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.

Wherever they settled, Lutheran immigrants brought Bibles, hymnals, and different traditions of worship. As congregations formed, they were grouped together into assemblies of church councils called synods. The Missouri Synod was formed in 1847 by Saxons from Germany who believed that salvation came only by the grace of God. The synod quickly began evangelizing in Minnesota, which was then in the middle of a decade-long immigration boom that would increase the population from 6,077 to 172,000. The missionaries sought out German newcomers but also established a mission among the Ojibwe. Within 30 years, the Missouri Synod had 56 congregations in the state.

For most of the next hundred years, the sect was perpetually at the center of doctrinal fights with the American Lutheran Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Synod, and the Wisconsin Synod. No matter the principle, the disputes usually pitted Swedes, Norwegians, and Germans against one another.

Today the Missouri Synod has 35 districts around the country, with 6,200 congregations--a strong presence, but nowhere near as large as the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. In recent decades, the synod has been plagued by infighting between conservative and liberal factions, between those who wish to remain true to the original German Lutheran beliefs from the 1500s, and those who desire a more visible and welcoming culture.

King belongs to the former category. Too many Lutherans, he opines, have strayed too far from the path to salvation. It is his duty to combat that by staying true to literal interpretations of the Bible and to the original founding principles of the Missouri Synod. "To me, the Bible is not parable," King says. "It is the inspired and inerrant word of God."

Even so, the pastor's behavior has not been very Christian, says Carl Blomgren. A founding member of the church, Blomgren had invested heart and soul in Shepherd of the Valley. But after a few months of King's ministry, he began worshiping elsewhere. "Everything was gloom and doom," he says. "There was no joy in his sermons, in his teachings, or in his church."

Collins agrees. "He was alienating everyone," he says. "He was the shepherd who had completely lost his flock."

 

By the spring of 1998, many members of Shepherd of the Valley were fed up with the feeling that the little tan house of prayer was no longer their church. By all accounts, attendance slipped noticeably, with as many as 40 members having chosen to worship elsewhere. The Collinses, the Blomgrens, the McCumbers, the Prauses, and many other pillars of the church dropped out altogether. By the first financial quarter of 1998, Shepherd of the Valley was already $1,000 over budget, despite generous private contributions.

Even charter members were leaving. Carl Blomgren finally quit after approaching King that April to ask whether his visiting brother would be able to take communion. King knew that Blomgren's brother was not a member of the Missouri Synod, and said no. Other parishioners would later testify in court that King pulled Blomgren aside and told him that every time his brother stepped into another Lutheran church, he sinned. "If Pastor King wouldn't commune his brother," Tim Rusch said, "Carl wouldn't want to be a part of our church any longer."

Greg Collins was so fed up that he'd stopped attending services. But he was still on the church's board, and he decided to do something to save his itchy soul immediately. "I couldn't stand by and watch the church disintegrate," he says. Simply firing King was not an option: Such decisions must go through circuit and district counselors within the synod. And King knew about the controversy but wasn't about to go against his call and resign. Collins and some other members proposed they could starve King out by eliminating his $23,000 salary altogether. Some church elders, fearful of tampering with the divinity of the pastoral call, balked. There was talk of a compromise, and Al Johnson and Greg Collins drew up a plan for the congregation's two factions to share money, property, and assets. Again, the parish was fearful of even initiating a compromise, believing that the church should try at all costs to remain united.

Finally, in May 1998, both the traditionalists and the modernists agreed that the best idea was for King to take a severance package--six months of his salary. On the afternoon King's response was due, he seemed willing to go along. But by nightfall, he stood before the congregation and refused, calling the offer "a bribe."

Collins remains aghast at the about-face. "The best decision Bruce King could have made in his life vanished that afternoon," he claims.

Within days, Collins took matters into his own hands. He, his wife Jane, and their five children came to Shepherd of the Valley ten years ago, during the church's salad days. A number cruncher at heart, Collins is brusque, with a quick, to-the-point speech pattern, and a boyish salt-and-pepper bowl cut atop a cherubic face. A 47-year-old Nebraska native, Collins was a photojournalist before going to work a decade ago for the Minneapolis-based Lutheran Brotherhood, a giant insurance company, as a financial officer.

Collins initiated a letter-writing campaign to oust King. The first shot was a letter to Rev. Gerald Coleman of Cross View Lutheran Church in Edina, who sat on the board of the synod district office that oversees Shepherd of the Valley. The missive, dated July 17, 1998, opens with "Greetings in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ!" and goes on to detail a host of complaints about Bruce King's pastoral care and communion practices. The letter was not signed, but bore the names of several church members, including Greg and Jane Collins, Carl Blomgren, and Ardoth and Marty McCumber. It also featured a plea for financial help and for help in reuniting the church. (To this day, and in trial testimony, Collins denies writing or sending the letter.) Coleman's response, signed "in the awesome love of Christ," was befuddled. He promised that King and the synod's Minnesota South District president, Dr. Rev. Lane Seitz, would meet in August to smooth out the problems.

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