WE ARE ALL VULNERABLE
There have been many occasions when someone who is a member of a congregation that is still in the ELCA has shared with me, “I have told my pastor about my concerns, but the pastor tells me that all those things happening in the ELCA will not affect us.” I tell them that it is only a matter of time until your beloved orthodox or more moderate pastor will retire or resign and take another call. And even if you are among the congregations that are fortunate enough to be able to find another orthodox pastor, what about the next time you will be looking for a pastor? There are only a limited number of orthodox pastors remaining in the ELCA – and we thank God for every single one of them – and that number will only continue to decline. Plus we know of situations where a synod used a change of pastors as an opportune time to move in and bring the congregation in line with ELCA beliefs, values, and priorities. Every orthodox congregation still in the ELCA is potentially only one pastor change away from disaster.
And now we have in the ELCA’s Metropolitan Chicago Synod a striking example of the alarming fact that every orthodox congregation still in the ELCA is potentially only one synodical bishop election away from being swooped in on, becoming the victim of a hostile takeover, and being shut down. Such was the case with the former (now closed by synodical action) St. Timothy Lutheran Church in the Hermosa neighborhood of northwest Chicago.
For several years St. Timothy was the location for our annual, fall, Spanish language and bi-lingual ministries Encuentro. These Encuentros had been Lutheran CORE’s best way of reaching out to and providing a valuable resource for the ELCA. It was hosted by an ELCA congregation, a majority of those attending were ELCA, and a majority of the presenters were ELCA. Over the years presenters have included ELCA pastors, theologians, and even a national ELCA staff person. While drawing primarily ELCA congregations and presenters, the Encuentros were an inter Lutheran offering to congregations and church leaders. We were delighted a few years ago when newly elected Bishop Yehiel Curry of the Metro Chicago Synod attended a portion of one of our Encuentros. We warmly welcomed him and we were highly encouraged when he said that he saw himself as bishop for the entire synod. We never expected what would eventually happen.
The Awes brothers – Joel, David, and Tom – are sons of the former pastor, Robert Awes, who served the congregation from 1981 until the time of his death in 2015. His widow and three sons continued to live in the parsonage after he died. His wife died in 2017. One of his sons, Joel, was serving as president of the congregation. He and his brothers were maintaining the property and leading the congregation. Once the site of a vibrant English-speaking ministry, the congregation pre-COVID was making significant progress in reaching out to the Latino community. COVID brought all that to a halt, but during the last several months the congregation had been able to resume their outreach to the neighborhood. Among their ministries is the Uncle Charlie program, a monthly social and devotional gathering for adults with special needs, most of whom live in urban group homes on Chicago’s north and west sides.
After the death of their father, the Awes brothers contacted the Metro Chicago Synod about their need for pastoral leadership. The only person the synod could provide did not speak Spanish. The Awes brothers knew that that would not work because they wanted to reach out to their primarily bi-lingual and Spanish speaking neighborhood, so they contacted a bi-lingual ELCA pastor whom they knew from other associations. Pastor Keith Forni is now retired, but at the time he was pastor of First/Santa Cruz Lutheran Church in Joliet, Illinois. He began providing bi-lingual pulpit supply at St. Timothy with the awareness and implicit encouragement of the former bishop of the Metro Chicago Synod. He drove ninety miles round trip on most Sundays to lead an afternoon worship service at St. Timothy after leading bi-lingual and English-speaking services in Joliet in the morning. Former Bishop Wayne Miller would often ask regarding a ministry site, “Is there green in the stem?” There definitely was green in the St. Timothy stem. The leaders of St. Timothy were open to being coached in bilingual neighborhood ministry. They found in Pastor Forni the needed skill set, given his forty-plus years of experience in such contexts.
In addition to frequently preaching and presiding at bilingual services of Holy Communion, Pastor Forni –
- Expanded the Uncle Charlie devotional experiences.
- Curated and gathered needed resources for bilingual Lutheran worship, outreach and Christian education.
- Initiated sidewalk outreach to the dozens of parents and students going to and from nearby Nixon Elementary School.
- Led the development of the Thursday Together / “Jueves Juntos” Family Bible Study themed events.
- Provided pastoral leadership for the community at a prayer vigil following the murder of a two-year-old boy by a gang member’s stray bullet a few blocks from the church.
- Arranged for a VBS & Service team visit by an Ohio ELCA mission partner congregation.
- Built up cooperative relationships with area organizations including the Walt Disney birthplace, where some after school events could take place.
St. Timothy became the host site for the annual Spanish language ministry Encuentros which Pastor Forni coordinated. Lutheran CORE began sponsoring the Encuentros after Pastor Forni became a member of the board of Lutheran CORE.
THREATS, BULLYING, AND INTIMIDATION
But all that changed in January 2023 when Bishop Curry invited Pastor Forni to his office “regarding St. Timothy.” When he arrived Pastor Forni was presented with an as yet unseen agenda critical of his service as supply pastor. Bishop Stacie Fidlar of the ELCA’s Northern Illinois Synod (the synod in which Pastor Forni was rostered) also appeared at the meeting, having made no contact with Pastor Forni prior to that moment. Pastor Forni felt totally ambushed. There was absolutely no expression of appreciation for his thirty-six years of faithful ministry in the ELCA plus six prior years in the LCA – all years in Hispanic Latino bilingual contexts. Rather he was threatened with discipline and possible removal from the ELCA roster if he were to stay any longer than two more weeks with the congregation where he, along with other available bilingual clergy and lay worship leaders, had been providing pulpit supply over a course of seven years.
Pastor Forni quickly concluded his ministry, as he had been ordered to do. On his final Sunday there were a couple representatives from the Metro Chicago Synod present who offered a few perfunctory words of thanks for his ministry as supply pastor. But they spoke in English only in the presence of the predominately Spanish speaking assembly.
Bishop Curry did not need to be nasty. He could have thanked Pastor Forni for his years of faithful service and then told him that the synod council had decided to move that ministry in another direction. If the bishop had taken that approach, Pastor Forni certainly would have been totally cooperative. But Bishop Curry does not function that way. He operates by threats, bullying, and intimidation. Equally disappointing was the fact that Bishop Stacie Fidlar of the Northern Illinois Synod was not willing to tell Bishop Curry to back off and not threaten someone rostered in her synod. No resistance was given to a bishop who operates by threats, bullying, and intimidation.
After the absolute fiasco that occurred in the Sierra Pacific Synod, when former bishop Meghan Rohrer removed Pastor Nelson Rabell-Gonzalez as mission developer of a Latino ministry on Our Lady of Guadalupe Day, an action which caused major uproar throughout the ELCA, it was absolutely astounding to me that another synodical bishop would commit such a grievous act of abuse of power.
COMMUNICATION WITH ELCA LEADERS
I read with great interest an ELCA news release dated March 10, 2023 about the February 28-March 4 meeting of the Conference of Bishops. In that publication it said that the bishops “received a report from the task force addressing the disciplinary concerns of leaders of color.” It also said that “the task force is expected to make recommendations regarding the current process for discipline, consider a process for community healing and grief, and make recommendations for an office to receive complaints of harassment and discrimination.” I wrote to the two people who made the presentation, Judith Roberts, senior director for ELCA Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and co-convenor of the task force, and Bishop Paul Erickson of the ELCA’s Greater Milwaukee Synod and a member of the task force. Here in part is what I wrote:
“The events that transpired in the Sierra Pacific Synod over a year ago certainly sounded the alarm as it brought to our attention the fact that there are times and situations where leaders of color are not treated fairly.
“I am also very aware of another situation in another synod where the synodical bishop, who is a person of color, has been bullying, intimidating, and threatening to discipline a rostered leader who is not a person of color and who is rostered in another synod. This same synodical bishop is also bullying congregational leaders who are not persons of color.
“As you and your task force do your work, I would hope you would remember and make provision for the fact that –
Leaders who are not people of color can also be the victims of harassment and discrimination
Leaders of color can be the perpetrators rather than the victims of harassment and discrimination.”
I never heard from Bishop Erickson. The next day I heard from Ms. Roberts, who wrote –
“Thank you for sharing your concerns, and we will certainly take them into account. The Churchwide Organization takes misconduct complaints against synod bishops seriously; if you believe that a synod bishop has engaged in misconduct, please direct that concern to the Presiding Bishop.”
I deeply appreciate the fact that she would write back, and in such a timely way, but after the inexcusably long time that Bishop Eaton took before she responded to the disaster in the Sierra Pacific Synod – and even then, I am certain she responded only because she absolutely was forced to – it did not all blow over and go away as she had hoped – I wondered what chance did I have of ever being heard – let alone responded to – about the situation at St. Timothy.
But to get back to the story at St. Timothy.
ABUSE OF POWER
The next two Sundays the people of St. Timothy were deeply disturbed that the person who had been bringing them God’s Word and providing pastoral leadership and care had been so abruptly removed – and without consulting them. Several of them wrote to Bishop Curry, advocating for Pastor Forni. When they were told that the synod would be bringing in a couple Spanish speaking Latina pastors they asked for more time to grieve and process their emotions before the synod would replace Pastor Forni. They were assured by an assistant to the bishop that they would be given more time. But it did not turn out that way. The following Sunday Bishop Curry and around a dozen people from the synod came in, took over the service from the elected leadership of the congregation, and held a congregational meeting afterwards. At that meeting Bishop Curry said that he had visited a couple times during the meetings of the Uncle Charlie program (which simply is not true) and, in order to discredit and undermine the Awes brothers, he suggested that there may be charges brought against the Awes brothers from former members, but he would not say from whom or what those charges might be about. Again, threats, bullying, and intimidation – this time combined with not telling the truth. Certainly not the behavior that one would expect and hope for from a bishop.
Over the next several weeks the engaging and personable Latina pastors endeared themselves to the Spanish-speaking and bi-lingual congregation. Then they went around the Awes brothers to recruit some of the people to serve on an advisory council for the congregation.
NO RESPECT, REGARD, OR APPRECIATION
The next step came on May 4, when the Awes brothers received a “Demand for Possession and Notice of Termination – 30 Day Notice” from an attorney representing the synod. They were informed that their tenancy of the parsonage would be terminated on June 30, 2023. Again, absolutely no concern for them, no expression of appreciation for what they had been doing for many years to maintain the property and keep the congregation and its ministries going. Just an abrupt eviction notice. We were wondering about challenging the legality of that notice, in light of tenants’ rights in the city of Chicago and the fact that the letter stated that the synod was “the owner of the manse and church” and it gave the wrong address for the parsonage. But the following day, on Sunday, May 5, the congregation was given a letter from Bishop Curry. That letter told of a decision that had been made by the Synod Council to “exercise the power of S13.24 of the synod constitution to ‘take charge and control of the property of a congregation of this synod to hold, manage, and convey the same on behalf of this synod’” if “the Synod Council determines that the membership of a congregation has become so scattered or so diminished in numbers that it cannot provide required governance or that it has become impractical for the congregation to fulfill the purposes for which it was organized” and if “the Synod Council determines that it is necessary for this synod to protect and preserve the congregation’s property from waste and deterioration.”
Therefore, the letter continued, “St. Timothy Lutheran Church is now closed” and will be replaced by a “new Synodically Authorized Worshipping Community, San Timoteo.” (It is interesting that the name San Timoteo had been used interchangeably with St. Timothy in neighborhood outreach for six-plus years.) The letter said that the congregation had the right to appeal this decision to the next Synod Assembly. But with the way in which the Awes brothers had been undermined and circumvented, what chance would they have?
Joel Awes, former president of the congregation and son of the man who had been pastor for thirty-four years, was telling me what it felt like on that Sunday. There was absolutely no recognition and expression of appreciation for the thirty-four-year ministry of his father. There was no celebration of the work of that congregation over the previous one hundred nineteen years. There was no sense that anything of value had been done by anyone since the congregation was founded in 1904. There was just a blunt statement from the bishop, “St. Timothy Lutheran Church is now closed.”
Any ministry that does not line up with ELCA beliefs, values, and priorities should realize that it may be only a matter of time – perhaps only one bishop election away – before the synod will come in with a wrecking ball, knock them over, and shut them down – all while showing absolutely no respect, consideration, or valuing of anything done by the people of previous decades.
Just think about it. Let this sink in.
A synod that claims to be on the side of the oppressed has become the oppressor.
A synod that claims to be concerned for the homeless has thrown three brothers out on the street.
And what is scary is that we are all vulnerable.
If I had the chance to talk with Bishop Curry, there are several questions I would like to ask him –
- You said at a meeting with the congregation of St. Timothy on February 19 that it is against ELCA policy for a pastor to be able to serve as interim pastor, transition pastor, or do pulpit supply outside their own synod. Where is that policy in writing?
- If that is ELCA policy, why would Bishop Miller (former bishop of the Metro Chicago Synod) have allowed Pastor Forni to be transition pastor at St. Timothy? What about other situations where ELCA pastors have been interims and/or provided pulpit supply outside the synod where they are rostered?
- Since Bishop Miller allowed Pastor Forni to be transition pastor at St. Timothy, why did you threaten to bring charges against Pastor Forni for merely doing what he had been allowed to do?
- What ELCA policy or provision empowers you to threaten to bring disciplinary charges against a pastor who is rostered in another synod – especially when the bishop of that synod says that she has no charges to bring against Pastor Forni?
- Since you see what Pastor Forni and the Awes brothers had been doing as so grievous, out of line, and inappropriate, why did you wait so long to take action and why are you taking action now? If Pastor Forni’s serving as pulpit supply had been acceptable to you for several years after you were elected bishop, how did it become unacceptable?
- On Saturday, February 18 the congregation was told by your assistant, Pastor Kathy Nolte, that she would honor their request for time to process their shock and grief over the abrupt removal of Pastor Forni before scheduling any meeting with the synod regarding interim pastoral leadership. And yet the next day you and around a dozen other people from the synod showed up and took over the proceedings of the congregation. Why the change, and why were they not told ahead of time? How is the congregation now to trust and have confidence in any communication from the synod?
- On Sunday, February 19 you said that you had attended two Encuentros, including the entirety of one of them, and a couple sessions of the congregation’s Uncle Charlie program. That simply is not true. You did attend a portion of one of our Encuentros, and you were warmly welcomed, but the director of the Uncle Charlie program does not remember a time when you attended one of their sessions. When you attended a portion of one of the Encuentros, you said that you were bishop of the entire synod. We were very grateful for and greatly encouraged by your comment.
- On Sunday, February 19 you said that there are a couple former members of the congregation who may bring charges against the Awes brothers, but you could not say who those former members are and what those charges might be. Making a statement like that is manipulative, bullying, unfair, and inappropriate for a leader in Christ’s Church.
- Paragraph C9.06 of the ELCA’s Model Constitution for Congregations states that an interim pastor is appointed by the bishop of the synod with the consent of the congregation or the congregation council. You did not have the consent of either the congregation or the council to appoint an interim pastor. You removed the congregation’s pulpit supply pastor without even consulting with the congregation and/or its leadership. Paragraph 9.31 of the ELCA Constitution for Churchwide says that congregations have authority in all matters not assigned by the ELCA Constitution and Bylaws to synods and the churchwide organization. By your words and actions you have completely dismissed, discounted, disregarded, and ignored the integrity of a congregation.
- Through this whole process you have shown absolutely no regard or respect for and you have expressed absolutely no appreciation to Pastor Forni for his ministry at St. Timothy, and to the Awes brothers for their maintaining the property and ministry of the congregation. Is that typical of how you fulfill your role as Bishop of the Metropolitan Chicago Synod?
- On the day that a letter from you announced that St. Timothy is now closed, you showed and expressed absolutely no appreciation, respect, or regard for anything that anyone at St. Timothy had done during its life as a congregation. You expressed no appreciation for the ministry of Robert Awes, who served the congregation faithfully for thirty-four years. Does that complete disregard, ingratitude, and insensitivity reflect your attitude, opinion, and feelings about everything and everyone that pre-dates you?
- After former bishop Meghan Rohrer was pressured to resign when their overstepping of authority was exposed after their removal of a Latinx clergy person from his congregation and the ELCA clergy roster without due process, we were surprised that yet another ELCA synodical bishop would negatively impact another bi-lingual ministry without notice. Knowing that the ELCA is 96-97% white, ELCA church leadership wishes to encourage ethnic ministries. How do your actions support rather than work against this goal and priority?
What is scary about this whole situation is the fact that something like this could happen to any orthodox congregation still in the ELCA. Potentially it is only one synodical bishop election away.
In the ELCA we are all vulnerable.
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Here is a link to our You Tube channel. In the top row you will find both our Video Book Reviews as well as our CORE Convictions Videos on various topics related to Biblical teaching, Lutheran theology, and Christian living. You will find these videos in the order in which they were posted, beginning with the most recent. In the second row you will find links to the Playlists for both sets of videos. This month we want to feature two videos.
MISSIO DEI – THE MISSION OF GOD
by Pastor Tom
Many thanks to Dr. Tom for his video discussion of Missio Dei – the Mission of God. Here is a link to his video. Pastor Tom has been active in global mission for many years. In addition to being pastor of an NALC congregation in Illinois, he works with the organization Awakening Lives to World Mission as Director of their Heart for Mission Ministries. In that capacity, he focuses on the countries of Laos and Thailand, which is a part of the world where he served for many years before returning to the United States. In addition, he works as co-director of the Global Lutheran House of Study at the United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio, where he also teaches a number of courses on Lutheran Theology.
Pastor Tom from Northern Illinois emphasizes that Missio Dei is God’s mission. It is not my mission or my church’s mission. God is the initiator. He sends us on mission. He entrusts us with His mission. He created the Church to do His mission. We have the privilege of participating in God’s mission. We are called to embody His Kingdom and to reflect His character to those around us.
Unfortunately, we can distort God’s mission. We can lose sight of God’s purpose of mission. We can try to make it our church rather than Christ’s church. We want to do our mission, not Christ’s mission. If a church focuses on internal matters, it loses sight of God’s mission. We must begin with a big mindset. A church that has a real heart for global mission will also be more involved in local mission. As a congregation, when we focus on God’s mission rather than our own mission, we see the fruit of our faith.
MODERN PAGANS SEEK TO ISOLATE A “SUBVERSIVE” RELIGION
A REVIEW OF “PAGANS AND CHRISTIANS IN THE CITY:
CULTURE WARS FROM THE TIBER TO THE POTOMAC”
by the Rev. Dr. Douglas Schoelles
Many thanks to NALC pastor Doug Schoelles for his review of this book by Steven D. Smith, Professor of Law at the University of San Diego. Here is a link to his review. A longer summary of his video can be found here.
In this book Smith argues that the current societal and legal conflicts are a renewal struggle of Paganism to “reverse the revolution Christianity achieved in late antiquity” that brought an end to “the merry dance of paganism.” Smith makes the distinction between the immanent religion of paganism and the transcendent religion of Christianity. Modern pagans resent the all-encompassing Christian standard of truth and morality as an oppressive limitation to the desire to live as one pleases. Pagans want to remove the accommodation of religion as practiced by our secular government and courts and banish any reference or preference for transcendent religion. Ultimately, he asserts the Pagan City, aka the State, must have people’s allegiance above all other powers or influences. Ultimately this means that people devoted to a transcendent religion must be marginalized and excluded from public life, by force if necessary.
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May the Lord continue to bless you, keep you, watch over you, be gracious to you, and give you peace.
Dennis D. Nelson
Executive Director of Lutheran CORE