MARTIN CHEMNITZ PRESS
A MIGHTY FORTRESS LUTHERAN CHURCH
Pastor Gregory L. Jackson, Ph.D.
6421 W. Poinsettia Drive
Earlier I sent around a review of two books about abusive churches. I thought the books would benefit people who had suffered from abusive clergy.
David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1991. 235 pages. Roland Enroth, Churches That Abuse, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992. 231 pages.
Many congregations are abusive as well, led as they are by adulterers, thieves, and various types of criminals. I have served several congregations where a significant number of people had police records, extensive experience in the courts, or secret girlfriends. It is always strange to see such people act shocked over some imagined offense (pancakes, for instance) when they have been arrested, tried, and convicted of serious offenses, hiding the facts in some way.
It is also strange to see church officials working with and encouraging such characters to cause trouble in the congregation, then acting shocked that there is trouble. One church official, for instance, gave three divine calls to a family member who was a sex offender, a man who liked to sneak into bathrooms and watch young women take showers. When he got into trouble in his second call, the sex offender got a third call. I have the arrest record and the admission from this “conservative” Lutheran pastor that he had been in the girls’ dormitory and in their bathrooms on previous occasions. The synod president reported, after the arrest, that no one else was involved in the sex crime. However, I think that the young woman who was being leered at while she was taking a shower was involved as a victim of this pastor, his powerful relative, and his abusive synod.
WELS Initiation Rites
WELS has initiation rites at each level of schooling, although I do not know about teachers at Martin Luther College. This is what happens or has happened to boys who want to become WELS pastors:
Prep School Level
The WELS prep schools are residential high schools aimed at promoting church vocations, so that more students become parochial school teachers or pastors. The LCMS had a similar system and took it apart. WELS has eliminated two of its four prep schools in recent history.
Freshman prep students go through two kinds of initiation. One involves such things as dressing the boys as girls and making them wear makeup. The other is called sechsing, after a nickname for freshmen. If an upper classman yells “Sechs,” a freshman has to run errands and do various subservient things. It is a great situation for bullies, who push the freshmen to the limits and then scorn anyone who complains.
At one prep school, any boy who discussed problems with bullying was picked off the floor by his nipples. No one is allowed to “tell.” At the same time, the dean of men urged parents to have their children tell him who was being abusive. Boys either shut up to avoid the torture or they dropped out of school. The dean knew this. One board member’s wife heard about this and said she would never send her children to such a school. Her husband, a WELS pastor, said, “That’s how the system works.”
Physical abuse and bullying are common in such a situation, because no one can deal with the facts. If a boy is disciplined, he finds out the source of the information. He and his friends retaliate. The school’s staff members came through the same system, so they know how it works.
The Late Northwestern College
WELS merged Northwestern College in Watertown into Martin Luther College in New Ulm, Minnesota. That was only a few years ago, so most WELS pastors have gone through college and seminary initiation.
Northwestern College was an all male school. A woman could attend, but few did, because the curriculum was aimed at preparing men for the WELS seminary. Period. The courses were long on languages and short on math and science.
Freshman initiation could be fun, but bullies often took over and got their chance to get even with younger students. One student ran through a gauntlet of pillows. Each older student got to hit him with a pillow. A bit dusty, but harmless. One older student loaded the pillowcase with books and knocked the freshman out cold. That is assault.
One freshman got his bare buttocks whipped with a wire coat-hanger. He is a subservient church leader today. Obviously, some of the initiation activities were not only sadistic but homosexual in nature. It was a custom to force the entire freshmen class to simulate anal intercourse with the famous “Runner on His Mark” statue at the college. The dean of men stopped statue sodomy only when a formal complaint was lodged.
Most parents were kept in the dark, because a student complaint would only bring wrath down on the freshman. The prep school graduates warned the non-preps what would happen if they talked. No one wanted to be accused of being a “sissy” who talked. All the students are told, “Only the tough survive here.”
WELS even had pre-initiation initiation. I attended the Bone Cruncher, which is aimed at college seniors on their way to seminary at Mequon. Each senior is given some form of bone. The athletes get a large bone, to signify approval of the Mequon students. The studious types get bone ground up in water in a glass. Those who have escaped WELS realize that public humiliation is part of “the system.”
I attended the basketball game and dinner of Bone Cruncher but did not see some of the worst behavior others have described. It is difficult to worm out of men what they hated, because it is both embarrassing to admit it and dangerous to talk. Several facts came out about other events. One is that men are told to wear their best clothes, but they are forced to sit down on food, get on the floor, and in general wreck their clothes. They are told later to submit cleaning bills if they want to, but it is understood that only a sissy would do that. The seniors are given “new names” at the dinner. Many times these names are obscene renditions of their given names. (Is this a parody of baptism?) I pressed one man for examples. He said, “For instance, a man named Knollmueller will be renamed Hole-Filler.” All of these men are future pastors.
Another aspect of public humiliation is having wives and girlfriends at the Bonecruncher. Do men really want to sit down in food, act like fools, and get obscene names in front of their wives and girlfriends? There is also a “speech” of some type, full of inside jokes and mean remarks. It is supposed to be funny but it is often aimed at certain seniors.
Long before someone steps onto the Mequon campus, the message is clear, “We have a certain way of doing things. If you do not like it, go away. If you speak up about it, we will make your life Hell on earth.” When I spoke to the Northwestern College president about initiation, his criticism of one pastor was, “He didn’t go along with initiation when he was here.” This was many years later. A senior leader of WELS indicted a pastor for not liking initiation! Therefore, the pastor’s criticisms could not be taken seriously.
This same college president tried to fight against the merger of Northwestern College and Martin Luther College. I understand that he was not allowed to speak to the issue on the floor of the convention. He said it was the lowest point in his ministry. I saw it as the last bitter fruit of initiation rites. He did not conform to the synod vision-thing, so he was silenced.
GA at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, Mequon
One must consider the vast amount of conformity imposed on WELS men before they step onto the Mequon campus. It used to be that students who qualified by going to Bethany had their own independent judgment and tended to be fairly Lutheran. Those students, who missed the thrill of Northwestern College, are called (their entire ministry) Bethany Bombers. It is not a compliment. WELS pastors routinely run down the Evangelical Lutheran Synod and make fun of “Bombers.” WELS pastors also distrust MLC graduates and figure all teachers are “trouble-makers.”
We were singing a hymn in chapel at Mequon. One seminary senior said, “See that guy’s name? His daughter is the bitch who started the Protest’ant crisis. That’s why pastors don’t trust teachers.” The crisis took place in the 1920s.
GA (for gemutliches Abend; friendly evening) began in the 1920s as a way to unify the seminary student body after a divisive split. The big-shots actually fired the seminary president and kicked him out. In a tiny synod where everyone is related, that can cause some friction and hard feelings.
A Church of the Lutheran Confession pastor told me that GA was stopped twice because “they went too far.” But it was started again each time. I do not believe it will ever stop until a lawsuit costs the seminary too much money. Many older CLC pastors have been through GA, because they were WELS. The toxic influence is easy to see.
Every single WELS pastor has been through GA. They are sworn to absolute secrecy. They are not allowed to tell anyone, including their wives, about GA. It is a tribute to the intimidation of WELS that many sons of WELS pastors go into GA without knowing the script. If students have found out the secrets of GA and let on, the upper classmen give them Hell.
The GA Experience
Round One is the great debate about whether to have GA. Recently a former lawyer gave the “speech.” Some students really believed he was against having GA, because he listed so many good reasons to not having initiation. The same kind of lying speech is arranged each year. The WELS pastors call it “mind games.” The phony debate is so serious that first year students phone home and say, “Dad, they aren’t going to have GA this year. They are really serious about canceling it.” That is when the father, a pastor, smiles. He knows they are doing a good job of mixing up the students.
The ideal GA victim has looked forward to it for many years. He has heard hints about it, but no one will say what it is. The ordained pastors will make cryptic remarks and laugh, adding to the mystery. One WELS leader, Vic Prange said, “It is our Masonic Lodge.”
After the great debate, a vote is taken and GA goes ahead as scheduled. (One WELS exile has GA minutes, but I could not pry them out of him. He and someone else complained about GA in advance. To whom? Remember the dean at the prep school, mentioned early? They went to him and were told to “give GA a chance.” The dean of men at the seminary (new job) told them, “The good outweighs the bad in GA.” Both men failed to graduate from the WELS seminary. One went elsewhere. The other dropped out at some point. I am not claiming that it was only because of GA. But it was a tactical error to complain in advance.
Hards and Softs (Pietists)
GA is not ordinary initiation. For a week, the freshmen are befriended by upperclassmen called “Softs” or “Pietists.” During the same time they are persecuted by “Hards.” Those who hated GA as freshmen are often put in the role of “Hards.” They think themselves very clever in having men do role reversals. It is a way of being accepted.
When people complain about being deceived by WELS pastors, I remind them that GA trains them to play these roles and take pride in them.
Someone is elected pope of GA. This is an honor. James Tiefel was GA pope, a sign of future greatness. Tiefel is a professor at the seminary now. The pope issues orders to the freshmen. The pope I saw was one of the few Black WELS pastors. He clowned around, acted gay, and wore a costume.
The upperclassmen force the freshmen to do certain things, such as push a wagon up a hill or do pushups on the ground when ordered. I saw men pouring beer on freshmen as they did pushups.
At one point there is a meal in the darkened cafeteria. There is more “naming” of students. I saw some cryptic remarks on a chalkboard going into the cafeteria. I did not see this meal. Others told me that the seniors knocked cigar ashes into the chili and ordered the freshmen to drink it. Others were told to drink pond-water (which was thought to be tainted with human sewage).
The behavior toward the new students is quite menacing, and the freshmen get caught up in the mood of GA. The Hards are out to get them and the Softs are helpful. They don’t know these are assigned roles.
I saw one annual event of GA. The students were told to put on old clothes. The pope ordered them to look for his bowling ball in the pond. It is not exactly fun in the fall in Wisconsin. One seminary faculty member was watching when this happened. He was smiling and enjoying GA. Most faculty members disappear completely during GA. The students had to immerse themselves to look for the imaginary ball lost in the tainted pond. When they returned to the dorm, soaking wet, they were told to strip outside. So there, in the courtyard, the entire freshman class stripped naked before going to their rooms to change. One pastor, now a circuit pastor, said, laughing, “The cafeteria ladies always clean vegetables near the windows of the kitchen when it’s time for the clothes to come off.”
I have been told that the students keep their clothes on now.
The sexual and sadistic overtones of Mequon initiation are fairly obvious. I know of one man whose tooth was knocked out. I have heard other stories, but the facts are quite vague. The brainwashing is so complete that one WELS pastor told me that all synods have initiation. I said, “I know about that than you do, and I can tell you they do not. No other synod has initiation for seminary students. I have joined several synods and I never had to take my clothes off to do so.”
The terror builds up during GA week. The final event takes place with the Softs guiding freshmen on a final escape. The freshmen are brought individually to a lounge which is described as the only possible way to get out. The upperclassmen are on the other side making a ton of noise. The freshman barrels into the room, terrified. The older students catch him, tell him it’s all over, and offer him a beer. Each student is brought to the closer door in the same way.
One pastor made an acute statement about GA, “Whether one hates GA or loves it, the moment he accepts the beer, his feet are set in concrete. He will always be one of them. A false sense of unity is created quickly by tricks rather than letting the Gospel unify men slowly.”
I have noticed a number of symptoms of GA, exceeding what can be found in most synods.
1. Classmates can do no wrong. One WELS pastor was denouncing me to my face for writing in Christian News. I said, “Parcher does too.” He immediately began defending Parcher. Later I noticed from the wall of photos that he was a classmate of Parcher.
2. Always obey the pope. The WELS pastors and the ELS leaders (trained at Northwestern College) will do whatever they are told to do. Once the Church Growth unionists got themselves into power, no one could stop them. To question is an admission of disloyalty to the synod and to classmates. One GA proponent, now a district president, spoke again unionism and declared WELS opposition to any form of unionism. Later, he urged all the pastors in his district to attend the WELS pan-denominational worship conference at Carthage College.
3. Opponents must be publicly humiliated until they leave or give in. This makes WELS pastors and laity especially servile. When they were told to break with the LCMS because the LCMS tolerate the liberal Martin Marty, they broke with Missouri. Years later, when they were told to listen to Martin Marty (now in ELCA) in Florida at a Church Growth event with Missouri and ELCA, they listened to Martin Marty.
4. WELS is considered co-terminous with the Kingdom of God, so dissenters are shunned. Their fear of being excluded keeps them obedient. As many pastors have said, erroneously, “If WELS is gone, there is nothing left.”
5. Titles of WELS books are unintentionally funny: WELS and Other Lutherans, even though WELS is at best 5% of American Lutheranism; Biblical Interpretation, The Only Right Way, in spite of the fact that it was written by a man who endorses Pietistic cell groups.
6. False teachers can casually endorse Calvinistic or liberal doctrine without fear of retribution. There are no retractions or corrections. Theodore Hartwig, Paul Kelm, David Valleskey, James Huebner, Larry Olson, Michael Albrecht, Iver Johnson, are some of the better known examples. One congregation was “kicked out” of WELS but is just as much a part of WELS as Herman Otten is part of the Missouri Synod.
7. The WELS leaders were able to take all their world mission and American mission leaders through Fuller Seminary (or one of subsidiaries), adopt Church Growth doctrine and methods, and then deny they went to Fuller and had any CG at all in the synod.
Some WELS pastors will be very upset that I have spilled the beans about GA so extensively. I think it is the only unforgivable sin in WELS. Nevertheless, I believe the truth will eventually come out in a lawsuit and close down the outward manifestation of abuse. It would take the proper preaching of the Law and Gospel to make the inward corrections necessary to stop the emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of initiation. Hardened hearts would have to experience godly contrition rather than world contrition. That can only come from God’s Word, not a lawsuit.
I would like to add that I consider many WELS pastors and members good friends. In fact, I hear from pastors in all synods, including ELCA. However, the insiders in all the conservative synods go out of their way to be unpleasant. There have been many efforts to keep my articles from being published at all. If I were wrong, they would welcome the publication of those articles, so they could refute them in public.
The response to what I write is strictly personal, not doctrinal. According to WELS leaders, I opposed the Church Growth Movement and unionism with ELCA because I was crazy, due to the death of our daughter Erin Joy. I have heard of pastors who do not know me who insist that this is true. Apparently, this has been the universal response of WELS to my articles. I suppose that having a WELS district president (Ed Werner) in prison for molesting little girls would make synodical leaders think that opposing clergy adultery is insane. After all, the district pastors knew about Werner for years, not letting their wives and daughters near him, but they kept electing him president until he was put away in the state prison.
WELS leaders also insisted that my wife was not sick, even though Social Security (a tough sell) judged her permanently disabled. Three insurance companies agreed with Social Security. WELS leaders insisted that our son Martin had left Northwestern College. My friends and his friends insisted it was so, to our faces, in spite of the obvious – he was still in class and graduated with honors. Imagine what it is like to be a WELS pastor, to visit your son at Northwestern College, and then see a nearby WELS pastor who says, “Your son dropped out of college!” Typical GA stuff. Even those who are deceived believe the deceivers.
I could go over a lot more things, but I think this is enough to show the toxic effects of WELS initiation. Many pastors get over it and try to avoid being absorbed by the pandemic doctrinal and moral corruption of WELS. Some have made valiant effort to change the synod, facing down evil and dishonest leaders. Some pastors finally left Lutheranism for good when their doctrinal errors were confronted. The errors were promoted by WELS leaders, who let their slavish acolytes take the hit.
The majority of members want to be served by orthodox pastors, but they have as much control over events as Roman Catholics do over who becomes their priest. The imposition of the NIV and Christian Worship are two examples of forcing bad decisions on the entire synod in the name of “loyalty.”
I have been struck at the Evangelical Lutheran Synod pastors who act more WELS than WELS pastors. One public example was Erling Teigen denouncing my review of the ELS hymnal, claiming that the WELS hymnal was never a joint project with the ELS. The back page calls the hymnal commission “The Joint Commission.” Are we to assume that it was a marijuana commission or an ELS-WELS commission? Many people verified what Teigen denied, that Christian Worship was designed to be a WELS-ELS hymnal from the beginning. The ELS got mad at WELS for being pushed around and backed out. Everyone knew that but it had to be denied by the one person, Erling Teigen, who complains so much about being pushed around by WELS.
One GA trick is to deny to obvious and provable, such as Church Growth in WELS. I asked ELS pastors why they took in Roger Kovaciny when he defended Church Growth, defended and covered up for the CG adulterer in Columbus, and published false doctrine. One pastor said, “Kovaciny isn’t ELS.” I said, “Why was he voted in at the ELS convention?” Later, several ELS pastors told me that Thoughts of Faith was not ELS. So I said, “Why did I observe the Thoughts of Faith people being installed by ELS President George Orvick at the ELS convention?” No answer.
The ELS covered up for a synod leader’s son, who was caught in a scandal. He was allowed to quit the college “voluntarily.” The college put out a false story about his abrupt departure. Later the same student, at a state school, fired a shotgun at his friend for waking him up abruptly at the dorm. The friend was wounded. The newspaper story ended, “He is expected to play on the football team this fall.” Why be tough on a guy who merely aimed a deadly weapon at a friend and fired at him?
I hope this helps a few people with some perspective. I know laity who have not recovered from the abuse they received in WELS. I believe some knowledge helps, but just as “Time heals all wounds,” so also “Time wounds all heels.” God is not mocked; what a man sows, he will reap.