House Divided

God told Pastor Bruce King to lead Shepherd of the Valley back to the path of righteousness. His flock didn't want to go there.

By the summer of 1986, the congregation had a structure to call home. By all accounts, the first ten years went smoothly, and church membership swelled to more than 250. While attendance flourished, church coffers filled; contributions averaged nearly $1,800 a week. "We were a pretty happy church," recalls Greg Collins, who became Shepherd of the Valley's vice president. "We were all friends who came together because of our belief in the same God."

For a long time nobody really noticed that many of the newer members weren't adherents of the Missouri Synod's strict doctrine; folks figured they were attending a modern, liberal Lutheran church, and believed that all Christians were welcome. It seemed that everyone was free to worship there, and no one gave too much thought to the stricter beliefs of the synod.

In 1997 Shepherd of the Valley went in search of a new pastor. Within the Missouri Synod, as with pretty much all Protestant churches, a group of parishioners known as a "call committee" gets a list of names and résumés from the synod's district office. But unlike other denominations, Missouri Synod call committees don't interview the candidates whose résumés they like. Instead, they notify the district of their pastoral choice. The minister then "answers the call." It is part of church doctrine that the process is not so much an interview for a job, but rather a sign from the Holy Spirit that the congregation needs this particular pastor's guidance.

Shepherd of the Valley's call committee looked at five pastors. Some of the top candidates did not answer the call--meaning they turned the church down--and the congregation couldn't make a decision from those left. Eventually, founding member and church president Al Johnson threw Bruce King's name into the hat based on the recommendation of another parishioner. King answered the call.

A slight man, the 46-year-old King has an earnest demeanor, his face framed by a neatly trimmed sandy beard and equally tidy sandy hair. He favors clerical collars and sweater vests. When he got Shepherd of the Valley's call, King was the pastor in the one-church town of Stockton, farther down the river in southeast Minnesota, where he had ministered for eight years, since shortly after his ordination and graduation from a seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Before then King had worked at a hospital in his hometown of Grayling, Michigan, teaching chronically ill patients how to care for themselves at home.

Historically, Missouri Synod pastors have gotten a call, arrived at the church in question, and simply started working. But in recent years it has become more common practice for the pastor and parishioners to have a meet-and-greet. When King visited Shepherd of the Valley, members wasted no time before peppering him with questions about his more conservative views. King made it clear that he followed synod doctrine, even its more obscure or strict points. He would reserve communion, for instance, for those who belonged to Shepherd of the Valley or another Missouri Synod church. Further, King told the congregation that he believed two other Lutheran affiliates, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and the Lutheran Church of America, to be a threat to the purity of Lutheranism.

Perhaps the most divisive thing he told church members was that he believes women's role in the church should be extremely limited. "I believe that the most important role women play is that of being a mother," he explains. "It's something that's in the doctrine of the Missouri Synod and some people might disagree with, but I'm here to uphold the beliefs of the church."

The tone of the meeting surprised Greg Collins. He hadn't expected some of his close friends in the church would support such conservative positions. But he didn't worry. He believed the aggressive line of questioning would make King aware of the more liberal feelings of the congregation as a whole, ultimately revealing the gulf between the would-be pastor and the flock. "There were some very good questions addressed at the meeting, especially from the women," Collins remembers. "People were just furious at some of the responses. Even Julie King, I watched her as her husband spoke, and she looked down at her feet. She couldn't back him up."

King held his ground, holding fast to the idea that God makes these decisions and that the fact that he had been called meant he was to guide this flock back to the straight-and-narrow. "There were no secrets about who I was," he says now. "I was frank. Did they discourage me? No."

King went back to Stockton and prayed with his family. Ultimately, he decided that he was needed at Shepherd of the Valley, that he could steer the church away from the liberal path it had taken in recent years, and that the Holy Spirit had called him.

And since the church badly needed a pastor, and some members strongly supported King, the congregation acquiesced. For his part, Collins felt it was too complicated and time-consuming to rescind the call (to tamper with the pastoral call, some felt, would be to disregard the scriptures of the church), and decided to take a wait-and-see approach. "You have doubts with any new pastor, and I didn't necessarily disagree with all of his beliefs," he notes. "We felt that perhaps we could go along with this and work it out."

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