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.

Some 30 miles outside of the Twin Cities, the Mighty Mississippi stops flowing south for a while. Instead it rolls east to kiss the mouth of the St. Croix River and eventually swallows it whole. A lumbering blacktop that shadowboxes with the river from its headwaters at Lake Itasca all the way to Mississippi, Highway 61 arches over the waters here on a robin's-egg-blue bridge and rolls through the heart of a town called Hastings.

Below the bridge is Second Street, a main drag with antique stores and taverns along the waterfront that has been restored to look as it did in the 1880s. Remnants of stone warehouses and mills still line the riverfront, and Victorian mansions still dot the rising bluffs south of the river. Outside of the historic district, the town looks a lot like any other Midwestern bedroom community: A Holiday station, a Walgreen's, and a Burger King line the roadside just a mile south of the bridge.

Before the arrival of the Europeans, Native Americans found the natural port here--a placid bend in the Mississippi--to be ideal for fishing, and they christened the area "Owobopte," meaning "the place where the turnips grow." After a pair of hasty treaties in 1851 opened the land west of the river to white settlers, a town boomed. Back then the Mississippi was too shallow for large boat traffic to go any farther north, so fur traders and lumbermen made Hastings their last stop.

Michael Dvorak

Inevitably, men of the cloth were quick to arrive, eager to reach not only the millers and explorers but the Native Americans as well. In 1856, a Lutheran minister dispatched to Minnesota in search of German immigrants and American Indians traveled some 700 miles around the state before finding a wealth of potential parishioners near the river and in the general area now known as Hastings.

Over the years, thanks to some railroads running near the city, the region saw steady development. Today a town of 18,000 people, Hastings is home to nearly 30 churches. First Presbyterian, United Pentecostal, First Baptist, St. Luke's Episcopal, and plenty more line Highway 61--which briefly becomes a main strip known as Vermillion Street--and the quaint streets that branch off from it.

A couple of miles west of the river and historic district, on the edge of a burgeoning subdivision, sits one of Hastings's newest churches, a small, low-slung structure that was built in 1986. It's a plain, tan building with a large glass foyer that sits atop a rolling hill. Until recently this was the home of Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church, the only church in town that belongs to a conservative Lutheran sect known as the Missouri Synod.

Technically, Shepherd of the Valley hasn't met here since November 1998. Not since the congregation fell to fighting over whether to fire its pastor, Bruce King. At the height of the battle, one of the church's lay officials literally changed the locks on the fire-and-brimstone minister. Supposedly the rift was caused by disagreement over just who is a good enough Lutheran to receive communion. But plenty of folks hereabouts insist that the real problem is that people felt the old-school pastor cared more about doctrine than he did about the earthly souls entrusted to his care.

These days King and the 50 or so members of the congregation who remained faithful to him worship on the other side of town in a Country Inn & Suites hotel at the junction of highways 61 and 316. At exactly the same time every Sunday morning, the rest of his erstwhile flock can be found holding services in the little church on the hill, now renamed Hope Lutheran Church.

Both sides have become tight-lipped and hurt by the battle, which feels like a bad sibling feud, with differences finally coming to a head the night King and his faction left the church. Soon after, the future of the building at 1450 W. Fourth St. was put in the hands of the lay authorities of Minnesota's legal system. Since then, there's been a silence as loud as thunder.

Shepherd of the Valley used to be so neighborly, friends on both sides of the dispute recall. The congregants often felt like an extended family. "We were a very united church," recalls parishioner Tim Rusch. "But now we are all deeply divided, and there are no winners or losers."

 

As in most towns of any size, there were several Lutheran churches in Hastings 20 years ago. But none was affiliated with the Missouri Synod, one of the most conservative branches of the Lutheran church. Some members had been driving as far as Rosemount, or even up to St. Paul, to worship. And as their numbers grew, a dedicated group started working on bringing a church of their own to Hastings.

In 1985, with 50 charter members, Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church was founded. With a $250,000 loan from the Missouri Synod, the founders went right to work on creating a place where they could worship. Many pitched in to build the church with their own bare hands, toiling away in their spare time. "We had this group called Laborers for Christ that goes around and builds Missouri Synod churches," the church's first treasurer, Al Johnson, would later recall. "By the end of the day, my muscles were so tense and tight. I couldn't even hammer anymore because I was so tense from standing on that roof."

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."

Tim Rusch, who at the time of the call was a church elder, recalls that King was completely forthright with the parishioners. "I don't know that he was firing a warning shot, necessarily," Rusch opines. "He was asked some very direct questions and he answered them. Folks didn't really think, until that moment, that we'd had different points of view and philosophies under the surface for a lot of years."

The meeting, many parishioners and even King himself have come to believe, was a sign of what was to follow. Regardless of the intent of the church's founders, the bulk of the congregation didn't really want to worship according to the more conservative doctrine. And King, believing that the only opinion that matters is God's, was not interested in compromise for the sake of social harmony.

 

The ill will began to fester the moment Bruce King was installed as pastor at Shepherd of the Valley in July 1997. King had sought a parsonage, but, Collins notes, the church had sold a house it owned in Hastings a few years earlier. So the church gave King a $5,000 "gift" for a down payment on a home. But instead of finding a home in Hastings, King promptly bought a house across the river in Prescott, Wisconsin. He also kept his kids out of the local schools and had his wife instruct them at home.

At the pulpit, King took his strict reading of the Bible to heart. Though he offered an adult Bible study in the church on Sunday afternoons in what seemed to be a congenial spirit, it appeared to many to be a chance for the pastor to advance his doctrinal agenda. "He took every chance he could to knock the [Evangelical Lutheran Church of America]," Collins complains. Grumbling began to circulate about how the new preacher was more interested in the rules than the individual souls in his congregation.

"King just wasn't administering to the congregation," complains Collins. "We had people who were ill, and King refused to see them. We had people who were leaving the church and he wouldn't go to find out why. We had relatives who would come to church and be told they couldn't participate in communion."

Most infamous is the time the new pastor refused communion to Marty McCumber's brother, who was visiting from Colorado. Although the man had been baptized and confirmed as a member of the Missouri Synod, he attended an Evangelical Lutheran Church. Before the visitor took communion, King asked about his background. McCumber's brother explained that he wanted desperately to commune with the synod into which he had been baptized and confirmed, but that he lived in an isolated rural area and he was legally blind. It was all he could do to walk to Evangelical Lutheran Church of America services near his home. King was unmoved.

In fact, parishioners complain, King was constantly pulling visiting relatives aside during communion and quizzing them on their roots; if they didn't pass muster, he would refuse them the Lord's Supper, even if their sin was nothing more than being a member of a Lutheran church from a different synod.

And then there was the instance church member Jan Prause was in the hospital with heart problems. According to testimony parishioners would later give, King was nowhere to be found to minister spiritual comfort, and he had failed to perform basic pastoral duties. (King insists that he visited Jan Prause but concludes that he had difficulty talking to her while there was family in her room. "Sometimes, in those environments, it's difficult to talk about certain issues of mortality and salvation," he says.)

To outsiders it probably sounds like King is the product of a different century. And in a way, he is. To understand him, and his unwavering belief that the Bible and the synod rules are the literal words of God, a bit of history is in order. In the early 1500s, the Roman Catholic Church excommunicated a German monk named Martin Luther, who believed that salvation should be found in a life not just of faith, but also of good works.

Banished from the church, Luther struck out on his own, followed by a wave of northern European and Scandinavian Christians who renounced the church, in the period known as the Reformation. Luther's ideas crossed the Atlantic in the 1620s when the first Lutheran immigrants, a group of Dutch merchants, arrived in New Amsterdam. Swedish Lutherans soon immigrated, settling near the Delaware River, followed by a wave of German immigration in the 1730s.

Over the years, according to the book Lutherans in the U.S.A., by Willmar Thorkelson, most of the Lutheran immigrants pushed south and west. In the 1830s, groups of Germans moved up the Mississippi River Valley and settled in Missouri. Not long afterward, a depression in northern Europe and the French Revolution brought the first wave of Scandinavian immigrants to this country. Most settled in Wisconsin, western Illinois, and Minnesota. The new immigrants passed the word to relatives and friends in Europe that there was good living in the new land, and after the Civil War, another wave of immigration from Germany and Scandinavia began that continued right up until the turn of the 20th Century.

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.

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.

Collins and Hope filed an appeal, and posted a $35,000 bond that gave them the right to stay in the church while the matter was still before the court. Last May the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled in favor of King. Doctrinal issues may have given rise to the dispute, the justices concluded, but courts can only use "neutral" principles of law regarding property disputes.

Collins and his supporters have asked the state supreme court to hear the case. "It's not what we want to do," he sighs. "But this has been something that the courts haven't gotten right yet." It could be months before he and Hope Lutheran learn whether the justices will try to untangle what happened at the little church on the hill, and if they do, months more before any decision is made.

King is equally determined to see the matter through. "It's been declared our church," he says. "We are doing this not necessarily to be vindicated, but to bring to light, in a public way, that we were wronged."

 

It's not just church services that feel different these days, says Carl Blomgren. It's the whole town of Hastings. The rift caused by the ouster and the lawsuit may, in good Lutheran tradition, be a quiet one, but the pain is palpable. "I was good friends with Al Johnson, and I haven't spoken to him since the trial," he laments. "Tim Rusch won't talk to anyone. King is the one that caused all the legal problems and pitted friend against friend, downsized the congregation, and has taken us all to court.

"We've definitely lost something in our town, and the damage will probably never go away," Blomgren continues. "The split hurt pretty bad. Every Sunday, we pray for them just as we'd pray for anybody else."

Even as they wait for an end to the bitter power struggle, both Collins and King know that it's now simply a fight to the finish, a battle to see who will be the last one standing. And that makes both men uncomfortable. King is sad about the effect the dispute has had on the community. He sees his former parishioners around town all the time. "Often, it's like running into your ex-wife at the grocery store," he says. "But we pray for them, always."

Collins sees it, too, and almost feels sympathy for his former minister. "As much as I believe we own that church, I do feel bad for Bruce King," he concedes. "Outside of his beliefs, he is so meek and mild. If he loses this case, his career will be over." But, he says, King doesn't care. The pastor has absolute faith that God called him to bring Shepherd of the Valley back into the fold, Collins is sure: "He would have been happy if he were the last one at the church."

 

News intern Nick Wunder contributed research to this story.

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