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A blog of the Evangelical Lutheran Liturgy

Mobbing? Perhaps, but by whom?


According to a January 15th article in the St. Louis Dispatch, there might be some dastardly stuff going on in the inner sanctums of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. Rev. Edward Engelbrecht, a former editor at CPH, has written what appears on its face to be an exposé of the same, claiming to have evidence, as reported in the Dispatch, of “sabotage and other tactics [as] part of an ‘institutional mobbing’ strategy used by some church members to antagonize pastors within the large but shrinking denomination until they quit.” Engelbrecht’s own article was first published in Lutheran Forum on January 9th under the title, “Mobbing: Organized Spiritual Abuse in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.” It goes into meticulous detail about the practice of “mobbing” with the claim that this psychological bullying and intimidation in several forms is part of a deep-seated and nefarious corruption that provides power for the synodical administration. The article was also picked up in its entirety by Christian News as the January 21st lead article, now with an additional introductory heading: “Why the Harrison - McCain Machine Must Go. ” The article takes up a full nine pages of the newspaper.

We are certainly not part of this alleged Machine. But anyone who takes the time to read carefully ought to note something important.

In all the nine pages, there is no real evidence to support these claims. None.

The article is for the most part an explanation of what mobbing is, and its several manifestations, but we can find in those descriptions no record of there being any in evidence in the current administration. To be sure, there are numerous claims that mobbing tactics are occurring at present (Abuse of Power, Automated Messages, Blacklisting, Blackmailing, Blasphemy and Contempt, Call Process, Confidentiality Breaches, etc.), but Engelbrecht can only push his own allegations as proof, “a list of tactics I have witnessed or that others have described to me.” There is even a section called “Members of the Machine” which makes the claim that “Leaders of the Machine keep lists of trusted persons in synod institutions and districts. [27] They depend on these operatives for mobbing activities.” There is no footnote for the second claim, which is a claim of unethical activity, and footnote 27 given for the first claim simply directs the reader to another claim of a record of such lists kept during the 1974 walkout, that is, 45 years ago. The serious charges against the current administration are entirely unsubstantiated. In fact, they are peppered with footnotes from articles that describe the practice of mobbing generally, without specific reference to the Missouri Synod. The reader is led to believe that even such outrageous sins as the divulging of sins privately confessed is occurring, and that sexual misconduct is being falsely alleged with the aim of bullying people into compliance with “The Machine.” A myriad of charges like these is shoveled, load after load, upon the Harrison Administration, but without substantiation, and in some cases describing the practice in general. It is all manifestly what a court of law would call hearsay, that is, inadmissible.

The conclusion of the article is followed by the approbation of Lutheran Forum’s interim editor. His endorsement needs careful attention and analysis. Here’s what he says:

Editor’s Note

Due to the claims made in this article it was necessary to corroborate the author’s story. In short, we published the article because we were able to corroborate the author’s story. The corroboration was based on several factors:

·         Author’s character. We were able to determine that the author was speaking honestly about his experiences.

·         Author’s lack of anonymity. That the author attached his name to this article was never in question and it’s important when making public claims.

·         Credible detail. The article steers away from ad hominem and focuses on a first person’s experience with mobbing.

·         Verification. Several people directly verified the author’s story, several more verified multiple details, many more said the author’s story is the best explanation for the things they’ve experienced in the LCMS, and some others found the story believable despite not having experienced mobbing themselves.

The persons spoken to for corroboration came from all parts of synod. A version of this article will appear in print in LF Spring 2019.

- Matthew O. Staneck
Interim Editor, Lutheran Forum.

Let the reader note what stands for corroboration, that is, verification of the author’s claims. The very first listed is the author’s own character. The author may have fine character, but that is not corroboration. That is, circularly, the author speaking for himself. Lutheran Forum does not say how it knows whether the author was speaking honestly, or perhaps from his own bias, or even from paranoia. How would they know? Second on the list the author’s self-identification. That is not corroboration either, but again, circularly, the author speaking for himself. Third is “credible detail.” Credible to whom? The bulk of the article describes in a general way what mobbing is, and provides no specific details at all. Finally—one might say only, since the others are not corroborations at all—the fourth  ‘corroboration’ is the only thing that should really count to a journalist as corroboration, namely, “verification.” But what one can see as ‘verification’ is a claim of “several people” (unnamed) and then of “many more” (also unnamed) who call the story “the best explanation for the things they’ve experienced in the LCMS,” and finally others (unnamed) who have not experienced mobbing but found the story believable.We certainly know what it’s like to be attacked by unnamed sources.

We are outsiders in this case, but that looks about as flimsy a corroboration as we have ever seen.

We live in an age in which the seriousness of a charge stands for its own truthfulness. The seriousness of the charge, whatever it is, tends to bolster its aura of authenticity. We are appalled by this phenomenon. It is an open invitation to whatever kind of wickedness should slither in and seek to ruin a man’s reputation. It is a malicious evil that has infected our own society just as brazenly as the enemies of Jesus heaped up false charges against him.

Witness the recent debacle of the Senate’s confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh. The “evidence” against his character was so flimsy that it was embarrassingly laughable, but not funny because its real aim, as was painfully evident, was to ruin a man’s reputation so that he would not be able to add a conservative vote to the Supreme Court.  Or witness,  more recently, the BuzzFeed faulty reporting on Michael Cohen, one of President Trump’s lawyers, which, “if true,” would have severely sullied the President’s reputation. The error tuned out to be so blatant that major reporters and outlets had to walk back their palpable glee at having “found” something impeachable. Or witness, just last week, the horrific false narrative against a Covington (Kentucky) Catholic High School student and his classmates over a video from the National Right-to-Life rally in Washington, D.C. that gave some critics an inaccurate impression that the teens were harassing a Native American man. The outrage was swift and harsh, but a full viewing subsequently showed that this too was a false narrative; it can be seen that the student was the one who was accosted and yelled at while he stood passively and said nothing.

We do not have access to the day-to-day inner sanctums of the Missouri Synod. But we do know the Eighth Commandment, which requires us to defend our neighbor, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way.

We are, to say the least, amused by one of the ‘tactics’ the article mentions:

Gossip. Having collected potential dirt or irritants on a target, operatives will spread their allegations and speculations through the church in an attempt to generate a cloud of antagonism and discouragement around the target. . . [A] vague accusation allows them to rouse suspicions . . . The willingness of church workers to participate in gossip and to believe virtually anything spread about a colleague is stunning.

You can say that again. This article is chock-full of vague accusations which will surely rouse suspicions. Indeed they already have. We are now supposed to believe this dirt and allegations that generate a cloud of antagonism and discouragement, according to the bold Christian News claim that this is all “[w]hy the Harrison - McCain Machine Must Go.”

But we are forbidden to do so. We are forbidden, and so is Edward Englebrecht, and so is Lutheran Forum, and so is Christian News, from carrying unsubstantiated claims into every corner to see if we can stir up another’s displeasure, as swine roll themselves in the dirt and root in it with the snout, for this is nothing else than meddling with the office and judgment of God (see the explanation to the Eighth Commandment in the Large Catechism).

And on the other hand we are required by the same Commandment to speak well of our neighbor and defend him. So herewith: President Harrison is a remarkable theologian, whose stated desire is for a faithful synod (cf his witness  emphasis). He has shown compassion for the poor (cf. the mercy emphasis), and a desire for the members of synod to have a God-pleasing unity (cf. his life together emphasis). He has been a teaching president. He has taught the synod well, as anyone who has read him can attest.

But now comes this Mobbing piece. It is picked up by others and it feeds on itself. Rather like a mob, it seems to us.