Inheriting a Scandal

by Ronald R Johnson (www.ronaldrjohnson.com)

When Lloyd Douglas preached his first sermon as the new pastor of Luther Place Memorial Church on October 24, 1909, he knew he had a big job ahead of him. His predecessor, the late Rev. Dr. John G Butler, had engaged in a very ugly fight with his church council during the last several months of his life, and they had taken it to the newspapers. In fact, the scandal was front-page news over the course of several weeks, and it led a number of the members of the church to form a splinter group that began to meet at a location not far from Luther Place. It was a complex and troublesome situation for any new pastor to inherit.

But Douglas was the man for the job.

He did a number of things, right away, that helped the congregation move on.

He took the Press Corps firmly in hand. He started out winning their trust and affection by describing himself as a newspaperman who left the trade to go into the ministry, and then he told them that Luther Place had been too much in the news in recent months and that he would not comment on the earlier trouble. And he stuck to that promise.

He made positive changes to the worship service. He had always tried to create a more aesthetically-pleasing service by skillful use of music, and in the nation’s capital he had access to even more talented individuals who could help him accomplish that goal. Douglas persuaded Prof. Emile Mori, organist at the German-speaking Concordia Lutheran Church, to be his choir director, and Prof. Mori quickly put together an ensemble of twenty trained voices.

He paid due respect to Dr. Butler. In his inaugural sermon, he said, “You hold in solemn and sacred reverence the memory of the man who, through these many years past, labored so tirelessly and efficiently in the interests of this church. I have not come here as his rival, but as his successor.”

He also showed respect for the people themselves. “I have not come here to upset what I have found, or ruthlessly destroy that which has been achieved in the past. Those things that have been dear to you will become dear to me; your traditions will be respected; your customs honored; your church usages kept inviolate.”

But he made his own priorities clear. “I have not come here for the sole and exclusive purpose of writing names in a church book,” he told them. “That we will write many names there I have no doubt, and that we shall be most happy to do so goes without saying. We will strive to make Memorial Church great, and when, by patient application to her trust, she shall have demonstrated her usefulness, her greatness is assured.”

He would focus on being the Church of Jesus Christ in this place, and on projecting that image to the larger community. “Our business—mine as a minister and yours as a layman—is to hold the church with a regard so high and a reverence so deep that her welfare and standing in the community shall be one of the supreme desires of our hearts. It is true that church members do not always see eye to eye. It is true they cannot always bring their ideas of methods, polity, doctrine, and administration into perfect juxtaposition. But that does not impugn their sincerity or reflect upon the honesty of their convictions.”

“You may not care whether I am a Democrat or a Republican,” he said, “whether I am in favor of capital punishment for murderers, what is my personal taste in the matter of books, music, art. You have a right to be interested in my conception of the kingdom of Jesus Christ and my individual belief as to the methods of its advancement.”

Finally, he gave them a promise: “That with God as my guide and helper, I shall endeavor, so far as lies within me, to render to Him and to you an acceptable service. And I should be happy if each one of you might silently offer a pledge at this moment that so long as you believe in my sincerity you will give me your hearty co-operation and support.”

Regarding the split in the church, there was another factor working in his favor: one day earlier (Saturday, October 23), the local synod had voted to accept the splinter group as a legitimate Lutheran congregation. Although some members of Luther Place had hoped that Douglas would find a way to lure them back to the fold, the conference action of the previous day had relieved him of that responsibility. Only one thing remained to be done, and he did it the following Sunday (October 31): he “officially recognized the independent Lutheran congregation,” the Washington Herald reported, “when, in the morning service, he offered prayer that its meditations and efforts might be attended by success.” And that was the end of that.

It started out as front-page news and might have hounded him throughout his pastorate, but Douglas had the wisdom to deal with the issue and put it behind him within the first eight days. And for all practical purposes, he never had to deal with it again.

For a free PDF of the booklet, The Secret Investment of Lloyd C Douglas, fill out the form below:

Author: Ronald R Johnson

I am a Christian author and philosophy professor who speaks and writes about everyday spirituality. I also write funny, suspenseful novels that aren't philosophical or religious... or are they? Learn more at www.ronaldrjohnson.com.

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