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Heavenly battle turns to court of man

for The Brooklyn Paper
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The battle between the congregation at Bethlehem Lutheran Church and the church’s governing body could soon shift from the kingdom of heaven to a New York court.

The dwindling congregation at the shuttered Boerum Hill church has started raising money to sue the Metropolitan New York Synod to force it to return the church building on Pacific Street to the local group and let it reopen for spiritual business.

The problem: The Synod, which oversees 210 Evangelical Lutheran churches in New York, obtained the deed to Bethlehem in an internal church struggle last January and kicked out the congregation.

Worse, the Synod de-sanctified Bethlehem Lutheran as a church.

“I was shocked when they came out and said Bethlehem Church no long exists,” said Muriel Tillinghast, who was president of the congregation. “We existed before the Synod existed.”

The church has stood at 490 Pacific St. since 1874. Built by the Swedish Lutheran community, the 1,250-seat house of worship acted as a cultural center for Swedish immigrants. At the time of its closing, less then 40 people were affiliated. Today, that number is down to 27 active members, who pray in exile at the Zion German Evangelical Lutheran Church in Brooklyn Heights.

Tillinghast said that the church’s declining membership was the reason that the Synod shut it down in January, but newly appointed assistant pastor Norman David said it was all about money.

So now, he’s planning the lawsuit — a process with which he is well acquainted.

In fact, David hooked up with the Bethlehem congregation because the same thing happened at his own parish in Beaumont, Mass., where he still lives and preaches when not working at Bethlehem.

“We would love to have the Synod come around and say, ‘Look, we are sorry. Here is the property. Let’s work together.’”

The Synod would not comment on the matter because “it’s under litigation,” a spokesman said.

Meanwhile, David is raising money. A couple Saturdays ago, he organized a fundraiser for the church and held a service outside the building’s locked doors, turning over a trash can, draping a white cloth over it, and offering sacrament. Despite the rain, the Bethlehem parishioners sang hymns and held a full service.

“We are still here, even if we are locked out of the building,” he said.

David said he needs to raise $200,000 to take the Synod to court. He has $5,000 so far.

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Reader Feedback

Michael from Astoria says:
This article seems one-sided. While I understand that the synod's refusal to comment tied the reporter's hands a little bit, the fact is that the story as published reflects only the version of Tillinghast and David. Surely their statements bear some scrutiny, and raise some questions.

Here are some questions that seem obvious to me: (1) are Tillinghast, David and their followers really "the congregation," or are they a splinter group fighting for control?

(2) How can David be "the pastor" both of a congregation in Massachusetts and of one in Brooklyn? Did the group in Brooklyn have the authority, under Lutheran church rules, to issue a call? Is he even accredited to their branch of the church?

(3) David says that the decision to close Bethlehem was "all about money." Are his efforts any different? If his actual goal is the good of the "congregation", rather than obtaining the title to a piece of valuable real estate, wouldn't it make just as much sense to keep them in a smaller and more manageable Brooklyn Heights space?

I know the Brooklyn Paper has run several articles on this awful situation. I'm still waiting for one that digs even a little beneath the surface.
Nov. 8, 2009, 5:51 am
Eldredge from S Brooklyn says:
C'mon. David & Tillinghast are in it for the money et al.
This David guy is affiliated with a superconservative Lutheran breakaway group that views the Evangelical Lutheran Church (the synod's denomination) as too liberal. Betcha he wants to "claim" this building for his group, and Tillinghast wants it to promote her private interests.

Anyway, they've got to be kidding re: property rights. In mainline Protestant denominations, the building is held "in trust" for the denomination. It's not locals' private hobbyhorse. If they diss the denom and effectively split from it, the denom can say "you're done," make them leave, declare the place vacant or a non-church (whatever). And based on past BP stories, this church has done some screwy things, from irregular elections to irregular hiring to having a "president for life" (?!).
Nov. 9, 2009, 2:29 am
Shimon Wiser from Williamsburg says:
Pastor, what kind of church do you have? Christ centered or man centered? On whom do the people dote, you or Christ?
Nov. 9, 2009, 4:08 pm
Paul from Park Slope says:
These people are nuts! Trying to field a lawsuit while Tillinghast is still under investigation by the Brooklyn DA's office for this same scam! Maybe her 'assistant pastor' (since it has been reported that Tillinghast is the "acting chief pastor", although she has no credentials for the post) doesn't know this latest wrinkle since he lives up in Massachusets where he is involved in a similar suit against the Lutheran synod. Can't keep the players straight without a program!

But the Brooklyn Papers could really do a much better job of reporting on this.
Nov. 12, 2009, 3:48 pm
Alex from Slope says:
Yep, Paul - you can't be a lutheran 'chief pastor' unless you're credentialed & ordained.
The news stories said she paid herself a salary as church-board president, plus - as others said - claimed to be president for life. Then there's the DA thing. Unbelievable.
Same stories said she wants to knock the place down and create offices & art studio space.
And what's with the assistant pastor who's involved in both Mass. and NY lawsuits?
Something here smells really bad.
Nov. 17, 2009, 1:55 am
Norman David from Boerum Hill says:
Greetings, Gersh and the Editorial staff of The Brooklyn Paper:

I read with interest your article about Bethlehem Brooklyn in your November 6 issue titled "Heavenly Battle Turns to Court of Man". I'm satisfied with the reporting which is, for the most part, accurate.

A couple of items I would correct, however:

1. Muriel Tillinghast no longer leads the congregation. She was president of the congregation for the past 5 years at least, but the BLC Constitution says a person can serve only two one-year terms in the office of President before being required to step down. The Constitution allows a person to remain in office "until the next election of officers", however, and because Muriel refused to convene the annual meeting of the congregation and hold elections, she kept herself in office for a prolonged period of time. This was corrected by the Congregation on May 29, 2009, when a special meeting was called to elect officers in the face of Muriel's refusal to hold elections.

Should you like, I can send to you both the BLC Constitution and By-Laws and the minutes of the May 29, 2009 Congregation Meeting of Bethlehem Lutheran Church. Despite what any may claim--Muriel, Bishop Rimbo of Metro NY Synod, or anyone else--the official record of Bethlehem Lutheran Church corporation, established in the State of New York in 1872, is the official, legal record of the body.

When she could not prevail against the wishes of the voting members of the congregation, which voted by a 2/3 majority to hold elections, Muriel up and quit on the spot and walked out of the meeting. She has not said anything to anyone of us--pastors, new council officers that were elected at the May 29 meeting (to wit: Steven Johnson, president; Anne Ehrlichmann, vice president; Shawna Opdycke, Secretary; Gabrielle Salley, treasurer and Doris Searcy, financial secretary), or other members. We have tried to reach out to her with letters and phone calls to dialog, but none of these has been responded to.

2. I am not the "newly-appointed assistant pastor" of Bethlehem, but the "called assistant Pastor who has, since a Congregation Meeting on July 30, 2009, been appointed Senior Pastor of Bethlehem, following the retirement of the previous Senior Pastor, Rev. Dr. George M. Muenich, in June 2009. A Rev. Mark Ehrlichmann remains as the called Assistant Pastor of Bethlehem.

3. The official reason the Synod gives for shutting the church is because "the membership is too scattered, or too small, to fulfill the purposes for which Bethlehem was organized." This brings up the question: "how small does a congregation have to be before it is too small to fulfill the purpose for which it was organized"? This is a point we will contest in our lawsuit.

Lutherans consider the Old and New Testament of the Bible to be the "rule and norm" of what we believe, teach, and practice (a doctrine Bethlehem's Constitution states very clearly in its opening article). In the words and practice of Jesus of Nazareth, whom Lutherans confess is the Son of God and Savior of the World, and is the "Christ / Messiah" predicted by the prophets of the Old Testament. he said "where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them" (The Gospel according to Matthew 18:20), and showed this in his post-resurrection appearance to the 2 disciples of Emmaeus (The Gospel according to Luke 24:13-34). The encounter between Jesus' disciple, Phillip, and the Ethopian eunuch (Acts of the Apostles 8:26-40), shows that one person telling another about the acts of God and Good News of the Gospel is sufficient to "fulfill the purposes for which the Church was organized (see Jesus Great Commission establishing the Church in the Gospel according to Matthew 28:18-20).

No surprise that the State of New York says that a corporation may exist with a sole proprietor, a partnership or a corporate membership of 3 or more. All it needs to do is be law-abiding in its practice, and be able to pay its debts.

At the time of Synod seizure of Bethlehem's property on December 29, 2008, the congregation had 30 members and was self-supporting with an annual income of up to $200,000 per year (source: bookkeeper's reports for calendar year 2007 & 2008, available upon request). Synod took the property, and shut everyone out, including Spiritual Life Fellowship, which was a Christian ministry led by a Rev. David Paul and bringing up to 700 people to the church twice a week for worship and Bible Study. Since then the place has been locked down and no one using it!

The fact that the property is worth at least $6,000,000.00 and just sitting there leads one to suspect that its only a matter of time the Synod liquidates it for the money it will bring. I suspect this is the real reason Synod took the property.

4. Although I am leading the congregation in its fund-raising effort, it is not me alone that is "raising the money" for Bethlehem's lawsuit against Synod, as your article suggests. Bethlehem Congregation voted 15-1 at its Annual Meeting on February 22, 2009 to reject Synod's claim of authority and to protest its taking of Bethlehem's property. At the Congregation Meeting on July 30, 2009, they voted unanimously to enter into a legal contract with Easter Star LLC of Belmont, MA, which was formed by Bethlehem's three pastors--Rev. Dr. George Muenich, Rev. Mark Ehrlichmann, and me, Rev. Dr. Norman David--on January 15, 2009 to form a legal entity from which to advise, counsel and lead Bethlehem, to raise funds for a comprehensive lawsuit against Synod. The Fund-raising Committee of Bethlehem is comprised of us pastors, Rev. David and Ehrlichmann, four Council officers--President, Vice President, Secretary and Treasurer--and two other laypersons. We are advised by two professional consultants, our attorney and a professional fundraiser.

5. Since late September of this year, Bethlehem now holds its regular service two Saturdays a month at 11 a.m. on the sidewalk at the corner of Pacific Street and Third Avenue, outside our church building. We no longer gather at Zion German Evangelical Lutheran Church, as we did from January until September of this year. We fellowship after the service at the Ocean View Diner on the corner of Third Avenue and Atlantic Avenue, a half-block from the church. If weather is too inclement for the outdoor service, we are arranging to meet indoors at the YMCA at the corner of Third and Atlantic.

6. Donations and pledges of donations over the next three years is not at $50,000.00. This is minimally what we need to launch our lawsuit, but we want to raise 4 times this ($200,000) to handle all contingencies and to see our suit through all courts of appeal. We are determined to bring a top-quality lawsuit, very comprehensive and very well researched and prepared for.

7. I am a Lutheran pastor under two calls, one to Christ Ev. Lutheran Church of Belmont, MA, which I have served since 1976, and the other to Bethlehem Lutheran Church, which I advised since first called in by Muriel Tillinghast in October 2007, and called to be one of their three pastors at the Congregation Meeting of Feb. 22, 2009. One pastor serving multiple parishes is very common in Lutheran practice, and I serve both concurrently.

If you need further information, please call me. You might also visit our website: www.bethlehembrooklyn.org.

With best regards,

Rev. Dr. Norman F. David, Pastor
Bethlehem Lutheran Church of Brooklyn, New York
Nov. 25, 2009, 6:25 pm
Ron Smith from Trinity County, CA says:
This is one of the reasons C.F.W. Walther pushed Congregational Polity so strongly. God bless you Pastor David and your Congregation at Bethlehem Lutheran. May our gracious Lord guide and protect your little flock till they finally have their fold restored to them.

On another note regarding these worshippers of Mannon, Jesus made a lot of unplesant remarks about,'robbers of widows and orphans,' so I would say that the ELCA is living dangerously here. It's rather sad that the two largest Lutheran Denominations have resorted to this type of cannabalism of their weaker bretheran.
Dec. 10, 2009, 1:44 am

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