Lutherans Feud Over Minn. Church

Tuesday, June 6th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

HASTINGS, Minn. (AP) — Lutherans believe God intervenes to bring pastors and congregations together. Members of Hope Lutheran are asking a jury to keep their church and pastor Bruce King apart.

King was called to this Minnesota city in 1997 to minister to about 100 families at the small, one-steeple church when it was still known as Shepherd of the Valley. But as doctrinal differences surfaced, members began to leave.

In 1998, two-thirds of the remaining congregation voted to oust King. But King stayed, and members took sides, straining relationships within the church.

Seven months later, King's opponents took a different tack. Without warning, they transferred the building's title and assets to the group's new incarnation — Hope Lutheran — and changed the locks. King loyalists were welcome back, they said; King was not.

Without a church building, King and his more than 50 followers continue to worship every Sunday in a meeting room at a motel. They keep the old name, calling themselves Shepherd of the Valley. And they are still backed by the conservative Lutheran Church of the Missouri Synod, the 2.6 million-member national organization that stood over the church before the split.

With Missouri Synod support, Shepherd of the Valley is suing Hope Lutheran for the building's title, the removal of Hope Lutheran members and unspecified damages.

Hope Lutheran has applied for Missouri Synod membership, which is still pending.

Raymond L. Hartwig, secretary of the Missouri Synod in St. Louis, said while disputes between pastors and congregations are not unusual, resolving them in civil court is. Hartwig testified in the case last week as an expert witness on Missouri Synod bylaws.

``I think we would be concerned that other congregations that have some differences with their pastors may see this as a pattern to follow,'' Hartwig said. ``We would prefer they work these matters out internally.''

The difficulty, Hartwig said, is that because Hope Lutheran is currently not a Missouri Synod member, internal methods no longer apply.

A mediator was unable to bring the sides to an agreement on sharing the building, as meetings disintegrated into screaming matches.

What the Dakota County District Court jury must determine is whether Hope Lutheran members ousted King for no good reason. The Missouri Synod says a pastor can be thrown out only if he preaches heresy, commits a criminal or immoral act or fails to perform his duties.

King loyalists insist that dissenting members were upset over King's adherence to the doctrine of closed Holy Communion, under which only Missouri Synod members may partake in the sacrament. More liberal pastors relax the rule to accommodate visitors. However, the dispute is not considered grounds for dismissal under church bylaws.

``Pastor King's following of the closed communion doctrine, really, is just him being a good Missouri Synod pastor,'' said Frank Lukasiewicz, pastor at Servant of the Shepherd Lutheran Church in River Falls, Wis.

``In dealing with the congregation, some members thought he was too authoritarian, preaching more law than gospel.''

But Hope Lutheran members insist King neglected the congregation — in effect, did not perform his duties — by failing to visit sick worshippers and console grieving families. And unhappy members who simply stopped showing up for church testified that King never contacted them after their departure.

Robert Bonkoski of Rosemount testified Monday that when his wife left for another church that wasn't Missouri Synod-affiliated, King told him that she was sinning and wouldn't go to heaven.

His voice wavering, Bonkoski testified that when he objected, King told him to join another church.

``When a pastor tells me he doesn't need me any more, or to go join the Catholic church, then to me, he is no longer a pastor,'' Bonkoski said.

King, several members of the feuding churches and officials from the Missouri Synod's southern Minnesota district declined to comment until after the trial, which could go to the jury as early as Wednesday.