Pastor Rob Morris of Christ the King Lutheran Church in Newtown, Connecticut, lost a member of his church in the Sandy Hook shootings in December. He prayed at an interfaith vigil for the victims and wound up being chastised by the synod's president, Pastor Matthew C. Harrison. It seems Morris violated the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod's rule against taking part in joint worship services because participation could be seen as endorsing "false teaching" because some among the diverse group of religious leaders at the vigil hold beliefs different from those of the synod.
"In an open letter posted online, Harrison wrote that because of 'the presence of prayers and religious readings' and the fact that 'other clergy were vested for their participation,' the event was a 'joint worship with other religions.'
"'I could draw no conclusion other than that this was a step beyond the bounds of practice allowed by the Scriptures,' Harrison wrote. 'There is sometimes a real tension between wanting to bear witness to Christ and at the same time avoiding situations which may give the impression that our differences with respect to who God is, who Jesus is, how he deals with us, and how we get to heaven, really don't matter in the end.'" (http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2013/02/07/lutheran-pastor-apologizes-for-praying-in-newtown-vigil/?hpt=hp_t3)
Harrison asked Morris to apologize for taking part in the service and offending Lutheran leadership. Morris apologized the next day.
Participating in joint worship events, particularly with religions that reject Jesus, is forbidden and violates the synod's constitution. According to A Brief Statement of the Doctrinal Position of the Missouri Synod (Adopted 1932):
Morris went on to defend himself, claiming his participation was "not an act of joint worship, but an act of community chaplaincy."
This kind of criticism toward a pastor isn't without precedence for the Lutherans. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, a New York pastor was suspended for participating in a similar interfaith event at Yankee Stadium memorializing those killed in the attack on the World Trade Center. (http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2013/02/07/lutheran-pastor-apologizes-for-praying-in-newtown-vigil/?hpt=hp_t3)
The denomination has been struggling for years with this rule, which is currently under a broad review. The Rev. Gerald Kieschnick, the former Missouri Synod president, defended Morris. Kieschnick wrote on his blog that Morris was "responding in a pastoral way to people in need of healing and hope." Outsiders watching this dispute will "shake their heads in disgust and dismay. For them, the image of our church becomes one of isolationism, sectarianism and legalism," Kieschnick said. (http://www.countytimes.com/articles/2013/02/08/news/doc5114359153606290055016.txt?viewmode=fullstory)
Others rallied to Morris' defense and criticized the Lutheran rule. A blog called Witness, Mercy, Life Together carries the letters alluded to before and more. One such letter written by the Reverend Timothy Yeadon, president of the New England District, part of the Missouri Synod, said in part, "I also wish to publicly state my support for my brother in Pastor Rob Morris. This man is a man of integrity and honor who was thrust into a nightmare few of us can imagine. He is a Pastor who has always supported the positions of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and he would be the last person on earth to ignore advice or use his freedom as an excuse to ignore our oneness in Christ as a Church Body. In any action he takes I attest that he precedes it with prayer and as he sought to do his best for the Lord, whether you agree with his actions or not, his heart sought out the Savior." (http://wmltblog.org/2013/02/pastoral-letters-on-the-newtown-tragedy/)
Okay, here comes what I think is the communications lesson. Amidst all this controversy and criticism of Harrison and the Missouri Synod, Harrison takes the high road and attempts to diffuse the divisive controversy he started, convinced he was obeying church and biblical principles. He did what I would have advised him to do if asked: He realized the emotional landmines he was needlessly crossing and sought to end his smoldering crisis before it ignited and got out of control.
Harrison wrote, "I naively thought an apology for offense in the church would allow us to move quickly beyond internal controversy and toward a less emotional process of working through our differences, well out of the public spotlight. That plan failed miserably. Pastor Morris graciously apologized where offense was taken as a humble act to help maintain our often fragile unity in the church (1 Corinthians 8). He did not apologize for participating, even as he carefully provided his reasoning for participating due to deep concern for his flock and the people of his horrified community....
"I urged and still urge that anyone contemplating action in the church courts not do so. I desire nothing more than to keep our church body from deeper division so we can continue to work through our challenges with less heat and more light. Unfortunately, only a small portion of the two letters that we each provided to the church was picked up by the media, who distorted the facts of an admittedly nuanced situation that is very difficult for most people, even within the Missouri Synod, to understand. I kindly refer you to my letter and Pastor Morris’ letter for further clarification."
Harrison didn't stop there. He either has good crisis communications instincts or he listened to advice from a pro. "As president of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, I take responsibility for this debacle. I handled it poorly, multiplying the challenges. I increased the pain of a hurtinghumbly offer my apologies to the congregation, Christ the King Lutheran Church, Newtown, Conn.; to Pastor Morris; and to the Newtown community. I also apologize to the membership of our great church body for embarrassment due to the media coverage."
Here is a man who seemingly doesn't let his ego or arrogance get in the way of disarming what could become a serious crisis. This is a fine example we should all keep in mind. Saving the organization should take precedence over saving face.