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!


SEPA Synod Assembly Gears Up for Annual Meeting

shutterstock_174573782Time for a Troubled Synod
to Make Hard Decisions

Will They?

It’s almost time for the 2015 Annual Assembly of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. They’ll meet May 8 and 9 at the outskirts of the synod territory in convenient Franconia. You know where that is, don’t you?


We’ve been excluded from the SEPA’s Annual Assembly by decree since 2007. That’s not supposed to be possible, but who can stop it? Not Synod Assembly!


We still care!


ELCA Synods meet annually for business. Truth be told, not much business is done. The limited amount of time will be spent

  • listening to reports
  • engaging in impressive worship
  • chatting with colleagues
  • rubber stamping a few pre-packaged resolutions
  • showboating, to distract attention from the dire state of SEPA and many of its congregations


SEPA Synod AssemblyDebate will be limited. Those raising questions will get a minute or two at a microphone.


In better times, Synod Assemblies were working meetings. There were actually ways to raise issues and be heard. Today, with ministry failing and SEPA scrounging for money, the Assembly will divert attention from serious problems with featured feel-good moments. Grand organ music will fill voids. A guest speaker will be brought in to inspire.


There will be lots of talk about mission. Talk.


SEPA—The Synod that sues its members

SEPA is in survival mode. Congregations need their dwindling offerings. They don’t have money to send to distant and ineffective hierarchy. Will SEPA consider serious down-sizing as their congregations have? Or will they seek other sources of revenue?


Today, SEPA Synod devotes a lot of resources to the Real Estate business.

Disposing of valuable congregational property keeps the office running and salaries paid. SEPA operated with significant deficit budgets for years, making up as much as 10% of their expenses by selling properties of member churches. In a move toward transparency, they now operate with a balanced budget and report “budget shortfalls.”


Way back in 2005, our pastor who was serving on Synod Council, told us about SEPA’s Church Closure Team. Church Closure Team? Aren’t they there to support their congregations.


We would soon encounter this team as have other congregations. It consists at least of a lawyer, a former SEPA treasurer, and an archivist. Others are enlisted to do the upfront dirty work. Scouting.


SEPA relies a great deal on its relationship with this team. There is a problem here. Bishops are supposed to lead with love and respect, nurturing congregations. Lawyers look at the world in a far more black and white way. We heard synod’s lawyer refer to the Synod as the good guys. Guess who were the bad guys! Lawyers don’t care about nurturing and mission. They are not working for the congregations (even though congregations employ them). They are working for the Synod. Congregations are the enemy.


Can bishops lead effectively with a lawyer seated on their right side?


This same cast of characters, The Church Closure Team, goes about assessing congregations not for mission but for the prospect of closure. This should be repugnant to the rank and file of SEPA, but they are slow to connect the dots about what this means to the overall health of their organization—and to their own future. Judging from the criteria we’ve seen used, as many as a third of the congregations voting at Synod Assembly may be the next targets—any congregation that cannot afford $80,000 a year for a full-time pastor.


This creates another problem. How do congregations influence Synod Assembly to forsake this management strategy if it brings attention to them, making them the next target of the Church Closure Team.


Congregations are targeted.  SEPA officials will object. “There is no list.” But there is.


SEPA Attorney John Gordon said so in court with our congregation. “Redeemer is the first of six.”


Are you on the list?


Don’t expect the list to be published. Look for the signs. Here’s how they work.

The ideal prospect is a small, debt-free church in a neighborhood where land values are high. Endowments are nice, too!


  • A synod representative will appear unannounced at worship. He or she will spend little time talking to anyone. They may or may not introduce themselves. If they do, they will say they are making routine visits. It’s just something they do.
  • They will report what they see. In many churches that will be fewer than 30 in worship. They will not be looking for strengths. They are looking for weakness—any excuse to interfere for their own enrichment.
  • Relax if you have an old graveyard. No one wants a property with an old graveyard.


OK. The ground work is laid.


Now for the strategy. How to get congregations to abandon mission, faith, and love for their community and convince them to hand over their property and bank accounts?


We write from experience. SEPA Synod delegates may think Redeemer was an isolated attack. SEPA is in court today even as I write—suing lay people.


SEPA delegates should address their leaders’ behavior.


SEPA Synod’s attorney once flew to Chicago to share his strategy for church closure with all ELCA lawyers. Save the air fare. Here it is for free!


11 Tactics for Having Your Way
with Church Transformation

Pretend to help

Offer the church “mission status.” Sounds good. The overworked church council sighs with relief. Finally, someone in the synod office cares.

Watch out! They are betting that you do not know that churches accepting Mission Status forfeit property rights. Accept Mission Status for one day and your property will be claimed by Synod a hundred years from now if you decide to close. With Mission Status they are likely to send in a pastor that will answer to them, not your council. Their appointed leader might do an evaluation that (no surprise) indicates investment in your congregation is not good use of their resources after all.


Offer Synodical Administration

The original constitution allows for congregations to ask for administrative help. It is supposed to be a temporary option to assist congregations experiencing difficulty. It must be approved by the congregation. The constitution does not detail how you get out of it!


Ignore Congregational Leaders

Do not return phone calls. Ignore letters. Make public claims that the congregation is not cooperating.


Remove the pastor

Your pastor will suddenly disappear. He or she may get a plum assignment a good distance away. They may flee the synod entirely. We’ve seen both happen. This hurts morale, wears members down, and makes everyone feel vulnerable. There is more work for the laity, who are probably already doing most of the work.


Bypass Congregational Leaders

A favorite tactic. Both Bishop Almquist and Bishop Burkat employed this tactic at Redeemer. If the Congregational Council objects to what Synod wants, demand a congregational vote. They’ll  make it sound democratic.

Democracies do not put every issue to popular vote. They rely on selected people to take special interest in issues and act for the whole—like Synod Assembly! In most congregations there are a healthy number of people with equal vote but who are less involved, want to avoid unpleasantness, and can be more easily swayed.

This bullying tactic makes it very difficult for local leaders. That’s the idea!


Impose Involuntary Synodical Administration

Pastors, who know something about church procedure, are now out of the way. Congregational leaders, already bypassed, are now replaced by synod-appointed trustees, pledged to serve the interests of the synod—not the congregation. Those words have actually been added to the constitution even though they violate the founding charters. Involuntary Synodical Administration is a thief’s workaround! The word Involuntary is not in the constitution. All such actions are supposed to be with the consent of the congregation.

There are certain criteria that must be met to employ this strategy. There is no reliable way to assess or verify. Our congregation experienced this tactic twice. We had grown six-fold between the first instance and the second. It didn’t matter. It was deemed that we were scattered and diminished when almost all our 82 members lived within four miles—most within two. Ask the bishop how far she lives from her congregation.


Declare the church closed.

Synod is now in charge. They will lose no time declaring your congregation closed. The congregation wasn’t voting the way they wanted, so they took the vote out of their hands. This is constitutionally murky, but no one outside the targeted congregation will question it. The courts don’t want to be bothered. Members are now denied voice, vote and access to the church lawyers their offerings paid for. All fellowship with other congregations is denied. Lutheran shunning.


Change the locks

Shut out the legal owners of the property. Be as sneaky as possible, then act outraged when members seek legal help. Get the deed transferred to the Synod before the congregation can organize to stop you. This isn’t as easy as it sounds!


Sue the congregation

Pastors are out of the way. Sue the lay people. Shooting fish in a barrel. Name those with the most congregational influence personally. This scare tactic, actually escalates conflict. Dialog is shut down. The lay people are forced to defend themselves.


Rely on Separation of Church and State

Cry First Amendment! There may have been no doctrinal or discipline issues, but it will help in court if the synod makes lay people appear to be “bad guys.” Quick, create some issues. Personal attacks are fine. Filing criminal charges is not going too far. Anything to win! Synod is exempt from the law. Lay people aren’t.


Allow the constitutional appeal process

Up until now, the synod has probably been stonewalling lay leaders’ attempts to work within the rules. But they don’t want to appear in court without having followed their constitution. Only now, when the prejudice, defamatory rhetoric and self-interests have peaked, permit the congregation to approach the Synod Assembly. Make the congregation appeal to the body that is suing them. Make sure things go Synod’s way. Change the question at the last minute if you have to. Substitute an unrelated issue. In the hyped-up atmosphere of a SEPA Synod Assembly, no one will notice.


Some variation of this is in the experience of most of the churches who have encountered the imposed closure process and land/asset grab. Some give in earlier than others. After all, nobody goes to church to be treated like this! Most lay people can find better things to do with their time.


SEPA Synod Assembly has the ability to address the on-going foul practices perpetrated in their names, but they will be kept busy. No time for business—or justice.


Please rise as you are able for the benediction.


Go in peace. Serve the Lord.

Why Take Your Synod Assembly Seriously?

When did Synod Assemblies become DisneyWorld?A Poisoned Church Structure Resists Antidotes

It’s that time of year. For the next two months the 65 synods of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America will each meet to forge a direction for the coming year.

In our Ambassador visits we have witnessed several lay reports from Synod Assemblies. All were similar. One was particularly memorable. The lay delegate spoke of being awestruck at meeting the bishop. She gushed about the spectacular worship. She closed her report by admitting she couldn’t remember a single piece of business conducted—but added that she looked forward to attending again.

When did the business of Church become like a trip to DisneyWorld?

The Synod Assembly is the business arm of the churches that band together within the denomination. There are limits to their power—but if people don’t take part, they can get away with anything. That “anything” could affect you!

In recent years, the Annual Synod Assembly has been less about business and more of a showcase for leadership. Elaborate worship with all the stops pulled fills the time once allocated for debate and deliberation. New ideas? By the time you get to new business, most of the delegates have gone home.

Synod Assemblies are comprised of all rostered pastors and at least two delegates from each member church.


Pastors are required to attend or provide a good excuse.

Many will do no more than report to the registration table to sign in, gab with some friends in the lobby, and walk out the door. Why?

We’d have to ask them, but we suspect they feel that the agenda is pre-approved and they can’t make a difference—so why spend two work days trying?

Lay Representatives

And then we get to lay representation. What a mess!

When the ELCA formed 25 years ago, leaders were full of grand ideas. The ELCA was going to be inclusive. Everyone who was denied representation for decades would now have a voice.

Result: The quota system—the convoluted and ineffective quota system. It starts with allowing two delegates from each congregation, one male and one female, but adds delegates to fill special criteria — race, multilingual, youth. The extra votes must be approved somewhere along the way—another control factor.

So now we have Synod Assemblies, voting on issues that affect everyone, that are comprised of loyalist pastors and lay people — many of whom are present because they fill the quota need—not because they know anything at all about Church government or Church issues.

There is another determining factor in some synods that skews the decision-making process—the growing use of mission, bridge and interim pastors. These pastors actually work for the synod and so have a bias to their employer. In Southeastern Pennsylvania about 25% of congregations have pastors who work as bridge, mission, or interim pastors.

The formula creates a corporate ecosystem that protects abuse.

Leaders know they don’t have to make a good argument. Who will question them?

Consequently, we are experiencing a slow-motion implosion.

How did this happen?

We’ll use Redeemer’s experience to illustrate and imagine that similar conditions exist in other congregations.

The quota system hurt Redeemer. The rule that you must have one male and one female delegate is supposed to increase participation by women. But Redeemer had strong participation among women for decades. In the early days of the ELCA we had a church council with nine women and one man. The man wasn’t interested in attending Synod Council. Several of the women didn’t want to take off work for a meeting at the periphery of the five-county area that constitutes our synod. So, we, like many congregations, sent representatives who were willing to go—not necessarily representatives who understood church issues.

There are other ELCA rules designed to give minorities greater voice. Congregations with significant diversity or which are multilingual are granted more votes under the quota system. Redeemer, over the course of ten years, became both racially diverse and multilingual. Our Black members and our Swahili/German/French-speaking members were not recognized by synod so we were never allowed extra representatives.

And then our congregation dared to challenge a decision of the bishop—a right of any ELCA congregation. Suddenly, just days before the 2009 Synod Assembly, we were informed that we would not be allowed ANY representation. We were officially terminated. We were already registered. Our fees had been paid and accepted. But we were out. Just like that.

This was still another decision of the bishop which we had a right to challenge constitutionally. But our rights were denied and synod leadership made sure that we had no voice.

This is against the stated parliamentary rules of a Lutheran Synod. If a member is denied representation, the entire Assembly is invalid. But the abuse of the system is so great that it is guaranteed no one will speak up. Business as usual.

There is no place within the ELCA to register a complaint. We know. We tried. Presiding bishops ignore us. ELCA lawyers feel no obligation to enforce Lutheran law. Secular courts don’t want to be involved. Anarchy!

We suspect this problem plagues other synods within the ELCA structure.

The structure of the ELCA is seriously flawed.

The people who could fix it are part of the problem, don’t care, or have been replaced by the quota system.

Consequently, Synod Assemblies claim governance rights not part of their constitution. They cover this up with ceremony—lots of ceremony. They do this well. The observers leave impressed and unaware that their voice has been silenced with lights and mirrors.

With the quota system, leaders have assumed the right to approve of lay participation—choosing for congregations who can speak for them. We’ve addressed a democratic ideal by instituting an undemocratic process! It doesn’t matter what you know if you can’t claim the appropriate gender.

We ask again . . .

When did the business of Church become like a trip to DisneyWorld?

PS: The annual Assembly of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod is barely two weeks away. We won’t be there again—by edict of the bishop. No one is likely to question our absence.

photo credit: Express Monorail via photopin cc

Social Media Ministry as Change Agent

Why Congregations Simply
MUST Embrace Social Media

Why use Social Media to further the work of the church?


The answer is easy.


Congregations that ignore the internet will soon be out of business. They may linger for a few years, growing less effective and more frustrated. They will wonder what they are doing wrong. It will be a painful process of attrition.


Many churches will never again be able to minister the way they once did.

The Old Evangelism

Old evangelism techniques center on creating an entry point. This becomes more challenging as congregations work to bolster their self-image.


Old Evangelism relies on seekers walking through the church doors. The sanctuary is like a big mouse trap. Lure people in. Close the door. Snap ’em with the Word.


Often, there is no plan beyond creating an entry opportunity.


These are the five most popular entry strategies.

  1. Preschool programs.
  2. Family ministry.
  3. Music ministry.
  4. A culture centered on a charismatic pastor.
  5. A ministry centered on a popular social concern.


Church schools today tend to attract only the very young. By the time children are 10 years old, churches don’t know what to do with them. Volunteers who are comfortable working with older children are harder to find. Churches that have a pre-school program often see little benefit. They can’t afford the next step—family ministry.

Family Ministries

Congregations hire professionals to lead a family-oriented ministry. Typically churches with family ministries hire a Christian education director, a youth leader, a music leader, and accompanists to work with several choirs or bands. This means doubling or tripling the annual budget and is financially impossible for many congregations.


Consequently, the pre-school fills a fleeting family need. If there is no place for them to grow as needs change, they move on. In urban areas, families tend to relocate when their oldest children reach the age of five. Family ministries are often seen in the suburbs.

Music Ministries

Music ministries are also expensive and are growing less effective with the segmentation of society. It is a daunting task to provide the breadth of music that will appeal to an entire community with ever-changing demographics.


Many churches advertise “contemporary” worship. What does that mean? There are dozens of contemporary styles of music.


The talent needed for an effective music ministry may be more expensive than hiring clergy. (We can’t have that!)

Professional Leadership

That brings us to the charismatic pastor—a growing rarity. The average age of seminarians is on the rise. People are entering ministry as a second or third career. There is no time to hone the social skills and demonstrate the commitment to community required if congregations hope to center evangelism efforts on the likability and long-term service of a pastor.


Part of the overlooked demographics of church life is the aging of clergy. Second career clergy have different needs. Their families are settled. They are less flexible. They may be  planning only 15 years of service! This often results in commuter and part-time pastors who are never active in the community they visit on Sunday mornings.


Congregations cannot count on pastors as evangelists. The pool of candidates with these skills is very shallow.

Ministries that Focus on Social Concern

Ministries centering on social concerns require visionary leadership. Hard to come by. Hard to sustain.


They may attract the passionate. They may also turn off those who disagree with the cause. This type of ministry has its place but is risky. It takes time to nurture the atmosphere that allows for success.

Make Room for New Evangelism

The old evangelism methods which center on getting people to walk through your door are going the way of door-to-door sales.


But don’t hand out the tissues just yet.


Social Media opens new doors. A congregation can reach people 24/7 and address a multitude of spiritual concerns without hiring a staff to oversee the effort and without sending the sexton to unlock the doors.

2×2 Marks Three Years in Social Media Ministry

2×2, an outreach ministry of Redeemer Lutheran Church, launched on February 2, 2011. Groundhog’s Day.


2×2 is Redeemer’s response to hierarchy determining for us that we had no ability to be a church anymore. SEPA Synod locked us out of our building in 2009.


Redeemer responded by pioneering modern evangelism techniques. We used the name 2×2 because we wanted our ministry to grow beyond our community presence.


Jesus sent the disciples out 2×2. Perfect.


We had no pastor, no Christian education director, no music professionals. Our property, which included our school, was taken from us. Many of our growing membership were frightened by the law suits and rightfully so. It has been vicious! We still had the passion of about a dozen members. That was good enough for Jesus!


As part of our ministry we visit other churches in our region. What an eye-opener!


Many churches are struggling to solve the same problems. We hear talk of innovation. We see very little change. Old evangelism techniques are employed with fewer and fewer people to implement them. Failure is almost expected.


We read dozens of church websites. Most are nothing but online bulletin boards for people who are already familiar with the church. Few church websites are used for evangelism or education.


Redeemer’s online ministry is, by necessity, different. We had no place to invite anyone to come.


Our physical doors are locked 24/7.


Our online doors are open 24/7 to anyone anywhere in the world. Read about our worldwide ministry.


It took a while to gain traction. See for yourself. We could have quit after the first four months. Four months and only 106 readers! That’s only six in attendance every week! Hurry! Close that failing church! Seize those assets! Do everyone a favor. Force them out!

2x2 Web Stats

Screen Capture early on January 30, 2014. The green boxes show the highest statistics to date.

We stuck with it.


Our ministry has tripled in size every year. This month, January 2014, we will have reached more than 6000 new readers with 2×2’s blog. (Still two days to go in January!) About 100 more subscribe to our blog through Facebook, LinkedIn and other channels. That adds another 3000 per month.


There are anywhere from 10-50 people reading our website at any given hour.


We are on track to reach 100,000 readers this year. That’s only the first tier of our social reach. The resources people are downloading will reach thousands more.


We used no ads, no Facebook Like campaigns, no contests or gimmicks to build readership. We simply post quality, thought-provoking, and useful content several times each week—not just on Sundays.


We now reach more people than any other church in the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod. Our reach is probably wider than any other church in the ELCA (which refuses to recognize us).


An overlooked benefit of using Social Media is that it will direct ministry. The data collected highlights needs and opportunities that otherwise leave congregational leaders guessing.


Our search statistics showed that people were looking for resources to teach adults. This led us to our weekly Adult Object Lesson and our weekly Lectionary Slideshow.


Missing from our experiment is how we might be using our reach to influence our local community and how we might be teaching other churches what we have learned.

Redeemer is not closed.
We are locked out of God’s House
by the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod
of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Sadly, this is OK with most Lutherans.

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!

Lost Sheep, Lost Coin, Lost Church

The Parable of The Lost Church

Once upon a time there was a congregation that became separated from the other congregations in their denomination. They worshiped in their homes, wandered from church to church, and borrowed space from neighborhood friends when they wanted to hold events.

They weren’t hard to find. They took their ministry online.

Many people who weren’t looking for them found them. Christians all over the world began writing to them and sharing their ministries. Amazing stories of mission became commonplace.

But their closest Christian friends took control of their money and property. They locked their doors and sent them away. You are no longer welcome, they said. And they meant it. All the sheep were warned by the shepherd to keep their distance.

There was no shepherd interested in bringing the Lost Church back into the fold, to reconcile, to comfort them, heal with them, or recognize them as part of God’s family.

The Lost Church maintained its mission and became known for innovative ministry. They grew in influence and in favor with churches that belonged to other denominations.

Amazing stories of ministry were soon being told as faraway Christians interacted in prayer and fellowship. God’s love crisscrossed the oceans as friendships were made.

No matter how effective their ministry was, nothing the Lost Church did was good enough for their own shepherds. They were busy caring for all the congregations that were never any trouble and unfailingly did as they were told without question.

Two years after they became lost to their denomination, leaders decided to officially declare them lost for good. Their name was taken from the denomination’s roster, their signboard was torn down and destroyed. Their church home remained locked to all in the community where they lived. The members of the Lost Church passed their locked doors every day. Every day they were reminded that their own family would not welcome them.

On September 29, Redeemer will celebrate four years as the Lost Church of the ELCA. We are still active and respected in the community. We still worship weekly. We are more active in mission and ministry than ever. Our achievements literally fill books — nearly 1000 posts on this website, one published book and four more in the works. 40,000 have visited online and some visit with us every day. Other denominations come to us for advice.

But our own church leaders choke when they say our name.

Will we forever be the Lost Church of the ELCA?

This Sunday we will listen to the stories about how God feels about one sheep separated from the family of sheep. We will hear the about the joyous celebration of a recovered coin. We will weep with joy for the father and wayward son who embrace in reunion.

Will anyone in the ELCA understand what they hear?

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.

On Looking People in the Eye

boy looks owl in the eyePreferring to Work with Strangers

Today’s church is in trouble. Everybody in the church knows it. Some (fairly few) congregations are still large enough to get by without facing the new age but most churches are feeling just how tough the next two decades are likely to be.

The answer in our area of the church (the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) has been to check out on the people who have brought the church this far. They prefer to look for new faces to deal with—if they can find any. New faces will be easier to manage. They have no heritage at stake.

That was said to us at Redeemer in so many words by Bishop Claire Burkat.

White Redeemer must be allowed to die.
Black Redeemer . . .  we can put them anywhere.

Beyond this, when it looked like the judge was going to rule in our favor, Synod scurried and wrote a proposal to the judge. The proposal was that they would reopen Redeemer under their control and our current members were welcome to attend but would not be allowed any leadership role.

The judge sidestepped all the issues and ruled that he has no jurisdiction in church affairs. The appellate court ruled in its dissenting opinion that if the law were applied, Redeemer’s arguments should have been heard.

SEPA has hidden behind this dubious win and interpreted it as having free reign. In fact, they have free reign as long as members do not exercise their constitutional roles in running their church. The courts don’t want to do this job for you.

The problem with this conflict is that from the start, SEPA refused to deal with members. If they were to have any presence in our community, they wanted it on their terms with different people, who we can presume would thrive as long as they voted the right way.

Seth Godin addresses this modern phenomenon in our society in today’s post.

When we want to deceive or lash out, it’s easy to do. Hey, there’s always someone else we can start over with, relationships and even reputations are disposable. We don’t have to look you in the eye, it’s dark in here, and we’re wearing a mask.’

He calls this approach “an experiment in fake.”

It turns strangers into actors on a screen, and sometimes we help them, but often, we become inured to their reality, and treat them with a callousness and indifference we’d never use in our village.

Recently, I was cleaning out the home of a deceased pastor. I found a folder on a prominent table. In that folder was The Lutheran article about the life and death of one of the founding leaders of the Lutheran Church in America, Dr. Franklin Clark Fry. With it was an article from Time magazine that called him “Mr. Lutheran.” There was also a bulletin from his funeral.

Then on June 6 of this year, someone from this pastor’s family called me to honor Dr. Fry’s “glory day.”

I was surprised that anyone would recall a death of a church leader in 1968 and that they would think to call me. I am only remotely connected to Dr. Fry. His grandchildren are my cousins. But I was struck by the power of his leadership and influence. I’d heard plenty of stories about him as I grew up—mostly about how he insisted that congregations and clergy follow the rules. He would meet personally with people when he could have mailed a letter or picked up the phone.

His leadership had lasting influence.

That influence is waning as Lutheran leaders exert less and less power with more and more force.

The people they lead are treated as expendable. If you don’t think so, try disagreeing.

When this happens in the church — an institution that is supposed to matter — things get phony fast.

Our leaders no longer know the people they are leading. They never deal with them. They use clergy as intermediaries. They don’t respond to mail or email. They speak to us through letters and email blasts and call it “mutual discernment.” They deny us voice and vote in Assembly and rely on no one enforcing the rules—or even knowing what the rules are.

They are afraid to look their own people in the eye.

As Seth says. When you look people in the eye, you own the results.

You want to resolve things in East Falls? Look us in the eye.

photo credit: pcgn7 via photopin cc

A “What If” Good Samaritan Story

You all know the story of the Good Samaritan—how the authorities of society, the priest and the Levite—passed by the man in need.

Here is a new —only slightly different—scenario to ponder.

What if the priest (the first to run away) was actually the person who robbed and beat the victim?

What if the Levite (the keeper of religious law) were the interdependent church entities of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)?

What if the victim was a little church in East Falls?

We have one question for SEPA Lutherans (and the whole ELCA) on this upcoming Good Samaritan Sunday.

Who is your neighbor?

We know who our Good Samaritans are and thank them.