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HOUSTON • Delegates of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod elected on Tuesday as its president the denomination's director of disaster response, a candidate backed by its more conservative members.

The Rev. Matthew Harrison of Ballwin received 54 percent of the vote for the three-year term. He defeated the incumbent, the Rev. Gerald Kieschnick, who received 45 percent and who had served three terms.

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."

Harrison was the candidate of theological and doctrinal conservatives within the church who call themselves confessional Lutherans — traditionalists who stress a strict adherence to the Book of Concord, the 16th-century work that defined 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.

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."

On Monday, delegates voted by a narrow margin to dismantle the church's seven program boards and fold the boards' functions into two 'superboards."

Other close restructuring votes included decisions to organize the church's current 35 districts into five large geographical regions, with a new vice president over each; and to allow the church president to choose his own vice presidents from a slate of 20 nominees.

"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 council 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.

There are 2.5 million members of the Kirkwood-based denomination. About 2,000 delegate representatives cast votes in the election. There are about 160,000 LCMS members in the St. Louis area. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. Louis, by comparison, has about 500,000 members.

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."

Harrison was born in Sioux City, Iowa, where he graduated from Morningside College in 1984. He attended seminary in Fort Wayne, Ind., and was ordained in 1991 and served two parishes in the next 10 years — St. Peter's Lutheran Church in Westgate, Iowa, and Zion Lutheran Church in Fort Wayne. He plays the five-string banjo, and is a former member of the Missouri Area Bluegrass Committee.

A third candidate in Tuesday's election, the Rev. Herbert Mueller Jr., president of the denomination's Southern Illinois District, received 1 percent of the presidential vote but won a subsequent election for first vice president.

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.