ST. LOUIS • Last-minute shouts of concern and rebuttal about control have surfaced while one of the largest Lutheran denominations prepares to vote for its next president starting this weekend.
The Kirkwood-based Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, which has more than 6,000 congregations and 2 million members across the country, holds presidential elections every three years.
The Rev. Matthew Harrison, the incumbent, has served two terms as president and is gunning for a third.
In a June 2 letter, three former members of the Commission on Constitutional Matters, essentially the synod’s supreme court, say Harrison is threatening the autonomy of congregations by trying to amass more power at international headquarters on South Lindbergh Boulevard.
They cite concerns about apparent attempts to have more centralized authority over international missions, dispute resolution and other matters.
“We encourage all congregations to sense the urgency,” the letter said. “The Synod is facing the danger of a shift in ecclesiastical supervision authority that would jeopardize what the Constitution says are the primary objectives of the Synod.”
The widely dispersed letter, the content of which Harrison disputes, is signed by the Rev. Dr. Wilbert Sohns, Rev. Philip J. Esala and Daniel C. Lorenz.
The 35 districts in the synod are mainly confined within state boundaries. District presidents are typically in charge of disciplining pastors, for instance over issues of doctrine.
The letter said Harrison “unilaterally” created a Dispute Resolution Task Force that recommends that either the president or the Praesidium, which is the president and half a dozen of his vice presidents, be given “Ecclesiastical Supervision” over individual members instead of district presidents.
In a letter of their own posted to the synod’s website, Harrison and six vice presidents rebuked the claims.
They said that the dispute resolution task force was created after the synod system took five years to handle one particular case that “had exonerated a pastor who was publicly and aggressively teaching that the Bible has errors, that women should be ordained, that homosexual activity is not sinful, and that evolution is true.”
Harrison said in the letter that he supports a task force recommendation that accusers be able to appeal to the Praesidium if district presidents choose not to act.
He, and his colleagues, wrote that there needs to be a “united and coordinated” mission abroad.
“There have been a number of instances where some of our folks have acted in international fields in ways that have severely disrupted our relationships with partner churches,” they wrote. “Independent and uncoordinated efforts have also been undertaken with charismatic and other non-Lutheran churches and societies, with seminaries even being planted.”
Both letters ended on a conciliatory tone.
“The members of the Synod may have honest disagreements over who might best serve as president of the Synod,” Harrison and the vice presidents concluded. “This is not unusual, since we have three excellent candidates this year.”
Harrison faces the Rev. Dale Meyer, president of Concordia Seminary in Clayton, and the Rev. David Maier, leader of one of the synod’s largest 35 districts, Michigan.
Voting is done by pastors and select members of the laity. The election can take a few days to complete if the process goes well.
The election, which runs through Tuesday, is held before the synod’s convention, which will be held in Milwaukee in July. The convention is also expected to weigh in on the use of lay deacons serving in pastoral roles.