For several posts, I will be writing about specific things that came up while I was within the LCMS–that is, at its schools, churches, and university–that made me start to think that the LCMS way of things didn’t align with some aspect of reality, what I learned in the Bible, or something else. Here, I’m starting a miniseries within that about the fruits of our actions and how they tell about who we really are.
Points of Fracture: By Their Fruits… (Part 1)
“Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.” – Matthew 7:20 (NIV)
Earlier in this series, I wrote about my time in the LCMS. I recalled: “What I thought when I decided to become a pastor is that I’d find a group of like-minded men… I did find several like-minded men, but I also found some of the most inward-looking, doctrine-obsessed, orthodox-rabid, self-righteous, and, unfortunately, misogynistic people I’d ever run into. I was one of them for a while.” Here, I begin a series in which I share my firsthand experience within the LCMS of people–pastors, those studying to go to seminary, and seminarians, primarily–showing the fruits of the LCMS. I have to share insights into my own background, too, because I was, as I said, unfortunately “one of them” in many ways for a while.
Due to the nature of this series, in that it is about why I left the LCMS, most of these posts are negative. I do here want to start with a positive, though. I want to make it very clear that in college I encountered a number of professional LCMS theologians and scholars, including pastors (many of whom were professors) who were and are great examples of humility, pastoral concern, and even equity. Some of these stories intersect with them. My experience with the LCMS is not universally negative, of course. I received quite a bit of real pastoral care from LCMS pastors and other professionals. That said, the experiences I had interacting with fellow seminarians and other pastors led me to believe that there was, at the core, something within the LCMS producing bad fruit. ‘By their fruits you will know them,’ spoke our Lord. The fruits of the LCMS are, at the most generous interpretation, ambiguous.
One of the things that drove me out of the LCMS was encounters with its pastors’ behavior as well as the acts of those who were studying to be its pastors. That sentence seems backwards. Thinking about the behavior of people, pastors are held to quite high standards. My time as a pre-seminary student, preparing to become a pastor, exposed me to some of the worst behavior I’d encountered from other Christians. This post has a lengthy story, but it helps draw out some of the themes I experienced time and again. It helps show how my own attitude shifted as I discovered how people who were growing to be leaders in the LCMS behaved did not align with what I’d been taught.
At the LCMS University I attended, we had Spiritual Life Representatives, (SLRs), who were essentially a kind of faith-focused RA equivalent. I was offered the position as one in my junior year, and took to it with gusto. From my own experience (part of which I wrote about in my previous post), I saw the role as almost a protective one–one in which I was to be there to help guide and shepherd my dormitory of students and help them connect with their faith lives.
Fairly early on in my time in this role, a series of pranks back and forth between cross-campus dorms started. The general consensus was it was all in good fun. We had a big water balloon fight early on in the year that involved at least a little bit of attempted sabotage. The pranks kept escalating, though. Our dorm had a large cross that members of our dorm would burn our names into. It was a kind of rite of passage, and the day we signed the cross, the members of my dorm would have a cookout. It was a hugely positive experience of belonging and bonding. Anyway, our rival dorm went to extreme efforts to steal this cross. I admit, the first time I thought it was kind of funny, but then I realized how upset some people in my dorm were getting about it.
The pranks continued. I don’t remember the exact details, but many of them centered very specifically around trying to upset one member of my dorm, likely because he was the one who got most upset by them. I think it was a kind of “poke the bear” mentality, trying to see how much of a rise they could get out of him.
It was around this time that I had taken place in my own kind of rivalry-stoking. I had a Martin Luther costume for Halloween and decided to put it on and take pictures in our rival dorm while they were all in class or elsewhere. I put it on Facebook–pictures of me preaching to the heathens or whatever in the other dorm. I thought it was a pretty good joke at the time. One or two students from the other dorm were incensed though, especially given my general attitude that we needed to cut out the pranks because of how much they were upsetting some people. They commented basically calling me a hypocrite, saying if I wanted to end the pranking I needed to lead by example, etc. It was very clear from their comments that much of this was sarcasm. I went back and forth a couple times. Then I found myself typing up a long response about how I was kind of justified in my own mind and the like. Then, just as I was about to send it, I felt that it was wrong. I felt I was in the wrong. Even though they were just trying to throw things in my face and I doubted whether they were actually upset–that didn’t matter. Maybe they were truly upset, and they certainly weren’t wrong–even if they were being sarcastic–that I needed to lead by example. So I deleted the comment and took down the pictures. I realized that I did need to lead by example, and thought that if I didn’t start now, why would anyone else try?
I finally went to speak to student leadership of the other dorm, explained the situation from my view–that the way they were behaving was causing real annoyance and anger in my dorm–and asking them to stop. I appreciated the willingness to meet and talk about it, but was basically told that people in my dorm needed to cool it and not take things so seriously. When I tried to point out that those of us involved in this were largely all people studying to be pastors or LCMS teachers, and that we should live lives worthy of that calling, I was literally laughed off.
One person in my dorm who was leaning towards agnosticism from being in the LCMS, as he was witnessing these events, came to me and said that it was things like this that led him to think Christianity wasn’t for him. If Christians treated each other this way and laughed off real concerns others raised, why bother with Christianity at all? I don’t remember what I said; I think it was something like Christianity could still be true even if Christians behaved badly, and I think I also apologized for the acts. But what was there, really, to say? I knew this young man had a point, and it was one I’d contemplated myself. If we, LCMS Lutherans, many of whom were studying to be pastors or teachers to train the next generation(s) of believers, couldn’t even lay off pranks that were causing real emotional trauma to others, what did that say about us? Another student who was struggling with his faith came to me and said similar things, essentially that he didn’t want to be considered a Christian any more given the way Christians–especially those who were studying to be pastors and religious teachers–treated each other here. The situation had evolved past silly attempts to sabotage another dorm’s balloon stockpile before a water balloon fight and had turned into something that was actually impacting people’s faith lives in real, measurable ways. They were coming to me and telling me that in almost those exact words.
I finally decided to go to a grown up about the situation. Yes, we were all adults, but this seemed to need intervention or at least advice on a level higher than myself. I asked one of my professors to speak with me about the issue. I sat wtih him for a while describing the situation, not mentioning names, but talking about the details of the pranking incidents, such as who they were against, the targeted antagonism, the fact that at least two different students had approached me about how it was impacting their faith and beliefs, and more. I ended up weeping in front of this professor because I was so intensely upset by the situation. It genuinely did not make sense to me that other Christians would not listen to me about this real impact their actions were having on others.
The professor was very concerned. He said he was especially upset that I was suggesting people who were pre-seminary were involved in this situation. I don’t remember the exact details, but I do remember it becoming clear that he wanted names so he could follow up, and he wanted to take serious action to sort things out. It was what I thought I wanted going in, but I was scared, and probably a bit cowardly. I feared this would lead to people getting taken out of pre-seminary programs or LCMS teaching programs. I didn’t want to name names, in part because I didn’t want to deal with the potential fall out. I ultimately said I’d try to figure it out myself.
The pranking did fall off the wayside fairly quickly after that. I had another conversation with a few people who had friends in the rival dorm and also took the roundabout way of talking with the instigators’ girlfriends to see if they could quell tensions. To this day, I suspect that the professor may have done some digging and helped behind the scenes too. That professor is an example of one of those LCMS leaders who genuinely cares and remains a positive impact on my life.
One of the students on the ‘other side’ of the controversy was especially angry with me, personally, though I’m not sure why. Years later, at which point I’d basically forgotten who he was, he attacked me on a friend’s Facebook post, firing vitriol and curses at me that went far beyond the brief disagreement we had. It was a reminder of just how amateur and juvenile we all were in college. But it was also a stark reminder that that kind of attitude is frequently tolerated and even cultivated within the LCMS. Disagreement there is often not able to end on amiable terms. Because of the doctrinal stance that everything is black and white, it means even ultimately dumb things like some controversy over whether pranking is harmful yielded dramatic, ultimately divisive stances.
These weren’t just random people in the pews, potentially disengaged from the theology. All the men involved in this large pranking controversy (I don’t know what else to call it) were people studying to be church workers. But even when someone came to them, told them the genuine spiritual problems that were happening because of their actions, and asked them to stop, they wouldn’t. It was a disturbing time for me. It was one in which I had to realize professed faith and lived faith didn’t always or even often align. And, as I’d discovered, I wasn’t immune to it.
Next time: By their fruits (part 2) will highlight a number of examples of fruits-based acts that I encountered.
Formerly Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (LCMS) or Wisconsin Synod (WELS)– A Facebook group I’ve created for people who are former members of either of these church bodies to share stories, support each other, and try to bring change. Note: Anything you post on the internet has the potential to be public and shared anywhere, so if you join and post, be aware of that.
Why I left the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod Links Hub– Want to follow the whole series? Here’s a hub post with links to all the posts as well as related topics.
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