Tag Archives: Consensus decision-making

Bullying within the Church

Pastor Semmler’s Christmas message (16th Dec 2011) to pastors, synod delegates and members of the LCA included the following.

What a gift of God it is to use social networking to communicate.

Imagine if the angels used it. A positive message using information technology. Perhaps no one would take it seriously even if the tone of the message was clearly different to that of cyberspace bullies, those hiding behind pseudonyms, misinformation, complaints and unchallenged defamatory comments.

There are some inconsistencies in his Pastor’s Semmler’s distress.  We have a President who is happy, on one hand, to use his position to manipulate the process towards women’s ordination, but, on the other hand, is unhappy when opposition is expressed to his methods. We have a General Synod directive that the LCA should work towards consensus on women’s ordination, yet the President places an embargo on letters to our only national media, The Lutheran, thus gagging the national conversation. How is consensus possible without a conversation? We have a President who decides that five male clergy sitting together should resolve the matter for the Church, and is unconcerned that the body is unrepresentative.  While other churches use established processes for building consensus (ref: here, here and here), Pastor Semmler decides for himself what path the LCA will follow.  There is no Plan B for consensus.

The dynamics of domestic abuse.

It is right and proper that we should have a conversation on bullying within the LCA, for it has sadly long been noted by clergy and laity that our Church has a problem in this matter. We’re not talking about people who simply have disagreements, for sinners have disagreements all the time. We’re talking about the behaviour displayed during disagreements, not dissimilar to that of the illustration above on domestic abuse. We would need to discuss: Who is using power over whom? – for bullying presupposes that one party has significant power over another.  Who has more systemic power? What happens when a powerful figure shouts at a less powerful fugure? In the workplace (for the Church has many employees) we would need to consider: How are decisions made?  What consultation occurs? What level of respect is there in the workplace? Who feels powerless, heartbroken and confused? Are the victims of bullying allowed to tell their story? Do people face a risk when they tell their story?  Do they risk losing their job, their career, their reputation or losing the possibility of another call within the Church?

One of the reasons that women’s ordination is not yet approved within the Church is the level of fear within the Church. As the reigns are tightened towards uniformity, clergy express a concern for their employment or future calls to another parish.  What are the implications for clergy who invite women to lead segments of worship?  Currently we are members of a panopticon-like Church, which has us constantly looking over the shoulder.  It’s not a healthy way to live.  Jesus brings freedom to love, but the church currently brings something less attractive.

As for ‘unchallenged defamatory comments’, it seems that those opposed to women’s ordination in the LCA have chosen not to respond.  ALC faculty members have noted the silence after the publishing of theological papers in support of women’s ordination.  Silence will not bring about consensus.  The way ahead is not forged by muffling women and imposing a false uniformity, for that is abusive and divisive.

The use of social media is a natural response to the lack of democratic process within the LCA.  Without a facilitated national conversation and freedom of expression at all levels within the Church, social media is one of few means that allows the expression of opposition to leadership that shuts down conversation/debate.

A strong LCA is not a uniform LCA.  Within the Confessions we will be a pilgrim people of different cultures and traditions.  Our diversity will be obvious in skin colour, culture, history, worship and theology.  We will be a place of welcome, tolerance and  safety.  Policies will not be the play thing of father figures, but there will be theologians, poets and visionaries who engage in an ongoing conversation about the realm of God..  The term ‘uniformity’ will have no meaning.


Posted by on January 28, 2012 in sociology, theology


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A response by Pastor Geoff Burger

What the process of consensus might look like.

Pastor Geoff Burger left a comment on the previous post and a response to the three man collective, that the President commissioned. As it contains important thought we’ve reposted it in the belief that it should be read widely.


Recently the President asked three people to research what it means to Walk in Consensus – the Lutheran way –

I put together a response – if you are interested to read on this is it.

All the best


The group has diligently followed the terms of reference to describe what a consensus is in the Lutheran church with a few no gos A great deal more needs to be done. Here are some personal responses. Of course I may be wrong
Fundamentally we believe the Holy Spirit works through study and searching of the Word. However in the church this happens in a very human context – it is “in, with and under” human personalities and psychologies, social and cultural movements and changes, traditions and politics.
I believe the report would have been more valuable if the terms had been widened a little to explore the way in which an old consensus disintegrates and a new one develops in a church and the factors involved in recognising and affirming this new consensus. We can get insights on the process and factors involved from many fields of study.
Sometimes resistance to change can cause great suffering. The change in consensus on how to fight a modern war only came after unimaginable suffering on the front lines in WW1. Political resistance to a new consensus can lead to violent revolution – the Arab spring. Or opposition to a new consensus in a social group or church can lead to withdrawal and resignations and the formation of a rival group – sectarianism.
There is an insight from the way political change is recognized peacefully in our society through an election. A party gains a consensus and when it loses it through the defection of swinging voters another party forms government. The new consensus is accepted even though it cannot be unanimously agreed to because there are still maybe 49% of the population apposed to the new government.
The new political consensus is accepted because there is a deeper consensus behind it – a commitment to the Westminster adversarial system and a common commitment to the nation.

There is not a theological consensus in the church at the moment on many issues one of them being gender based or gender free ordination. The accepted status quo position from past tradition and Biblical understanding is that gender is critical. However this is not a unanimous position. It is possible that if the issue came to a vote a numerical majority of pastors, people and congregations would favour a gender free position.
So a consensus position by the church on an issue does not mean a unanimously held position. There is something deeper involved.
The deeper consensus which preserves unity is a common commitment to the LCA , its wider theology, heritage, traditions and personal relationships and friendships within the church. This is what will hold us together when other consensi are changing.

The church has always had to struggle with the lack of unanimous consensi on all sorts of issues. This is the challenge for God’s people to remain one as Jesus prayed. Oneness based on total agreement on everything is simple, a fairly easy human achievement that doesn’t need any intervention by the Holy Spirit. This can be forced or on the basis of compromises. At times we define ourselves against others and the conflict of us against them creates unity.

Our calling is to be bigger than this . To remain one and become an ever larger one even with a lack of all sorts of consensi on all sorts of things – gender issues being just one of them. We survived lack of consensus on attitudes to various wars and invasions. Statistics indicate that 50% of Christians accept euthanasia, 50% don’t. Similarly with environmental issues, climate change, boat people. And of course Biblical literalism and evolution, etc.
Our deepest calling as church is to do more than social clubs do – remain one at times in spite of a lack of unanimity or a consensus on issues. This is where we need all the resources the Spirit can shower us with.
In the church as in music difference is an essential characteristic of harmony. This is an implication of Paul’s reflection on the church as the body of Christ in Romans 12. People with strength of character, Spirit given faith and confidence harmonise with others but may not necessarily agree with them. The opposite of harmony is not chaos but uniformity and homogeneity. In human life as in agriculture a monoculture based on uncritical agreement is inherently unstable and unhealthy.
Consensus in the church is always a harmony which enables and embraces difference.
It may be helpful as well as realistic to see the glass as 95% full rather than 5% empty. On the really big denominational issues – justification and salvation, Jesus and the Trinity , ministry and mission, justice and welfare there is an undeniable consensus. Gender and sexuality is interesting but not that big a thing in the total scheme of things

I vaguely remember as a child in the late ‘40s in Geelong that women wore hats in church to cover their hair, sat separately from men and Lutherans communed as a gender group not in families.
And over the past 40 or so years we have recognised a different consensus on the role of gender in the LCA developing.
I was ordained in 1968 and was part of a succession of LCA church conventions where gender roles in the church were debated and bit by bit the gender consensus changed. Women were allowed to vote in congregations, then synods, then do Bible readings in worship, then hold office, then lead committees, then be “pastoral carers”, then lay readers. Each step of the process involved a discussion and steadily narrowing interpretation of the same Biblical passages – mainly Paul.
There were some verbal gymnastics to make accepting the new consensus easier for some – the right of males to make an issue a male vote if they wished (!!!!), not using the term “elder” to describe female pastoral carers and so on.
Obviously many factors were involved in this acceptance of a different consensus on church gender attitudes among Lutherans. It wasn’t just theology. As they became less rurally isolated Lutherans became more and more Australian and were affected by all the factors creating a changing society – war time mobilization of women into the paid work force, movement from farms to the cities, prosperous baby boom children, more women and men undertaking secondary and tertiary studies, European migrant Lutherans, overseas travel, TV and Internet etc.
There are significant personality differences leading some people to welcome change more than others – some people live for stability and safety and are threatened by change – anchor people. Others need challenges and stimulation to energise them – sail people.
Both groups can exist side by side in the church – actually the church needs both to balance each other. A static unchanging church can only exist in isolation and gradually becomes more and more exclusive and irrelevant. A constantly changing church has no foundation or stability and ends up being indistinguishable from everything else
One problem is that it seems easier for sails to accept anchors than for anchors to accept sails.
The group mentioned the 25 year movement towards union of the two synods culminating in the formation of the LCA in 1966. It would be worth doing a careful analysis of the factors involved. Sure there was lots of theological discussions but what lay behind these?
Personalities were obviously important along with their histories and experiences. There was the bitterness of 100 years of suspicion and family squabbles in some places; personal animosities of some pastors; the Concordia-Immanuel rivalry – at one football match there were reports of students spitting at the opposing team.
On the other hand there was a very positive commitment of church leaders on both sides, the growing trust and friendship between pastors on the union committee. Gradually more and more pastors and leaders form both synods got to overcome stereotypes and historical animosities.
Hugely important at the end seems to have been the collegiality, respect and friendship between members of the two seminary faculties.
In the end it seems to have been the total commitment of church leaders to the new consensus which over came the fears and hesitancy of other clergy. Laity recognized this and were able to give solid support to what most had long thought had to happen eventually.
In summary , the critical human factor is a united leadership of academic theologians and church leaders (bishops) who are as passionately and uncompromisingly committed to a similar basic consensus as our Canberra politicians – win or lose we are committed to something greater than our selves. We will not separate from each other whatever happens because we recognize the body of Christ.
This happened over time as an ever growing group of leaders and theologians kept meeting and sharing fellowship before union – eventually they began to pray with each other to open the meeting. Finally they shared a common consensus – there needs to be one LCA.
In the context of this fundamental consensus the smaller consensi gradually took place or were allowed to remain as a movement towards consensus – eg relations with LWF.

Dr Sasse seems to have been a very important personality respected by both sides, a sort of baggage free catalyst from the outside. He seems to have helped to move the church leadership to accept a new consensus.
It is really vital to recognize the unique importance of some individuals. Some people by force of personality, charisma and sometimes uncompromising (or blinkered?) conviction are more influential than others –gifted speakers and communicators, able to convey passion and win support. They punch well above their weight.
On a spiritual level being given unrestricted authority to do this is not respectful of the body of Christ and its unity. Nor on the human level is it democratic. It is fairly easy to identify LCA individuals who have used these gifts either to maintain the old consensus against any changes or to support the new consensus. New consensi can be created by or blocked by fanatical spiritual populism – the histories of personality based sects in the church give evidence of this.
The challenge for church leaders especially is to discern real wisdom, theological and spiritual insight and to strongly affirm this. The really hard and vital thing in deciding whether to hold onto an old consensus or affirm a new one is to sense the timing and know whose views should be supported and whose views should be restrained.

Critical in any discussion on consensus is to take seriously the church as the body of Christ. So an olde consensus is preserved and a new one recognized by the community of God’s people in a Christ relationship with each other.
In my limited experience as an observer the CTICR is a very pleasant activity for those attending. There is camaraderie, vigourous discussion and at times dissent, and at the same time there is respect for one another and appreciation for differences in theology and application. I cannot imagine any of the participants leaving the group or church because they did not get their theological point of view accepted. There is a consensus that the LCA must remain united
This process needs to be made the basic principle as it was a number of years ago when there were free discussions around the church in all congregations on the issue. Unfortunately the process was allowed to lapse without a formal resolution – maybe this can be seen as a failure in leadership
Could the CTICR be widened to be open to all pastors who want to be involved and all leaders especially all those who punch above their weight?
Whatever happens it will need to be personal-social-relational-theological allowing group dynamics to be given equal weighting with theological position papers and disputation. It will be important for everyone to be given an equal hearing.
Probably this will mean more Australia wide pastors’ and lay leaders’ retreats so that relationships can be developed and a strong consensus of commitment to the body of Christ will strengthen and allow possible recognition of a new consensus on gender free ordination

Geoff Burger
August 2011


Posted by on October 21, 2011 in Hermeneutics, politics, sociology, theology


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