ST. LOUIS • A controversial academic paper published online by a Lutheran scholar last week has the spirit of a Cold War spy novel. There’s intrigue, subterfuge and blackmail — except the accusations are leveled at the Kirkwood-based Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, which has about 2 million baptized members in North America.
The Rev. Edward A. Engelbrecht, a former editor in St. Louis who leads an LCMS-affiliated church in Columbus, Ohio, claims sabotage and other tactics are part of an “institutional mobbing” strategy used by some church members to antagonize pastors within the large but shrinking denomination until they quit.
“A target who has a smart phone or computing device should assume that the Machine has hacked the phone or device so the operative can collect information on the target,” according to one bullet point in the 16-page paper, which has an additional six pages of endnotes. “The Machine has on staff persons trained in computer technology who take hacking assignments. Some of the activity is simply gathering data from web cookies, which is not illegal in the United States. Other activities are more invasive, including violations of privacy, manipulation of property, and sabotage.”
Engelbrecht, 54, wrote that the “Main Nag,” his nickname for the person who leads the mobbing activity, calls the shots of the “clandestine organization,” which targets “independent-minded persons and rivals.”
“His job in the Machine is to intimidate members of the organization into obedience and to discourage those they fear as rivals,” Engelbrecht wrote, adding: “This elaborate organization, supported by generous funding, distinguishes the mobbing that occurs in the LCMS.”
Engelbrecht’s article has generated discussion and concern in some Lutheran circles. It also caught the eye of LCMS President Matthew Harrison.
After the article went online Jan. 9 in the Lutheran Forum, an image of a cuckoo clock was posted on Harrison’s personal Facebook page.
“It’s that time again,” Harrison wrote in the post, alluding to the upcoming election for president of the synod. Feb. 20 is the deadline for nominations.
Asked Tuesday about the post and why it was taken down, Harrison said through a LCMS spokesperson: “We don’t have any real scandals. It was a brief response to the silliness which arises when opponents of our traditional biblical positions try to manufacture scandals prior to an election.”
Harrison, 56, often compared to Teddy Roosevelt in appearance, is currently in his third three-year term as LCMS president and running for re-election.
In a prepared statement to the Post-Dispatch on Monday, LCMS headquarters described Engelbrecht’s article “as misguided and melancholy musings,” “sadly bizarre” and “disconcerting because it attacks an entire church with no factual basis to do so.”
“The only potential truth we see in the article is that apparently Rev. Engelbrecht feels he has been the target of some type of personal bullying,” according to the statement. “What is put forth in this article concerning the Synod is simply false. There is no ‘machine,’ no ‘Main Nag,’ and no other fantastical evil conspirators within the church.
“We are a church body made up of sinners, every one of us, and we certainly have disagreements and differing views, as one would find in any organization. We know that all too often our sins cause pain and hurt in congregations, districts and the Synod. The only remedy is Jesus and His blood-bought forgiveness. That being said, the kind of widespread state of affairs described in this article is patently false.”
The LCMS added that “we are most concerned for the well-being of the church worker who wrote the article” and that “we are dismayed and disappointed by the lack of journalistic integrity displayed by the publisher of the article.”
Engelbrecht didn’t mention names in the article, nor many specific examples.
“I do not include incident-by-incident documentation or the long list of persons involved,” Englebrecht wrote. “I have omitted such information because I am most concerned to inform church workers about tactics they may experience. Information about tactics may allow church workers to protect themselves if they become targets.”
In a note at the end of the article, Lutheran Forum interim editor Matthew Staneck said the Northeast-based journal corroborated the author’s story speaking to people “from all parts of the synod” and that the “author was speaking honestly about his experiences.”
Englebrecht formerly worked at Concordia Publishing House, the publishing arm of the LCMS at 3558 South Jefferson Boulevard. While there from 1999 to 2015, he was general editor of The Lutheran Study Bible, a massive undertaking considered to be essential reading by many followers of the church.
On Tuesday, Engelbrecht declined to comment through Staneck, who said Englebrecht has been “inundated with requests to speak.”