I am sure more than a few of you are wondering what the cryptic message I left Friday meant. I am sure a few of you know what I was talking about and are wondering what I might have left to say. For the first group, I need to explain myself. For those of you in the second group, I'm going to take the one point that seemed to hit home and expand on it to the point where it becomes painful.
If you've read some of what the Terrible Swede has said about what has happened at our church, you at least have some idea of what is going on. One of the things you must understand about Immanuel was that it was the liberal congregation in town. They started putting females into major roles within the church in 1991, with the direction and full blessing of the pastor at the time. When they submitted their revised constitution, the District rejected it because it allowed females in major leadership roles in the congregation, including elders. So, they elected female elders and went on happily and the District did squat about it. The pastor neither followed the rules of dissent (yes, there is a formal dissent process within the LCMS, believe it or not (see here for a take on the dissent process)) nor even attempted to do so, as far as can be seen. Of course, the feminism lead to all sorts of other problems within the congregation (pro women's ordination, pro-choice elements, and open communion) which also had consequences on the events to come. In any case, the pastor took a call. The vacancy pastor had the same views as the previous pastor, and so things continued until the current pastor was called two years after the previous pastor had left. He soon discovered what he had to deal with.
How did I end up there? The current pastor, for all his faults, is the most confessional pastor in the area. I got to know the pastor through various ULC (University Lutheran Center at Wichita State University) events, and at the Terrible Swede's wedding, where I was a groomsman. In any case, I joined the congregation not truly knowing all that had happened. It all came to a head at the voters meeting from hell in December 2004. Let's just say most of the elements that didn't like what pastor was doing left, many for ELCA congregations. Many of us figured this would be the end of all the problems. It was. For a while.
In Early May, I went off to see Elle in Alaska. One of the greatest things that ever happened to me has its roots in that trip. I mention it for two reasons: Elle is the main reason why I did what I will soon tell you, and I got a nasty cold from flying in airplanes for 8+ hours with people carrying colds. That cold kept me from the May 2005 voters meeting where a decision was made that forced me and my many friends into action.
When I joined, I was under the impression that female elders were a thing of the past and that Immanuel would not go down that road again as long as our pastor was there. That was the impression I had and I think my friends had, at least. Since I was sick, I did not go to the voters Meeting. Can you guess what happened at the voters meeting?
The consequences of her election were not noticed immediately. She did not assist in communion initially. By October, however, she was at the altar distributing the Blood of Christ and disturbing my friends and I. We brought our concerns to the pastor, who allowed us to commune separately after the service for a while. This was not a set up that most people liked. The Altar Guild didn't like it because it meant they had to wait to take the communion set down. We didn't like it because we liked communing with the rest of the Church. The Council didn't like it because we were making a statement that we were not part of the congregation (which we were). In essence, it was the best compromise that could be reached at the time.
My Uncle died in January this year. I told you all about what a rough time it was for me. What I didn't discuss was what added to the pain. Less than a week after burying my Uncle, I was in a meeting to discuss ESL with my pastor and a gentleman who taught with me and the head of the Social Concerns Board. After that meeting was over, Pastor asked the gentleman and I to stay for a bit and talk about what happened on the Women Elder front. Pastor had told us that he was working on solving this problem. Ultimately, what the council decided to do was resubmit the constitution with the changes made in 1991 and ask district what they needed to change to get the constitution approved. In a move that surprised everyone, the constitution that was not OK 15 years ago was suddenly OK. District approved it.
It was at this point wondering if all was lost. I was trying to decide what I wanted to do and how I was going to go about doing it. My decisions varied from wanting to just fade away to fighting. It was one day at work while I was thinking things through while scanning well logs into the computer that I realized what I was going to have to do. All the while, I made sure my conscience was clean. I had to practice selective fellowship. I just did not commune when she was up there, which was a lot. The elders were minus one elder, so whomever happened to be around to fill in did, and she was it most of the time. The council eventually asked those of us who did not like the practice to commune in the front pew. What that meant was communing like a person who could not come to the altar. I was willing to go along with it, but there was no woman elder there that Sunday, so I communed as a normal communicant. After discussing it with one of the others who did not like the practice, I decided not to go along with it because he was not comfortable with it. The council then asked us again to commune in the front pew. I never did get a straight answer to the question of whether it was a strong request or if they wanted to force us to do it. At that point, I stopped communing anytime she distributed. I no longer communed after church.
As I said in the preceding paragraph, I made a decision one day in March at work. I had to take into consideration my future spouse, any children God may bless us with, and my sanity. If it were just me, I would have stayed and fought. I had to take kids I didn't even have into consideration and asked myself if I could honestly take my future wife there when she has problems with what is going on and my kids through it? How can I catechise my kids in the truth while going somewhere that doesn't seem to want the truth to get in the way of their clique? I couldn't. It was time to go.
So here I am again, floating in Lutheran Limbo, praying that I made the right decision, and fervently praying for my former congregation and its pastor. A lot of damage happened because of this episode, and many people suffered because of it. Was it worth it?
If anyone out there says that it was worth it, you need to be hit with a 2x4 over the head. I saw how you all reacted when I said that this episode killed the ESL program. I saw the uncomfortable looks you all had when I asked how are you going to minister to the neighborhood without ESL. The Church is no longer building the relationships that need to be built with the neighborhood and the trust that will bring people to join. That all went when we left. I heard lots of talk discussing how we need to bring people in to increase the cash flow of the Church. What do you all think ESL is? It was a ministry tool to try to bring unchurched Hispanics into our congregation, help them to become faithful and active members of the church, and to help the church continue long after we were gone. What happens when the older members all die? How will the church continue? It isn't going to continue as Immanuel Lutheran Church, I can promise you that. The hope for the future is Immanuel Inglesia Luterano. The neighborhood you are in demands it. How are you going to grow without ESL? How is the church going to survive in the bario continuing to be an English-speaking congregation? It may sputter along for five, ten, maybe even twenty years. At some point, the reality of the situation must become clear, and unfortunately, it may already be too late.
Do you think any Hispanic will find female elders acceptable? If you think so, you are deluding yourself. You might be able to convince the females of it, but there is no way any Latin male would ever go for it. Machismo is a big part of life in the bario. Female elders just are not manly. Without the fathers, you have a one generation stay of the inevitable. Read the studies. Fathers have a much bigger influence on whether their children go to church than their mothers ever will. If dad goes to church, his children are much more likely to go. Not only that, they are conservative on social issues. That means they are pro-life.
What does this mean? A congregation in the perfect place to do Hispanic ministry is completely out of touch with the surrounding neighborhood and, by its actions, cut itself off from the community. Unless something drastic happens quickly, I am afraid Immanuel will die.
So what are my options? There are two different ones, but I will let you all wonder until Sunday. Then I will reveal what I am up to.