Pew — this stinks! Congregation is homeless in church fight

Pew — this stinks! Congregation is homeless in church fight
The Brooklyn Paper / Kate Emerson

Mother of God! A splintering fight for control of a Lutheran church in Boerum Hill has left the dwindling congregation homeless.

Members of the Bethlehem Lutheran Church and the Metropolitan New York Synod, which oversees local congregations, have been tussling for control of the Pacific Street church for several years, but last week, the fight became public when some congregants rallied outside of the Lutheran organization’s Manhattan headquarters, claiming that the synod had seized their place of worship.

“They’ve been shut out of their own church without any recourse,” fumed the Rev. Norman David, a visiting, and renegade, pastor from Massachusetts who organized last Tuesday’s protest to regain control of the 1874 church. “The Synod thinks they can lord it over you and seize your property.”

The fight is complicated because not only is it being waged in civil court, but the two sides are contesting each other by the arcane rules of this branch of the Lutheran Church. Some of Bethlehem’s most-vocal critics want to dissolve their connection with the Synod — and need two votes by a two-thirds majority to do so.

One secession vote has already happened and a second is scheduled for May, David said.

The Synod claims that the whole congregation does not want to secede, but merely that some rogue members do. The Synod also does not recognize the outcome of the first alleged vote, nor the appeals from David and Muriel Tillinghast, the president of the Boerum Hill church’s congregation. (If her name is familiar, it’s because she was Ralph Nader’s running mate in the 1996 presidential race.)

The feud goes back to 2003, David said, when members of the congregation felt the Synod had become hellbent on shutting the church and appointed a pastor allied with the Synod leadership.

Lawsuits and countersuits followed. Events boiled quietly over in early January when the Synod changed the locks on the church, driving the small congregation to hold its services at Zion German Evangelical Lutheran Church in Brooklyn Heights.

The Synod claims the building is in disrepair and is too hazardous for the congregation, and that members of the congregation have not allowed the Synod to make improvements. However, the only complaint on file with the city’s Buildings Department says that a stone parapet, which tumbled to the sidewalk and a public parking lot in 2007, has been resolved.

David and Tillinghast said the Synod wanted to shut down Bethlehem Lutheran Church to sell the property for a handsome profit, but they’ve fought back to keep their flock intact.

“They pay their own way and hold their own services,” David said, talking about the $160,000 budget the congregation ran on in 2008.

But Tillinghast herself wants to raze the 136-year-old church and redevelop the site.

“What I’d like to do is to have a new edifice, one that is 21st century. We’re dealing with a 19th-century church that didn’t have a maintenance program. We keep it going and it’s not so bad,” said Tillinghast. “We’d like to support entrepreneurial development in our neighborhood with artists and small offices. We want the church to be a hub.”

And she and her plans, known as the so-called “Vision,” have not had the full support of congregation, which is down to about two dozen voting members last year.

No one from the Metropolitan New York Synod would consent to be quoted for this article.

Perhaps a higher power will have to intervene.