Note: All references to Synod documents pertain to the 2014 Handbook that was in effect when these events took place. This article specifically focuses on Synodical Bylaw VIII RECONCILIATION, RESTORATION AND ADJUDICATION.
One aspect of the whole CEF situation continues to mystify me is why there hasn’t been any disciplinary action. Why hasn’t President Bugbee’s vaunted ecclesiastical supervision produced any corrective fruits? Why didn’t the virtual cornucopia of incriminating evidence uncovered by the District Task Force result in at least one membership suspension and / or termination? Why was the Task Force subsequently disbanded by the ABC BOD in a manner that might’ve been influenced by one of the people the Task Force was investigating?
As I’ve been going through the various convention reports I’ve found no evidence of anything being done to bring miscreants to account, nor have I seen any evidence of cases being referred to the Commission on Adjudication (COA) for a decision. In fact, the one case the COA did get to adjudicate was effectively dismissed with no action or recommendation. Why was this? Because the COA decided nothing they could decide would change what had happened and the plaintiff’s case was more appropriately dealt with in the civil realm.
As I’ll demonstrate later on in this article COA’s reason for declining to act is a Very Big Deal.
Here’s the Bylaw which establishes LCC’s right to discipline its members and the expectation that its members would abide by its rules:
8.05 LCC and Its Members as “Church,” “Synod,” and “An Incorporated Religious Body”
Considered as a “Synod,” LCC is “a voluntary ecclesiastical bond shared by congregations, pastors, and deacons walking together to carry out the ministry and mission given by Christ to his Church” (Statutory Bylaws 6.01). As such, it has the right to suspend and/or expel from its membership any member who persists in teaching contrary to the principles, doctrine and religious standards adopted by LCC, or who practices a manner of behaviour which is not in accord with the calling of the Gospel. … Every member of LCC shall, as a consequence of membership, respect the ordered offices of LCC, subordinate himself to appropriate ecclesiastical authority, abide by the provisions of the LCC Handbook and serve in accord with the decisions of the LCC in Convention and of its officers, committees, boards, or commissions (see Synodical Bylaws 1.21).
What follows is a discussion of their report and actions.
Dear LCC Convention Delegates,
Thankfully, the brevity of this report testifies to the activity of the Commission on Adjudication within the last three years. A single appeal was received by the Commission in the spring of 2016.
CEF had collapsed as the result of years of mismanagement and misleading the membership, people’s trust and savings had been vaporized, members were lied to – and nobody thought this behavior rose to the level of referral to the COA for adjudication. Given that Synodical Bylaw 8.05 says LCC has the right discipline anyone who practices in manner not in accord with the Gospel, this lack of action undoubtedly gives the public impression that Synod has no problem with its members engaging in such an unchristian behavior.
Continuing with the one case the COA was asked to adjudicate:
It was from acting Ecclesiastical Supervisor of the ABC District, Rev. Nolan Astley, from Rev. Nathan Fuehrer regarding what transpired at Immanuel church, Lethbridge. As a Case Panel was struck, additional information projected our view of this conflict into a different direction. We were being asked to adjudicate faithfulness to Robert’s Rules of Order for a congregational vote.
COA jurisdiction is detailed in Synod Bylaw 8.41 paragraph (c) which states in part:
8.41 Jurisdiction – The Commission of Adjudication shall have jurisdiction in the following … (c.) cases in which a member of LCC (pastor or deacon) shall have been removed from an office of ministry which he holds in a congregation which is a member LCC, in which instance the pastor or deacon may bring the case to the Commission on Adjudication;
Since this matter pertained to a pastor’s removal from his Call he had the right to appeal to the COA and the COA had an obligation to take appropriate action.
The COA saw things a bit differently –
Upon careful consideration we determined that events had occurred (namely, the termination of a pastor’s employment and call with the congregation) that could not be reversed by any decision of the Commission.
Synodical Bylaw 8.17 would beg to differ:
The congregation’s right of self-government shall be recognized. However, when a decision of a congregation is the subject of adjudication, and if it comes to the Commission on Adjudication to review the decision of the congregation according to the Holy Scriptures, the Commission on Adjudication shall either uphold the action of the congregation or advise the congregation to review and revise its decision. If the congregation does not revise its decision, the district president involved shall take action with respect to the membership of the congregation in LCC.
There’s not much leeway in this Bylaw – the congregation took an action to terminate its pastor’s Call, the pastor appealed to the COA, and now the COA is compelled to render a judgement one way or another.
In addition to this is the question of due process. A pastor can be removed for very specific and limited reasons and if a congregation terminates its relationship with its pastor for any other reason that is sufficient cause for Synod to take some kind of action with respect to the congregation. If the pastor was terminated for cause then his actions should be up for a similar review. In no case should a pastor be removed from his Call and both parties go their separate ways without consequence – something is wrong and Christian charity requires that the issue(s) be addressed.
Finally, reversal of the congregation’s decision to terminate its pastor’s Call isn’t the only course of action available to the COA. Synodical Bylaw 8.61 Decisions lists some of the options the COA has in disposing of a case including the one in paragraph (a.4):
8.61 a.4 – recommending specific remedies, including financial reimbursements, for the parties to follow.
As can be clearly seen – the COA had options – it just chose not to use them.
Finally, Synodical Bylaw 8.61 e contradicts the COA’s assertion that they could not do anything:
8.61 e. Finality of Decisions: The decisions of the Commission shall be binding upon all parties to the case and such parties shall take whatever steps which are within their authority to implement such decisions.
While the COA’s assertion that they could not reverse a terminated Call, they could tell the congregation that they had sinned against their pastor and instruct them to make amends. Or they could’ve found the termination was justified, ruled accordingly, and then referred the pastor to the DP to address whatever the issue was. Irregardless of what the correct decision was – the COA had an obligation to act.
Instead the COA chose a different course of action –
Any issue involving the procedure followed by the congregation in triggering the termination (including whether the congregation followed Robert’s Rules of Order in conducting its meeting) was an internal matter best left for review by the congregation.
Stop and consider exactly what the COA is saying here:
- The Constitution gives the COA the responsibility for deciding cases between a pastor and a congregation when the pastor’s call has been terminated,
- Every conflict-of-interest rule of conduct I know of requires a party with a conflict to declare their conflict and then recuse themselves from the discussion and the subsequent decision,
- The COA is of the opinion that a congregation accused of violating its own procedural rules when removing a pastor should also be the ones to decide if that action was appropriate,
- Investigating why a pastor was terminated, if the termination was justified, and what to do about it – is not even on the table.
The mind boggles. One wonders how the COA would rule if it turned out a congregation had been systematically abusing its pastor in an effort to get him to resign? Would that also be considered an “internal matter best left for review by the congregation”? I ask this as a serious question because a congregation abusing its rules of order (not meeting quorum, not allowing defendant a chance to speak, failure to get a sufficient vote, stacking the meeting, etc.) is how a faction in a congregation can illegitimately remove a pastor without due cause, and that is in turn a violation of the Lutheran understanding of the doctrine of the Call.
The COA’s ruling continues:
We were simply being asked to adjudicate a conflict that belongs in the civil realm.
And here’s where the real issue comes to the fore because the COA is effectively saying that a pastor’s Call and its manner of extension / withdrawal is a civil, left-hand kingdom matter and not a spiritual, right-hand kingdom matter. In effect, this makes a pastor an employee of the congregation, not a gift from God. This contradicts Lutheran understanding that a pastor’s Call is from God and mediated by the congregation, not a job that can be be offered and withdrawn by the congregation at whim for any and all reasons.
In addition, Synodical Bylaw 8.15 Exclusiveness of Remedies states that theological issues should never be decided outside the church:
b. The Holy Scriptures (1 Cor. 6:1-7) urge Christians to settle their differences among themselves. Therefore, the Synod calls upon all parties to a dispute or controversy to make full use of the Synod’s provisions for reconciliation, restoration and adjudication. If a person or entity to whom the provisions of this chapter are applicable shall unreasonably refuse to heed this admonition, the person or entity shall forfeit all rights under this chapter. Fitness for ministry and other theological matters should never be determined outside the church
Yet there’s the COA saying “not our problem.”
The COA then renders its decision:
Thereby, the Case Panel unanimously voted to decline to hear this case citing LCC Bylaw 8.43 Pending Criminal and Civil Procedures.
Here’s what Synodical Bylaw 8.43 says:
8.43 Pending Criminal and Civil Procedures: The Commission on Adjudication may refuse to hear or may defer hearing a case involving unresolved or outstanding matters of criminal or civil law, including civil matters pertaining to parties as employers or employees.
Maybe I’m getting old and my eyes aren’t seeing straight – Bylaw 8.43 only appears to apply to cases where someone is going to court – either because a law has been broken (cough cough CEF cough cough) or someone’s getting sued for civil redress (cough cough Representative Action cough cough).
Where does a church breaching Robert’s Rules of Order fit into this? What court would take such a case? And if a pastor was foolish enough to actually sue for civil damages – would he ever stand in a pulpit again much less get another Call? Would someone in the church then bring him up on charges as a result?
And yet here we have the COA which seems perfectly fine with using Synodical Bylaw 8.43 as a “get out of jail free” card to absolve themselves of rendering any kind of judgement or recommendation while inferring that it’s appropriate to seek recourse in the civil left-hand kingdom venue for matters like this.
I’m flabbergasted that we as a church are so weak and afraid that our official adjudication body would avoid doing anything about a dispute and bring about either reconciliation and/or redress. We as a Synod need to hang our collective heads in shame and confess that we are condemned by the righteous judgement of 1 Corinthians 6:1-7:
When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life! So if you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who have no standing in the church? I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers, but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers? To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you 1 Cor 6:1-7
The COA report then closes:
During this time I truly appreciated the insight and advice offered by members of the Commission on Adjudication; especially, those upon the Case Panel (Rev. Harold Borchardt, Mr. Jeffrey Kriwetz, Mr. Kevin Sandham, and Mr. Darcy Wershler). The assistance and counsel offered by President Bugbee and Rev. Astley was also of great value.
I’m rather curious what assistance and counsel SP Bugbee and VP Astley provided in all of this and what their opinion was of how this case was handled.
Rev. Neil D. Stern
(Chairman – Commission on Adjudication)
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” (Matthew 5:9)
Indeed peacemakers will be called sons of God. My question is – how did the COAs conduct fulfill that role?
I’ll close with this quote from Revelation 3:14-20:
To the Church in Laodicea
“And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: ‘The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation.
“‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.
Postscript #1 – after writing this article I checked the “History of Our Church” page for Immanuel Lutheran in Lethbridge, and Immanuel’s two pastors left in short order – Rev. Richard Brown (1996 – 2015 ) and Pastor Nathan Fuehrer (Associate Pastor) (2009 – 2016). Both of a church’s pastors leaving in short order and one by termination of call is an indicator for an unhealthy church needing the attention of its ecclesiastical supervisors.
Postscript #2 – Thanks to restructuring, the COA now has an official Get Out Of Jail Free card.