What to expect when the church is given license to bully

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and its synods, including the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod (SEPA), have bullying on their minds.

At the May 2011 SEPA Synod Assembly, our synod issued a statement condemning bullying.

Easy to say. Not so easy to live.

What would SEPA see if it looked closely in a mirror?

The proposals under consideration by the ELCA are a prescription for conflict and a strong argument can be made that they are unconstitutional.Bullying has been part of SEPA’s leadership style for some time. It has been an active part of its relationship with one of its member churches for more than a decade. Redeemer Lutheran Church is not likely to have been the only bullied church. We may be the congregation to offer the most resistance. Bullies count on making the road to resistance as rocky and unpleasant as possible. Conflict is not what most people are looking for when getting dressed for church.

You may be tired of hearing about Redeemer. Bullies count on that too. Lutheran congregations need to listen.

What is happening will affect more than just Redeemer. It is a shift in how the church interprets their constitutions, which were not written to support hierarchy but interdependence. Congregations, in the Lutheran tradition, are supposed to own and control their own property and resources. By challenging one small congregation after another — hoping for no resistance — the synod is creating precedent. Their pattern of behavior becomes more entrenched with each unchallenged church closure. Soon, rank and file Lutherans forget that this is not the way Synods are supposed to interact with congregations. 

They are attempting to create hierarchical rights similar to that of Roman Catholic structure. The sense that the Synod manages congregations rather than serves them will have far-reaching influence for a very long time. 

When other congregations are asked to vote about a sister congregation’s property (something the Articles of Incorporation forbid), they may assume that Synod worked hard with congregation before encouraging closure. Redeemer can tell you this was not the case.

Redeemer, East Falls, Philadelphia, can predict this with some authority. Redeemer sent a resolution to Bishop Burkat, following the congregation’s unanimous decision to leave the ELCA. Bishop Burkat did not respond herself. Synod’s attorney sent a fax, informing us we could not withdraw because we are officially terminated. Redeemer had received no such notice of termination, nor can we find any constitutional provision allowing the bishop or an attorney to unilaterally declare a congregation closed. The result is an ongoing bullying campaign.

Why does the Church want to make it difficult for unhappy people to leave?

The answer is greed. They don’t care if the people leave (Redeemer members were physically locked out!). They don’t want the value of the property and endowments to go with them. They would rather see churches closed and, in many cases, sold than work to resolve differences and develop ministry.

Closing churches is an economic strategy not a mission strategy. Redeemer has been through this twice. Both attempts to seize Redeemer’s property were made during Synod budget crises. While there is considerable hype among church leaders about “allowing churches to die to allow for resurrection,” this talk does little more than veil less noble motives. Death of congregations is not a mission strategy. Mission strategies are about helping (especially the dying) — not about evicting, devaluing, and replacing the faithful.

Make no mistake, the way churches are being closed in SEPA Synod is about power, fueled by greed. Changes in the ELCA constitution will surely further fuel their arsenal.

The Greed motive is easily understood. SEPA operated with a significant deficit budget for years, relying on closing churches to keep the lights on. To the credit of the 2011 Synod Assembly, a balanced budget was passed. Had this step come earlier some neighborhoods might still have their churches. (Redeemer may have influenced this change for the better.)

Wheterh SEPA and its members do something about this conflict or do nothing about this conflict, they are defining who we are as a people of God.The Power motive has been evident in the Redeemer situation from the start of the conflict, which began shortly after Redeemer received a $300,000 endowment. If there were any real differences between Redeemer and SEPA—and none were ever discussed with our congregation—there were peaceful resolutions available. There still are. Redeemer leaders proposed several — all aimed at building Christian community the Lutheran way. We were ignored. Instead we have become victims of vicious bullying.

From Wickipedia:

Characteristics of bullies and bully accomplices

Research indicates that adults who bully have personalities that are authoritarian, combined with a strong need to control or dominate. It has also been suggested that a prejudicial view of subordinates can be a risk factor.

Prejudice against Redeemer has run rampant. One group of retired pastors wrote referring to problems in the 1960s. None of us at Redeemer knows what they are referring to! Bishop Burkat has referred to two bishops working with Redeemer. The truth is both bishops were working to acquire Redeemer’s assets. Eight years had passed with no interaction since Bishop Almquist returned the money his administration took from our bank account ($90,000). During that time Redeemer had grown significantly. Bishop Burkat made no attempt to work with Redeemer. We first heard rumors that Redeemer was targeted for closure in June 2006, a month after her election.

Nevertheless, Bishop Burkat opened her meeting with Redeemer leaders (November 1, 2007} with something of a tirade. She called the congregation “adversarial” and used the word repeatedly, hammering the eleven members of the congregation sitting before her, most of whom had never met her before. As the conflict escalated we have been called other names. The name-calling serves its purpose. It makes it acceptable to abuse our members.

Every textbook characteristic of bullying has defined the SEPA/Redeemer conflict.  Bullying Tactics

Redeemer has experienced the following common traits of bullying:

  • Public ridicule. (Synod Assembly 2009 as prime example)
    • Name-calling. (adversarial, renegade, criminal, the list is long)
  • Imbalance of power. (stripping our rights to speak at Assembly, controlling the appeal process)
  • Deceitful behaviors. (trustees who introduce themselves as “fact finders”, meetings called for a falsely stated purpose)
  • Wide circulation of false information. (even after we asked for correction)
  • Intimidation. (bringing a lawyer and locksmith to meeting, suing volunteers)
  • Isolation. (A synod council member turned away our member who approached him. While other multi-lingual and multi-racial congregations were allotted additional representatives at Assembly, Redeemer was denied even one! SEPA’s failure to work with Redeemer to provide pastoral care left us without a pastor as liaison, making us an easy target.)

Bullying often relies on passive bystanders. SEPA has an abundant supply.

Again from Wikipedia:

Characteristics of typical bystanders

Often bullying takes place in the presence of a large group of relatively uninvolved bystanders. In many cases, it is the bully’s ability to create the illusion that he or she has the support of the majority present, that instills the fear of ‘speaking out’ in protestation of the bullying activities being observed by the group. Unless the ‘bully mentality’ is effectively challenged in any given group in its earlier stages, often the ‘bully mentality’ becomes an accepted norm within the group. In such groups where the ‘bully mentality’ has been allowed to become a dominant factor in the group environment, a steady stream of injustices and abuses often becomes a regular and predictable group experience. Such a toxic environment often remains as the status-quo of the group for an extended period of time, until somehow the bullying-cycle should eventually come to an end. Bystanders to bullying activities are often unable to recognize the true cost that silence regarding the bullying activities has to both the individual and to the group. A certain inability to fully empathize is also usually present in the typical bystander, but to a lesser degree than in the bully. The reversal of a ‘bully mentality’ within a group is usually an effort which requires much time, energy, careful planning, coordination with others, and usually the undertaking of a certain ‘risk’.

It is the general unwillingness of bystanders to expend these types of energies and to undertake these types of risks that bullies often rely upon in order to maintain their monopolies of power. Until or unless at least one individual who has at least some abilities to work with others, opts to expend whatever energies may be needed to reverse the ‘bully mentality’ of the group, the ‘bully mentality’ is often perpetuated within a group for months, years or even decades. 

This is precisely what Redeemer has experienced within SEPA.

Let us pray for the Whole People of God

Let us pray for the whole people of God . . .

Passing the Buck to God and/or the Courts (somebody else . . . anybody!)

This year, Redeemer invested many Sunday mornings visiting other congregations within the synod. Occasionally, they ask about our situation. Typically, they say, “We will pray for you.” Unfortunately, prayer without action is not likely to resolve this conflict. The offer of prayer has become a meaningless mantra to hide behind.

SEPA bystanders are relying on secular courts to sort out their problems. (Ironically, they are relying on First Amendment rights [separation of church/state] while denying the members of Redeemer other rights listed in the same Amendment!) So far there have been many court rulings, all made without hearing the case. The latest was a split decision. The majority took the stance that courts do not have jurisdiction in church disputes. The minority opinion agreed with Redeemer’s position—that if you apply the law to the property issues, Synod is out of line. Redeemer lost the decision, but the split decision should indicate to the Church that Redeemer’s position has merit. Perhaps, the Church should take more time to carefully examine issues that may one day affect them.

Other congregations feel threatened. They have told us so! We see it for ourselves in our visits. Many are no stronger statistically than Redeemer. Several are weaker! They are probably correct that addressing our situation will make them a future target. (Synod stated in court that Redeemer was the first of six churches they planned to close this way!)

This conflict has pointed out many flaws in ELCA governance.

Synod Assembly, which is constitutionally given the responsibility for resolving dispute, allowed one side of the dispute to control the venue and alloted practically no time to consider an issue which the courts are taking years to sort out. In fact, in their rush to judgment, they failed to vote on most of the issues Redeemer brought before them, concentrating on the bishop’s true interest—our property — something Redeemer and two superior court judges have questioned constitutionally.

Synod Council announces an executive session when Redeemer comes up so no one knows what our elected representatives are doing. Their contact information has been removed from the synod web site. They have the power and responsibility to speak for congregations and check the power of the bishop but are isolating themselves from the people they serve.

Bishop Hanson, early on, said he had no power to help—proving Redeemer’s argument that the Lutheran church is not hierarchical. Synod bishops don’t have to follow presiding bishops and congregation councils constitutionally answer to their congregations, not the bishop. We are, as the dissenting judges pointed out, interdependent not hierarchical. Lutherans should want this historic relationship to continue.

Clergy seem, for the most part to be afraid to speak out. In four years, the only answers to Redeemer’s communications have been from retired pastors (split 50/50). NO active SEPA clergy has ventured a response.

Congregations typically say “We don’t know how to help.”

SEPA clergy and congregations join the Pharisee and Levite in passing by.

If you liken our situation to the story of the Good Samaritan, it is clear that SEPA has joined the Pharisee and Levite in passing by the victim, waiting for someone else to help.

And then there are the effects on Redeemer. The Church has shown no concern for our people.

Redeemer was probably the largest Protestant church in East Falls at the time of Synod’s interference. It was growing steadily in an innovative direction. Its members were devastated and felt abandoned by the church. Those with young children understandably looked for a place for their children during what is now a four-year struggle. They remain in touch. Families were divided. Faith was shaken. Some found a faith healer to follow with disastrous and nearly deadly results, further damaging faith.

Synod strategy (intimidation tactic) was to personally sue two lay members of the congregation who thereby had no choice but to defend against the legal charges. If you think this isa one-time tactic, keep in mind that Bishop Burkat boasted at the 2010 Synod Assembly that the Synod’s attorney had met with the legal counsels of all synods in Chicago to discuss their strategy in this case. While clergy who served us and members not individually targeted can walk away, these volunteers are in the conflict for the long haul, like it or not. (Congregation council members, beware! Write indemnification clauses into your constitutions and insure your council members now!)

Redeemer still meets and worships weekly and has continued some exciting initiatives.

The church building is locked. The promises made in court of reopening have not been kept. SEPA Lutherans remain silent.

Whether SEPA and its members do something about this conflict or do nothing about this conflict, they are defining who we are as a people of God.

We share this because we fear that many more churches will be treated as Redeemer has been treated. The proposals before the national church are a step in this horrific direction.