- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 17, 2001

The new president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, a Texan who will lead the nation's second-largest Lutheran group, said yesterday that the conservative denomination is open to new approaches to growth.

"There are many generations and many cultures we are trying to reach with the Gospel," said the Rev. Gerald B. Kieschnick, who was elected 13th Missouri Synod president Sunday by 1,182 delegates to the St. Louis assembly.

The Missouri Synod (LCMS) adheres to historic Lutheran tenets, he said in a telephone interview, but even they say that "the rites and rituals of the church don't have to be alike, and that gives churches a lot of discretion."

Though Mr. Kieschnick's election victory was "razor thin" garnering 50.8 percent on the fourth ballot many see his three-year term as an opening for more experimentation in the doctrinally oriented synod.

"You could say he is conservative in theology and progressive in methodology," said one synod officer. Mr. Kieschnick's first vice president is the Rev. David Preus, identified with strong conservatives in the synod, and so "some might say it's a split government," the officer said.

But the new president, who will be installed in September, said that despite the slim majority that endorsed him, he can work toward "synod solidarity."

He cited his three years as chairman of the LCMS' Commission on Theology and Church Relations, and how it had reached a "unanimous vote" on all issues related to relations with other churches and the role of ministers.

The Missouri Synod, with 2.6 million members, along with the more liberal 5.2 million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELCA), make up most of Lutheranism in the United States, which has 21 groups in that tradition.

The synod takes strict stands against female pastors, homosexuality, abortion and liberal interpretations of the Bible, so it does not hold communion or share pulpits with the ELCA.

Still, Mr. Kieschnick, 58, said it is a "formal objective" of the synod to have fellowship with other churches, such as two that it yesterday voted to work with in Eastern Europe. "I would love to be present at the [ELCA] convention" when it elects its new president next month, he said. "I would also look forward to visiting with their new leader."

The Kieschnick election comes four months after the unexpected death of the Rev. A.L. Barry, who had led the synod since 1992. When he died in March, Mr. Barry had 1,292 of the 3,000 nominations and was headed for another term as president.

At that time, church officials described Mr. Kieschnick, a native Texan, as a challenger backed by church centrists seeking changes in the tone or strategy of the church's mission.

Asked yesterday about conservative concerns, Mr. Kieschnick said, "We typically hear about relations with other church bodies and the role of women."

There is also a more liberal "church growth" wing that has urged the synod which is deeply devoted to traditional Lutheran music, preaching and styles of governance to try more contemporary approaches, church members have said.

While the Missouri Synod's parochial school system is growing, like other denominations it struggles to keep its young people in the church fold and reach new members.

Mr. Kieschnick said that Texas is a more culturally diverse place than most Lutheran enclaves, and his background there gives him "stepping stones" to help the church grow.

"The United States has selected a leader from Texas, and made a good choice in my view," he said.

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