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.

The letter didn't garner the results Collins had hoped for--in fact, it seemed to align the synod officers with King. But he eventually found another synod officer, James Pragman, who helped him examine the bylaws. After combing through the documents, Collins believed he had discovered a way to remove King and keep the actual church building, which Collins saw as essential to preserving a congregation. According to synod bylaws, they learned, if a pastor has not performed his ministerial duties, his unsatisfied congregation can take over the property. Deciding exactly how a pastor has failed, however, is tricky: Under the same bylaws, if the dispute were one of doctrine, the church would remain with the pastor.

Collins, who clearly believed King had been a bad pastor, left the meeting feeling victorious. So much so that he sent out a letter on October 1 saying that he and Bob Neujahr, a charter member and elder of the church, had "formulated an intricate plan which would return congregational control to majority membership," and that he would hold a meeting October 4 at the local Super 8 motel. "Remember, 'loose lips sink ships' so only discuss this meeting with those friendly to the cause," the letter cautioned. "With God's help we'll survive this nightmare." It featured Collins's signature, with a smiley face, above the line "Greg Collins, Vice President in exile." Neither Bruce King nor Al Johnson got a copy of the letter.

On November 15, the church held its annual meeting. Collins's faction sat on the left side of the room, King's on the right. Collins and his supporters voted to set aside the meeting's usual business and instead asked members to eject King and take control of the property. By two-thirds majority, the congregation sided with Collins and voted to establish a new church. Collins urged King to pick up his belongings the next day.

But "King was gone before we closed with the Lord's Prayer," Blomgren remembers. The locks on the church were changed that night.

 

On a drizzly June Tuesday afternoon two and a half years later, King sits in an idling car in the parking lot of his former church. McMansions are going up all around, and a new $43 million high school is being built a few lots north. A water tower emblazoned with "Home of the Raiders" looms overhead, and a red and white sign on the front lawn now reads, "Hope Lutheran Church."

A minivan pulls into the lot, and Jane Collins, Greg's wife, gets out, unlocks the door to the church, and scurries in.

"I haven't set foot in there since Greg Collins asked me to come and get my belongings," King laments. "As hard as this has been for us, it's been hard for them too, I'm sure. I've resolved not to wish them ill."

A third of the church's membership stuck together as Shepherd of the Valley, though. At first, King's diminished congregation worshiped in Al Johnson's basement. Then it moved to a room at the city courthouse, but sometimes that was unavailable. Finally, the little group settled on a conference room at the Country Inn & Suites, at a cost of $100 per week. Collins, King says without a hint of irony or malice, "was nice enough to give us extra hymnals."

Eventually, King decided that his flock had migrated too many times. But nowhere in the Missouri Synod's contentious 150-year history was there precedent for the next move. In July 1999, Shepherd of the Valley retained the Minneapolis law firm of Rider, Bennett, Egan & Arundel and filed a lawsuit against Hope Lutheran and its president, Greg Collins. The suit asked the court to eject Hope from the church property, claiming that the dispute was one of doctrine and therefore, the church belonged to King and his congregation. As a member of Shepherd of the Valley's executive board, King argued, Collins had overstepped the bounds of his authority by transferring the deed to the church to his new nonprofit.

Collins and Hope retained George May, a local Hastings lawyer. Collins had been within his rights, they argued; he had carefully followed the steps laid out by the Missouri Synod's bylaws for resolving property disputes. Under the bylaws, in the case of a congregational split, disputed property shall go to the original congregation if the dispute is over doctrine. If it is a non-doctrinal dispute, and the pastor isn't ministering his duties, the property and church go to the two-thirds majority.

The suit went to trial in May 2000 in front of Dakota County District Court Judge Thomas Poch. From the start, according to court transcripts, it was clear that both judge and jury were uncomfortable being asked to settle what sounded like religious, doctrinal questions. Courts decide matters of civil law, so they focused intently on Collins's duties as an officer of a nonprofit when he was vice president of Shepherd of the Valley, which technically owned the church.

The jury deliberated for two weeks. Collins might have followed the synod's bylaws, but jurors said that as a nonprofit's financial officer he had acted improperly when he transferred the deed to the church to Hope Lutheran. The church building belonged to King and Shepherd of the Valley, they concluded, and Hope and Collins owed the ousted faction $7,700 in damages.

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