interestingly, another such SEPA experiment in which the synod closed a church and took possession of congregational assets received acclaim in the early years. They reopened to great fanfare with 70 or so charter members. A few years later, the parish statistics reflected far fewer members. No fanfare about this. Reported success. Unmentioned failure.


All the theory obscures the real reasons to wish church members gone.



UNFORESEEN IMPACT: Leaders fail to understand the value of land and tradition. They also fail to realize that in small churches, a lot of people are related by both blood and social circles. Scratch off a few problem lay members and you’ve riled a whole neighborhood. Working class East Falls residents sacrificed to provide prime real estate in our community to ensure a faith presence beyond their own lifetimes. They didn’t just build a shack. They invested their labor and wages to create beauty. Bishop Burkat’s attack on our congregation ended up predictably with the sale of the church. They sold it at least twice. An early sale was to a nonprofit that was willing to work with Redeemer members to establish Christian day school in the space they once owned. When the synod found out, they used tactics that would embarrass faithful Lutherans to regain rights to the property. Then they sold it to developers, of course. Urban land always has greater commercial value than monetary mission value. These developers were also willing to work with Redeemer members. Remember, we still live here! We were close to raising the money, but it was difficult. After all, SEPA took our endowment funds, too. We had only a few months and came very close. The land so carefully provided for mission in our community will be apartments. Our school has already been leveled for town houses. That’s the impact on Redeemer. For all regional Lutherans, it will be almost impossible to influence all of northwest Philadelphia (population 200,000+ and where SEPA is headquartered) will soon be next to impossible.


The loss to the community is even worse. The school we had planned is needed far more than five new houses. Our land as a cultural hub for many community groups is now gone and difficult to replace as available land in urban neighborhoods is now economically steep.



Our experience is representative. Most of our members were life-long Lutherans—some in America, others from Africa. We remain Lutheran in a neighborhood where other Lutherans have been unkind. We are still active in our community and we speak up for our continued presence, our history and our traditions. We are learning a lot. We are seeing what the future of faith communities in urban neighborhoods are likely to look like. We learned we were dong a lot right. We were growing diverse in a natural, organic way. Our membership was young in a church body that is adopting a new liturgical color of gray. We would not have been growing had we followed the advice of church consultants. Their predictions made in the 1990s—that demographics did not favor mission—we now know were baloney.


Redeemer was here long enough to experience, understand, and be part of real societal change. During this time, the Lutheran church was unable to provide adequate leadership. The suburbs called. Redeemer, largely lay-led, worked through the problems. East Falls is now a melting pot of diversity. We have experience we could be sharing.



East Falls, along with neighboring communities of Manayunk, Wissahickon and Roxborough, are among the fastest growing neighborhoods in Philadelphia. They are also the youngest neighborhoods. SEPA’s leadership has positioned Lutherans to miss a true opportunity for long-term mission. The era of White Flight was a challenge! We turned the corner, partly because we stayed in the city. For the first time since the 1970s, people are finding urban neighborhoods attractive places to raise families. Redeemer would be in a position to be truly helpful as our neighborhood continues to transform. But SEPA administered our assets for their benefit.


The Lutheran Grinch still sits at the top or the hill in Northwest Philadelphia carefully waiting to sled down the hill and take as much as they can carry. Just three churches left. Probably not for long!


Reformation Never Ends

Martin-Luther_The-Origins-of-Calvinism_HD_768x432-16x9Today is Reformation Day. Halloween to many, but Christians—especially Lutherans—know better.

Reformation has always been a day held with some pride in our hearts of Lutherans. 497 years ago today Martin Luther challenged the established church and did his best to stick with it while risking his life to correct the wayward ways of superiors. Their selfish thinking was threatening the message of the Church while it guaranteed the power and coffers of church leaders would grow at the expense of God’s people.

It is the way of power. The powerful seek more power. Bishops, monsignors, cardinals, popes even parish pastors are tempted to take the privilege and status of their positions and protect it before everything else they might do.

And so Reformation Day should always be a day for the entire Church to take stock. In fact, once a year might not be enough! Maybe we should remember the years of hiding which followed Luther’s brave act as the Church sought to bring him down.

Where are our temptations leading us today?

Is God’s message of love paramount?

Are we obeying the Great Commission or are we comfortable collecting people who are already much like us?

Are we serving the troubled—the ostracized, the ill, the challenged—or do they get our prayers while people of means get our programs, offerings and comfortable pews.

Take a minute today. Stretch it out over All Saints Day (tomorrow) to think about ministry.

What kind of church are we supporting? How can we keep it on track with the message of Christ?

We don’t believe in indulgences anymore. What do we believe in?

This message comes from Redeemer Lutheran Church in East Falls—the congregation that was kicked out of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, so that their endowment funds and property values might benefit the denomination.

Redeemer’s Easter 2014

Five Years—No Stone Rolled Away Yet!Easter 2014Some 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.

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.


While most churches scurry . . .

redeemerxmas2013lrin East Falls, there’s no hurry

Redeemer members passed our locked church for the fifth Christmas and gathered into the welcoming home of one of our members to celebrate Christmas together.

It will be the fifth “bleak” midwinter in East Falls locked out of the church—but we had a wonderful time catching up. As usual, much of the world was represented even in our small group. Our Christmas chatter included talk of how Christmas is celebrated in England (the youngsters opened “crackers”) and in the Mideast and Africa. We spent no time remembering Christmas past at Redeemer because we live in the present. Our ministry today counts. Many of our members will be traveling in the new year. Several have new jobs or business ventures. We are still the talented, eclectic and diverse community the ELCA doesn’t know what to do with while they try to establish diversity on their terms.

The direction of 2×2 was discussed. We grew threefold this year. We now have a community of more than 200 daily readers and we are still just starting. We already have the widest reach of any congregation in SEPA Synod. By the end of next year we may have the largest reach of any church in the ELCA! And they think we don’t exist!

One of Redeemer’s remarkable traits is the ability to build on the interests of the present. That hasn’t changed. The young people spoke of their interest in archery. Out came two bows and lessons on how to hold the bow and draw the string. It’s safe, SEPA. We didn’t get out the arrows!

Redeemer is still a fascinating Christian community.

So, while other churches rush to create a typical Christmas Eve experience for typical people who look for a typical church to attend on Christmas Eve, Redeemer is already moving into the new year. We are eager to see if the Epiphany Season presents the Lutherans of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America—an epiphany! We’re betting that the point of Christmas will be lost. Again.

How does 2×2 rank with other church blogs?

I have been blogging on behalf of my congregation (Redeemer Lutheran Church in East Falls) for nearly three years. It has become a discipline which has created many interesting mission opportunities for our little church without a building. It is something our members follow and discuss when we get together. It is our church blog.

There is always something new to learn! In 2011 we inched our way up from one visitor each month to 500 a month. In 2012 we improved our statistics about tenfold and doubled that again in 2013. We have used no gimmicks or strategies—no Facebook ad campaigns, no contests or elaborate opt-in schemes. We just created and posted content almost every day.

But how do our statistics measure? I had no idea.

Today I saw a recommendation for a utility that analyzes a website in comparison with others in a similar field. I think it does this by analyzing key words and results of key words. How would  three years of work stack up in an independent, purely statistical, algorithmic review?

I wasn’t sure I wanted to know. Nevertheless, I started exploring.

The results are amazing.

2×2 is in the upper 20% of most church social media ministry categories and is NUMBER ONE in the category of church blogging. The lowest we ranked in any category was 47%.

Within the next two weeks we will tally our 40,000th unique visitor. We now have about 200 readers everyday (about half unique and half followers).

We are putting our four years of exile from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to good use. What we have learned could help many! Statistically, we may be the largest church in the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod — measuring modern statistics!

But we are shunned. Our skills, our loyalty, our faithful mission, and our people are worth nothing in the ELCA. Our property and the protection of the people who created this mess are priorities.

Lutherans teach that the church is not a building. The church is the people.

But Lutherans don’t really believe what they teach. They have our building and evicted the people. They declared us closed—with no consideration for the people. A new church is now worshiping at the same time we once worshiped — right across the street from our locked building—proving that ministry is totally possible in our neighborhood.

But we knew that all along.

Will the ELCA ever see us as viable?

Not without some help.

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

Four Years of Locked Church Doors

Today marks the fourth year that the members of Redeemer have been locked out of our sanctuary by order of Bishop Claire Burkat, bishop of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (SEPA / ELCA).

Four years ago, on this date, the Rev. Patricia Davenport came to our church on Sunday morning and oversaw the changing of locks. Remember the Sabbath to keep it holy!

Today I drove past our locked church and noticed that the streets were uncharacteristically parked full. Bishop Claire Burkat had criticized our church for having no parking lot. “A church with no parking lot cannot survive today,” she said. We explained that parking had never been an issue at Redeemer, but the truth did not serve her purpose. Bishop Burkat’s argument was self-serving nonsense. Many of the churches we visit have no parking lots, including Saints United, where we visited this morning.

There is a reason the streets were parked full this morning. Across the street from our sanctuary, a new church was holding its first service in the public school auditorium. Apparently, the lack of a parking lot is not deterring them. The doors were wide open an hour before the advertised worship hour and people seemed to be plentiful.

We are disappointed. While the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod  of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has sat on its hands in mission for four years, two other churches have begun meeting in our neighborhood. Epic meets at the local movie theater. and now Authentic Life Ministries is meeting next to our empty sanctuary. In addition, a Presbyterian branch holds house worship in our neighborhood.

As for Lutherans—nothing.

All the excuses Bishop Claire Burkat gave to justify her lust for our property and endowment funds are pretty well blown away. SEPA’s behavior in East Falls was a covetous land grab. They will always have difficulty establishing a church in the neighborhood where they spent four years suing church members. Perhaps they think the rest of East Falls doesn’t know about them. They do! We still live here. People will not be lining up to come to a church that sues its own members.

If the ELCA wants a Lutheran presence in this part of Philadelphia, where two Lutheran churches have closed in the last ten years, our doors have been locked, and the only remaining church is barely alive, they should start talking to the members of Redeemer and working with us for a change. The last six years of costly legal battles might have been avoided had this been attempted earlier. All their nonsense excuses—parking, demographics, no clergy willing to serve— are proving with each passing day to be pitiful.. They wouldn’t listen to their own people. Now other denominations are taking advantage of their failures. Talk about LOSE-LOSE scenarios!

But then, despite their rhetoric about wanting a word and sacrament church here, they tipped their hand in 2008, when they offered our property for sale to a Lutheran agency behind our backs.

It’s never been about mission. It’s always been about money. When money from live churches isn’t rolling in, create some dead churches and take their properties. A strange economic stimulus program, indeed!

Redeemer is not closed.

We are locked out of God’s House by SEPA Synod.

SEPA’s Mission in NW Philadelphia

A Walking Tour of East Falls

Redeemer’s Ambassadors took a Sunday off. We each had personal plans for the day.

Today I was entertaining one of my oldest friends.

She is visiting Philadelphia for only the third time in her life. It was her first visit outside of center city. She came to attend a four-day meeting being held in East Falls.

Having her as a house guest was a little intimidating. Her mother had been my home economics teacher in high school. But my fears that my house-keeping and hospitality would not be up to snuff were groundless.

We met when we were twelve, when my father, a Lutheran pastor, changed parishes. We sang together in church and in school—girl’s trio and choir. We were friends through college. We hadn’t seen each other in more than a couple of passing encounters in nearly 40 years.

We lived in a small town—farming, coal and steel country. We were friends in both church and school. Many of our school teachers were church members, so the lines were always blurry.

We walked a lot of East Falls together during her four-day visit. We walked through the parks, along the Schuylkill River and Wissahickon Creek, the various campuses (college and high school) and I showed her the churches. Her meetings were being held at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, the church Bishop Burkat helped in ministry at the same time she was trying to take our property. I showed her our locked building. The lights were left on, so it was easy.

As we talked with people we met during her visit, she still identified me as their preacher’s daughter. Some things in life I’ll never be able to shake.

We attended a performance at the playhouse where Redeemer began its ministry in 1891 and where we now hold Sunday morning worship. My friend worked in summer stock theater, so she was interested to see the local theater club. We talked with fellow playgoers. Whenever we encounter anyone from East Falls, the topic of Redeemer comes up. Some things SEPA will never be able to shake!

My friend commented at the sense of community she experienced in East Falls.

We are that. Our people and our history mean something to us. That’s something the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America cannot understand.

For them, East Falls is all about how much money they can get from us. Our people—our history—our passion for ministry—are obstacles to them. We are just in the way.


Here’s an idea. We can take SEPA representatives on a similar tour. We’ll walk you around our town. We’ll show SEPA where our members live and where we got our start. We’ll share our history and our personal faith journeys and what has happened to our members since we were locked out of the Lutheran Church. We’ll introduce you to the people SEPA has taken advantage of. We’ll share our mission plan—yes, we still have one!

Maybe then, you’ll know something about us. Maybe you’ll see us as people, fellow children of God. Maybe that will prompt some right actions and justice in the Lutheran Church.

There’s always hope.

Does the Church Follow the Right Leaders?

UnknownLeadership in the
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)

I remember an encyclical of sorts published about 14 years ago by our synod, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod (SEPA) of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). The message was circulated by Bishop Almquist, who had just been reelected in a very close race. The message quoted a letter from a pastor congratulating him on his reelection.

It read something like this: “We elected you to lead, so lead.”

I considered this at the time to be a kind statement in support of the bishop. But still, it raised lingering questions. Surely, he had many congratulatory notes. What was the bishop trying to tell us in sharing this one?

  • Was it on the order of “See here! I’m the bishop and you will listen—and at least one person agrees with me on this!”
  • Was it an invitation to the faithful to become engaged? If so, how?
  • Why was this personal note of congratulations being distributed to everyone?

Actually, there was something a little unsettling in the sharing. That’s why I remember it 12 years later!

We (the Lutherans of East Falls) didn’t see any leadership during Bishop Almquist’s second term. He had told us on the eve of his reelection that if we didn’t accept the pastor he had chosen for us there would be no pastor for us for a very long time. We had no called pastor for the six years of his second term. We were never sure how to follow a leader who had written us off!

This didn’t help us with the successor bishop who had served under him and who adopted his prejudices.

SEPA refused to provide leadership. They were waiting for us to fail.

We followed our local leaders. That seemed to be threatening to the bishop’s office. They wanted to put their own leaders in charge—leaders they could control, leaders who would replace local leadership, leaders who would accept the philosophy “don’t waste time or resources on congregations that will fail in ten years.”

What does it mean under Lutheran “interdependence” to lead? What does it mean to follow? Are local leaders subservient puppets to the regional office?

The polity of the Lutheran Church gives significant power to the local church—powers that are being tweaked away by constitutional revisions that are in conflict with the founding concepts of the ELCA.

Local leaders, too, have the support of the people who vote for us. As it is now, local leaders can be replaced at the whim of the bishop. All congregational rights can be stripped by edict. There is no place to turn for independent redress of grievances.

Aren’t we all supposed to be following the Good Shepherd?

Doesn’t that guide our leaders and our followers more than selective notes from supporters?

If local leaders are following our regional leaders and we think they are wrong, do we not have an obligation under the Good Shepherd’s leadership to try to set things right? Is this concept not central to all Lutheran thinking and history?

Bishop Almquist served for 12 years. The current bishop, Claire Burkat, is in her second 6-year term. That’s about four fifths of the entire history of the synod and the ELCA. They have pretty much led without challenge—excepting that of the good Lutherans of East Falls and a handful of churches who successfully left the ELCA.

The biggest fault found with us was that we dared to challenge. One mark of good leadership is the ability to deal with opposition with respect and love. We have seen neither.

This sad reality sets the tone for the whole synod. Every pastor and every church can see exactly what will become of any challenge they might make. It’s been ugly beyond most Christians’ imagination.

SEPA rank and file got the message. Follow or perish!

We still don’t know what to expect of our leaders, nor do we know what they expect of us.

Will new leadership in Chicago make a difference?

We hope!

We could always start by following our constitutions and founding documents!

Ambassadors Visit Spirit and Truth, Yeadon

Spirit and Truth Lutheran ChurchA New Experience for the Ambassadors

Today, was our 73rd visit to a congregation of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod (SEPA) of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).

Redeemer’s Ambassadors never know what to expect when we set out on our Sunday morning adventures.

We visited Worship in Spirit and Truth Lutheran Church or Worship Center (we’ve seen it listed both ways) in Yeadon (just outside of West Philadelphia). We found the doors were open, but the sanctuary was empty.

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.

Problem 1

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.

Problem 2

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.

Problem 3

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.

We had visitors almost every week.

First impressions count.