Monday, March 01, 2010

Said, and Done

This is a long screed, even by my standards. Some background must be painted first:

For the past eight and a half years I have been Communications Director for the South Dakota Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), an organization that uses the word "synod" in the sense of a diocese or district office. It's been a good gig and I've mostly enjoyed it, especially in the past couple of years as I've been able to expand more into digital communications efforts as opposed to Yet Another Newsletter.

That all came to a screeching halt a little more than a month ago, however, when my position was eliminated because of significant budgetary shortfalls. (And not just me: Since my departure, one of my former co-workers is also now everyone's former co-worker; and another has been cut to one-quarter time. Nor are they out of the woods yet.)

Why the budget crunch? In the main, is has to do with a vote taken at the ELCA's national gathering--Churchwide Assembly, in their parlance--last August. First they dopted a Social Statement, "Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust"; then, as if that wasn't bad enough, the voting members adopted a set of Ministry Policies Resolutions that, among other things, committed the ELCA to finding a way for people in "publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships to serve as rostered leaders of this church."

Meaning: If an ELCA congregation wishes to call a pastor who is a "practicing" homosexual, it's okay with the home office. Previously, gay or lesbian pastors were expected to be celibate, same as unmarried heterosexual pastors. (You can read the summary on their website.)

At that point, something that may be accurately described as all hell breaking loose occurred. A small but astoundingly noisy contingent decried the action as a repudiation of Holy Writ and began a concerted effort to rouse the rabble and move away from the heresy enacted by their church's governing body forthwith. The biggest noisemaker in this scenario was and is an outfit that calls itself Lutheran CORE (COalition for REnewal). They've done an excellent job of keeping pots stirred, fires stoked, and emotions at fever-pitch.

It's no stretch to say that my final six months (as it turned out) with the synod largely were devoted to helping my boss, the local Lutheran bishop, calm people down. Our message was unwavering: There's a lot of ground to be covered before anyone really knows how everything will sort out, and it's easier to burn down the building in the heat of passion than to build it back up again. Plus, no matter what policies and procedures are ultimately worked out, no congregation will be forced to call a pastor they don't want.

And usually our efforts--pastoral letters, video messages, resource materials posted to the website--would indeed have the effect of getting people to calm down and take a couple of deep breaths.

Which Lutheran CORE couldn't have, of course. Calm, reason, thoughtfulness--these are not the sorts of things you can launch a revolution from! The CORE organizers have been very good at keeping the coals raked up.

One of their tactics has been to convince individuals and congregations that they should withhold their giving to ELCA, since ELCA is the bad guy who's wrecking "their" church. Unfortunately for me, the traditional path of money to the ELCA is collection plate -> synod -> ELCA, so withholding contributions to the national organization meant withholding contributions to the local office. Thus the budget shortfall.

It's been nice working with you. Here's your water wings.

Now, at this point, I no longer have a dog in the fight. I care about the fate of my friends back at the office, but I no longer have a professional stake in the organization's future. Shoot, I'm not even Lutheran! However, I did dedicate nearly a decade of my life to the enterprise, and I am the sort of person who takes pride in his work. So to see it all crumbling down because of self-righteous, self-centered bigots is pretty galling.

So too is the fact that the people behind Lutheran CORE have displayed complete indifference for the pain and suffering that they are causing throughout their church. (And beyond: Sooner or later budget shortfalls will inevitably affect the work that the ELCA does around the world.) It's completely understandable, of course: They're having loads of fun strutting around, holding secret meetings, organizing task forces, and, generally, biting the hand that feeds them. (At the time of my leaving the synod's employ, the number of local pastors who had resigned from the ELCA roster because of their much-vocalized disgust at its heresy was exactly zero. That's the same number of them who had removed themselves from the ELCA health plan in protest. And as for the number of them who had disassociated themselves from the nasty ELCA's pension plan? You got it: Zilch. Can you spell "hypocrisy?")

And so it is that I was rather peeved when a blog post on the Lutheran CORE website popped up in my Google Alerts (which I set up to keep tabs on news about or affecting my erstwhile employer and have not yet canceled) a couple of weeks ago. The post, "ELCA taking hard line against those who dissent from actions on sexuality or redirect benevolence giving" is a long one, which you can read here.
The part of it that ticked me off is this offhanded bit:

Many ELCA congregations have chosen to redirect their benevolence giving away from the ELCA churchwide organization because they believe the actions of the assembly violate the clear teaching of the Bible and the ELCA Constitution which states that the Bible is “the inspired Word of God and the authoritative source and norm of (the church’s) proclamation, faith, and life.” The changes in benevolence giving have resulted in some cuts in churchwide and synodical budgets. (Emphasis mine.)

Some cuts. See, that's all it is for them, for they have nothing on the line. They take no risk, they suffer no consequences. Some cuts. Like, we'll cancel the daily deliveries of fresh tropical fruit and designer water. Oh, and we can all share just one limo to and from the office, can't we? After all, "some cuts" must be made, yes?


So I jotted a comment to the blog post, which was written by an acquaintance of mine. I predicted at the time that the comment would not be approved for posting to the blog, a prediction that to date has been accurate. I also opined that there was a 50-50 chance that I would receive some kind of acknowledgement or reply outside of the blog, which has not happened either. But that's okay. I have a blog too, after all.

Here's the comment I sent:

Let's call things as they are, David, for once. "The changes in benevolence giving have resulted in some cuts in churchwide and synodical budgets"--what we mean by "some cuts" is that real people are being really hurt by the callous indifference of those who love their church so much they can't wait to rip it to shreds. Self-aggrandizing and self-serving pastors who exhort their congregations to withhold funds from the ELCA and the synod have the direct effect of putting people out of work.

I am one of them. And neither the first nor the last.

This bizarre obsession with what other people hundreds or even thousands of miles away may or may not be doing with their body parts has had a very real and very painful effect on me and my family. But it seems that all of these "concerned" pastors are far too busy unzipping to see who has the biggest theology to care about who gets hurt by their posturing and posing.

Is that your idea of "church?" Is that your idea of "Christianity?" If so, you are welcome to them both.

It really is quite astounding to me how eager these people are to destroy that which they keep referring to as "their" church. Of course, they see it as saving, not destroying, but that's because they have let their collective Messiah Complex get out of hand. Only they see what's going on; only they can lead the charge to save "their" church. Anyone who disagrees is as best deluded, at worst evil. For only they know, absolutely and without doubt, what God wants. Only they can properly interpret the various obscure Bible verses that may or may not apply, therefore any other interpretation must perforce be wrong. See above in re deluded or evil.

In this funhouse-mirror view of things, they are not hate-filled, stone-hearted bigots. God is! And as good God-fearing Christians, they must of course carry out his narrow-minded, prejudicial agenda, yes? So don't blame them--they're only doing what God wants!

Such tiny, narrow boxes "believers" insist on cramming their God into, no? In that regard they are in fact no different from the ancient pagans, who attributed to their gods the full range of human shortcomings and foibles. Human beings are prone to anger, suspicion, anxiety, pettiness...stands to reason their Creator must be too!

It is more than a little telling that, in the course of their incessant talk about the desires and intentions of the Creator (which are stunningly in sync with their own desires and intentions), one small possibility never seems to occur to them:

Maybe they're wrong.

A great many of these folks insist long and loud that God "never changes," that the Bible is his immutable word and that it too is immutable and not subject to interpretation except by themselves to their own ends. To the latter: Nonsense. The Bible is and always has been wide open to interpretation. The idea that its contents--whatever importance one chooses to give them--are invariably crystal-clear, straightforward, and self-explanatory is sheer silliness. Were it true, there would be no need for the mountains of books about the Bible; no need to annotated editions of the book. There would be no point in Bible study, if the Bible is as clear-cut as some insist, for there would be nothing to discuss; one might just as well hold discussion groups on the owner's manual for a toaster. There certainly would be no reason for homilies and sermons, were the Bible verses on which they are founded so transparent that anyone could read and understand them as easily as the instructions of a tube of toothpaste.

To the former: It has always seemed to me that God is all about change. Golly, doesn't the Bible make that clear? He seems to be all about throwing out the old and ushering in the new. Did not he send his son to establish a new covenant? Or was it merely to review the terms of the old one? From the first line of Genesis, it's all about upsetting the apple cart, shaking up the status quo, changing things! Strange, then, that religion puts such a high premium on tradition, on precedence, on fossilization. It seems to me another example of human beings creating God in their own image, of building a nice, safe, matchbox-sized container for him, cramming him in here, and insisting it can be no other way. For to contemplate any other way is scary.

In that context, then--God as the elemental agent of change--it seems not impossible that the Creator is doing what he does best, viz., stirring things up. I have more than once had the thought that it may be that the Creator has decided that Creation is at the right point to deal with a new idea, that it's okay for people to be different. Perhaps God has decided that humanity has reached a point in its development where it can and should and must begin to accept the fact that sexual orientation is just one tiny little part of the whole being, and in turn accept the fact that homosexual individuals are, well, acceptable. This would indicate that God has a higher opinion of humanity than I do, but that would come as no surprise.

Why would God think that this is the time, given the hatred, suspicion, and downright inhumanity that humanity displays? Beats me. If he does so think, presumably he has his reasons.

And if he does so think, then all of those "Christians" working so hard to "save" their church are in fact positioning themselves as speed bumps in God's plan. If God wants change, as I believe is possible and even likely, then what does that make those who are standing in the way of change?

Which would fit into my opinion that these people who are so determined to make sure that the other is kept out, that only like-thinking, right-minded, "pure" people are admitted, have been so deluded and turned inside out by Old Scratch that they honestly think they're gloriously marching to God's drumbeat when in fact they are pitching for the other team. The idea that God wants bigotry, hatred, and exclusion as the foundation of anything done in his name is ludicrous. Old Hob, on the other hand, would find such building materials right up his alley.

And that's why I believe that ultimately any new church body created by Lutheran CORE is doomed to fail. Well, one of the reasons:

First, whatever they may develop would be an institution founded on negativity, an institution founded to be opposed to something--in this case an acceptance of people who sexual orientation is different than what we like, which makes it different from what God likes, which makes it wrong--rather than to put forward any nurturing, meaningful, or enlightening ideal.It would be an undertaking founded on the notion "We are right and everything going on around us is scary and wrong." It would not be the first such undertaking, and it's unlikely to be the last. But even to a cynic such as yours truly, it's hard to imagine that there is that large a pool of frightened, hate-filled people to sustain the enterprise, much less that the pool will continue to grow. It seems that the best and most successful human endeavors are established on principles of advancement, improvement, forward-thinking--not retrenching, insulation, parochialism.

Second, and perhaps most important (given my cynicism), is the apparent nature of those leading the charge to their shimmering new future: They strike me as angry, frightened, smug, self-aggrandizing malcontents. Such personalities, in the long run, make poor leaders, for sooner or later, and probably sooner, they will be disappointed. It is inevitable, for being disappointed in other people is a cornerstone of their existence. They are in a constant state of anticipation of the next slight, the next brush-off, the great disappointment. So all will be skittles and beer at the outset, for they will be free of the heretical oppression of the ELCA, happily swimming with others who think and believe and look like them, everybody in lock step doing the Right Things and thinking the Right Thoughts, and it will be good.

But these are human beings we're talking about here, folks, and eventually one of them will have a Different Thought! And then it will be beer and skittles no more. It will in fact be Great Disappointment. And again it will be Sturm und Drang all over again, and distrust and suspicion and accusations and ill-will and on and on. For that is the nature of such people. They have already demonstrated that they cannot and will not accept different ideas. They have already demonstrated that they cannot and will not accept the doctrines of live and let live or to each his own or agree to disagree. Why would we expect them to suddenly change their stripes once they've succeeded in tearing apart their old church in the pipe dream of building their new, shiny, better one? There is no reason to think that the first instance of disagreement or discord will not cause the entire endeavor to re-fracture and the cycle to repeat itself ad nauseam.

But knowing that their efforts are doomed to collapse on them gives me no pleasure, for the ultimate failure will occur only after thousands of people, maybe more, have been hurt.

And as is always the case, it will be all the wrong people. It already has been.


Anonymous said...

Excellent post.

Jeff said...


Thanks for your comments. I am very, very sorry for your job loss, and the obvious pain you are in, both as a result of that and the feelings you have of the church and the letdown of feeling many who opposed this are hateful or homophobes.

I would like to offer a different perspective. Not interested in debating the issue, scripturally or otherwise, as it has been debated for the entire 2o years the ELCA has existed.

I would like to offer the suggestion that what we have here is "a failure to communicate".

Now, I have no doubt some in CORE are bigoted, as you state. Some are "strutting around". But they are few and far between. I know, because I spent a lot of time with CORE folks in MN at the Assembly.

MOST CORE folks are not enjoying this, in fact I have not met any who are. MOST are very humble people , pained at what the church has done. MOST have really wrestled with their situations, as I have. I am a pastor who will soon be leaving the ELCA. I WILL be one who won't keep reaping the medical and dental and pension benefits, and one who does believe if you oppose this, then have some integrity.

Maybe if the ELCA leadership who pushed this vote, and pushed it for years (it was not a grass roots movement from laity, but clergy and group driven) , had noted in the last study 60 percent of the laity opposed this, they would have done what they have done with so many other issues...agree to disagree. We don't vote on a lot of social issues. Why this?

If , as a pastor, I knew my congregation was split down the middle on a vote, and I pushed it to a vote at a congregational meeting, why would I be suprised if half the folks or more leave?

You see, the true damage here is not in churches leaving, but in those in conflict, those redirecting, those who feel the church is no longer "home".

We don't, as Lutherans, agree on a lot of social and theological issues. So maybe , just maybe instead of blaming all of this on CORE, and portraying them all as cold hearted bigots, you might actually talk to them and find out the pain they are in in their crisis of faith.

Both EXTREMES need to listen. Words like "heresy" or "evil" have no place in the statements from those who opposed the changes; words like "bigot" and "hater" have no place among those who favor them.

For the record, our family has gay friends, and agree that states can offer civil unions. Where we disagree is redefining marriage or standards for clergy. Is that a sin? Is one to be condemened for simply disagreeing?

Leaders must know the pulse of their congregations. We have had no fallout, and will vote to leave soon, probably with a 99.9 percent vote. We have taken our time, talked it through ,and listened to people.

I don't agree with pastors on either side who have made this an issue in their congregation. But it is not the pastors walking, it is the laity, and in droves.

We need to talk, but sadly, the traditionalists will be gone by the time that happens.

And maybe an amicable divorce is best.

WJR said...

Thanks to both of you! Nice to know I'm not always talking to myself!

I agree, Jeff, that "debate" is now pretty pointless. We spent a certain amount of time figuring out how to reach fence-sitters on the subject, but I was never sure there were very many. A lot of folks who were uninterested, to be sure, but not too many who really and truly had no opinion.

I agree with you too that an amicable divorce might be best...emphasis on "amicable," though! I have been very disheartened and disgusted by various parties, individual and corporate, who keep threatening to leave. That only causes anxiety and pain. If you're going to leave, then leave! (And do it the right way.) That is far more honorable--and, I would argue, more Christian--than continuously carping about how "they" are wrecking everything, ridiculing the efforts of those who are trying to achieve a level of calm discussion, and threatening to leave. If there is really no middle ground, then the humane course is to make the cut quick and move on.

Thanks again for your comments!

jksweeney said...

Well said my old friend well said. It's too bad that I hear more from "strutters" and less from those such as "Jeff." But then, who who attempt to hue a middle course are invariably assaulted from either side.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes we don't always know the whole story or mis represent what the whole story is about. To blame CORE for your wows or causing all of the wows you describe seems strange to me. CORE nor the congregtions who are in opposition to what the ELCA did in Minneapolis in August of 2009 are not the ones to blame. The ELCA did it to themselves and the individuals and congregations who are upset did not even have a voice in the decision. The last time I checked, we are in the USA and have the right to disagree and align with a group that we are in agreement with theologically and morally. It's that simple, yet we get the wrong angle and write about who is to blame when they are not to blame at all.

The Rev. Erma Wolf said...


As one who also knows what it is like to be downsized from a job with the church, I do not wish that on anyone. The loss you have suffered is a sad statement on what is happening around the ELCA, at least partly a consequence of what was set in motion at the August Churchwide Assembly. I find no joy in what has happened to you, or to others being so affected in these days. I pray for better times for the ELCA, for the South Dakota Synod, and for you and others.

Pastor Erma Wolf
Lutheran CORE steering committee, and a member of the South Dakota Synod

William J Reynolds said...

The second "Anonymous" implies that I "mis represent what the whole story is about." I have no idea what he means by this.

Does he deny that proponents of Lutheran CORE have encouraged congregations and their members to discontinue contributions to the ELCA via their synods? That is a matter of record. Does he deny that a dramatic decrease in giving occurred in the South Dakota Synod? That too is a matter of fact and not open to dispute. Does he deny that because of said decrease, two employees of the synod (so far) have had their positions eliminated, and another has been cut back to one-quarter time? Those are hard facts as well, and not subject to "mis representation."

What is a misrepresentation--indeed, a complete falsehood--is Anonymous's assertion that "The ELCA did it to themselves and the individuals and congregations who are upset did not even have a voice in the decision."

First of all, the ELCA is the individuals and congregations, all of them, together.

Second, they did have a voice in the decision. The actions of the Churchwide Assembly in August were the culmination of nearly a decade of study, discussion, drafts and re-drafts, and so on. Anyone who didn't know that the ELCA had embarked on the sexuality study was living in a cave. Virtually every annual synod assembly with which I was associated these past eight or nine years devoted a greater or lesser amount of time to the issue. And the voting members at both synod and churchwide assemblies come from, you guessed it, the congregations.

Decisions are made by people who show up. Not showing up is not the same thing as not having a voice in the decision. And there were multiple opportunities for people to give input outside of assemblies. I know, because I was the one who sent notification of such opportunities.

Too many people in this little drama act as if they were deprived of "voice" merely because the final vote went against their wishes. Not getting what you want is not the same thing as not getting your say.

So my question for "Anonymous" is exactly who is doing the "mis representing" here?

William J Reynolds said...

Thank you, Erma, for your comment.

I think a great many people in this drama overlooked the fact that actions have consequences. And I think a great many, in their haste to burn down the house, simply didn't care.

Kevin said...

Amen, brother, preach it! We have CORE-types up here in the ELCIC, and their sanctimony astounds me. Withholding or re-directing giving is a great way to destroy a church financially. Also, I don't know if it's the same where you are, but many of these folks are doing what they call "progressive disengagement" which means that they're resigning from committees, boycotting church events, and doing their thing with the money.

Which means that they intentionally are removing themselves from the debate, then whining that they aren't being listened to. It's an ecclesiastical temper tantrum.

But despite our current challenges, I deeply believe that the ELCA/ELCIC will rise stronger from this experience.