ST. LOUIS (AP) -- Twelve days after terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center, the Rev. David Benke, a Lutheran minister, joined with clergy from other faiths in a New York City prayer service for the victims.
The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod's president, the Rev. Gerald Kieschnick, gave the church's top New York leader his blessings to take part in what he considered an innocent public event.
Kieschnick never envisioned the fallout from that day within one of the most theologically conservative Protestant denominations.
Benke was suspended in June, months after 21 of the synod's pastors and three of its congregations complained about his role in the gathering at Yankee Stadium.
And just last month, the Missouri Synod second vice president, who disciplined Benke for praying with ''pagans,'' was pulled from his role as the main speaker on ''The Lutheran Hour'' radio program -- the synod's prominent pulpit -- for deciding the matter.
Now Kieschnick is struggling to bridge a gulf in the 2.6-million-member Missouri Synod. It's just the kind of situation he had hoped to avoid when he was elected a year ago. His goal has been to make the denomination more unified and tolerant.
''While some may see it as a rift, I see it as a pivotal moment in defining who we are and why we're here,'' said Kieschnick, who is standing by Benke.
''We're faced with opportunities and challenges galore to take the Gospel to the marketplace. That's where our struggle is -- whether it should be in a congregational setting or public one.''
Benke is appealing his suspension by the Rev. Wallace Schulz. Meanwhile, Schulz isn't discussing that decision or his own suspension as chief preacher on the gospel program carried by more than 1,000 radio stations.
While Lutheran Hour Ministries took no stand on Benke's conduct, Schulz's decision unwillingly dragged the independent auxiliary of the Missouri Synod into the debate, spokesman Jim Telle said.
''It really has rocked our church,'' Telle said. ''It's been an absolute landslide of acrimony.''
The synod's 1847 constitution demands that its congregations and pastors reject syncretism, or the mingling of Christian and non-Christian beliefs. Traditionally, Missouri Synod leaders did not lead prayer services with leaders of other religions, or even other Lutheran denominations.
But at the church's convention a year ago, Kieschnick said, a resolution let synod leaders lead services with those of other faiths at civic events. With that in mind, Kieschnick signed off on letting Benke say a 10-sentence prayer during the debated ''Prayer for America'' event, where Benke shared the stage with other Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Sikhs.
To Benke, the event was more patriotic than religious, and that ''not to make the primary human connections at a time of civic, national and global tragedy would be a great pastoral error.''
But not everyone saw it that way.
After various Missouri Synod pastors and congregations decried Benke's alleged syncretism, Kieschnick was recused from ruling on Benke's conduct. That duty eventually fell to Schulz.
The board of the International Lutheran Laymen's League -- overseers of Lutheran Hour Ministries -- in February urged that Schulz also refrain from adjudicating the Benke matter. The reason: a potential conflict of interest between Schulz's dual hats as a Missouri Synod second vice president and as the radio mouthpiece of Lutheran Hour Ministries.
''Whatever (Schulz) did in this highly charged, emotional, controversial case would become a national decision of incredible importance,'' with a possible backlash against Lutheran Hour Ministries, Telle said.
But Schulz wrote back, ''saying he felt compelled to do his calling'' in his elected Missouri Synod post, Telle said.
On June 25, Schulz announced Benke's suspension, ruling that ''to participate with pagans in an interfaith service and, additionally, to give the impression that there might be more than one God is an extremely serious offense.''
Instantly, Telle said, ''our worst fears were maximized.''
''I use the word 'paralyzed' because we were hit by e-mails and phone calls,'' most voicing outrage over Schulz's decision, Telle said. ''People generally were in a tirade.''
Donors pledged to cut off their support, Telle said. Pastors said they would no longer encourage the faithful to support Lutheran Hour Ministries.
On July 12, Lutheran Hour Ministries chief Rodger Hebermehl pulled Schulz, with pay, from the gospel program where he has spent 25 years, for allegedly violating the league's ethics and conflict-of-interest policies. The executive committee of the laymen's league backed Hebermehl's move.
Reached recently at his suburban St. Louis home, Schulz declined comment.
Kieschnick, who has asked for a church review of Benke's suspension, said in a July 9 letter to church members that the Missouri Synod ''is experiencing a period of emotional anxiety and doctrinal disharmony.''
If he loses his appeals, Benke loses his offices and will be kicked off the clergy roster.
The board of the laymen's league has ruled Schulz could return to Lutheran Hour Ministries if he agreed to stipulations that would govern his future employment.
Kieschnick said he hopes Schulz ''takes advantage of his opportunity to be reinstated.''
Telle wants a speedy resolution, too, though ''the reality is that this case continues to involve Dr. Schulz, and this is not over.''
On the Net:
Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, http://www.lcms.org
Lutheran Hour Ministries, http://www.lhm.org
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