Pew — this stinks! Congregation is homeless in church fight

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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.

Updated 5:12 pm, July 9, 2018: Story was updated to include more context about Muriel Tillighast.
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Reasonable discourse

Disinterested (Non)Party from Brooklyn says:
“The Synod thinks they can lord it over you and seize your property.”

Among Lutherans -- and Episcopalians, Methodists, and Catholics, among others: The parent organization "owns" the property, under the theory that local churchers have always supported the national franchise - i.e., that it was important to them to be part of the Lutheran, Episc., etc., organization, not just members of some unaffiliated neighborhood church. (In exchange, the nat'l church vets/provides clergy, advice, practical support, a national "brand," et al). So the locals hold the property in trust for the denomination and everyone in it.
Not every denomination does it that way -- but these particular ones do, and it's common knowledge, not just sneaky fine print.
And it's awfully hard to chug along under some organization's aegis for X many years, agree to the rules/regs - and then (due to some dispute) try to peel off and claim the property.
April 29, 2009, 7:08 am
Paul from Boerum Hill says:
So did Ms. Tillinghast explain why they drove away 3/4 of the former church members? Why they repeatedly rejected every pastor the Lutheran church sent their way, and even changed the locks to keep them out? Did she mention that she had taken to preaching herself? Did she mention that she was had tried to sell the property and had negotiated a $1million commission for herself (as if they actually owned the property! Talk about fraud!) Did she mention that she was parading around a document signed by the "board" that certified she was "president for life" of the congregation? Or that she had tried to "acquire" an arts organization's bank account and is just this side of arrest for that?

She didn't? Gee, what a surprise. Those poor little lambs.

Good for the Lutheran Synod.
April 29, 2009, 2:18 pm
Paul from Boerum Hill says:
It's also very curious that Rev. Norman David is involved in this. He's from Boston, and has an ax to grind with the Lutheran Synod. This is from his bio (which I would have hoped a reporter would have looked for, but...) "Currently independent of larger church affiliation, he looks joining the Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ (LCMC), a post-denominational national body that has formed out of the ELCA to embrace the deeper unity God gives in Christ Jesus amid human political and ecclesiastical organizations." In other words, break-away. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

However this "congregation" decides to go with respect to withdrawing from the Metropolitan Lutheran Synod, they will still have to find the money to buy the church from the Synod. It just ain't theirs to squat and seize. Neither are the bank accounts. And I always was taught the Lord frowned on theft, no matter how you justify it.
April 29, 2009, 2:28 pm
DS from BH says:
The interior of that church is really a jewel -- beautiful robin's egg blue ceiling with huge stained glass rose window. And the attached parson's house is gorgeous architecture, too.

What are the chances these buildings can survive?
April 29, 2009, 4:34 pm
Thomas from So Brooklyn says:
I'm not a Lutheran (nor do I play one on TV ...) but I'm familiar with churches, and this story's narrative, and content, don't "work."

#1, the story talks about a "synod" (which it doesn't define), with "arcane" rules, and refers to "this branch" of the Lutheran Church, but doesn't *name* the branch.
The overall impression is that this is a spitting contest between a local church and some vague "Metropolitan Synod" Church.
But even *I* know that (a) a Lutheran synod is the equivalent of a diocese, and (b) this synod is the pretty-big NYC "diocese" of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America - which is one of the U.S.'s largest mainline Christian churches (and the largest U.S. Lutheran branch).
So it's not just some amusing, pottsy battle between a local church and an obscure branch of Lutheranism.
Also, their rules are no more "arcane" than those of non-Lutheran denominations (including my own).

#2, when a church belongs to a mainline denomination, it operates under its Big Church's rules, and there are right-wrong ways to do things.
- Most denominations *will* close a church that's long-term failing, and has no sign of resurrection. It's a risk that churches take (and an incentive to not fail!).
- When a church is badly failing, a denomination's local leadership (in their case, synod) normally *will* assign clergy to it, rather than letting the people pick their own. The clergy's job might be to revive the place, or to wind it down for closing ... but you *will* get major flak if you reject those clergy and slam the door, because ...
- Church rules and NY law require that churches follow certain rules re: Big Church oversight, electing boardpeople and officers, etc. You can't run a mainline church as a private hobby. And
- Legally, your little church and its assets belong to *the denomination and its people.* The Big Church must OK how you run things, what you do with the property, whether it can be sold, what's done with proceeds, etc.
As "Paul" said in his comment, you have to buy the property from the denomination - you can't just say "buzz off," then claim the building, contents, lot, and bank accounts, as if they were yours. Previous generations donated that stuff to help their denomination, not to boost some breakaway group.

#3, Why the hooey is a guy from Massachusetts (Rev David) protesting vs. a NY synod? If "Paul's" comment above is correct, it sounds like another case in which breakaways try to undermine, and poach assets from, their ex-church ... which is happening in a lot of mainline churches.

#4, Is Tillinghast for real? Church leaders emphasize "we," voting, and right and fair procedure - not "What *I'd* like to do" (with someone else's property) - much less, I want to raze the church and rebuild it as an office-entrepreneurial hub.

Even to an outsider and non-Lutheran (me), this all sounds like grandiose empire-building, with David & Tillinghast facilitating each other's ego trips.
PS - In situations like this: When-if the "breakaways" win, they usually end up having further hissyfits and schisms, and suing each other in a blaze of further-wasted assets.
April 30, 2009, 5:52 pm
Mindboggled from Cobble Hill says:
Paul from Boerum Hill says: 'Did she mention that she had taken to preaching herself? Did she mention that she was had tried to sell the property and had negotiated a $1million commission for herself (as if they actually owned the property! Talk about fraud!) Did she mention that she was parading around a document signed by the "board" that certified she was "president for life" of the congregation?'

This whole soap-opera sounds INSANE.
Wouldn't a sale require approval by the Lutheran 'upper management,' plus judge's approval to make sure management okayed it it benefited the church wasn't somebody's pocket-lining scam?
It's a screaming conflict for a church official to push a church sale, then profit from it, period, much less make a million bucks.
Didn't this nut KNOW this stuff? Did she think no one would notice the sale? Or that it'd be a done deal even if she had no authority to sell?
I never HEARD heard of a church 'president for life.' Churches REQUIRE term limits officer elections, plus -- duh! -- clergy. W/o those, you're also breaching state Religious Corporation Law.

This sounds like a scammy cult, not like a church.
I sure hope the synod wins.
April 30, 2009, 11:19 pm
Worried neighbor from Boerum Hill says:
“They pay their own way and hold their own services,” David said, talking about the $160,000 budget the congregation ran on in 2008."

I remembered the Daily News covered this 4 months ago, and Ms Tillinghast said she closed the church at Christmas '07 because they couldnt afford heat or a minister.
But they had a $160k budget by 08 (??). Thats definitely enough to cover some heat and a drop-in minister plus basics. If theyre not using the church at all, the $160k must be going to lawsuits, or I hope somebodys watching the till. No way that 'two dozen' people are paying $160k to use another church for a few hours a week.

I'm also shocked, because in the News story Ms T made it sound like a landmark type battle, with the synod wanting to level and sell the bldg. Thats why I read that story at all.
She didnt mention that SHE wants to level it and turn it into a moneymaker.
May 1, 2009, 10:08 pm
Eleanore from Boerum says:
You didn't mention in the story that Ms Tillinghast brought a law suit against the legitimately called and long time pastor of Bethlehem Church after he suddenly died of a heart attack a few years ago. This well loved pastor received a modisst salary and was totally dedicated to the community. After his widow moved from the parsonage, Ms Tillinghast moved in. It seems she is interested in possession of the site and assets. There is a lot more to this story.
May 4, 2009, 8:56 am
Gene from Boerum Hill says:
Too bad the lutherans' synod can't just write this place off (which of course they shouldn't), then sit back, eat popcorn and watch the action.

B/c based on the story plus replies here - it sounds like, if she gets her way, tillinghast ultimately will end up in either a straitjacket or a paddywagon!
May 4, 2009, 5:35 pm

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