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A conflicted church

"It was not unexpected because the conversations going around among both the lay people and the pastors was such that they were really faulting his leadership."...

Bishop Rolf Wangberg and Stephen Streed

"It was not unexpected because the conversations going around among both the lay people and the pastors was such that they were really faulting his leadership."

- Milton Arneson, Member of Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, Moorhead

Bishop Rolf Wangberg points to blessings and controversies as defining marks of his six-year term leading the area's largest denomination.

But many he led in the Northwestern Minnesota Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America focus on the controversy.

As a result, Wangberg's tenure ended sooner than he wanted. His last day as bishop is Friday.


In the months leading up to the synod's bishop election, a group of detractors publicly named possible candidates to replace Wangberg, a man they said was too much of an administrator and not enough of a pastoral guide.

Wangberg, 61, was ousted on the third of five ballots at the synod's annual assembly June 10. The Rev. Larry Wohlrabe, a Moorhead pastor, was selected on the final ballot.

Wohlrabe himself said unseating an incumbent bishop is not something Lutherans do lightly.

"It was not unexpected," Milton Arneson, a member of the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Moorhead, said of the election result, "because the conversations going around among both the lay people and the pastors was such that they were really faulting his leadership."

And some of those conversations happened in a very public manner.

In the months leading up to the election, pastors and parishioners vented their frustrations in an online chat room run by David Hunstad, the synod's former director of youth and family ministry who left on Wangberg's watch.

The Web postings at www.oldlutheran.com referenced a synod riddled with conflict, an emphasis on rules and procedures instead of direction in ministry, "ineffective and incompetent leadership" and a lack of trust.

Potential candidates were named, with some, including Wohlrabe, sharing their qualifications and views on ministry.


In the synod's current method for electing the bishop, there are no candidates until its three-day assembly begins. Some posters asked if there was a good strategy for ensuring a new bishop would be elected.

Hunstad said he created the board to encourage honest conversation before the election.

"Sometimes I think these bishop elections are kind of treated with political nice, like we don't do politics in the church," Hunstad said. "Sometimes I think we need to create opportunities for people to be honest."

Several of the posters eventually revealed their identities, including the Rev. Randy Smith, pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Crookston, Minn. As "Holy Discontent," he wrote that the synod was in "tough shape," that many quality pastors had left or been fired, and thriving congregations weren't lifted up as models for the rest of the synod.

"People were ready for change, significant change," Smith said in an interview this week. "The people spoke with the election."

Steve Trandem, pastor of Calvary Lutheran Church in Bemidji, Minn., also posted on the site. He described himself as a friend of Wangberg, but said he appreciated his work in the parish more than as bishop.

"I think there was a general feeling on the part of many in the synod ... that we had a constitutional expert in the synod office and they were looking more for someone who could be a pastor to the pastor," Trandem said in an interview. "To be fair, there's a question as to whether that can happen, but many pastors, me included, feel that's still necessary."

The synod, essentially a geographical area covering northwest Minnesota, includes 272 congregations with more than 330 ordained ministers and about 109,000 Lutherans.


Wangberg said he had not visited Hunstad's site. He felt it would violate an agreement reached as part of Hunstad's departure.

He said he had heard rumors about the allegations made there, but that no one had expressed them to him personally. He said he felt those he heard about were off-base.

For example, he said he doesn't have the authority to hire or fire pastors, and that he didn't discipline any of them.

"I probably could have done different leadership," Wangberg said. "I don't think I did bad."

Wangberg was elected as the ELCA struggled with a contentious new ecumenical partnership with the Episcopal Church. He led Minnesota churches as they debated and discussed homosexuality.

He said the synod office staff bettered during his tenure, though a couple key figures left, including Hunstad, and its finance director pleaded guilty for theft.

One of the tasks he said he enjoyed most was helping pastors and congregations resolve their conflicts.

Wangberg said he made decisions based on what's best for the congregation, the life of the church and the pastor, not based on what would get him re-elected.


"I think some of the decisions were the way they had to be. I think some were bigger than me," he said.

"That's the cost of leadership. People get mad."

Bishop-elect Wohlrabe said he is keenly aware of dissatisfaction within the synod, though he's only served here since 2003.

Speaking generally about conflict, he said there is almost always more going on than meets the eye.

"When we get blame or frustration focused on a situation or a person, we've probably misled ourselves," he said. "Most situations are more complex than that."

Still, Wohlrabe said he will be very intentional in striving for unity.

"I don't see it as an albatross as we move forward. There's a reservoir of good will that people want to share," he said. "I've had people express to me a fervent hope that we can rebuild some trust and good relationships for God's work."

Wangberg said he doesn't know what he will do next.


He said he will miss the people he worked with and being a part of church events.

"For me personally, it's really been a privilege to serve in this capacity, to have an opportunity to see the church from this perspective, to meet the people I've met and work with the people I've worked with, to have the opportunity to grow and mature and develop," he said.


- www.oldlutheran.com

- www.nwmnsynod.org

Readers can reach Forum reporter Sherri Richards at (701) 241-5525

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