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Topples Missouri Synod President
elegates of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod on July 13 elected the denomination's director of disaster response as president, a candidate backed by its more conservative members.
The Rev. Matthew Harrison received 54 percent of the vote for the three-year term, defeating three-term incumbent the Rev. Gerald Kieschnick, who received 45 percent.
Harrison's victory represents a larger ideological change for the 2.5 million-member conservative denomination, which is split between moderate and conservative camps. Harrison was the candidate of theological and doctrinal conservatives who call themselves "confessional Lutherans" and stress a strict adherence to the central doctrines of Lutheranism.
During his nine years as president, Kieschnick, 67, was criticized by traditionalists who bemoaned what they called his postmodern approach to the church. Kieschnick, they said, had favored a nondenominational, evangelical megachurch model, and in the process diluted Martin Luther's theology.
Delegates had already voted on proposals, which were championed by Kieschnick, to radically restructure the denomination. Supporters said restructuring would decrease costs, while critics felt the move gives too much power and authority to the president's office.
"The change we really need is not structural," Harrison wrote in the Reporter, a synod newspaper, before the convention. "Part of me might like the massive increase in power proposed for the Synod president. That's why it's not a good idea."
On Monday, delegates voted by a narrow margin to dismantle the church's seven program boards and fold the boards' functions into two "superboards."
"It's ironic that the guy who had no desire to see an increase in the power of the presidency of the synod is now in that position," Harrison said in an interview after the election. "The way forward is going to be deliberate and slow and involve the counsel of lots of folks."
As the executive director of the church's World Relief and Human Care office since 2001, Harrison, 48, managed the denomination's national responses to the January earthquake in Haiti, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Harrison's victory was not a complete surprise. When the nominations for president were tallied in April, Kieschnick had received only 755 nominations, the lowest ever for a sitting president, and Harrison got 1,332.
"I think Pastor Harrison will focus on leadership in Scripture," said the Rev. Timothy Rossow, pastor of Bethany Lutheran Church in Naperville, Ill., and a leader of the conservative movement to elect Harrison. "He really believes unity of the synod is very important."
Rossow said he believed the feeling of change that has permeated the convention hall during the debates about restructuring carried Harrison over the top.
"A lot of people didn't politicize this election," he said. "They just wanted a change, and a fresh face."