The St. John Lutheran Church Voters’ Assembly meeting on Monday evening, January 23, felt like a divorce proceeding in which both parties honestly believed that they had done their best to resolve the conflict.
The Voters’ Assembly meeting was called to order by the St. John Board of Directors President, David Walz, to act on the one motion being brought to the assembly by the board:
“The Board of Directors of St. John recommends that the Voters’ Assembly remove Rev. Stephen A. Knapp from the office of Senior Pastor at St. John, effective immediately,” it read.
Board member Ron Riley led an opening prayer, and Dr. Norman Young, another board member, read the recommendation to 140 voting members and 42 non-voting persons present. He detailed the constitutional authority the board had and its rationale for making this recommendation.
Young expressed the opinion that the board had followed all of the procedures required by St. John’s constitution before proposing such a drastic step. He cited meetings between the board and Knapp to discuss his leadership as early as June of 2004. He mentioned the intervention of an Ambassadors of Reconciliation team during the first months of 2005, and a meeting which included the board, Knapp and District President, Rev. William Ameiss.
Young stated that the board felt authorized to recommend Pastor Knapp’s removal because of his, in the constitution’s words, “inability to perform duties.” This inability, in the board’s judgment, was due to Knapp’s “lording it over those entrusted to you” (quoted from a district document entitled Principles of Conduct for Ministers of the Gospel).
Most devastating was a quote from the Ambassadors of Reconciliation Report: “It is the observation of this Team that should Pastor Knapp continue in his inability or unwillingness to grow in expressing compassion and care of members, that the future of this congregation and school look bleak.”
Following Dr. Young’s presentation, twenty-two people over the span of almost two hours came to the microphone to speak for or against the motion to remove Knapp from the office of pastor. Eleven spoke in favor of the recommendation to remove him.
One man said he felt hurt by Knapp’s handling of an incident involving Christmas trees. A woman said that he had alienated volunteers with his style. A member of the school staff said that he was detrimental to the school.
One woman said she was troubled by a letter, dated Jan. 20, 2006, Knapp had sent to members of the congregation. In the letter, Knapp included a response to criticism he received over a sermon he gave on December 11. He wrote that he had confessed his error and been forgiven by the elders for what the board said was “using the pulpit. . .to embarrass or scold individuals instead of going to them privately.” She said that while he may have confessed his errors to the board or to the elders, he had failed to do it on a personal level.
A man declared that although he respected his pastor’s gifts, the relationship between Knapp and St. John was a “horrible match” and that St. John would continue to “hemorrhage” if Knapp remained. One of the elders seemed to summarize the feelings of those urging Knapp’s removal by saying, “Many have come to me saying ‘it’s not working.’ Pastor Knapp has gifts but not as a parish pastor. He has not fulfilled the role as shepherd.”
Another put it this way: “This is painful for me. I respect Pastor Knapp, but dear brother, you belong in a university teaching.”
Seven spoke against the resolution, believing that Knapp should continue as senior pastor. One man asked, “Which duties listed in the constitution did Pastor Knapp not perform?” His implication was that the charges were vague and subjective. A woman testified that Knapp had “compassion” and had been “a strength” to her and had challenged her to grow.
A man walked to the microphone and noted that most congregations are in the same boat as St. John, the implication being that the conflict in the congregation came from declining income and membership which made members hypersensitive to differences in style between them and Knapp. Another man added that the financial crisis in the congregation is not the sole responsibility of the pastor.
Pastor Knapp, in an interview two days after the meeting, agreed. He said that the decline in income and membership has been continuous since 1991.
He added that the board had met three times in secret sessions without his presence or input. He further stated, “The nature of the grievances they list are issues they had not addressed with any specificity since certain Board members raised them last July, despite the mandate from the voters at the time that they must develop a specific action plan and evaluation program and follow it. The congregation acted against its own resolves to try to take the log out of its own eye.”
Responding to the charge that the congregation was hemorrhaging, a woman said, “I love him. It was a bombshell when I heard about the recommendation. I’ve seen a lot of improvement in reconciliation since July.”
One woman challenged the members sitting in the pews. “Is it him or is it us? I get the impression that some people are using the pastor as a symbol of what is wrong. He may not have as good people skills as you would like, but there are so many positives. The new members are for him and say that Pastor has made them feel welcome. We’re not going to get a perfect person.”
She may have been alluding to another section of the report by the Ambassadors of Reconciliation (AOR), which was as hard on the congregation as it was on their pastor. In the report the AOR chastised St. John members for fleeing when the going got tough and of making an unrealistic idol of their pastors. The report mentioned the low attendance in Bible studies, “failing to respect authority in the church,” and “assault by withholding offerings.”
In his letter to the members, Knapp concluded that the board had not given the reconciliation process a chance to work. “By its actions in December, it appears the Board does not share my understanding of how to proceed with conflict resolution consistent with our Christian principals (sic) and the Constitution and bylaws of our Church.”
Of the 22 people who rose to speak, four seemed ambivalent about the whole proceeding. “This church is my home,” said one speaker. I sit here and hear people say, ‘I feel something, but I don’t know how to express it.’ This family, this spiritual family”too many of us hurt. Our family needs to heal.”
Another said, with emotion in his voice, “Pastor Knapp, I hope you see that no one is enjoying this.” He then asked if Knapp would respond to the charges that had been made.
Six speakers later, President Walz asked if anyone else wanted to speak. Knapp raised his hand, but for some reason was not invited to the microphone. Almost simultaneously, a voice from a pew called for the question, it was seconded and the vote to end the discussion passed.
Vote counters collected the ballots. Ten minutes later Walz announced that the resolution had passed by a vote of 111 to 29, a majority of 79 percent. Pastor Ameiss led the congregation in prayer.
As they filed out of the church, many felt the action taken was necessary, but few showed any sign of feeling victorious. Many just shook their heads, seeming to agree with one of the speakers who said that there would challenges no matter what the assembly decided. If the pastor were to stay, there would be continuing conflict. If he were to be removed, the congregation would be without a pastor. You could take his statement as referring to Knapp or the congregation or both.
When one prominent member of St. John saw me on the way out and knew I would be reporting on the meeting, he expressed the ambivalence of many and their sense of responsibility for the impact their decision would have on unknown numbers of lives when he said, “Be gentle on us.”