Friday, July 11, 2008

My CRM Story

This is the story of how I ended up on CRM status and thus in exile. ("CRM" is the initials of Latin words which are roughly translated "Candidate for the Holy Ministry".) I tried to be as objective as possible. In terms of the facts, I have saved all the corroborating evidence--letters, e-mails, comments made both in the "Parish Renewal Program" and the Ministerial Assessment I mention herein. In terms of my opinions, as I said, I've tried to be as objective as possible. In terms of the opinions of others, I've tried to be as factual as possible; and where I don't have firsthand evidence, I've tried not to report at all.
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I accepted the Call to serve as Associate Pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Zanesville, Ohio, in June of 2003, and I was Installed on August 3 of 2003. Trinity is one of the oldest congregations in the LCMS, being founded in 1844. When I was Installed, the congregation had 1,200 active members. According to my Call documents, after Word and Sacrament ministry, my primary focus as Associate Pastor was to be on the youth of the congregation. I rejoiced at this, as much of my life before my Ordination (nine years) was spent working with youth in a secular community center.

I was serving under a Senior Pastor, a man who at the time was in the Air Force Reserve. We went to the same college, and our theology seemed very similar and our few conversations during the Call process indicated that we'd probably be able to work well together. Trinity was also expecting a vicar, and he was brought in two weeks after my Installation. We also seemed to develop a healthy working relationship. When his vicarage was complete, he was brought back as a second Associate Pastor.

Thought most of the congregation didn't know it, there was a great deal of conflict between myself, the Senior Pastor and the other Associate Pastor. Most of the conflict was between the Senior Pastor and the other Associate Pastor, as they are both very type-A personalities who are at their best when they're in charge. The Senior Pastor and I had some conflict because of his attitude toward my wife, but we seldom had any problems in terms of him being in charge. He's not the best administrator in the world, but when you know that going in, you can do what needs to be done and make things work. However, the Senior Pastor and the Associate Pastor both seemed to vie for the "important" things—baptisms, weddings, certain funerals. There was plenty of work for three pastors at Trinity, but if one looks at the records of pastoral acts during the time the three of us were at Trinity, one will note that most of the baptisms, weddings and funerals were done by the Senior Pastor and the Associate Pastor, and I took the ones that neither of them wanted or that conflicted with more important events. We were in what I call the Bermuda Triangle of Ministry--having three pastors in one church is a recipe for disaster, as it always seems like two are teaming up against the third. In fact, once the other Associate Pastor left, things seemed to calm down a lot at Trinity, at least in terms of the office. I don't know if there was any one of the three of us who was particularly right or wrong; it was more that there were too many cooks trying to stir the pot. If that was the only problem I'd had at Trinity, I would have been happy to stay in my little niche, to work with the youth and teach catechism instruction and preach when my assigned dates came up. The Senior Pastor was the Senior Pastor. I knew that when I came in, and I had no problem with that.

I met my wife in 2004, after I had accepted the Call and had begun to serve as Trinity's Associate Pastor. I met her online. This caused some issues with certain members of Trinity. I worked extensively with the youth group, and one member of the congregation complained in writing, "I wish we had a youth leader who could set a good example for my children. A leader who doesn't go to the internet to find his wife." I knew that finding a wife outside of the congregation could cause some problems, especially for people who had young single daughters who they thought would be perfect as a pastor's wife. However, I did not expect to be accused of immorality merely because of the way the Lord introduced me to my wife. Such sentiments dogged the two of us through the rest of our time at Trinity.

Near the end of 2004, the congregation began a 'parish renewal' program. This was a nightmare. The way it worked out, it was just a bunch of people taking anonymous pot-shots at the pastors. One person had the audacity to say that all three pastors needed to leave. My integrity, my morality, and my competence--and that of both of the other pastors--were attacked. The 'parish renewal' was completely un-Christian, and I don't think anything good came from it.

About four months after our wedding on New Year’s Eve of 2004, my wife became pregnant, and we found out early on that we were expecting twins. Over the course of her pregnancy, she became increasingly dissatisfied with the medical care she was receiving. The obstetrician/gynecologist who was responsible for her care was trying to force a specific method of delivery on my wife, and my wife was not pleased. He went so far as to falsify her medical records. We looked for another doctor, but we couldn't find one with whom my wife was happy. In addition to this, we considered the practicalities of raising twins with no support from family, and we realized that, because of the attitude of certain members toward my wife, we could expect little help from congregation members.

My wife is from southern Louisiana, which means that we have family and friends in the Katrina-ravaged area. Knowing that families from Louisiana would be relocating throughout the country and knowing that the need would be great (and knowing that a family from Trinity was at the time hosting some of their family members from Louisiana and that at the time a number of families had already relocated to the Zanesville area), she contacted the local Red Cross chapter to see how she could help. The director assigned her the task of contacting local congregations to see how we could pool resources. However, three members of Trinity contacted the director, complaining that my wife was railroading the Trinity congregation and forcing them to help. At that point, she had only spoken to the Ladies Aid to notify them of the upcoming need; she spoke to the Church Council; and she put inserts in the bulletin asking people to put things they'd possibly be willing to donate on the resource list. She even said in the bulletin insert that listing items would not obligate anyone to donate anything. She did not speak individually to anyone in the congregation to solicit support. Of all the congregations in the community she contacted, none of the others had complained about her efforts. Nevertheless, on the strength of these three members of Trinity, the Red Cross director asked her to step down, afraid that the Red Cross would lose the support of the Trinity congregation. My wife was devastated that members of our own congregation could be so hurtful toward her that they would deny 17 transient families the help they so desperately needed.

From the standpoint of the leadership of the congregation, the stated crux of the matter--and I have reason to believe this was spurious--is my journal (also known as a blog). I kept a personal journal, one I felt was fairly private. However, it was an online journal. This journal was meant to be a way for me to keep in touch with friends, a way to return to writing, and a way for me to talk about the joys and frustrations of my life. The nature of the service I used is that one can make one's journal completely private, one could choose a select group of individuals who would have access to the entries, or one could make the journal completely public. I chose to make my entries available to a select group of people—mostly people I know in real life and trust to give me advice and encouragement. I say encouragement because I tend to complain a lot in my journal. It's a defense mechanism of mine. When something went wrong or something frustrated me, I complained about it in my journal. I would let it all out and then some. It didn't mean that I was unwilling to serve. I just wanted to vent my frustrations in what I in my naivety saw as a harmless way so that I wouldn't carry those frustrations into my dealings with members of my congregation. Never in my journal did I violate confidentiality or the Seal of the Confessional. Nevertheless, I realize now that I shouldn't have used the journal in that way.

I don't know how it happened, but someone from the congregation gained access to my journal. This person shared these entries with a number of people in the congregation, and eventually these entries reached the elders of the congregation. At no time in this process was I notified that anything was amiss, and to this day I have no idea what entries were circulated or who circulated them. It's entirely possibly that the entries that were attributed to me were not written by me, because I've never seen them to verify that they were, indeed, mine. Anyway, the elders never approached me, opting instead to bring this to the attention of the District President.

At a meeting with then-President Bergen of the Ohio District on October 12, 2005, he notified me that I would be placed on Restricted Status. That same day, the Senior Pastor notified me that I was required to attend a meeting with him, the Circuit Counselor, and the President of the Trinity congregation. At this meeting I was told that Trinity’s Board of Elders wanted me to submit my resignation. I could say no, of course, but if I chose to refuse, I was notified that the elders of Trinity would ask the congregation to rescind my Call and that any considered severance package would disappear. Both the Senior Pastor and the Circuit Counselor knew this was coming, but they were forbidden by President Bergen from speaking to me on the matter.

I wanted a little time to consider this—overnight, if nothing else—but I was given little time to consider. I asked for a little privacy. I prayed, gave what consideration I could give the situation in ten minutes, and then I called my wife. We decided it would be best if I resigned voluntarily. I could have fought it. I could have asked for a District Reconciler. I could have demanded a vote from the congregation. I could have called members of Trinity who loved and supported me and asked them to speak on my behalf to other members of the congregation. However, I had no desire to create any further division at Trinity, especially since Trinity at that time was already in the midst of transition and conflict. I didn't want any longer to cause children of God to sin. Most of all, I didn't want to drag the youth of the congregation into a situation where they felt they had to choose between me or the congregation. In addition, resigning and moving to Louisiana meant that my wife would have some knowledge of the medical professionals available to undertake her care and the delivery of the twins and that Faith's family would be available to help Faith at times when I was unavailable. I wanted to announce the resignation myself at the Council meeting scheduled for that meeting, but even that was forbidden. I was at no time allowed to defend myself.

I can't speak for the elders of the congregation at that time. I don't know what their motives were, and they certainly never spoke to me about anything about which they had concerns. One elder walked out of worship the last Sunday I was there and said to me, "You certainly accused a lot of good people." I asked him to explain himself, but he just kept walking. The head elder refused to answer any of my questions after my resignation--"at the prompting of President Bergen," he said. So I don't know what they were thinking, but they never approached me as Matthew 18 would have them do. They never treated with me as brothers in Christ should have.

Part of the problem as I perceive it now was that I didn't automatically follow the party line, so to speak. I was an associate pastor at this congregation. The Senior Pastor and I were both fairly conservative on paper, but the Senior Pastor under which I served had served under a senior pastor who had been there for 33 years, and his theology left something to be desired. For example: under him open Communion became standard, and he did weddings for everyone who came in. None of use forced the issue, but we all taught with an eye toward the future. At private elders meetings, getting rid of the three of us was discussed frequently. They got their wish. The other Associate Pastor took a call after only a year there. I was forced out. And the Senior Pastor left so he could go full-time military before he could be forced out.

A few of those in leadership also didn't like the fact that, as my Call documents demanded, I focused a great deal of my attention on the youth of the congregation. That was supposed to be my focus, and I took it seriously. However, they didn't appreciate that the group continued to grow and took a great deal of my attention.

If I'd been a single man, I might have made the elders force me out. With a wife, a child, and twins on the way, I had no choice. Maybe the voters would have let me stay long enough to find a Call, or maybe they would have voted to rescind my Call. Or maybe they'd have asked me to stay. I don't know. All I know is, with the threat hanging over my head and a family to support, I put my vocation as father and husband over that of pastor. I may regret leaving as I did, but I can never regret making the decision I did for the sake of my family.

I certainly wasn't without guilt in what happened at Trinity. Talking about the congregation in my online journal was wrong, even when I was speaking positively about things—though I did a lot of that, especially when it came to the youth. I'll admit that I was not overly concerned about the money I utilized as the youth group organizer. I used the budget I was given as I thought best. I did my best to be a good steward of the money. I can see where some might argue the result, but my motives were never nefarious. Meetings and game nights brought more kids to the church than I'd thought possible. I don't know if any of them still come, but one youth in particular was a wonderful young man who had a bright future at Trinity. I don't know that I needed to spend that kind of money to keep him there, and I certainly wasn't trying to buy anyone off. I just wanted to provide a welcoming environment.

As I said, I have reason to believe that my journal being the reason I was asked to resign was a cover for something else. One of the leaders of the congregation did a mid-year audit of the youth money, looking for improprieties--in spite of the fact that they always do a year-end audit of every account. The response I received to my relationship with my wife and the continuing harsh words and actions were another sore spot with the leaders of the congregation. As I said, I was not right to keep accounts of congregational happenings in my online journal, and I would never do that again. However, I don't believe it was an offense that merited being asked to leave the congregation, and I don't believe it was truly the reason the board of elders wanted me gone.

As far as the aftermath of my resignation goes, then-President Bergen met with me and informed me that I was on restricted status because he needed to investigate whether or not I had acted sinfully. He threatened me at that time with the possibility of suspension and even removal from the clergy roster of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. He also wanted me to go to see a specialized counselor in Minnesota (which is affiliated with the ELCA) to assess my suitability for the Ministry, and he made this a condition of my return to active status. He also wrote in his assessment of me which he shared with the specialized counselor a list of problems, and in that list of "problems" he included the fact that I am "very conservative theologically". He saw me as a malcontent because I had signed the document "That They May Be One". From the time I was Installed at Trinity, he made himself unavailable to me, refusing to return my phone calls and answer correspondence, though he made himself available to the Senior Pastor, the Associate Pastor, and to those who sought my removal from the congregation. In December of 2005 he promised to remove me from Restricted Status as soon as I completed paperwork he was sending to me, but he did not remove me until August of 2006, though I returned the paperwork immediately. He also urged me not to seek out “rigid and ultra-conservative pastors, who do not have good relational skills”.

In the 31 months since my resignation, I have filled in at eight congregations in three states. I've served two different vacancies. And now, I'm waiting for a Call. In God's time, of course.

5 comments:

George said...

Alan, Just wanted to extend my sympathy to you, as a fellow, & now blessedly, former CRMer.

Your story, though different from mine & I'm sure other men on CRM, has a familiar ring to it. Anonymous meetings, elders working behind your back, anonymous complaints, whether about real issues or issues that were either none of people's business or simple minor things that never should have been a cause for complaint, a constant mischaracterization or misinterpretation of anything you do or say, & finally, the piece de la resistance, the undermining of you & your position by those who are supposed to be impartial & know better, the district bureaucracy, i.e. circuit visitors & President.

The comfort we can take with us, though, through such struggles are our Lord's words, "They reject not you but Me." Our comfort lies in that the blessing & authority of the Office doesn't rely on us, sinful men that we are, but on the Lord's blessing & gift. And the fact that the congregation seemed to have it out for all of the pastors there shows it was the Office they really had problems with & thus really a problem with Jesus.

May they find repentance & forgiveness of their sins, just as we are called to find repentance & forgiveness. The Lord's peace.

revalkorn said...

George, thank you for your kind comment. It's good to know that CRM can eventually end with a pastor returning to parish ministry.

George said...

Alan said, "It's good to know that CRM can eventually end with a pastor returning to parish ministry."

Yes, it is good, although in my case it's a bit different. Full time parish responsibilities but half time benefits. But that's what I wanted. And in fact, what I'm getting now at half time is practically better than what I got at my last full time call. My salary is the same & they pay retirement. And my health care is covered through my wife's job.

So, things can work out for CRM guys & not all positions have to be full time. My situation puts the lie to the canard that there aren't enough fully trained seminary pastors to serve small rural congregations.

Smith said...

Alan,
Ah, Zanesville, the cultural epicenter of Muskingum county. I feel so badly for you because, honestly, those who live in that area are real different. My wife went to nursing school in Zanesville and you could have sworn most of the students were biker chicks. Anyway, enough of Zansville zeitgeist.

Your experience and other experiences I've heard and have experienced on notorious blogs and chat boards have made me gun-shy about going to seminary. When churches become as teritorial as Trinity (My family on my deceased grandfathers side predominatly were Emmanuel Lutherans *Lancaster* and some kind of falling out happened and Emmanuel split and the dissatisfied members migrated to Redeemer *also, Lancaster*...very unpleasant.)would make one wonder if such a Corinthianized congregation has any further use within the plan of God. When did you graduate (I'm assuming) Ft. Wayne? My uncle is the Pastor of Pilgrim Lutheran in Grandville...Anyway, I really hope God will place you in a congregation that appreciates your heart and also has a heart for the things of God rather just marking its territory.

Mike

revalkorn said...

Mike--

Sorry for the delay in replying. I graduated from St. Catharines in Ontario in 2000. It's Lutheran Church--Canada, with with the LCMS is in fellowship.

As I tell other young men who are considering seminary, don't let my tale--or those of others--keep you from seminary. There are wonderful people in God's church, and they need faithful pastors. Even the congregation that showed me the door is full of God's people, and they need to hear the Word. If you're in college now or still plan on going to college, have an unrelated major, something you can fall back on if times get hard. Other than that, though, the Office of the Ministry is a noble task, and God Calls men to it, sometimes kicking and screaming, and it's an honor and a privilege. And I say that even now, after everything that has happened.