By Roland Lovstad
Like a smoke alarm or a fire extinguisher, the LCMS dispute-resolution process is a tool the church prefers not to use, but proves valuable when the need arises.
Recently trained as a “reconciler” for the process, Caitlin Dinger says she doesn’t look forward to using what she’s learned — but she expresses hope for how it can be put to use. She was among 18 laypersons and professional workers who participated in a Jan. 12-16 training session in St. Louis.
“One of the key things is that reconciliation is not an event; it’s a way of life, an ongoing process,” says Dinger, a director of Christian education at Christ Memorial Lutheran Church, East Brunswick, N.J. “Every day, as baptized children of God, we are given opportunities to be reconciled to one another.”
Since 1993, reconcilers — four per district — have been integral to the dispute-resolution process in the Synod. Their roles are to resolve differences between congregations and between congregations and their workers, questions of procedures in excommunication cases, and issues related to removal of workers by a congregation or district. The reconcilers also comprise a pool for selecting panels in cases of appeal.
“There will always be disputes in the church,” says Dr. Raymond Hartwig, secretary of the Synod and overseer of the resolution process. “The issue is how the church handles them. Our reconcilers are trained to approach the issue spiritually, which enables us to bring people together under the cross.”
Differences were resolved informally in the early years of the Synod, without a defined process, according to Hartwig. Over time, a system developed to adjudicate disputes through courtroom-style procedures and the parties often engaged legal counsel. Hartwig says the current dispute resolution relies on reconcilers who work with the disputing parties in the spirit of Matthew 18.
Quoting Bylaw 18.104.22.168, Hartwig adds that all members of the Synod agree that this process will be “the exclusive and final remedy for those who are in dispute.” One benefit is that the process saves money. Costs for adjudication in 1992 were $57,500. Typical dispute-resolution costs, excluding reconciler training, are now about $16,000 annually.
“I was really impressed with the focus on Christ and the message of the cross,” says Dinger. “We all stand before God as sinful people in need of forgiveness and He freely forgives us through Christ. That is the basis for any hope of reconciliation.”
Dinger says the training has transformed the way she sees relationships and how she interacts with coworkers and families in her congregation.
“Ultimately the goal in the process — no matter how contentious or difficult — is that we really glorify God,” she adds. “I definitely have a hopeful feeling that God is working in the reconcilers and the process to bring about His will.”
Ted Kober, president of Ambassadors of Reconciliation, which has provided reconciler training since 1997, says, “The power in our dispute-resolution system is that it reflects the faith we possess. God anticipated we would be in conflict and therefore much of Scripture instructs us specifically on how we deal with conflict. In fact, the Gospel itself brings conflict into a world affected by sin.”
Kober was a delegate to the 1992 LCMS convention that enacted the dispute-resolution process and recalls that it was presented as a move from the adversarial court procedure to one that could potentially be “win-win.” He adds, “I prefer to say God called us to love one another as He has loved us — and, as we do so, people will know we are His disciples. Instead of a win-win, it’s more living out our sanctified life and being a witness of what Christ has done for us.”
He believes the process was the “right thing” when it was adopted and has been improved over the years. “You don’t hear much about it,” according to Kober, who believes that is a good indication of its success. Most disputes are handled on personal levels and in a confidential way, he notes.
All district presidents also receive reconciler training. Rev. Joel Hoelter, North Wisconsin District president, was among four who participated in the January sessions. Via e-mail, he remarks that the training will help him advise congregations and professional workers about the options for resolving disputes.
“The resolution process can be very helpful in the early stages of dispute when it may still be possible to resolve matters informally,” he observes. “The Synod’s dispute-resolution process is intended to help congregations and workers address conflict constructively. When the process is followed carefully, it allows both parties to be heard and resolution to be sought on the basis of the Word.”
Hartwig emphasizes that the reconciliation process is strictly confidential. Neither the reconciler nor the parties are allowed to publicize any cases or details. When a dispute process is completed, the reconciler must submit a report to the district or Synod secretary — and that information remains confidential.
If the parties are unable to achieve reconciliation with the help of a reconciler, a complainant can appeal to the secretary of the Synod. The Synod’s bylaws outline procedures for, first, a dispute-resolution panel of three reconcilers drawn at random from throughout the Synod. If necessary, a decision can be appealed to an appeal panel of three district presidents who determine if the hearing was fair and the decision was reasonable. If successfully appealed, the case is reheard by a review panel of three reconcilers, beyond which there is no appeal.
“The intent is to resolve an issue early versus later,” Hartwig comments. “We may see, at most, a dozen panels in a year.”
He adds that questions of doctrine may involve input from the Commission on Theology and Church Relations or constitution and bylaw interpretation from the Commission on Constitutional Matters.
Roland Lovstad is a freelance writer and a member of Immanuel Lutheran Church, Perryville, Mo.
Posted March 11, 2009