SEPA Synod

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!


A Remarkable Palm Sunday

10246426_10202895967336001_2754904152152544148_n 10176055_10202895967576007_4888172750327810463_nCongregation celebrates Palm Sunday history

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No independent thinkers need apply.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Church needs more pastors like him.

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


From Whence Cometh Church Innovation

Why Transformation in the ELCA Is Unlikely

The Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (SEPA / ELCA) recently posted a link on its Facebook page from a Methodist Conference that discussed the role of clergy in church transformation.

It referenced the work of Everett M. Rogers, Diffusion of Innovations. His work studied innovation in farming.

Rogers found the implementers of new ideas broke into the following categories:

  • 2.5% were Innovators. They were educated, had means and were risk-oriented.
  • Early Adopters followed them. They were young, educated and community leaders.
  • Then came the Early Majority. They were conservative but open to new ideas.
  • The Late Majority were older, less educated, conservative and less socially active.
  • Laggards were very conservative had the smallest farms and little capital.

The article argued that clergy could not be effective innovators within their parish role. They place the clergy somewhere between early adopters and the effective implementation that follows.

innovation-700x386Perhaps this is true within Methodist circles.

The Lutheran Bell Curve would probably find clergy at the other end of the spectrum. It is probably a disproportionate number, eating into the hump of the Bell Curve.


  • Lutheran clergy, at least in our area, are older.
  • Lutheran churches in our area are smaller.
  • Lutheran leaders at every level are desperate for capital. That equity should be a tool for the congregation’s use, but regional bodies covet it.
  • Lutheran clergy, by some measure, are less socially active. (Search Lutheran clergy on LinkedIn and see how many are connected and how many of them post their profiles publicly.)
  • Lutheran clergy are becoming increasingly enamored with and dependent upon hierarchy which makes them less likely to explore risk. Innovation without risk is unlikely.

Given these factors, the Lutheran Church will lag in innovation if we depend on professional leaders. Clergy already turn to laity for implementation of most church work. But the control reins hold them back.

Add a few other factors. Lutheran regional leadership, desperate for capital, hover over member congregations waiting for signs of failure. The incentive to assist with innovation is not there. Innovation takes capital! Most of that capital tends to go toward salaries with inconsequential accountability.

Caretaker and part-time ministries rarely lead to innovation but they abound. Pastors inclined toward innovation must be careful. Would-be innovators do so in an unfair arena where leadership is protected by separation of church and state and lay innovators accept personal risk. They may not know it! Ask the laity of Redeemer in East Falls who were named personally in lawsuits by SEPA Synod, while the actions of clergy were protected under separation of church and state.

Laity step up when caretaker ministries are in place, but their leadership is often unappreciated by clergy, who even with part-time status want full-time oversight and credit for success. Failure? The laity can take the credit for that!

Beware! Laity inclined toward innovation do so at their own risk. They may even risk the mission of the church if their leadership threatens the perceived turf of professional leaders.

Yet transformation is not going to happen without a fully empowered laity.

Dedicated laity bring skills to the table that the church desperately needs. When they go unappreciated or are seen as threatening, innovation is squashed.

Laggards swim in the wake. They see the opportunity to sustain things as they are by seizing property, capital and equity.

Consequently, transformation will not happen any time soon. Talk won’t get you there! Visibly aligning with the few charismatic rising stars among the clergy won’t work either. Feature them at Synod Assemblies and Bishop’s Convocations and hope their energy fuels a local movement. Will it catch on without an infrastructure to support it? Not likely. Looks good, though!

This is 2×2’s (Redeemer’s) experience in the ELCA.
Our ministry was already getting attention for innovation back in 2006.
Enter SEPA Synod with its recurring six-figure annual deficit, legal team and locksmith.

The Lutheran Church desperately needs to empower the laity. They just don’t know how.

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.

Ambassadors Celebrate

Homecoming and Coming of Age

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Awkward moments in worship.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now we know.

Redeemer’s spirit will live for another generation.

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

Praise God for this special day.

Amazing Faith—Five Years and Counting

Our worship gathering started a little blue today. We Redeemer members are tired of being ignored or looked down upon at best and demonized at worst. Our members walked through our worship doors this morning fed up. We allowed some time for complaining.

Our members have plenty to gripe about. This month, we enter our sixth year of persecution by the leadership of the ELCA. We’ve been treated very badly and the courts, which are beginning to sympathize with us, still must defer to the original court ruling that says the church has to settle this themselves. The dissenting opinion that sided with Redeemer seems to be gaining support as court actions continue.

The Church is powerless to fix its own problems. They seem to be unable to practice much of anything that they preach. What good is any church that when put to the test is totally impotent? That’s the ELCA.

We soon put our problems aside, learned a new hymn and began worship. By the end of the service and our discussion of the amazing faith of the centurion, we were in a better mood.

Sometimes people outside the Church can see the bigger picture most clearly. That’s Redeemer’s experience, too. Many of the people who have been most generous in helping us have no church affiliation. Church people look the other way. Silence and inaction is all we’ve seen from SEPA congregations.

Redeemer has maintained our community. We are poised both financially and administratively to resume our ministry in our own community with our own resources.

If our situation was so dire—as SEPA falsely claimed—we could not have maintained our ministry for more than a few months. We’ve continued to grow our ministry for the last four years!

Our ministry was not the reason for the conflict in East Falls. SEPA Synod’s failing finances are the cause. Six years later, they are still in pretty bad shape. Redeemer is holding its own!

Risk Taking in Today’s Church

SEPA Leadership Encourages Risk-taking

At the 2013 Assembly of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod, Bishop Claire Burkat exhorted member churches to take risks. Start small. Just take one risk in mission.

I beleive in risk-taking.

Many of the risks that need to be taken in the Church are long overdue.

The climate of SEPA Synod is not conducive to risk-taking.

If congregations are to take risks they must be assured that failures

  • will not be used as excuses for hierarchical seizure of everything they own.
  • will not cause them to be excommunicated from Lutheran fellowship.
  • will not put their personal welfare and that of their families in danger.

SEPA cannot provide these assurances.

Consequently, risks will not be taken.

The biggest obstacle? Involuntary Synodical Administration.

Involuntary Synodical Administration, now so common that it is referred to by the acronym ISA, did not exist in the founding documents of the ELCA. The Articles of Incorporation still forbid it.

ISA is the determination of the bishop that a church cannot survive. The Synod assumes all cash and property assets. Trustees are appointed. They serve the bishop’s interests, not the congregation’s. It is theft by constitutional tweaking.

The original constitutional statute allowed for synodical administration only with the consent of the congregation and as a temporary measure.

Synodical Administration was intended to be a tool to help struggling congregations overcome difficulty. Congregations were part of the process—the Lutheran way. Help was offered, but assets remained owned by the congregations.

Involuntary Synodical Administration is a monstrous contrivance.

The Synod’s model constitution has been tweaked to negate the promises made to the congregations when they joined the ELCA.

Consequently, congregational polity, precious to Lutherans, no longer exists in SEPA Synod.

Too bad. Congregational polity encourages risk-taking.

Without congregational polity every congregation must consider what big brother or sister will do if their risks fail —as measured by the bishop not by the congregation.  

If congregations are to take Bishop Burkat’s advice and take risks, they should seriously review and revise their own governing documents.

Taking risks, after all, is risky. You could fail.

Failure leads to knowledge which can then be put to new ministry use. Innovation is usually the result of multiple attempts that failed.

But in the world of SEPA, failure of any sort, as measured by no one but the bishop (who has minimal knowledge of congregations), leads to long-term Lutheran assets lost to short-term synodical needs.

Here’s what I know about SEPA and their ability to accept congregational risk-taking:

Once upon a time, not so very long ago, there was a small urban congregation facing the same challenges many small congregations face. The founding members who predated decades of urban unrest were dying off. The landscape for ministry was changing dramatically and at a faster pace than the “settled” Church had ever encountered.

This congregation had resources. A founding member had left an endowment with the stipulation that it be used for ministry in that neighborhood.

That endowment had already been an attractive target for s financially troubled synod, but that had been resolved eight years before. However, the memory was still fresh. The Synod refused to follow the call process after the resolution. They were betting that without help, the congregation would fall apart. SEPA need wait only a bit longer to get to the assets.

This congregation had unusually strong lay leadership. The absence of professional leaders had actually helped develop the congregation’s sense of mission. They knew they had to serve a multicultural neighborhood. Without the burden of salaries, they were free to engage pastors for specific tasks as needed.

Money was not yet a problem, but it was clear that it would become a problem if congregational leaders didn’t address the needs of the future immediately.

The congregational leaders spent six months drafting a plan. They consulted pastors, real estate experts, an accountant and a lawyer in drafting a five-year plan. Funds were needed to bring facilities up to modern standards. The congregation was willing to risk a third of their property for a short-term mortgage that might catapult them into a solid future.

The congregation had been renting its educational building to a Lutheran agency, but the congregation knew that this was no longer in their interests. The property had more potential for congregational ministry if the congregation ran its own school with the important added benefit of being able to witness in mission as the Lutheran agency was unable to do.

Two members of the congregation already experienced in childcare took the training necessary for licensure. The school was projected to bring in $100,000 annually to the congregation’s ministry within two years. Meanwhile, other sources of income were also identified and a stewardship program was implemented. 

Previous pastors were not comfortable in multicultural settings. They promised to find help but reported regularly, “There is no one.” When the last pastor left, the congregation found excellent, qualified professional leaders within a few weeks.

52 members joined in the first year and there was every indication that this was only the start of a vibrant new ministry. 

Meanwhile, the congregation presented the mission plan to Bishop Claire Burkat along with a resolution to call one of the pastors who had already been working with the congregation successfully for seven months.

There were risks, but there were strong indications that the risks would pay off.

Bishop Claire Burkat accepted the resolution and ministry plan and promised to review them. She also promised that the congregation could work with the Synod’s Mission Developer. Four months passed with no communication from anyone in the bishop’s office.

Was there to be a period of discussion and review of the 24-page mission plan? Would the bishop make suggestions or offer help?


Bishop Burkat abruptly sent a letter to the congregation announcing the church was closed and all assets were to be assumed by her office (which had recently announced they were within $75,000 of depleting every available resource).  

The risks quickly escalated with law suits and personal attacks on members that continued for five years. Although Bishop Burkat wrote to clergy that all issues are settled, the fact is the case is still in the courts.

If Bishop Burkat truly believed in risk-taking, she could have taken a chance on Redeemer’s carefully crafted mission plan. She could have joined interdependently in a carefully calculated mission adventure that was already succeeding. She could have taken credit!

Bishop Burkat couldn’t risk Redeemer’s resources slipping from syndical control twice in one decade. Some of the motivation was SEPA’s own financial needs. Power and pride also entered the picture.

Risk-taking does not happen in this atmosphere.

Lay members are sitting ducks for abuse. Clergy will protect their standing.

If SEPA congregations truly want to be risk-takers for mission, they must revisit their constitutions and make risk-taking a little less risky.

Redeemer is still ready to take risks.

We’ve been pioneering mission while SEPA has been attacking us. There is nothing stopping Redeemer’s mission plan from being implemented even today.

SEPA prefers the expenses of locked churches to the expenses of mission. They spend more than $170,000 a year keeping those doors locked. Taking a risk on Redeemer’s mission plan would have cost them nothing (and it was already succeeding!)

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

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


Has the Culture of Church Changed?

Today, Seth Godin, renowned marketing blogger, quotes an organization he supports. In doing so he is exploring the impact of the mission statement.

Churches, these days, are heavily “into” mission statements.

There is more to mission than writing statements. Seth likes the term “manifesto.” It’s a stronger, more action-oriented term. Your manifesto defines your culture, while your mission statement collects dust. (Click to tweet).

Here’s the manifesto he quotes from an organization called Acumen:

Acumen: It starts by standing with the poor, listening to voices unheard, and recognizing potential where others see despair.

It demands investing as a means, not an end, daring to go where markets have failed and aid has fallen short. It makes capital work for us, not control us.

It thrives on moral imagination: the humility to see the world as it is and the audacity to imagine the world as it could be. It’s having the ambition to learn at the edge, the wisdom to admit failure, and the courage to start again.

It requires patience and kindness, resilience and grit: a hard-edged hope. It’s leadership that rejects complacency, breaks through bureaucracy, and challenges corruption. Doing what’s right, not what’s easy.

Acumen: it’s the radical idea of creating hope in a cynical world. Changing the way the world tackles poverty and building a world based on dignity.

Love the phrase “hard-edged hope.” It describes Redeemer.

The problems Redeemer has faced in the ELCA is that the ELCA has become a complacent church. Congregations seem to be increasingly self-focused. As long as things are fine for them, what problems can there be?

The problem is that this complacency quickly defines our culture.

Our culture is worshiping together in a fairly defined way. It is friendly chatter around coffee before or after worship. It is choosing from a fairly short list of acceptable public charities to support (Habitat for Humanity seems to be the most popular). Some congregations support or operate food pantries and nursery schools. Ladies Groups knit prayer blankets and fix meals. Toys are donated at Christmas. Cookie cutter ministries.

The church that grew from the biblical teachings of Martin Luther was anything but complacent. 

Lutheranism grew from the ability of Christians to question authority and to fashion ministry with scripture as a guide — not pronouncements from hierarchy. The whole structure of the Lutheran Church, which focuses on the congregation is designed so that congregations can look at local possibilities for mission and respond independently, without carrying the weight of bureaucracy.

The ELCA uses the word “interdependent” to define this structure. The intent is that each level of church might draw strength from one another. Our regional body has reinterpreted this to mean that they are authorities unto themselves. No one can question them. There is no structure above them to check their power. The churches below them are supposed to do that — but that has proven to be ineffective at best and risky at worst.

The result in our region is SEPA Synod—a collection of 160 congregations that instead of drawing strength from one another, tends to exist with each member church living in its own little world. The way to avoid challenge is to never stray from conventional ministry. Just keep doing the same thing as the world around us slips into history.

Redeemer, on the other hand, had fashioned a ministry around new challenges. This was made all the easier by SEPA’s refusal to provide pastoral leadership. Our priority was not in maintaining good relations with leadership. It was in exploring ministry possibilities. We continue to do so.

Redeemer’s manifesto addressed many of the same points as those quoted above. It was the mission plan we created in 2007.

We were fashioning multi-cultural ministry in a new way. Diverse cultures were joining together in ministry, worshiping  and serving together. We weren’t just sharing a building.

We were investing our resources in this ministry. Our resources. Not SEPA’s resources.

We were recognizing something that the rest of the Church does not want to admit. We cannot serve needy populations when the expectation for every congregation is to support a building and professional staff at a minimum budget of $130,000 before a dime is spent on mission or outreach. This model is creating a church where only the rich and middle class can expect to participate fully. This worked in a culture where everyone attended church and knew what was expected of them. It doesn’t work when you are trying to reach the vast and growing population of unchurched people.

Redeemer was responding to this economic challenge, not by pleading for stewardship. We taught stewardship, but we recognized that it would take decades to develop personal giving. (This was made much more difficult by SEPA raiding our bank account in 1998.)

The only way toward fiscal viability was to develop our own funding streams.

We were unafraid of failure. We learned from it. Our early attempts to reach the diversity of our neighborhood were not particularly successful. Our pastors were not comfortable with multicultural ministry, so evangelism was difficult. Our success came when we were free to find professional leadership who could actually further our mission beyond status quo Sunday worship. It came into full flower when we put outreach leadership into the hands of our immigrant members.

SEPA was so intent on seizing our resources that they never really looked at what was going on in our community. They ignored our success and dwelt on ancient failures.

The past five years have proven that they really don’t care about their congregations and their missions. They certainly don’t care about the people.

Our suggestion for congregations:

Spend more time writing your manifesto and less time on your mission statements. Let’s regain our Lutheran culture!


Leading Jewish Temple Consultant Agrees

The Emerging Entrepreneurial Church

Today’s blog post of Rabbi Hayim Herring validates what 2×2 has been writing for a while.

Churches that survive into the coming decades will not rely solely on offerings for income.

The rabbi writes:

Organizations that thrive in the 21st Century will be distinguished by two attributes: entrepreneurship and organizational foresight.

He suggests that the word innovation be replaced with the word “entrepreneurship.”

He notes these subtle but significant differences (the bullets are quotes):

  • Innovation requires creativity but, unlike entrepreneurship, does not address issues like tolerance for risk, organizational agility, improvisational ability and speed.
  • Innovation often comes in bursts after focusing on discrete ideas and issues, while entrepreneurship requires cultivating a certain kind of culture, defined by a set of practices and attitudes that are infused throughout an organization.
  • Innovation implies the creation of something new, while entrepreneurship can mean dramatically improving what is already working with new vision and processes.

This sounds impossible. It is not. Even small churches can follow it.

The problem is that church hierarchies don’t recognize the potential. Armed with an impenetrable sense of entitlement and a tradition that supports it, they measure their congregations by ancient standards. These standards are failing almost everywhere!

The entrepreneurial church is not about making money for money’s sake, but is more about creating revenue streams with ministry projects. More lucrative ministries will provide funds for ministries that will never be self-supporting.

People today hesitate to give offerings, especially when they can’t see their offerings at work. More and more, congregations are begging for offerings just to help them survive — not to help them serve. It’s a losing proposition.

Less committed people of faith are not going to see this as a good investment of their time or tithe. They are more likely to contribute both money and energy to projects when they see them making a difference. They are not seeing this in churches that have budgets that are top-heavy in overhead.

There are many opportunities that are entirely in keeping with the mission of the Church.

One of Redeemer’s strengths is the ability to recognize opportunity.

There would be no conflict between Redeemer, East Falls, and the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, if Redeemer had been nurtured and granted the freedom their constitution gives them to shape and fund their ministry in less traditional ways. Are we not regularly implored to “transform”?

  • Our Christian Day School, which was ready to open as a Christian School for the first time in 25 years, would be providing upwards of $6000 per month for ministry—and creating a Christian witness in a neighborhood which is losing its Christian schools.
  • Our aid to immigrant families would be producing $100,000 per year. Redeemer had a plan in place that would help immigrant first-time home buyers. The expertise of our members would ease the path to home ownership and the congregation would gain some money in the real estate transaction, which would then go to help another immigrant family.
  • Our website would generate another few thousand per month for ministry. The website reaches out to small churches all over the world.

More than enough resources for a neighborhood ministry.

This is no different from religious publishing houses making their living publishing books or religious social service agencies tapping into government revenue streams. And it doesn’t camouflage mission to meet government requirements.

Unfortunately, our regional body has no vision for its small churches. They are waiting for them to die. 

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!