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[LCMSNews] Resolving disputes 'under the cross'
"LCMS e-News" <LCMSENEWS@lcms.org>
Fri, 13 Mar 2009 17:48:14 -0500
> LCMS News
>THE LUTHERAN CHURCH Missouri Synod
March 13, 2009 .................... LCMSNews -- No. 21
'Message of cross' forms basis for resolving disputes
>By Roland Lovstad
Like a smoke alarm or a fire extinguisher, the LCMS dispute-resolution
process is a tool the church prefers not to use, but proves valuable
when the need arises.
Recently trained as a "reconciler" for the process, Caitlin Dinger says
she doesn't look forward to using what she's learned -- but she
expresses hope for how it can be put to use. She was among 18
laypersons and professional workers who participated in a Jan. 12-16
training session in St. Louis.
"One of the key things is that reconciliation is not an event; it's a
way of life, an ongoing process," says Dinger, a director of Christian
education at Christ Memorial Lutheran Church, East Brunswick, N.J.
"Every day, as baptized children of God, we are given opportunities to
be reconciled to one another."
Since 1993, reconcilers -- four per district -- have been integral to
the dispute-resolution process in the Synod. Their roles are to resolve
differences between congregations and between congregations and their
workers, questions of procedures in excommunication cases, and issues
related to removal of workers by a congregation or district. The
reconcilers also comprise a pool for selecting panels in cases of
"There will always be disputes in the church," says Dr. Raymond Hartwig,
secretary of the Synod and overseer of the resolution process. "The
issue is how the church handles them. Our reconcilers are trained to
approach the issue spiritually, which enables us to bring people
together under the cross."
Differences were resolved informally in the early years of the Synod,
without a defined process, according to Hartwig. Over time, a system
developed to adjudicate disputes through courtroom-style procedures and
the parties often engaged legal counsel. Hartwig says the current
dispute resolution relies on reconcilers who work with the disputing
parties in the spirit of Matthew 18.
Quoting Bylaw 184.108.40.206, Hartwig adds that all members of the Synod agree
that this process will be "the exclusive and final remedy for those who
are in dispute." One benefit is that the process saves money. Costs for
adjudication in 1992 were $57,500. Typical dispute-resolution costs,
excluding reconciler training, are now about $16,000 annually.
"I was really impressed with the focus on Christ and the message of the
cross," says Dinger. "We all stand before God as sinful people in need
of forgiveness and He freely forgives us through Christ. That is the
basis for any hope of reconciliation."
Dinger says the training has transformed the way she sees relationships
and how she interacts with coworkers and families in her congregation.
"Ultimately the goal in the process -- no matter how contentious or
difficult -- is that we really glorify God," she adds. "I definitely
have a hopeful feeling that God is working in the reconcilers and the
process to bring about His will."
Ted Kober, president of Ambassadors of Reconciliation, which has
provided reconciler training since 1997, says, "The power in our
dispute-resolution system is that it reflects the faith we possess. God
anticipated we would be in conflict and therefore much of Scripture
instructs us specifically on how we deal with conflict. In fact, the
Gospel itself brings conflict into a world affected by sin."
Kober was a delegate to the 1992 LCMS convention that enacted the
dispute-resolution process and recalls that it was presented as a move
from the adversarial court procedure to one that could potentially be
"win-win." He adds, "I prefer to say God called us to love one another
as He has loved us -- and, as we do so, people will know we are His
disciples. Instead of a win-win, it's more living out our sanctified
life and being a witness of what Christ has done for us."
He believes the process was the "right thing" when it was adopted and
has been improved over the years. "You don't hear much about it,"
according to Kober, who believes that is a good indication of its
success. Most disputes are handled on personal levels and in a
confidential way, he notes.
All district presidents also receive reconciler training. Rev. Joel
Hoelter, North Wisconsin District president, was among four who
participated in the January sessions. Via e-mail, he remarks that the
training will help him advise congregations and professional workers
about the options for resolving disputes.
"The resolution process can be very helpful in the early stages of
dispute when it may still be possible to resolve matters informally," he
observes. "The Synod's dispute-resolution process is intended to help
congregations and workers address conflict constructively. When the
process is followed carefully, it allows both parties to be heard and
resolution to be sought on the basis of the Word."
Hartwig emphasizes that the reconciliation process is strictly
confidential. Neither the reconciler nor the parties are allowed to
publicize any cases or details. When a dispute process is completed,
the reconciler must submit a report to the district or Synod secretary
-- and that information remains confidential.
If the parties are unable to achieve reconciliation with the help of a
reconciler, a complainant can appeal to the secretary of the Synod. The
Synod's bylaws outline procedures for, first, a dispute-resolution panel
of three reconcilers drawn at random from throughout the Synod. If
necessary, a decision can be appealed to an appeal panel of three
district presidents who determine if the hearing was fair and the
decision was reasonable. If successfully appealed, the case is reheard
by a review panel of three reconcilers, beyond which there is no appeal.
"The intent is to resolve an issue early versus later," Hartwig
comments. "We may see, at most, a dozen panels in a year."
He adds that questions of doctrine may involve input from the Commission
on Theology and Church Relations or constitution and bylaw
interpretation from the Commission on Constitutional Matters.
Roland Lovstad is a freelance writer and a member of Immanuel Lutheran
Church, Perryville, Mo.
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