Redeemer Lutheran Church

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.

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.

In the interest of fuller disclosure . . .

Issues between SEPA and Redeemer Are Not Fully Resolved

2×2 has been sitting on this post for a few weeks.

It is uncertain that the member churches of SEPA will give any regard whatsoever to this report. They are likely to continue to believe everything their leadership tells them — which is how this mess started.

Several weeks ago Bishop Burkat issued a letter to clergy and rostered leaders claiming all matters regarding Redeemer are settled. Although generally true, an important detail was left unmentioned.

As your 2013 Synod Assembly approaches, SEPA congregations should not be assuming that the litigation involving them and Redeemer Lutheran Church in East Falls is over.

The ruling in January was made without prejudice and awaits decisions in several other court matters. The current judge has retained jurisdiction over future litigation, a step that would not be necessary if the issues were in fact settled.

A full and correct report from your leaders would have included these details which affect you. Partial truths and even untruths have often fueled this conflict, which never had to be.

If you don’t know whom to believe, look into it for yourselves.

The Modern Story of the Good Samaritan

. . . or should we say Samaritans

200px-Cl-Fd_Saint-Eutrope-vitrail1In the story of the good Samaritan, the religious people (the priest and the Levite) find reasons to pass by the poor soul who has been robbed and hurt. In each case, their failure to act with compassion is prompted by fear for their own hides.

It is the Samaritan—the outsider, the person at whom the religious people of the day would collectively thumb their noses—who offered help—ongoing help, not just a quick fix.

We lived the Good Samaritan story this week. We needed help. One of our good members faced the imminent loss of her home and income due to the reign of terror inflicted on Redeemer and its members by the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Our little church, which SEPA insists doesn’t exist, rallied.

We asked for help from churches who helped create this situation. They were prayerful but unhelpful.  It’s so easy to find excuses to do nothing.

“We’ll pray for you” is the universal excuse of SEPA Lutherans. Their prayer, we suppose, is that someone else will fix the mess they created. How tiring all that prayer must be!

We went to unrelated Lutheran churches. We don’t do that sort of thing, was their answer.

At last we found the help we needed. One local church who has been helping us for the last four years offered major assistance with no expectation of return. A church some 200 miles away (and smaller than Redeemer!) both contributed and guaranteed what we couldn’t raise locally. Four individuals also helped graciously. As far as we know, only one has any church affiliation.

Two of them used the same phrase: “A wrong has been done and it must be righted.”

And so little Redeemer, raised the money we needed to satisfy Redeemer’s debt—twice what SEPA expects to pay. This debt would never have been a problem to anyone if our school were operating for the last four years and contributing to mission and ministry in East Falls. But SEPA, hungry for our assets, interfered with and ruined our 25-year relationship with a Lutheran agency and stopped us from opening our own program. They have kept the doors locked on both the sanctuary and school for nearly four years—no ministry is better than a neighborhood church they can’t control.

SEPA Synod took our property under questionable legality. A court split decision ruled in their favor, saying the courts could not be involved in church issues. The dissenting opinion pointed out that the legal arguments seem to favor Redeemer and the case should be heard by the courts. In five years, court room after court room, the case has never been heard.

We have always claimed that SEPA’s interest in our property was entirely a result of their failing finances and mission—not Redeemer’s.

This week is further proof.

We’ve been saying in our posts on social media that the power in the church is shifting. There was a day when congregations had to band together to provide services and perform effective mission. Individuals now have the power to do much more on their own. Support of hierarchy is more expensive than effective.

Redeemer (and yes, we do exist) proved that this week.

Don’t get us wrong . . . we appreciate prayer. But we appreciate even more those who help find answers to prayer.

Thank you to all who cared enough to do more than pray. You are a living parable.

Bwana awabariki!

February 24 — A Day of Infamy

Today Bishop Claire Burkat of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America will gather her little chicks under her wing at Holy Spirit Lutheran Church in NE Philadelphia and celebrate its closure. They’ve been moving toward this date for the last year, since they sold the property to the United Church of Christ—and probably still longer.

This is also the fifth anniversary of Bishop Claire Burkat’s attempt to stealthily seize Redeemer’s property in East Falls. It was on February 24, 2008, that Bishop Burkat invited herself to our church supposedly to plan a closing service for a congregation that had never even discussed closing much less been given an opportunity to vote on it as is constitutionally necessary. She brought about nine or ten people with her with no notice, despite the fact that the congregation had warned her that the date she had chosen with no consultation with church leaders was already booked and that the congregation did not wish to meet at that time. The two members of Redeemer who met her that day were soon to discover that her plans had nothing to do with planning a worship service. Among her posse was SEPA’s lawyer who was waiting behind the building and out of sight in a locksmith’s van. When their strategy called for the lawyer and locksmith to make their presence known we don’t know. We had been forewarned by someone in Chicago that she was intending such a move and so when we saw the locksmith van go by, we were prepared.

The bishop’s embarrassment that day, which sparked five years of vindictive law suits, has cost mission and ministry in our neighborhood dearly.

There was never an attempt to work with us — we were not valued enough to be part of the discussion of our future. The names of our lay leaders were dragged through the mud—an attempt to validate Synod’s actions. The work of the laity was treated with total disregard. The people of Redeemer deserved the opportunity to work with and be in discussion with SEPA just as the people of Holy Spirit have been.

SEPA’s Articles of Incorporation forbid the Synod from confiscating congregational property without the consent of the congregation.

The more SEPA congregations allow this very important foundation of Lutheran polity to be ignored, the more endangered each congregation is.

Redeemer’s Ambassadors have now visited 56 SEPA congregations. We know that many of them are no stronger and more than a few are weaker than Redeemer. If Redeemer’s statistics were the reason for closing, about ten to twenty percent of the remaining 160 congregations should also be closed with more suffering the same fate within a decade or two if innovative steps aren’t taken.

We have always known that Redeemer’s property and endowment were the real attractions. In April of 2008, we discovered that Bishop Burkat had offered our property for sale to a Lutheran Agency without a word to our congregation. We learned this from a letter from the agency, dated in early April (only about 40 days after the February 24 showdown), informing us that they had done an extensive site evaluation and were denying the offer of sale. The timing suggests that the property, owned by the congregation, had been offered for sale even before Bishop Burkat came to the congregation—all without the knowledge of the congregation. Clearly NOT Luthean polity.

SEPA needed our money—quick and easy. This devious situation fueled the character assassination, personal attacks and refusal to work with Redeemer that has characterized the court battles. But SEPA seems to be unable to check and balance their leadership — as their constitutions call for.

In September 2009, Bishop Burkat at last achieved her goal. She locked out the members of Redeemer.

Undaunted, Redeemer continues its mission, achieving its greatest success with our online ministry. We have broken new ground in mission which is being recognized by other denominations if not our own!

While some members of SEPA Synod are celebrating the closure of a church, others are meeting on this date in Lansdale and on Monday in Burholme to talk about communications. Redeemer and its website, 2x2virtualchurch.com, could contribute a great deal to a discussion with church communicators. We have a ton of experience!

But we’ve been banished—ex“communicated.”

Loyalty and the future of the Church

dog is not so sure1The Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (SEPA / ELCA) has become a disciple of Seth Godin, the leading authority on marketing and societal change with a voice on the web. They have quoted him to their congregations.

Seth’s blog today should interest them.

Confusing loyalty with silence

Some organizations demand total fealty, and often that means never questioning those in authority.

Those organizations are ultimately doomed.

Respectfully challenging the status quo, combined with relentlessly iterating new ideas is the hallmark of the vibrant tribe.

SEPA begs its congregations to innovate and change. When they don’t change the way the synod has predetermined that they SHOULD change, they close them down and claim their property.

Redeemer is a case in point. Redeemer was growing quickly when SEPA saw their longed-for chance at claiming our property slipping away. Bishop Almquist had made an attempt to close us and seize our assets in 1998 and backed off after two years. But he refused to work with us in ministry if we didn’t accept the part-time pastor he had chosen for us. His call or no call.

We continued to grow without his help.

SEPA has a mission plan for small churches. They call it triage — shoving the smallest churches to the side and waiting for them to die, while attention is spent on larger churches with more promising prospects for supporting the hierarchy. Property values and assets DO enter the equation. A small congregation is better off if it has no assets than if it has an endowment! Compare Redeemer’s story with Faith/Immanuel in East Lansdowne.

Bishop Burkat loves to call Redeemer “former Redeemer.” We are not sure if she means Redeemer of the 1960s, Redeemer of the 1980s, or the Redeemer she visited with a locksmith in 2008 and spent the last five years suing. We exist if only so we can be sued!

Or maybe she thinks because Synod Council voted to close Redeemer in 2010, never bothering to inform the congregation, that Redeemer is closed. We notice in the latest ELCA yearbook that we are still contributing to the national church! Sounds like we are open!

Synod Council does not have the power to vote congregations out of existence. They’d know that if they read their founding documents. We reserve our constitutional right to challenge synod council’s actions when SEPA can provide a fair forum for hearing a challenge. 

We recall very well our appeal in 2009 — which the Synod Assembly never voted on, substituting a vote about our property (not within their authority) when we were appealing Synodical Administration. Check the Synod Minutes and read the question that was voted on. It had nothing to do with our appeal!

Bait and switch. Then claim immunity from the law to pull it off in court.

Redeemer still exists in every way. Redeemer meets weekly — sometimes more often. Redeemer worships weekly —sometimes more often. Redeemer’s efforts to continue ministry— even as SEPA locked us out of the church we built and excluded us from all rights and fellowship within its fold—have grown our congregation in reach and influence despite persecution.

Redeemer is a vibrant tribe. We were always a viable, innovative congregation and our experience of the last five years has only made us stronger in innovation. We will relentlessly iterate our innovations for the good of all.

SEPA congregations are not powerless. They can still turn this around for the good of mission. But they have to respectfully challenge the status quo and demand peaceful reconciliation.

But what we’ve heard for the last five years is silence.

Redeemer is not closed.
Redeemer is locked out of the Church by SEPA Synod.

photo credit: WilliamMarlow via photopin cc

Overcoming the fear of Social Media

horseGet ready for the Horseless Carriage

Get ready for Social Media

Many congregations are interested in adding Social Media to their ministries. And so they dabble. They find someone to start a Facebook page. They lean back and relax. That’s done. Innovation isn’t so hard, after all!

Here’s the thing about Social Media.

Social Media is more than Facebook. Much more!

If your congregation embraces Social Media it will mean everything changes.

Social Media, fully embraced, is not a simple add-on — like adding an extra worship service.

It is transforming.

Transforming? Isn’t that what our church leaders have been demanding of congregations for the last decade with little definition of exactly what they mean?

Social Media—fully embraced—will affect every aspect of your ministry in positive and profound ways.

People need to be prepared. The only way to prepare people is to involve them and encourage flexibility. It helps to actually get started!

My family had lunch today in a historic inn along the famous Lincoln Highway. We got to talking about the history of the highway. It seems the opening of this newfangled cross-continental roadway that followed the introduction of the automobile came with no small amount of angst.

The big fear was that the horses of the early 20th century would not be happy.

Unhappy horses meant unhappy drivers.

A plan was developed.

Step 1: Prepare the horses. Warn them. Something new is coming.

Early drivers of horseless carriages were encouraged to carry flares with them. Upon approaching a horse-drawn carriage, they were to shoot up a warning flare. (Bet that went over big!)

Step 2: Protect the horses’ sense of security.

If horses were not reassured by flares (and why would they be?), then drivers were encouraged to carry camouflage. At the sight of a distressed horse, they should be prepared to pull to the side of the road and drape their automobile with a sheet designed to make the car disappear into the surroundings. What the horse doesn’t see will not be scary.

Step 3: Dismantle the horseless carriage.

If a horse is still disturbed by its new competition, drivers should be prepared to dismantle their automobile and hide the pieces along the side of the road until the horse passes as if nothing has changed.

All of this is, of course, absurd — especially to us Pennsylvanians who share the roads with our Amish neighbors. The horses seem to have adapted!

But this is a typical agenda for those who fear change.

  • Warn people of innovation.
  • Protect them from innovation.
  • Be prepared to dismantle all the progress and benefits possible from innovation at the first sign of distress (real or imaginary).

Churches intent on incorporating social media must be prepared to meet the same sorts of resistance.

It will mean doing things very differently — across the board. The very structure of church will change.

Expect something like this:

  • Social Media is clearly too much work for one pastor. But pastors are used to controlling communication in the church. Lay people cannot be expected to handle so much responsibility. Best to wait. And wait. And wait.
  • What do we do if Social Media actually works and lots of new people join a church? (This was a problem Redeemer was dealing with as 49 people joined in one year.) What if those 49 people become a voting block with the potential to ruin any plans made before they joined. Our congregation was dealing with this issue head-on and making progress. But our denomination, intent on Redeemer failing so they could claim our property, couldn’t deal with change they hadn’t orchestrated. They skipped right to Step 3: Dismantle everything! They kicked out the 49 new members along with the 25 or so older members and locked the church doors. 

These are real problems but they are good problems that need solutions. Dismantling everything because things aren’t like they used to be is just plain silly—and it is counter to Christian mission.

Fortunately, there are real solutions waiting to be discovered.

The automobile is now the norm.

The new church that arises from the use of Social Media will soon be the norm, too — and it all may happen just in time to save the mainline church.

photo credit: NCReedplayer via photopin cc

Illustration 3: SEPA’s Mythical Mutual Discernment

Bishop Claire Burkat justifies her actions in East Falls, citing a process of mutual discernment that she suggests was long and involved, having spanned both her term and that of Bishop Almquist.

We’ve provided two illustrations of how the mutual discernment (1 and 2) process excluded the members of Redeemer.

Here’s a third illustration. In this case Redeemer was not only never consulted, we were totally unaware that another congregation was engaged with the bishop in discussions that affected Redeemer’s future and property.

In 2005, Redeemer was approached to help a neighboring congregation, Epiphany in Upper Roxborough, more than two miles away.

Epiphany had to vacate their building. It had been condemned because of termite damage. They had been sharing space unhappily with a neighboring Episcopal Church. Rev. Timothy Muse, their mission developer pastor, was a member of SEPA Synod Council.

We agreed to work with Epiphany and jointly drafted a covenant that we hoped would lead to the merger of our two congregations within a few years. We were careful to put no timetable on the covenant. We wanted both groups to be confident of any decision to merge and such confidence could not be fostered with mandated deadlines.

The covenant called for Redeemer to share Epiphany’s pastor. Epiphany would provide most of the salary. Redeemer contributed. Epiphany would have free access and use of Redeemer’s property, for which Redeemer would continue to bear the expenses. We would worship separately and consider joint worship on special occasions as a starting point.

This system worked well for 18 months. Our councils met together every other month. Individual councils and leaders occasionally met with Pastor Muse separately to discuss matters that involved only one of the congregations. (The trustees represented this period of time to Synod Assembly as if Redeemer’s council was not meeting and decisions were being made by a few in isolation. Not true. The minutes of meetings were kept by Epiphany’s secretary. They never asked for them.)

Redeemer bided time for the first year as Pastor Muse was admittedly preoccupied with Epiphany’s need to sell their condemned property. We were encouraged when the sale at last was completed with a benefit to Epiphany of about $600,000.

Epiphany expressed an interest in moving the merger ahead a bit more quickly. Redeemer was looking forward to a bit more of Pastor Muse’s attention. The worship committees met jointly during the summer to explore merging worship. We wanted to preserve the traditions of our East African members which we had incorporated into our worship for several years and we wanted consensus on decisions as Epiphany was not only larger in number but they had worked with Pastor Muse for much longer than Redeemer had. They had an advantage in their long-term relationship while we were just getting to know him.

We recognized that Epiphany had been through a lot with the loss of their building. Their lay leadership appeared to be much more dependent on Pastor Muse, while Redeemer who had not had a pastor for years, was used to lay leadership. We discussed this with Pastor Muse. He encouraged us. He said that Redeemer’s strong lay leadership was a gift to the covenant.

Redeemer drafted a proposal which we hoped would jumpstart working together. We presented it as a starting point. We modeled it on the proven success of two other ELCA congregations who had successfully shared a pastor and programming for many years. It called for even sharing of worship leadership, alternating Sundays, with joint planning of special events and one jointly planned service per month. We saw this as a honeymoon period that would help us grow to know and trust one another.

Pastor Muse reviewed our proposal. He mailed it to Epiphany members without our knowledge, although we would not have objected. Epiphany members mistakenly believed that Redeemer had sent it to them as an ultimatum for their acceptance, which was never Redeemer’s intent. There was a meeting to attempt to clear this up. Pastor Muse made it clear at this meeting that Redeemer did not know that he had mailed the proposal to Epiphany’s members.

It became clear at this meeting that Epiphany viewed Redeemer’s East African membership as not part of the merger. Conversation ended when we insisted our East African members were full members of Redeemer and their preferences for worship needed to be part of the discussion.

Pastor Muse suggested we let some time pass before we talk again.

Shortly thereafter Redeemer’s leaders received an email from Pastor Muse that Epiphany had voted to break the covenant and close. He would be gone within ten days (the constitution calls for 30 days notice).

Breaking the covenant was never discussed. We were given no opportunity to continue with Pastor Muse, whom everyone liked.

We learned that Pastor Muse and Epiphany’s president had met privately with Bishop Burkat.

Would it not be reasonable to assume that a bishop would encourage congregations in covenant to talk? Would it not be reasonable for synod, as leaders, to help facilitate such a meeting?

Redeemer was never part of any discussion about breaking the covenant.

Pastor Muse, true to his word, was gone in 10 days. He even left the Synod! Redeemer was abandoned.

Bishop Burkat would not meet with Redeemer until a year later and then only for a few minutes, promising to get back to us in three to five months. Eleven months of silence passed during which Redeemer drafted a mission plan and began to implement it with immediate success. Do the math. That’s nearly two years of non-involvement with Redeemer added to the six years of Bishop Almquist’s second term, during which he intentionally ignored our church. Claiming this is a time of heavy interaction and mutual discernment defies the truth.

What can explain this bizarre history?

SEPA’s recurring deficit budget is surely a consideration. SEPA needed money. It was easier to gain access to the congregation’s money by encouraging closure than to provide the services that would help a congregation grow and thereby foster long-term contributions.

All was going well until that $600,000 windfall from the sale of the property became a temptation.

The first sign of discontent from Epiphany brought encouragement to close — not to keep their ministry promises. And SEPA was to be the immediate beneficiary of $600,000.

Redeemer’s investment in the covenant—nearly two years of work down the drain! Epiphany’s covenant with Redeemer was broken with no consultation with Redeemer. NONE!

Synod, also with no conversation with Redeemer, allowed Epiphany six months to “wind down” their ministry. During these six months, Epiphany used Redeemer’s property as if it were their own — only now they were not contributing to the covenant any longer. Redeemer was left to coexist with Epiphany as non-contributing and somewhat hostile tenants.

Redeemer paid the freight for Bishop Burkat’s policies with Epiphany.

Even so, Redeemer cooperated without complaint.

Since we were not included in any discussions, we do not know exactly what transpired. But we’ve heard a few things since.

We learned during our Ambassador visits, that when Epiphany voted to close, they assumed they could allocate their assets to ministries and charities of their choice — which is Lutheran polity.

One ex-Epiphany member shared with us that Bishop Burkat had informed them after the vote was taken that SEPA would be the beneficiary of all but 5% of Epiphany’s assets. They were told this is an ELCA “rule.”

Synod’s Articles of Incorporation expressly forbid the Synod from conveying ANY congregational property without the consent of the congregation.

SEPA’s definition of “mutual discernment”: comply or good-bye.

Illustration 2: The Folly of Blindly Replicating Mission Strategies

Replication is King

During the six years of Bishop Almquist’s term, during which SEPA was all but absent in its relationship with Redeemer, the Rev. Claire Burkat was making a name for herself as an assistant to the bishop.

She had a success of which she was particularly proud. She worked with a failing church and devised a plan. Synod would close the church with its aging members’ cooperation and reopen it weeks later with a new name.

In 2006 in her early days as bishop, Bishop Burkat came to Redeemer eager to replicate the experience which had been so successful (by her reports) before her election. In truth, it was too soon to tell if the mission strategy was actually successful. There were no statistics to support whether or not it was a good idea.

We have checked the current statistics of this congregation. They are not impressive. Membership seems to be under 50. About half the statistics of Redeemer in 2007.

Nevertheless in 2006, the experiment was touted as a promising innovation. Bishop Burkat was eager to replicate it and add another “success” to her résurmé.

The problem was Redeemer was not at all like the congregation that had agreed to pioneer this technique.

Remember, SEPA had walked away from Redeemer six years before and their memory was that the congregation consisted of a dozen old ladies. Their waiting game strategy should have been ripe for implementation, in Bishop Burkat’s view.

Things had changed at Redeemer. The elderly members who had met with Bishop Almquist had in fact gone to their heavenly reward. But there were now three times as many Redeemer members as when Bishop Almquist had released us from synodical administration—and that would soon double. Our members were mostly young families, most of whom had joined within the last ten years. Many were Tanzanian immigrants, but there were other new ethnic backgrounds new to Redeemer’s membership as well. Bishop Burkat even suggested removing the Tanzanian members to create statistics to justify the strong-arm tactics she planned to implement. Some had been members for a decade, some had been born into our community. This was (and is) insulting to Redeemer’s Tanzanian members as it should be to every Lutheran. As one young Tanzanian member noted at the time: SEPA is big on ministry to the Tanzanians — as long as we stay in Tanzania. (The statistics presented to Synod Assembly by the trustees excluded the Tanzanian members.)

Redeemer’s interest in working with SEPA was to build on its success. SEPA wasn’t listening. They knew best.

Closing Redeemer and reopening it under a new name was the only plan they would consider. Why?Their way gave them control of the congregation’s assets.

Here we go again! Mutual discernment at work!

Bishop Burkat made this proposal. She would close the church down, have a grand closing ceremony, and reopen it a few weeks later. Renaming the church was key to this strategy. There should be no confusion that the old church was dead and gone. The new name had to meet with her approval. Oh, and the current members would not be permitted any leadership roles. From where the new leaders were to suddenly emerge to take control of our ministry was not made clear. Meanwhile, Synod would reign with no one to answer to — hardly the Lutheran way.

Of course, this was offensive to a congregation that had worked hard to recover from the mess created by Bishop Almquist — and was succeeding.

The first proposal was the church should close for two weeks. That became six months by the time they saw us in court.

Well, in 2009, Bishop Burkat finally got her way and has control of Redeemer’s property. It has been locked to Redeemer and the community for three and a half years.

Redeemer remains active through 2×2 Foundation, waiting for the day that the Lutherans of SEPA recognize that maybe, just maybe, they were part of a big mistake.

The strategy of replicating one success in a different neighborhood has been disastrous for both East Falls and SEPA. Redeemer bears the popular blame, but SEPA with its selfish policies is responsible. Bishop Burkat defends her actions, citing the process of mutual discernment.

Once again, the definition of mutual discernment is “comply or goodbye.

How Self-interest Stands in the Way of Mission Innovation

2×2’s previous post addressed how the interests of a regional body can hinder mission. Here’s an historical example.

The Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod (SEPA) of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and its relationship with Redeemer, East Falls, provides many interesting illustrations of how the structure of the ELCA, intended for good, actually impedes creative ministry.

Its attempt to structure itself interdependently quickly becomes crippled by the reality that the regional body is dependent on congregations funding its budget, heavy with salary obligations and an expensive, outdated infrastructure. Meanwhile, congregations must meet their own budgets and support the regional and national bodies.

Years of hard work and “mutual discernment”

Bishop Burkat talks of years of working with our congregation under her leadership and that of her predecessor. She calls the process “mutual discernment.”

Sounds good. Only it didn’t happen quite that way.

  1. There were more years of neglect than of working together.
  2. There were so many hidden agendas that mutual discernment was impossible.
  3. Attempts to ignore the wishes of the congregation were routine.

With interdependence comes the jockeying of self-interest. Congregations may be unaware that the synod has self-interests. They may assume that the synod has their interests at heart.

Meanwhile, the regional body expects the unquestioning deference of congregations.

Mutual Discernment at Work

Redeemer was always a small but self-sufficient congregation. SEPA did not support Redeemer financially as many people have been led to believe. It was the other way around.

When the ELCA was created in the late 1980s, Redeemer had a part-time pastor who also worked in the Synod offices. Redeemer was seen as not likely to ever support a full-time ministry. Any part-time pastor filled the bill in their eyes—a pulse was the primary qualification. They were marking time.

Then Redeemer received a $300,000 endowment. Suddenly, there was an interest in Redeemer. Pastor Wm deHeyman left the synod offices to work more fully with Redeemer. He served Redeemer 11 years. (Synod represents that Redeemer had just short-term pastors. Not true. His predecessor served 7 years.)

Wm deHeyman retired in 1996. His last years were difficult and factions had formed with some rallying around the pastor.

Redeemer looked forward to a new start.

Bishop Roy Almquist proposed that the congregation call one of his staff members, Rev. Robert Matthias, for an 18-month term call as an interim pastor.

Redeemer cooperated whole-heartedly.

This was a tumultuous time at Redeemer for other reasons. There was a series of personal tragedies that impacted congregational life. A tragic death of one family’s child. Another family was wracked with grief when its youngest child was paralyzed in an accidental shooting. A third child and family faced serious issues. The families of four council members were in crisis. During this time, a newer member volunteered to help with the financial books as the treasurer was one of the affected parents. It was soon discovered that the volunteer was embezzling money. The crime was noticed and rectified quickly—within months—but it added to the congregation’s sadness. This incident is sometimes used today to justify SEPA’s interest in Redeemer, but at the time they took no action that indicated they had concern that Redeemer could not rectify this on its own.

What was SEPA’s response in the face of unusual tragic circumstances in a small congregation?

They walked away and left the congregation with no pastor for nearly a year.

Three months into the 18-month term call agreement, Bishop Almquist returned to Redeemer and asked to break the call contract. He had an assignment for Pastor Matthias in Bucks County.

Redeemer cooperated even though it meant its investment in Pastor Matthias was wasted. Naturally, the congregation was hurt. Why was Bucks County more important than the promise SEPA had made with Redeemer?

During this year, Assistant to the Bishop Sue Ericsson was meeting with the council unbeknownst to the congregation. She encouraged the council (half of whom were in personal crisis) to convince the congregation to close. A plan was drafted. If the congregation did not go along, the congregation council would submit resignations providing grounds for SEPA to take over. Mutual discernment was being dictated behind the scenes.

The congregation’s annual meeting, usually held in February, was announced for January.

Three guests were introduced, Pastor Matthias, Gordon Simmons and Rodney Kopp.

Some reports were made. At the point when the budget should have been presented, the congregation council submitted the resolution to close (drafted by synod). This had not been discussed in the congregation who thought they were holding a routine annual meeting. They voted to table the resolution for further study—a reasonable response. A congregation should study an important issue before voting!

On cue, council members placed letters of resignation (drafted by synod) on  the table. They were swooped up by Pastor Matthias who announced the meeting was over and the congregation was under synodical administration. While Pastors Simmons and Kopp spoke to angry congregation members who were feeling ambushed (Pastor Kopp used the term “blind-sided”), Pastor Matthias left with the letters of resignation and the church books.

Pastor Mathias was known at the local bank. He and a former Redeemer treasurer visited the bank the next day and conveyed $90,000 to SEPA. SEPA asked our tenants to send payments to them. Mutual discernment included trickery.

But paying the bills was the extent of synodical administration. Redeemer kept its offerings and there was significant money in savings available to the congregation. Activities at the church continued to be run by the congregation.

The congregation felt betrayed by their council and SEPA. The members who resigned ended up leaving, some after long years at Redeemer. SEPA had used them at a time when they were vulnerable.

SEPA refused to share the letters of resignation. We learned three council members had not resigned. Two pastors helped the congregation appoint members to fill vacant seats as is allowed in the constitution. Redeemer’s council continued to meet and run the daily affairs of the church and plan its own worship and mission which included an ambitious summer program, totally lay led.

Redeemer protested the synodical administration for a year.

Several supply pastors led worship, including Rev. Harvey Davis. Our first Tanzanian members joined during this time. Bishop Almquist at last released the synodical administration. But he did not return the money for an additional year. At last, SEPA returned about $82,000, keeping some to cover their legal expenses. The fact that they were able to pay the congregation’s bills without depleting the $90,000 in two years, proves that the congregation was financially viable.

When the synodical administration was lifted, Bishop Almquist asked the congregation to call Rev. Jesse Brown. He was the only candidate presented. Bishop Almquist suggested a one-year term call.

Redeemer cooperated.

Things were fine with Pastor Brown, but at the end of the year he announced that he wanted to cut his hours to just ten per week, the minimum needed for him to retain his ordination credentials.

Redeemer did not wish to regularize a call with a pastor who wanted to provide minimal service. Redeemer agreed to extend the term call, but Bishop Almquist insisted it be regularized—or there would be no pastor for a very long time. Mutual discernment included threats.

Why was this a deal-breaker?

What’s the difference between a term call and a regularized call? 

A regularized call can be ended by the pastor at any time with 30 days notice, but if the congregation wants to make a change, they must muster a two-thirds vote against a pastor. This can be very divisive, especially when a pastor is liked—as was Pastor Brown. Redeemer’s concern was his minimal level of commitment and what that meant to Redeemer’s ability to grow in mission. For Redeemer’s lay leaders, it was not enough that a pastor was “liked.” The congregation had to make progress. Redeemer’s leaders were looking wisely into their future. A regularized call would become problematic if Pastor Brown’s outside interests minimized the effect of his ten hours per week. Locking into a regularized call under these circumstances was not in the interest of the congregation, no matter how much the pastor was liked by individual members. In fact, it was likely to be a greater issue if the pastor was liked. The congregation’s leaders would be frustrated with lack of mission progress, while the more minimally committed members of the voting congregation were content. Redeemer was being forced to make a foolish decision that was predicated on the synod’s dismal vision for the congregation, which happened to have a healthy endowment, while they were operating with a deficit.

The congregation council rejected the synod’s proposal. Bishop Almquist asked for a second vote overseen by a staff person. That vote failed, too. Bishop Almquist deemed that the congregation should vote on the call — never explaining the wisdom of asking the congregation to vote for something the church council was against. That vote failed too.

If the vote hadn’t failed, it would have strained relationships between the council and the congregation. This was pointed out to Bishop Almquist, but he insisted on taking the issue to the congregation anyway. He was interested only in getting the vote that served his purpose—finding a call for Jesse Brown.

Bishop Almquist kept his promise. Synod ignored Redeemer for Bishop Almquist’s entire second term.

The congregation worked with Pastor Harvey Davis for three years until the pastor needed to retire. He was influential in attracting several young couples with diverse ethnic backgrounds and our Tanzanian membership continued to grow. Redeemer was becoming multicultural and was making significant innovations successfully. The ministry showed promise despite synodical neglect.

Let’s look a the motivations behind this history that is so often referenced as reason for Bishop Burkat’s actions a decade later.

Why was it important to SEPA that Redeemer’s call be regularized? Term calls are a constitutional option.

The synod’s interest in a regularized call solved some of its problems.

  1. Pastor Brown could retain his status as an ordained pastor while he ran for public office and operated his own business on the side.
  2. His minimal service would solve SEPA’s problem of staffing Redeemer.

Redeemer’s mission and interests were not really considered.

SEPA’s view of Redeemer was that its elderly population would die within 10 years. Minimal ministry would speed the process along. This thinking takes on signficant importance when the targeted congregation has assets and the regional body is operating with deficits. The regularized call gave SEPA more control over Redeemer and the fate it was tacitly seeking. 

Declaring synodical administration gave them access to congregational assets.

After SEPA returned Redeemer’s assets, Bishop Almquist issued an appeal letter to all congregations for almost exactly the amount of money returned to Redeemer.

Redeemer had supplied SEPA with an interest-free loan.

Synodical administration had been used as a tool to benefit SEPA. Mission in East Falls was never the objective. 

Lasting damage was done to Redeemer. Gossip created an unjustified cloud that hangs over East Falls to this day.

At all times in this conflict, Redeemer cooperated when it was reasonable to do so. It showed initiative, flexibility, and a willingness to accept change — all the things regional bodies look for when striving for transformation. But the congregation knew that Bishop Almquist’s insistence on a regularized call was not in the congregation’s interest.

Redeemer was consistently making choices that pointed them toward new and innovative ministry. SEPA was prescribing solutions that would benefit SEPA.

And that is still the case today.

Definition of Mutual Discernment: Comply or Goodbye