A tale of travel

I’m down here in Houston where my church body — the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod — is having its 64th triennial convention. This is the second convention I’ve attended as an adult and it’s always a lot of fun to catch up with folks from across the country and have those in-depth conversations about theology and practice.

The LCMS gets relatively little media attention, considering its size. Mostly that’s because we are not divided on issues like abortion or same-sex marriage. We don’t have female clergy and I’ve talked with a grand total of one person who wishes it were otherwise. And she’s a delegate from the East who was over 80 years old. If you’re not fighting about those kinds of issues, the media just don’t tend to care about what you’re doing.

But if you’re inside this church body, there are some fascinating conversations and debates going on. There are huge differences of opinion about the importance of retaining traditional Lutheran identity versus adoption of a more evangelical style and substance. The church had previously made a decision — decades ago — to not follow in the historical-critical methodology of mainline denominations.

So yesterday we had a presidential election and elected a new president. The incumbent was seeking his third re-election. I thought it might be interesting to compare two reports that appeared in the same paper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

First of all, let me say that I think both pieces are good, insofar as I’m able to judge them from my not-disinterested standpoint. But the difference is still notable. The first is a wire piece from the Associated Press. It explains the nuts and bolts just like a wire report should:

Delegates for the nation’s second-largest Lutheran denomination selected a new leader, voting in a 48-year-old Ballwin minister and sending the church’s outgoing leader to his first defeat after nine years in office.

About 1,200 delegates for the Kirkwood-based Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod gathered in Houston and elected the Rev. Matthew Harrison as president on Tuesday. He defeated the incumbent, Dr. Gerald Kieschnick, by a vote of 54 percent to 45 percent.

It even gets in some good context, but mostly by referring to events from nearly a decade ago. The picture is of the new president on the left, the outgoing president in the middle and Dr. John Nunes, head of Lutheran World Relief, on the right.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch wisely sent religion-beat specialist Tim Townsend down to cover the convention and he was able to talk to delegates and church officials who keyed him into the significance of the election. And every paragraph of the report shows the help and context that comes with being on the ground:

Harrison’s victory represented a larger ideological change for the conservative denomination, which is split between moderate and conservative camps. Frequently over the course of the convention’s first five days, speakers referenced the political “elephant in the room.”

During his nine years as president, Kieschnick, 67, was criticized by traditionalists who bemoaned what they called his postmodern approach to the church. Kieschnick, they said, had favored a nondenominational, evangelical megachurch model, and in the process diluted Martin Luther’s theology.

Until Tuesday’s elections, the delegates had been voting almost exclusively on 38 proposals to radically restructure the denomination in an effort to combat what the church’s treasurer called “a financial crisis.” Kieschnick had championed the restructuring.

But reaction to the reorganization was split. Supporters said restructuring would decrease costs, while critics felt the move would be a step toward a hierarchical structure more similar to the Catholic Church’s. Harrison and his supporters had framed the restructuring as a power grab by Kieschnick.

“The change we really need is not structural,” Harrison wrote in the Reporter, a synod newspaper, before the convention. “Part of me might like the massive increase in power proposed for the Synod president. That’s why it’s not a good idea.”

Even though Townsend covers religion for the hometown paper of the LCMS headquarters, it was not a given that he’d be sent to this convention. I know reporters around the country who don’t have the budget for any travel. But sometimes, from afar, I think it becomes easier to try to force a story into a preconceived narrative. And that can have kind of a snowball effect. Maybe that’s more significant with a church body less divided on hot button topics like we are.

I’m sure various folks might quibble about any reported piece, but I have heard many delegates today say they were surprised at how well Townsend reported on and explained some of the “inside baseball” issues that are near and dear to Lutheran hearts.

Meeting some of the key players and being able to listen to how they discuss those issues also means that future stories will have that much more context and background. In that regard, travel budgets are actually a small price to pay.

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  • Jerry

    conservative denomination, which is split between moderate and conservative camps.

    The on the spot story you lauded did not explicate the difference between a moderate conservative and a conservative conservative so I really found fault with the lack of theological background. I had no idea what the theological controversy is about after reading that story. But the wire story did make at least one point clear:

    Some conservative members were angered by his decision to allow a pastor to pray at an interfaith service at Yankee Stadium in New York following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

    I think it’s incredibly significant when some people object to joining a prayer service after a catastrophe like the 9/11 attacks. So I wish that critical piece of information had been in the Townsend piece because what some call syncretism I call an expression of the heart of what it means to be an American “E Pluribus Unum” (out of many, one) which is on the Great Seal.

  • http://goodintentionsbook.com Bob Smietana

    Hi Mollie:

    What do you think will be the effect of this election on the LCMS’s church planting efforts. The denomination set a goal of starting 2,000 new churches by 2017, and its been slowing going so far, as I understand. Wondering how the more traditional Lutheran worship and practice will work with new congregations.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    My question, exactly. What does “moderate” mean in this context? None of the usual issues that normally are attached to such a term are in play here, because the LCMS has its own set of issues.

    MZ, what think ye? Did that term shake you up a bit?

  • Julia

    What I want to know is this:

    Is the new president going to rescind the sale of KFUO FM to a Christian rock group after 60+ years as a classical music station – a station that has won national awards?

    Is there any connection to the hurried transfer of ownership of the radio station on July 6th to the timing of this meeting only a few days later?

    Can the sale be rescinded?

    Will there be more Bach at the Sem now?

  • dalea

    Do you get hazardous duty pay for going to Houston in July?

    I wish the story had better explained the financial issues. It is difficult to understand the organizational changes without knowing just what the money problems are.

  • http://www.magdalenesegg.blogspot.com Rev. Michael Church

    I’m with Jerry and Terry, only more so. I think that the word “conservative” (as well as its sister word “liberal”) should be used sparingly by reporters, because it can mean so many different things, in different contexts.

    Theological conservatism does not necessarily accompany social or political conservatism. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. (I know at least one LCMS pastor who is a confirmed political liberal, but is probably quite pleased with Harrison’s election for theological reasons.)

    I know that reporters need shorthand, but “conservative” just doesn’t work. And I know that there is a natural tendency to reduce a complicated world to a simple one, in which there are only two points of view and everybody knows what they are — but that doesn’t work either. Sometimes, even if it seems tedious, you just have to explain what the issues are.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    1) Jerry,

    After Bill O’Reilly said something very similar to what you wrote, I penned my first freelance story about why the LC-MS felt it should care more about its doctrines than patriotism. It ran in the Wall Street Journal and here’s a link: http://web.archive.org/web/20020802054705/http://opinionjournal.com/taste/?id=110002011

    Still, that issue — while very important — is not the defining way to describe the larger issues here. There were people on all sides of that issue and it was just a public relations disaster that everyone wished had been avoided. It did demonstrate the first of many problems our current SP had with ecclesiastical oversight, but that’s a pretty tricky thing to wade into.

    2) The Ablaze! initiative has been the primary means by which Lutheran doctrine and practice was watered down. But, as you note, it was also not terribly effective. It was mostly a fundraising scheme. The convention delegates were told yesterday that the fundraising arm — which ended already — met less than 60% of its goal. As for the metrics on church planting or “heart-touchin’” — they were also a bit sketchy.

    Now having said all that, one of the major issues on which there is absolutely no disunity is the drive for evangelism. So that will continue and church planting will continue. Whether that will be achieved by helping local congregations act locally or whether it will be achieved by some top-down “program” is another issue. I think it will be something to watch — not just in the next three years but in the years after that, too.

    It is probably worth noting that the Bishop of Kenya and an advisory delegate from Russia reported elation back home upon the news of the new president being elected. So they definitely think that more support is coming their way.

    3) TMatt — here’s the deal, I loathe the terms “moderate” and “conservative” because they are so completely meaningless. Most folks down here are pretty politically conservative or libertarian — though I’ve also met some hard core Democrats. We don’t do politics so you can find a wide range. It’s not wrong, I guess, to describe those that want to retain Lutheran identity and doctrine as “conservative.” We do hope to conserve those things that protect our confession of faith. But why are you a “moderate” if you want a radical overhaul of worship, doctrine and practice? And yet, even if they’re “liberal” with regard to how they want the church to practice, they’re not really that liberal in the grand scheme of things either. So I would just rather avoid those terms. However, I recognize how difficult it is to discuss these issues.

    4) Julia, The current administration has aimed to centralize authority and resources. They sold KFUO, they cancelled or decreased funding for programs, etc. etc. And, oddly, the more they did these things, the trust between congregations and the administration fell further. Unfortunately, there is nothing to be done about KFUO now.

    5) dalea, basically the problem with financials is that congregations haven’t been trusting the president/board to allocate resources. So what they’ve been doing — and my congregation is a prime example of this — is designating funding to those things they WISH the synod were doing. So in my congregation, we support disaster relief, sanctity of life ministries, seminaries and so on. What that means, however, is that there were less undesignated funds to spend on synodical bureaucrats who aren’t in those programs. But this is all kind of inside baseball.

    6) Rev. Church — I could not have said it better.


  • David

    I’m surprised the stories didn’t discuss TMatt’s favorite issue: declining membership. The elephant in the room is that while the LCMS isn’t a “mainline” church, they have the same problem with a greying and dying white membership that the Mainline churches. Underlying the battle over who is more Lutheran and more conservative is that the LCMS is losing members even without a culture war.

  • http://www.trinitylayton.org Rev. Kurt Hering

    Jerry, I share your desire for Americans to unite in the face of attacks upon our land and people. As an LCMS pastor, I lead our congregation in prayers for our country and those who serve her in elective office and in our various appointed and volunteer service organizations including the military branches.

    However, God is no respecter of nations any more than of people, as per Acts 10:34. Scripture is full of admonition that praying with or along side of believers in false gods or those who teach falsely about the One True God–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–is a sure way to incur God’s wrath rather than blessing.

    What our Lord, Jesus Christ says in Matthew 10:32-40 about family loyalty certainly must apply to national loyalty as well.
    “Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven. but whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven. Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household. He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. and he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me. He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it. He that receiveth you receiveth me, and he that receiveth me receiveth him that sent me.”

    As a Lutheran, according to God’s Holy Word and along with all the faithful throughout history, I will fight to the death to defend my country and her people, and pray God for strength to do so. However, by the grace of God, I also pray that along with all Christians I will never compromise God’s Word by invoking other false gods, or presenting the sinful thoughts and will of men alongside prayers seeking the will of the One True God in the name of His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ.

    Why? Because to pray falsely gives people false hope and leads them away from the one and only Savior of the world. And that is an even greater catastrophe than 9/11 with eternal, heaven or hell consequences.

    The peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your heart and mind in Christ Jesus.

  • Rick

    I think the subject of “What’s Going on with the Lutherans” is very timely, and I would like to see the press discuss it more: In the USA, on the one hand, the largest Lutheran church body disavowed Lutheranism by rejecting “Scripture Alone!”, a central Lutheran tenet, and instead supported their sexuality statement based on a more worldly approach as to please those who hold to current societal values. They also reject Lutheranism by compromising Lutheran teaching by partaking in Holy Communion with those who hold other beliefs than themselves, which goes against Martin Luther and those who confess his theology.

    On the other hand, the second largest Lutheran church body, the LCMS, decidedly rejected their incumbant leader of three terms in favor of a humble pastor who hopes to lead the LCMS back to a more consistant practice of genuine Lutheranism. The contrasts are great, and world Lutheranism–not to mention other denominations–is watching! It all comes down to “What does it mean to be a Lutheran?” Does the word mean something, or is it “anything goes” by simply agreeing to disagree?

    I respect the latter mentioned church body, which isn’t afraid to stand up for the teachings of the Lutheran faith. It is one thing to be a people-pleaser, to try to be friends with everyone, no matter what. It is another thing to be able to stand, even when the strong winds come in to test their resolve.

  • http://goodintentionsbook.com Bob Smietana

    Will this election mean that new congregations will have more distinctly LCMS doctrine and practice.,

    The so-called new Calvinists, such as the ACTS 29 Network, have found some success by having distinct doctrine but flexible practices. That’s a model that’s worked for other faiths groups as well, according to sociologist Roger Finke.

    Seems like the challnege for the LCMS is in starting new congregation that have traditional LCMS practices. And in trying to reach ethnically diverse groups– one of the LCMS’s issues is that it’s mostly an older, white denomination.

  • Mollie


    Lutherans tend to believe that as you practice is how you believe. So we don’t quite see the distinction in doctrine and practice as some other groups might. Not that you won’t see variations, of course, but we all have the same hymnals and liturgies.

    But, on the other hand, we are congregational — so there is some difference. You will find congregations who have replaced the historic liturgy or who don’t use a hymnal or who do not mention that they’re Lutheran. Since we are congregational, each congregation will continue to be locally managed and run.

    The big significance in this election is that the leadership will no longer be emphasizing financial support of those congregations that downplay Lutheran doctrine or highlighting the importance of changing worship practices.

    But many of the new Lutheran church plants I’m most familiar with have traditional LCMS practices. In fact, there are many studies suggesting that traditional worship might even be a better way to reach out. However, these new plants were not supported anywhere near as much as the “praise band” or “small group” types that were championed by the previous administration.

    The one nearest to me is St. Athanasius Lutheran in Vienna. The name should tell you a bit about their emphasis.

    The difference on the congregational level is something I can’t begin to predict. I would say it would be something to watch in the years to come. I have heard, for instance, many pastors and laypeople say how excited they will be to not be denigrated for their support of traditional Lutheran worship and practice. But they were doing it under the old administration, too.

    And the big issue here is that the current Synodical President tried to create a structure that would have increased his own office’s budget by 30X. That would mean that his vision would be enacted on even more levels. So this new president comes in at the same time that the new presidency will have much more power. So, again, it’s hard to say.

    It’s definitely a mood shift. And there are other issues, too — thus far all of the elections have gone in the direction of confessional Lutheranism (as the groups tend to call themselves) — the VPs are all confessional — sweeping out the “church growth” guys, the new BOD elections are all confessional, and elections continue today. Also, there is a story about how (generally speaking) the older generation is in the camp that’s being swept out while the newer generation is mostly in the camp that’s coming into power.

    It’s a massive story within the LC-MS. Already delegates here are talking about this as a historic convention. They didn’t do that at the last three, at least.

  • Rev. Richard Zeile

    I very much appreciate this piece, as well as the one you wrote for the WSJ!
    Personally, I rejoice in Pr. Harrison’s elction because the kind of theology publicly commended, and implicit in the broader church’s agenda, influences the kind of men moved to enter the ministry, and the kind of people who join congregations, and even the kind in those congrgations wo volunteer. The feminist agenda which was on the rise in many of our congregations 1980-1999, and reflected by your 80-year-old East Coaster, was commended by the Bohlman administration, and influenced the kind of leadership our church body cultivated. The new administration will encourage new leaders and perspectives that will preserve the Luthran heritage, not just for ourselves, but as a challenge to other religious bodies that claim to speak fo Christ.

  • http://www.trinitylayton.org Rev. Kurt Hering

    Molly, thank you for this article, and for your comprehensive reporting in matters of church and state from a Lutheran perspective. Especially given that this is an ecumenical format, I think a couple of statements you made in comment #11 may need some clarification.

    First, could you please explain the apparent contradiction between the first two paragraphs. You begin by saying, “we all have the same hymnals and liturgies.” Then go on to say in the next paragraph, “You will find congregations who have replaced the historic liturgy or who don’t use a hymnal.” For the record, I think you have hit upon one of the more contentious issues within the LCMS today. That is: What do the Lutheran Confessions really say about the worship life of the church?

    This leads to another point that is probably unclear to the non-Lutheran reader as it is not even agreed upon within the LCMS, let alone among all that is called Lutheran today. What does it mean to be a “confessional” Lutheran? I dare say that even the “’church growth’ guys” who have been swept out would claim to be “confessional,” and do not appreciate being placed outside that designation. So, I think it would be helpful to follow up with an explanation based upon the Lutheran Confessions themselves as to what it really means to be confessional. How has it come to be that we use the distinction among Lutherans of being a confessional Lutheran as opposed to some other kind of Lutheran, when upholding the Lutheran Confession of the faith in our preaching, teaching, and practice of the faith has until recently been definitive and prescriptive for Lutheran congregations and pastors?

  • RevdCJE

    It is indeed difficult to accurately characterize the LCMS. Perhaps the Rt Revd Jobst Schoene, retired bishop of the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELK), did it best in a few words “The Missouri Synod is the largest Lutheran Church in the world which still self-consciously intends to be Lutheran.” A significant statement – both in what it says and what it leaves unsaid.

  • http://www.theclcc.org Gene White

    Mollie, I enjoyed your articles, and this is the first time I have been sent a link to your blog. So, might as well take advantage and say hello. My wife and I attended Immanuel Lutheran in Alexandria, VA in the 70′s, which were I understand you now attend. We visit there from time to time, so I will ask to meet you the next time.

    Concerning ABLAZE! and worship practices I need to invite your readers to visit http://www.theclcc.org, as we address both topics with our Scriptural based seminars. These seminars we take to hosting congregations by invitation, so maximum exposure to the laity is achieved.

    Now that the convention elections are over it is our hope that churches who have been “sitting on the fence” will take heart yearn for training in these vital areas.

    One thing I would like to add concerning the political scene is the need to restore checks and balances into the polity of Synod that have been removed by the re-structuring, or ignored by prior practice. A repeat of what happened in the 70′s after the battle for the Bible, would be in no one’s best interest except for the one holding the power.

  • http://faithandreason.usatoday.com Cathy Grossman

    Hmmm. I don’t know one bit more after reading Mollie’s piece and the two story excerpts on the difference between a “moderate” and a “conservative” LC-MS perspective. Nor to I know what the slam is on the evangelical megachurch model. The indication is that those kind of churches don’t hew to theology. But isn’t there a huge difference between Joel Osteen and, say, Tim Keller or Mark Driscoll who pack a lot of theology into their approaches.
    I wish for everyone’s sake someone had indeed covered the convention in a way that enlightened readers.

  • MJBubba

    I think that when Mollie refers to “the evangelical megachurch model,” she implies a contemporary praise band style of worship combined with “lite” theology, in which the emphasis is on Jesus and his love and atonement and the gift of Grace, but with a conscious neglect of other aspects of faith and doctrine. Some LCMS parishes, in an attempt to be “seeker-friendly,” do in fact neglect much of the distinctive Lutheran teachings. A visit to an adult Sunday School class in such a parish will reveal that the people are practicing a faith that is founded on a weak level of teaching, with members borrowing ideas from other faith traditions and unable to see the differences.