The ELCA’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

The congregation and the people of East Falls were locked out of God's House by SEPA Synod on September 27, 2009. A long and complicated legal battle has ensued.

It’s the Ninth Anniversary of an Ugly Day in Lutheran History

The disciplines of religion and history rarely mix.

First, theology gets in the way. Anyone can find justification for any whim by finding a crack between the lines of Scripture.

Then tradition gets in the way, followed by human nature. It makes life easier to just follow the leader.

Perhaps Christianity’s biggest failing is the tendency to never, ever revisit the past. New ministry initiatives are touted in the unchallenged church press. When they fail ten years later, no one notices.

Leadership gaffes happen every day on many levels. Even small missteps that appear to affect few can have long-term consequences. The Church won’t notice. Individuals and neighborhoods do.

Christians are suckers. We like to play nice. We like to believe that leaders have pure motives. It can be hard to tell.

Christians are sucked in by language. How do you question the proposals of leaders who preface every presentation with “After prayerful discernment”?

The Church rarely revisits its actions. Nothing new. The Crusades are still remembered as noble warriors gallantly fighting for the faith. Most were patsies for rulers, hoping success would earn status and land at a time when the common people had no way of achieving either. Result: Christianity and Islam are still at loggerheads centuries later.

Most church gaffes are more isolated and smaller—bad choices. They, too, can have long-term effects that go unexplored, thus paving the way for replication of bad ideas.

Here is the story of one such monumental gaffe. It is the story of the ELCA’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.

Take a break here and read the story.

In this true story, a bishop comes into office facing a financial crisis. Deficit spending has gone unchecked for years. Where can money be found when even affluent churches are no longer giving at needed levels? The Great Recession is on the horizon. Money problems everywhere! AAAUUUGGH!

Things could have been worked out except for the ELCA’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. The bishop didn’t want to work things out. She wanted what this congregation owned—everything. Standing in the way were two things: Lutheran law and the membership of the targeted church.

Where were the clergy that should have known better? Where were other congregations that could be (and some have been) in the same position? Prayerful discernment steps had been taken and

Lutherans were primed with “alternative facts” and “fake news” that justified looking the other way.

It wasn’t for lack of time. The dispute was in the courts for six years with the ELCA shamefully using attacking church members individually.

Question: If two sides of a dispute engage in prayerful discernment and the answers are God-directed, shouldn’t the two parties end up working together?

The events of this day, moved the still new issue immediately in the courts. This created an “us against them” environment with leadership using every power to defeat a small congregation.

The six years of legal actions resulted in a decision which has the potential to overthrow all Lutheran tradition and jeopardizes all lay leadership:

RULING:Although the congregation was within its rights to protest, secular courts cannot enforce church law. 

This means lay leaders (of all denominations) are protected only by the integrity of leadership, which is not guaranteed by ecclesiastic electoral systems or the vested interests of hierarchy.

The result of this one day in church history puts every congregation and every faithful church member at risk if they dare to defy any decision of church leadership.

It is worth revisiting on the ninth anniversary.

PS: As a result of this decision, all members of Redeemer Church were locked out their building. The property was seized by the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod and sold after standing empty for seven years. The popular, 25-year-old, Lutheran-related day school closed and the educational building was razed for townhouses. The sanctuary, never desanctified, is being gutted for apartments.

Ironically, the neighborhood is experiencing a renaissance. The property Lutherans provided at considerable sacrifice for mission and witness at the main corner of town is now gone, Mission for Lutherans in all Northwest Philadelphia is all but abandoned. Oh, and we started our online ministry which has a wider reach than most Lutheran churches that took from East Falls what is not theirs.