Conservative Insurgency Topples Missouri Synod President
By Tim Townsend
Religion News Service
HOUSTON (RNS) Delegates of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod on Tuesday (July 13) elected the denomination's director of disaster response as president, a candidate backed by its more conservative members.
The Rev. Matthew Harrison received 54 percent of the vote for the three-year term, defeating three-term incumbent the Rev. Gerald Kieschnick, who received 45 percent.
Harrison's victory represents a larger ideological change for the 2.5 million-member conservative denomination, which is split between moderate and conservative camps. Harrison was the candidate of theological and doctrinal conservatives who call themselves "confessional Lutherans" and stress a strict adherence to the central doctrines of Lutheranism.
During his nine years as president, Kieschnick, 67, was criticized by traditionalists who bemoaned what they called his postmodern approach to the church. Kieschnick, they said, had favored a nondenominational, evangelical megachurch model, and in the process diluted Martin Luther's theology.
Delegates had already voted on proposals, which were championed by Kieschnick, to radically restructure the denomination. Supporters said restructuring would decrease costs, while critics felt the move gives too much power and authority to the president's office.
"The change we really need is not structural," Harrison wrote in the Reporter, a synod newspaper, before the convention. "Part of me might like the massive increase in power proposed for the Synod president. That's why it's not a good idea."
On Monday, delegates voted by a narrow margin to dismantle the church's seven program boards and fold the boards' functions into two "superboards."
"It's ironic that the guy who had no desire to see an increase in the power of the presidency of the synod is now in that position," Harrison said in an interview after the election. "The way forward is going to be deliberate and slow and involve the counsel of lots of folks."
As the executive director of the church's World Relief and Human Care office since 2001, Harrison, 48, managed the denomination's national responses to the January earthquake in Haiti, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Harrison's victory was not a complete surprise. When the nominations for president were tallied in April, Kieschnick had received only 755 nominations, the lowest ever for a sitting president, and Harrison got 1,332.
"I think Pastor Harrison will focus on leadership in Scripture," said the Rev. Timothy Rossow, pastor of Bethany Lutheran Church in Naperville, Ill., and a leader of the conservative movement to elect Harrison. "He really believes unity of the synod is very important."
Rossow said he believed the feeling of change that has permeated the convention hall during the debates about restructuring carried Harrison over the top.
"A lot of people didn't politicize this election," he said. "They just wanted a change, and a fresh face."
The Rev. Mark Hanson, presiding bishop of the larger and more liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, congratulated Harrison on his election, and issued a short statement wishing "God's blessings" on his tenure.
Harrison was born in Sioux City, Iowa, and was ordained in 1991. He served two parishes in Iowa and Indiana over the next 10 years before assuming the disaster response job in 2001.
In remarks to the delegates immediately after the vote, Harrison said his election represented "a tumultuous change in the life of our synod," and repeatedly spoke of "challenging times" ahead.
"You've kept your perfect record of electing sinners as your president," Harrison said.
As Harrison took the stage after the election, he and Kieschnick hugged as the delegates gave both men a standing ovation. After Harrison's remarks, Kieschnick said his nine years as president had been "a humbling burden."
"God bless this church body that I will always love and always serve," he said.
(Tim Townsend writes for The St. Louis Post-Dispatch in St. Louis, Mo.)