The Wartburg Letter

Twenty-five years ago the Rev. Paul DeBlock, and his banker brother Joel, wrote a paper questioning the financial and theological approach LCC was taking toward missions. Why do Synod and Districts spend so much money on a growing administration when membership is in steady and predictable decline? Why is spending up while membership dropped, putting increasing financial pressures on congregations.

The DeBlock brothers’ paper was censured and buried by Synod officials as damaging.

Of course, the District President and Synod president at the time were right: the contents of the paper painted a picture of a church that demanded ever more from a shrinking donation base. That didn’t even address the “why are we doing this because administration isn’t a mission.” I was a full-time journalist in those days. I read the paper did some research to confirm the findings. My follow-up research was revealing. I couldn’t have access to public documents like budgets, and no official at the time would speak on the record.

Let’s be generous and say it was clear enough in 1993 that ABC District was taking financial actions that were ill-advised. District’s behaviors were bad enough that I decided to write a little newsletter to let people know that ABC District and Synod were breaking down and heading in a direction that was a serious risk for financial and spiritual catastrophe. That was in 1993.

Fast-forward 25 years, and one of my co-writers sent me the front page of the two editions of “The Wartburg Letter.” I’m sure there is one person out there who has just said, “I knew it!” The Wartburg Letter was a tempest in a teapot. It was a minor controversy at the time.

Looking back, I’m genuinely shocked how right I got it 25 years ago. Then again, I was really echoing the essay, research, intellect, and insights of the formidable DeBlock brothers.

Glancing over the front page of the Wartburg Letter, I remember the excitement of researching and writing the articles, having editorial meetings to focus on the angle of stories, and verifying the information we were publishing was correct. I recall the disappointment of having questions rebuffed by District staff. Granted it was a long time ago, but the attitudes and behaviors that lead to the collapse of CEF/DIL were firmly in operation in 1993. You can’t get to 2015’s collapse without all the decisions and actions District took in the 1990’s. The church’s problems have been decades in the making.

The March 1 cover is a personal favourite. In 1991 Synod issued a questionnaire about how much people trusted Synod and District financial management. The results of the survey were never published. If the results were that people trusted Synod, that would be exposed as a mistake. If the results were that people didn’t trust Synod, then it makes sense they buried the report. Either way, the perspective of history really doesn’t improve the picture for ABC District or Lutheran Church Canada.

If nothing else, it’s an interesting insight into just how early problems in Synod and District were identified, published, and ignored a quarter century ago.

Frankly, I’m a little shocked how well they hold up. Neither cover seems out of date.

Unwanted Attention

So, yes, it’s another church scandal. The roman Catholics kicked things off with the endless horrors and abuses at Mount Cashel Orphanage. The Anglicans dragged out their scandal over decades of Residential Schools. To round out the trifecta of scandal, LCC dropped tens of millions of church members money into a black hole.  Not a real black hole. Real black holes require physics. LCC can’t manage a balance sheet let alone physics.

One thing LCC can do: get media attention.

Do’s and Don’ts

Compliance is a flexible word. In mountain biking, a “compliant” bike is one that sucks up some of the rough trail and still lets you feel in control. Of course mountain biking you don’t steer as much as guide and bounce to a new location. Compliance is a way to think about being in agreement: as a Synod, we expect all congregations to subscribe to the Lutheran Confessions – they are compliant.

Compliance is doing what you’re supposed to be doing; following all the rules, laws, and regulations of that particular industry.

One of the most heavily regulated sectors in Canada is the financial sector. Canada avoided the economic ditch after the 2008 downturn, largely because Canada’s regulatory system has built-in checks to make sure everything is in the green. There are always loopholes, but generally Canada has managed to avoid falling victim to circumstances seen in the USA and elsewhere.

Bad News, Bad News

I work with words. And as someone who spends a lot of time writing, it’s helpful to know where words were born. As a result I’ve become a minor etymology (word origin) geek. One word we all take for granted has a very definite point of origin: downtown. Downtown is actually the financial district of lower Manhattan in New York City. Uptown is where corporate head offices and swanky apartments. Downtown is where the action is. Growing up in Regina we had a “downtown.” Really, it’s the city centre – on the prairies up and down refer to earth and sky.

The notion of “downtown” was invented because it was more efficient to warehouse documents and people close to each other. Decades later the information age promised to get rid of stacks of paper and documentation. Then someone invented the printer. Sure we complain about it, but if we’re honest there is less paper than in the past. That’s especially true when you’re talking about ABC District.