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Conservative Insurgency Topples Missouri Synod President

c. 2010 St. Louis Post-Dispatch
HOUSTON (RNS) Delegates of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod on Tuesday (July 13) elected the denomination’s director of disaster response as president, a candidate backed by its more conservative members.
The Rev. Matthew Harrison received 54 percent of the vote for the three-year term, defeating three-term incumbent the Rev. Gerald Kieschnick, who received 45 percent.
Harrison’s victory represents a larger ideological change for the
2.5 million-member conservative denomination, which is split between moderate and conservative camps. Harrison was the candidate of theological and doctrinal conservatives who call themselves “confessional Lutherans” and stress a strict adherence to the central doctrines of Lutheranism.
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.
Delegates had already voted on proposals, which were championed by Kieschnick, to radically restructure the denomination. Supporters said restructuring would decrease costs, while critics felt the move gives too much power and authority to the president’s office.
“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.”
On Monday, delegates voted by a narrow margin to dismantle the church’s seven program boards and fold the boards’ functions into two “superboards.”
“It’s ironic that the guy who had no desire to see an increase in the power of the presidency of the synod is now in that position,”
Harrison said in an interview after the election. “The way forward is going to be deliberate and slow and involve the counsel of lots of folks.”
As the executive director of the church’s World Relief and Human Care office since 2001, Harrison, 48, managed the denomination’s national responses to the January earthquake in Haiti, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Harrison’s victory was not a complete surprise. When the nominations for president were tallied in April, Kieschnick had received only 755 nominations, the lowest ever for a sitting president, and Harrison got 1,332.
“I think Pastor Harrison will focus on leadership in Scripture,”
said the Rev. Timothy Rossow, pastor of Bethany Lutheran Church in Naperville, Ill., and a leader of the conservative movement to elect Harrison. “He really believes unity of the synod is very important.”
Rossow said he believed the feeling of change that has permeated the convention hall during the debates about restructuring carried Harrison over the top.
“A lot of people didn’t politicize this election,” he said. “They just wanted a change, and a fresh face.”
The Rev. Mark Hanson, presiding bishop of the larger and more liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, congratulated Harrison on his election, and issued a short statement wishing “God’s blessings”
on his tenure.
Harrison was born in Sioux City, Iowa, and was ordained in 1991. He served two parishes in Iowa and Indiana over the next 10 years before assuming the disaster response job in 2001.
In remarks to the delegates immediately after the vote, Harrison said his election represented “a tumultuous change in the life of our synod,” and repeatedly spoke of “challenging times” ahead.
“You’ve kept your perfect record of electing sinners as your president,” Harrison said.
As Harrison took the stage after the election, he and Kieschnick hugged as the delegates gave both men a standing ovation. After Harrison’s remarks, Kieschnick said his nine years as president had been “a humbling burden.”
“God bless this church body that I will always love and always serve,” he said.
(Tim Townsend writes for The St. Louis Post-Dispatch in St. Louis, Mo.)
Copyright 2010 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

  • Rob the Rev

    I am a former pastor and member of the “Misery Synod.” I joined as a young adult back in 1970 and was ordianed as a naive thoeological conservative. After ordination I gradually began to realize that I couldn’t go along with Missouri’s fundamentalist theology and began moving away from it and pushing the theological envelope.
    There is not a time during my 30 years in the Synod as a pastor that I do not remember ongoing infighting and struggle for control of the Synod. I was in the “other” seminary in Springfield (now in Ft. Wayne)when the walk-off occured at St. Louis and the formation of Seminex (the seminary in exhile)by more moderate and reasonable members of the faculty and student body.
    Missouri is basically a literalistic fundamentalist sect theologically that differentiates itself from other literal fundamentalists sects by permitting the use of alchohol and tobacco. They hold to a inerrant, infallible scripture with a literalistic interpretation, believing in such things a real Adam and Eve living in Eden with dinosaurs, like Ally Oop or the Flintstones. I’m glad I finally got out of that strait-jacket of a sect.
    The only saving grace is that with all the energy it puts into its infighting and struggle over control leaves it with less resources and energy to convert others to their fundamentalism and make them more fit for hell than themselves.

  • Mark

    Too bad these conservative wackos can’t be more non-judgmental and loving like you apparently, huh “Rev”?

  • Rob the Rev

    Just sharing what I experienced, Mark.

  • Rob the Rev

    Mark, merely speaking the truth in tough love.

  • cknuck

    Two different standards huh Rob? One for them and one for you. I can’t see you as a rev or pastor, so small and about you.

  • DRM

    What’s ironic in this election is that for the first time ever, the Missouri Synod has a president with an entirely non-German surname. Harrison is truly an American “mutt”. The president-elect of the “German” Lutheran church with an Irish surname. Cool.
    Rev Rob–I’m sorry you went the direction you did. I’m sorry you got caught in the Walk-Out and aftermath as “collateral damage”. The Enemy loves this sort of thing–people hurt and their faith destroyed by the divisions he brings about. I pray to God that a far greater unity in Christ comes out of this convention for “Missouri”, and that all people around the world are blessed all the more because of it.

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