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When the nominations for president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod were tallied and released earlier this month, a collective gasp went up from Lutherans who pay attention to things like presidential nominations.

It wasn't just that nine-year incumbent Rev. Gerald Kieschnick, 67, received 755 nominations, but that the Rev. Matthew Harrison, 48, received nearly double that amount: 1,332.

Harrison, executive director of the church's World Relief and Human Care office, has the support of a group called the Brothers of John the Steadfast whose mission is, in part, to "defend and promote the orthodox Christian faith which is taught in the Lutheran Confessions … "

The group's website (www.steadfastlutherans.org) is one of the voices in the conservative wing of the synod that's unhappy with Kieschnick, and the group's analysis said Kieschnick's 755 nominations were the lowest number ever received by a sitting president.

"The nomination numbers were encouraging," said the Rev. Timothy Rossow, pastor of Bethany Lutheran Church in Naperville, Ill., who heads the Brothers of John the Steadfast.

Some observers say the movement reflected in Rossow's group is made up of as many as one-third of the denomination's 2.4 million members. Others say it's much smaller, though loud and influential.

Theological and doctrinal conservatives within the St. Louis-based Missouri Synod call themselves "confessional Lutherans." They are traditionalists who stress a strict adherence to the Book of Concord, the 16th-century work that defined the central doctrines of Lutheranism.

Confessionalists are critical of what they call Kieschnick's postmodern approach to the church. They say that for the last decade, Kieschnick has taken a nondenominational, evangelical megachurch approach, and in the process has diluted Martin Luther's theology.

"My vision for the LCMS is that the gift that God has given us—that we believe, teach and confess on the basis of holy Scripture—is a treasure," Kieschnick said. "That treasure is not intended to be hoarded. It's intended to be shared with the world."

Dale Meyer, president of the Missouri Synod's Concordia Seminary, said Harrison "has more conservative supporters, who are active in the blogosphere."

"Rev. Harrison is seen as more confessional, adhering to the teachings and practices of the Lutheran confession," Meyer said. "President Kieschnick is a very conservative person, but he is a little bit more influenced by the evangelical stream in the church."

Church delegates will cast their votes at the synod's triennial convention in Houston in July.

Missouri Synod presidents have no term limits. If re-elected, Kieschnick will serve his fourth three-year term. But in the current American political landscape, "incumbent" is a dirty word."The incumbency factor is out there with some people," Meyer said.

On steadfastlutherans.org, Harrison supporters are counting on people in the pews seeking a change at the top of the church.

"Another thing that I think helps us this year is the general climate in our country of being dismayed with incumbents," Neal Breitbarth wrote.

Rossow said Harrison's large number of nominations—the most ever for a nonincumbent, according to steadfastlutherans.org—reminded him of another grass-roots effort seeking change.

"There's definitely a sort of Tea Party feel to these numbers," he said. "President Kieschnick tends to reflect a broader, wider tent that can also suggest tolerance and openness. It's openness for the sake of being open, and that's where the Tea Party groundswell against him may kick in."

One of the largest pieces of business for delegates in Houston will be a proposed sweeping restructuring of the entire denomination that would consolidate some of the church's boards and commissions. "This is not," Kieschnick said, "a consolidation of power."

But Rossow and others see the proposed restructuring as exactly that. The proposals, he said, "centralize power in the synod office. That's not necessarily bigger government, but it's certainly stronger government."

Like all important elections, the presidential contest in Houston this July will determine the immediate direction that Missouri Synod Lutherans will take.

"There's a strong grass-roots movement that the synod can do much better in its life all the way around," Harrison said. "There's a strong sense of desire for a change of course.

Not surprisingly, Kieschnick sees things differently.

The fact that so few churches cast ballots, he said, means that people are largely satisfied with the job he's done, and out of that sense of satisfaction, they simply figure not voting will ensure the status quo.

"I've been a part of this church long enough to know that if someone in office is doing a very poor job, we'd have more than 30 percent of them weighing in," he said. "Call it apathy or satisfaction, but they see no need to make a change."

Tim Townsend writes for The St. Louis Post-Dispatch in St. Louis, Missouri.

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