Humble Leadership and Gentle Persuasion: A Plea to the People of the Covenant Church (Mark Safstrom)

Tonight’s guest-blogger is Mark Safstrom, chief editor of the devotional journal Pietisten and assistant professor of Scandinavian Studies at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois. More importantly, Mark is both a friend and a Mission Friend: that is, a fellow member of the Evangelical Covenant Church. What follows is adapted from his piece in next month’s issue of Pietisten, shared here so that it might be read by delegates to the ECC’s annual meeting, taking place this Thursday through Saturday in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Mark’s words here are his own, but I share the hopes and concerns he articulates — as should anyone who agrees that the Covenant is, and must remain, the best living example of “the Pietist option in practice.”

No human being can withstand close scrutiny. (Torgny Segerstedt)

Around election time — and when is it not? — our mailboxes get overstuffed with campaign ads. In the mail or on TV, the slogans are petty. Especially concerning to a college professor, the quotations are mere sound bites, without context. “Trust me, not the other candidate…” because he or she said this offhand comment ten years ago.

Mark Safstrom
Mark Safstrom – Augustana College

Partisan loyalty is alarmingly high. Character and leadership style seem to count for little. The temptation many leaders face is to guard power with strength in the short term, at the expense of building consensus for the long term. Consensus-building falls by the wayside because it is too easily identified with weakness or a slippery slope.

Nasty political campaigns have been standard practice throughout history. The political cartoons swirling around the presidency of Abraham Lincoln are particularly fascinating to me, and occupy their own exhibit at his presidential library in Springfield, Illinois. These unflattering caricatures are usually not in the books that schoolkids read about the man who freed the slaves and saved the Union. What is fascinating is that these caricatures are such a contrast to how posterity has remembered him. Nevertheless, Lincoln seems to have had this future-oriented view, allowing him to make difficult decisions that at the time must have seemed like unsatisfying compromises.

Trust in leaders can change overnight. It has been bewildering to watch the rapid pace that the #MeToo movement has reduced a long list of powerful leaders and influential celebrities to pariahs. Power and influence is temporary and illusionary, and has little to do with actual authority or character. The actions taken by one president or leader can be swiftly reversed by a successor.

Twice in the Psalms, we receive the warning not to depend too much on the strength of powerful leaders:

It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to put confidence in princes. (Ps 118:9)

Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish. (Ps 146:3-4)

Even the saintly among us are frail, and their help is limited. Fyodor Dostoyevsky paints this vividly in The Brothers Karamazov, as young Alyosha experiences a crisis of faith following the death of his respected mentor, Father Zosima. To the surprise of all gathered in the monastery, the body of Zosima begins to smell horribly within minutes of his death. If he had been saintly, they assumed, no foul odor like this would have emanated from his corpse.

I have a vivid memory of Professor Cal Katter leading our class discussion of the “Brothers K” two decades ago in his Foundations and Landmarks of Western Civilization course at North Park University. What was the source of Alyosha’s crisis of faith? Why had he had such an exalted view of his spiritual leader? At the very least, we can conclude that when the frailty of leaders is exposed, we learn what real trust and real leadership is. The Christian foundation of Dostoyevksy’s novel points us upward and outside of ourselves, to the source of all authority.

The psalmist raises the question of how much we should expect from our leaders. Should we place less emphasis on hoping for a strong woman or man to come in to fix things for us, to say all the right things? The durability of any democratic organization, including Christian ones, must depend on leaders who nurture a long-term culture of consensus.

Mission Synod pastors meeting in Princeton, IL in 1882, three years before the Covenant was founded – Covenant Archives

This is a season of change in leadership for the Covenant Church, particularly for a new denominational president and a new university president for North Park. Listening to the buzz surrounding the search process and nominations, as well as controversies related to the problems that need to be “fixed,” it is common to hear suggestions as to why this or that person would be ideal. Long after these new leaders have been installed, these questions about leadership will continue to be relevant.

Over the past twenty years, as many people have expressed faithful dissent on the issue of sexuality within the Covenant Church and the North Park community, some have wistfully remarked that the leadership of the Covenant seems to have lost its theological moorings regarding the sanctity of conscience and the freedom for dissent. The founders of the denomination in the 1870s and 80s, foremost of them P. P. Waldenström (1838-1917), passionately argued that the Covenant should be a “mission society” and nothing more. The polity of this Mission Covenant was not supposed to resemble a denomination in any proper sense: no bishops, no overreach from the central office, no binding confessions (such as Augsburg). These Pietists had experienced the worst that the Swedish Lutheran state church had to offer in terms of restrictions on faith and practice, including censure, fines, and prison. They took Luther at his word regarding Christian liberty, and were prepared to wrestle with the paradox of how to be “perfectly free” and “perfectly bound” to scripture.

Safstrom (ed. and trans.), The Swedish PietistsThey experienced plenty of disagreements, yet they and their descendants managed to chart an unusual course in the history of American evangelicalism, escaping fundamentalism on many occasions, for 133 years.

Nevertheless, instead of nurturing this remarkable middle ground, the recent leadership of the denomination has curiously created new binding policies and enforced them unevenly. Three contentious issues have been the sacrament of baptism, the ordination of women, and human sexuality. Applicants to various teaching and ministerial posts within the denomination and seminary must answer in essay form how they relate to the denomination’s positions supporting baptism in both forms (infant and adult believer baptism, a dual view originating in the 1870s), supporting the ordination of women to full ministry (a stance taken in 1976), and a traditional view of sexuality as exclusively monogamous and heterosexual (1996). They may dissent, so long as their teaching and preaching accurately portrays the official stance of the denomination.

Technically a non-confessional church, the Covenant is now operating with a de facto confession comprised of three articles, two of which are irrelevant. The “one thing needful” has become full agreement on sexuality. If a congregation or pastor decides to withhold or discourage infant baptism, or refuses to call a woman as pastor, there are virtually no ramifications. Yet if a congregation decides that it wishes to welcome marginalized sexual minorities into full membership in the church, to open its facility for same-sex weddings, or even to articulate a welcoming statement for their webpage, pastors risk losing their credentials and church plants have lost funding. Over 20 churches in the Northwest Conference have now rallied to expel First Covenant Church of Minneapolis for being “out o f harmony.”

Regardless of anyone’s view on scriptural interpretation, it must be admitted that the Covenant Church hardly resembles a non-confessional mission society at present. Where leaders once led with “gentle persuasion” from a humble brick building on N. Francisco Avenue, now the Covenant seems to behave like any other evangelical church, micromanaging from a corner office perched high above I-90 in a corporate office building.

It is a valid question for Covenanters to ask: How did we get here? How is this in harmony with the ethos that gave birth to our church?

What is certain is that this climate is corrosive. The leadership of the Covenant Church must set a different tone. When dissenting pastors, educators, staff, and their friends and family feel they cannot speak freely for fear of retribution, this is a recipe for continued turmoil. It pains all of us who deeply love this denomination.

Delegates to this week’s Annual Meeting have an opportunity to choose leadership wisely, to elect a president who will lead gently and foster transparency and dialog. We need not be seduced by the misplaced desire for strength or a line in the sand. We need not settle for the loudest voice in the room, or the first name on the ballot. Give nominees from the floor a fair hearing. Recall that God’s preferred leaders for Israel were the soft-spoken, the meek, and the unassuming. It matters that our theology and ecclesiology be accurate and carefully practiced, but it matters far more that all these things serve to build us up and to build up our neighbors.

With God as our friend, with his spirit and word,
all sharing together the feast of the Lord,
we face with assurance, the dawn of each day,
and follow the shepherd, and follow the shepherd,
whose voice we have heard and whose will we obey.

Guds frid – God’s peace.

Thanks again to Mark for sharing this piece. I posted my own thoughts on the Covenant and its annual meeting on Wednesday night.