KIRKWOOD, Mo. (AP) -- After the Rev. Gerald Kieschnick was elected in July to lead 2.6 million Lutherans, he said he wanted to promote dialogue within the church. But this isn't exactly what he meant.
The president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod found he had stirred controversy by being tolerant of participation in interfaith prayer services after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Two pastors asked a district president to revoke Kieschnick's membership in the synod.
"It means that a few people are disagreeing with the decisions I've made," Kieschnick said Monday in an interview. "But guess what? Leaders are always disappointing somebody."
"When obstacles arise," he said, "I just see those as speed bumps on the road."
'Things have changed a bunch in the past 30, 40, 50 years. Were there people of the Islamic faith in the country in the middle of the 20th century? Maybe. But not as many as there are today.' -- The Rev. Gerald Kieschnick
Kieschnick on Monday said his first major speed bump as synod president is behind him. During a telephone meeting Sunday night, a five-member constitutional commission agreed that the synod president is accountable only to voters at the convention, Kieschnick said.
The next convention, held every three years, isn't until 2004.
The criticism started after Kieschnick supported the Rev. David Benke, the Atlantic District president who participated in a post-Sept. 11 prayer service at Yankee Stadium. The problem: The service included Muslims, Jews and leaders of other Christian denominations.
Kieschnick, 58, also has taken heat for singing and praying with leaders of the less conservative Evangelical Lutheran Church in America after a tour of ground zero in Manhattan.
The two pastors -- Steven Bohler and David Oberdieck -- asked the Missouri District president, the Rev. James Kalthoff, to start the process of revoking Kieschnick's synod membership.
Bohler, reached Monday at Our Savior's Lutheran Church in Crookston, Minn., declined to comment.
In a prepared statement, Oberdieck responded first by quoting an earlier statement by Kieschnick -- that the "real tragedy" of Sept. 11 was that "in all likelihood, many of those people who died in that atrocity are not in heaven today -- they're in hell -- because they did not know or accept Jesus Christ as Savior."
"I choose to dwell on this common ground rather than dwell on my differences with President Kieschnick," Oberdieck said. "The matter of debate in regards to Christians and non-Christians leading prayer together will continue in our Synod. It will hopefully be resolved with honest, loving conversation between the saints."
The synod's 1847 constitution demands that its congregations and pastors reject both the mingling of Christian and non-Christian beliefs. Traditionally, Missouri Synod leaders have not led prayer services with leaders of other religions, or even other Lutheran denominations.
But in Kieschnick's view, times change. He also said that a report approved by the convention in July allows synod leaders to lead services with those of other faiths at civic events.
"This is not your grandfather's United States of America," he said. "Things have changed a bunch in the past 30, 40, 50 years. Were there people of the Islamic faith in the country in the middle of the 20th century? Maybe. But not as many as there are today."
The Missouri Synod, based in suburban St. Louis, is the ninth largest Christian denomination in America, with members in every state and about 60 foreign countries. It is more conservative than other Lutheran denominations. The Missouri Synod does not ordain women, which would violate "the order of creation" by usurping authority over men.
Kieschnick said Monday that besides the prayer controversy, two recent events have strengthened his belief that his tolerance is just: his tour of ground zero, and his recovery from surgery.
"I saw the rubble, I smelled the burning stench," Kieschnick said. He realized that the Christian Church as a whole has a special responsibility to offer its "kind of comfort, the kind of hope, the kind of healing to people who have been devastated," he said. "We're going to be there."
Monday was Kieschnick's first day back at the office after recovering from major surgery: Doctors removed his prostate after finding a malignant tumor. They also found that it had spread no further.
"It just created within me an even greater resolve to make every moment of every day count," he said. "I believe that everything that's gone on, including the surgery, has continued to strengthen me as a person and strengthen me as a leader."
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.