Friday, December 25, 2015

Exposing "Exposing the ELCA"

Meet Dan Skogen. He's the voice and face behind a blog titled "Exposing the ELCA." Well, he does more than blog. He tweets, trolls Facebook groups, and in particular, visits the web sites and Facebook pages of congregations of our denomination and gives them a negative review, along with a long diatribe about the evils of "the ELCA."

This is about the only photo I could find of Dan online. He's pictured with his wife, who is an intern pastor at an LCMC congregation in Marion, Iowa, just outside of Cedar Rapids.

I started paying attention to Dan (I remember seeing his blog sometimes over the years but it never caught my attention, and/or I decided to intentionally ignore it) when he posted a rather long and flattering blog article about me at his web site. I won't link to it here, but I'm sure you can find it. Just google Clint Schnekloth and "Exposing the ELCA." Dan will be super pleased by the additional traffic he gets to his blog, so go for it.

Now, here's the awkward part about all of this. It's not exactly clear what you are supposed to do in the new media era about "trolls." The more I've done the research, the more I realize that almost every denomination, product, or famous individual has at least one person who has decided it is their purpose in life to "expose" them. You can find blogs exposing Ronnie Floyd (a mega-church pastor here in our part of Northwest Arkansas and the current head of the SBC). You can find exposers literally everywhere you look. They are busy, they are noisy, and they are notoriously immune to rational dialog of any kind.

Because this is true, there's even a kind of famous flow chart published by the United States Air Force. I share it here, because I have a feeling it might help church leaders in their online discernment on how to engage social media commentary about themselves or their organizations.

 I am confessing here to my Lutheran Confessions readers that I violated the guidelines in this flow chart recently when I decided not to take the "green" route suggested above. What you're supposed to do is "monitor only." Instead, last week I decided to engage Dan specifically on Twitter and see how the dialogue would proceed. It was revealing on many levels. It revealed to me how frustrating it can be to dialogue with someone so gifted at gas lighting. I decided, since I consider Dan to be a bully who preys on many vulnerable pastors and congregations, to actually push back in precisely the way I might push back if I were another child on the school play ground. I engaged in some snark. I offered some choice labels for him. My favorite right now is "snake," which I chose specifically because I think that is exactly how he acts via his online presence. He hides behind his "Exposing the ELCA" moniker, is very, very sneaky and manipulative, and will never ever respond to direct and responsible dialogue. He flees it like the plague.

In the course of this Twitter dialogue, which I'm sure you can look up if you wish (and if you do, be ready.... I wasn't always nice, you get to meet the snarky and fierce Clint), I was able to outline a flow chart of the way Dan Skogen communicates. Here it is:

When I shared this flow chart with my colleagues, some of them liked it. Others felt I was failing at the Lutheran understanding of the 8th commandment, to portray your neighbor's actions in the best possible light. Others articulated concerns basically along the lines of the U.S. Air Force Flow Chart. Monitor only.

My only problem with monitoring is simple: Dan has been, I've learned, doing the "exposing" work for about six years, and shows no signs of stopping. He's a failed and bitter seminarian. He's relying on silence on the other side to do his nasty work. He considers it a ministry. He believes our denomination, because of some specific theological and/or ethical differences he has with us, is leading people to hell, and he wants to make people aware of how horrible the ELCA is.

So then I remembered that one of my favorite theologians, Martin Luther, often would offer a written and public response to public figures he disagreed with. One of the more famous dialogues is the correspondence between Lutheran and Erasmus on the bondage of the will. They have some choice words for each other. I'm not sure either ever convinced the other of anything. But the dialogue itself was of enduring significance for subsequent generations because the articles clarified some things about the freedom and bondage of the will

Now, I'm no Erasmus, and Dan is no Luther, so you'll have to take all of this at a different level than that amazing correspondence (and some of you will wisely bail on this blog post and go back to reading Luther himself), but if you find this helpful, allow me to proceed, and offer a theological response to Dan Skogen. 

Since Dan regularly posts reviews of churches he has never visited on their Facebook pages (in fact he spent a chunk of Christmas Eve doing so), I'm sharing his content here, and then offer responses to each point.

First Paragraph: Yep, he's right. Often human thinking gets woven into the way we interpret Scripture. He's right. The only thing is Dan thinks his human thinking doesn't influence his own interpretation of Scripture. He thinks he can read the Bible "purely." This is what you call fundamentalism. It's not Lutheran.

Universal Salvation: I don't know anywhere that the ELCA promotes universal salvation. This is actually one of Dan's shibboleths. He is confused and thinks there is a monolithic "ELCA" that has a teaching office that hands down specific teachings. There isn't. We're largely congregational in our polity, and on the issue of universal salvation you have a range of beliefs in the ELCA loosely consonant with the teachings in the Bible and confessions. I'd also add, since Dan cares about the Bible, that "Jesus includes in salvation people who do not believe in him or even know about him" is not a non-biblical concept. See for example John 10:16. Or Romans.

Homosexuality: Well, the ELCA adopted a social statement on human sexuality in 2009, and you can read it here: Dan has his shorts in a knot over the homosexuality issue in particular. It really, really bothers him. I think this one is an example of Dan's confusion about the relative weight of doctrinal and ethical matters. I think he thinks that believing in a literal 24 hour six day creation is as important to Christian faith as trust in the resurrection of Jesus Christ in the flesh. So, because he elevates certain things far above what is warranted, you can imagine how apostate he thinks a church is who believes something different than him. But, on the other hand, Dan is right, there are some of us in the ELCA who not only tolerate but affirm people with other orientations than hetero- to live out their sexuality in lives of fidelity and trust with a partner, and to seek out the highest level of blessing for those relationships as they can. So we marry people in same-gender relationships, and we love and welcome them. He's right about that.

Goddess worship: Yes, there's one ELCA church in California called Herchurch that offers a prophetic counter-point to the traditionally male-gendered language for God. There's is a powerful witness, and I hope Dan gets to visit their church some day. But it is an extreme outlier in our denomination, something they themselves recognize on their web site, and I think 99.9% of ELCA clergy would be very surprised to learn that goddess worship is "growing more and more common with ELCA ranks." Clergy and churches would, however, very commonly attempt to get beyond too frequent masculine and patriarchal portrayals of God.

Abortion: I think this is the other one that Dan and others who read his blog care about. I do too. I'm pro-life. I'd like to see public policies that make abortions, as the Democratic party used to say, safe, legal, and rare. Since medical decisions are private, I don't think I can speak to the truthfulness of Dan's point here, but I would encourage anyone who cares about our position on the matter to read the ELCA social statement on abortion.

Masculine language: Not completely remove. I keep seeing it, because our creeds call God Father, and since Jesus was a dude, well, there's always going to be male language. But more diverse language for God is good and biblical. Since God is beyond gender, the most heretical position possible would be to ascribe gender to God (if you want to have a conversation about X and Y chromosomes and the virgin birth, be my guest--it gets interesting). 

Sex change: I'm glad we do this. Some of our best pastors are members of the trans community.

Denying God's authorship of the Bible: Bogus. Just bogus. If you want the official language, here it is from our church constitution:

What the ELCA Constitution says about the Word of God (2.02):

This church confesses Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and the Gospel as the power of God for the salvation of all who believe.
a. Jesus Christ is the Word of God incarnate, through whom everything was made and through whose life, death, and resurrection God fashions a new creation.
b. The proclamation of God’s message to us as both Law and Gospel is the Word of God, revealing judgment and mercy through word and deed, beginning with the Word in creation, continuing in the history of Israel, and centering in all its fullness in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
c. The canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the written Word of God. Inspired by God’s Spirit speaking through their authors, they record and announce God’s revelation centering in Jesus Christ. Through them God’s Spirit speaks to us to create and sustain Christian faith and fellowship for service in the world.

What the ELCA Constitution says about the Bible (2.03):
This church accepts the canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the inspired Word of God and the authoritative source and norm of its proclamation, faith, and life. 

Israel: Here's where Dan exits reality and enters his own alternative universe. It is true that because there is a large Lutheran community among Palestinians, Lutherans have a different perspective on the conflict between Israel and Palestine, but it isn't really anything like what Dan is describing. The ELCA has clergy stationed in Israel, and a close relationship with the leadership of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land. You can read one example of the current ELCA strategy on Israel and Palestine here

Genesis stories as myth: Dan wants people to read Scripture against the way those texts would have been originally read. Some of the Old Testament is closer to the kind of history we write today. Other, not so much. The Lutheran approach, which is a long-standing tradition in the Christian church universal, is to respect the genre of the texts themselves, and read them at that level. I might also add that Dan must not read the Bible literally himself, because he is part of a denomination (the LCMC) that doesn't read the Bible literally, including women serving as clergy. The ELCA celebrates the public ministry of women in pastoral ministry, but you can't get to support of that through a literal reading of Scripture. You get there through a more faithful and nuanced theological reading of Scripture. That's not denial. That's faithfulness.

Federal Marriage Amendment: I had to look this one up, because I hadn't ever heard of the Federal Marriage Amendment. But inasmuch as I speak as a pastor in the ELCA, yes, he's correct, I actively would oppose an amendment like that.

Dan's overall goal is schismatic. He ends his rant with an appeal to members of ELCA congregations to organize and have their church leave the ELCA. Barring that, just leave individually and join a Bible-believing church.

It's not quite clear to me what church Dan would want people to join. He himself holds a variety of theological views, as far as I can tell. On the issue of salvation, he seems to be a TULIP Calvinist. On the Bible, he's fundamentalist. On Israel, he's Evangelical. On marriage and homosexuality he's disturbed and creepy. On the balance between adiaphora and doctrine, he's heretical. I find very little in anything that he writes that is specifically Lutheran.

I don't quite know how to proceed in dialogue with him. Some of my colleagues want me to be kinder to him, or ignore him. But I've begun to feel that inactivity on my part allows him to conduct his very destructive work, often targeting small communities of faith and harried pastors who may have few resources or much time to leverage. So although ideally I'd like to ignore him and move on, I feel like this one rises to the level of, "If there's a bully in your classroom, and you're the teacher, you need to do something about it."

That being said, I do still believe in the idea of "love your enemy and do good to those who hate you." I just happen to think that teaching of Jesus came along with another teaching of Jesus, to be as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves. Jesus himself had a variety of rhetorical approaches to his public communication with those he disagreed with. I hardly think that it is "Christian" to just play nice and ignore hate. That's not active peace-making. That's pathetic passivism. I'm certainly not the perfect model of peace-making. Far, far from it. But I'm at least confessing my failures thus far, analyzing both the form of social media communication, Dan's public content in particular, and asking, "Is there any way forward that stops hurting so many people? On that point, the ball is completely in Dan's court.


If you'd like to see the depth and breadth of how much Dan Skogen is organizing to hurt our denomination, I suggest you look at this:

Here's what you see if you click through the link that acts as if it were the Arkansas-Oklahoma Synod. Dan's goal is nothing less than to trick people into buying into false, scaremongering communication about our denomination.


  1. I struggle with how to deal with Dan as well and have had some conversations with him as well as some arguments where I also was less than charitable because he's impossible to convince to have a fair conversation. A couple things come to mind.

    One: some people are best loved from afar.
    I do think that not engaging is a valid response, though I tend to be in the camp that is more willing to engage because I can't stand a bully. I see his tactics as bullying and unfair. At the very least, he defies 2 John 4:20 (paraphrased, "if you say you love God but hate your brother or sister then you're a liar"). In his literalism, I'm sure this causes him to quake in his boots (please note sarcasm).

    Two: Love doesn't mean that we're always nice; sometimes honesty appears to be cruel.
    What really got Jesus in trouble was his unfailing honesty in the face of a status quo that dictates "go along to get along". Sometimes in order to be loving we have to tell people hard truths, turn over tables in the temple, or take up the cross.

    This is actually something that makes many congregations suck at dealing with conflict, because people are afraid that if they confront bullies and tell the truth then they'll be perceived as judgmental and mean. This means that congregations can actually enshrine and empower bullies in their system because the chief method of dealing with them is avoidance. When we grant bullies power, we fail to love them. Loving a bully looks like confronting them and speaking the difficult truth that they're not allowed to treat people in this way because it demeans both he one being bullied and also the bully themselves.

    The loving action is to help bring it to a stop, even if that means kicking a bully out. It's loving because it draws a clear boundary about what's acceptable behavior in our community and calls the bully to account for their actions. Certainly, this will be cast as cruelness, but the congregation will be healthier for it.

    Finally, in Dan's case, I think we need to remember that this kind of vitriol must be born from a great deal of pain. This is obviously someone who has some pretty deep issues. We have to be careful to limit our attempts at speaking the truth in love to addressing the things that he's doing rather than joining in and becoming bullies ourselves.

    Dan's a person who God loves; because we seek to love as God loves, we're called to love him too.

    This is where the rubber meets the road — love means acting; love also means being the grownup in the room and not punishing him any more than he's already punished by cherishing this grudge against the ELCA for so long, lest we join in his idolatry.

    I guess that's just me saying that I agree that we need to do something in response, but that I also recognize what you do, that we're treading on treacherous territory as we struggle with our own propensity to troll the trolls.

  2. Quite a expose' ... blessings and thanks.

  3. I think you are a good guy for attempting a dialogue with this person, but it's ultimately a futile exercise. Your valuable time is best spent elsewhere.

    1. Dialogue really isn't possible... but push back is necessary when lies are being spread in the name of Jesus attached to one's own picture. (That's Clint in the photo blessing someone as it appears in Dan's flaming FB messages. I wouldn't lay down if someone were acting that way using my name as an example of apostasy). So Clint is "going public" -- which is the only way to marginalize bullies IMHO. Make Dan own his behavior as publicly as possible -- and at least those who run across Dan's vitriol might also come to know that Dan's views and behavior in general is seriously opposed by some very thoughtful and respectable people who have intimate knowledge of Christianity and the Bible. That is how a "marketplace of ideas" is created. Dan doesn't have a corner on that market.

  4. We are called to love. However we often find it difficult to understand that love does not eliminate the possibility of disagreement. We can share God's love with other people, but that does not imply complete agreement with the way they understand or express the way they share their point of view.
    We need to be willing to share areas with which we are not able to understand or disagree. We need to be very clear in expressing our faith. and our calling as God's servants.
    Dealing with the way he appears to punish himself and the way he treats others, we need to keep in our prayers.

  5. You offer a thoughtful, faithful response. And, I am so with you on engaging foolishness. You are more progressive than me, and I less progressive than you---be we are pastors & Church both together. And when it it comes to dealing with bullies, I offer you some Brene Brown words that guide in me in such cases, “If you want to make a difference, the next time you see someone being cruel to another human being, take it personally. Take it personally because it is personal!”

  6. I have a great nephew who I sense is trying to create arguments regarding his beliefs (SDA) and mine. I have gone both to his church's website and the ELCA's for quotes, posted them and sometimes don't post anything else. Of course, he tried to accuse me of not studying or researching, so this was my way to show him that I do check out things people say. Even relatives. Thank you for this Clint. Jesus did not always remain silent.

  7. I am coming to a place where we do more harm by allowing the silence to continue saying we're not speaking out of love. Love is not always soft and gentle, and we do need to speak the truth in love, when being silence perpetuates harm. Thank you for the article!

  8. "I certainly know that it is not easy to deal with a shameless slanderer and liar, for according to the proverb, 'This I know for sure: if I fight against filth, I shall not remain pure, whether I win or lose.'

    "But, for the sake of truth, I must endure your excessive and endless slander and blasphemies. If you knew something different perhaps you would write it.

    "Therefore, I have to be patient and let you carry on as your unrelenting hatred directs you. I, too, have sounded off many times, but for the most part I have written good things without doing so. You, however, can do nothing but curse and slander. Never mind, dear goat. It does not help to look for anything good in you.

    "Let the will of the Lord be done. Amen"

    ~ Martin Luther to 'Goat' Emser (LW39:114-115)

  9. Clint, while I appreciate knowing a bit more about Mr. Skogan and his blog, I'm reminded of my so many years in politics and all the people I have dealt with over the years. I remember going to rallies in my younger years and being confronted with people who, let's just say they were passionate about an opposing viewpoint. I learned some time ago, that the first thing to do is evaluate the opposing party. Does the person have any legitimacy? If not, don't give them legitimacy by responding to them. That only encourages the person into thinking that what they are doing must be right, or else, why would you respond. Dan has no credibility as far as I can tell based on your post - ie criticizing with out visiting churches, etc. If someone does have legitimacy, then you have a duty to respond. Even if you do respond to someone who has no apparent legitimacy, then I would say the best approach is to show as much kindness as possible, to ask questions for clarification to allow the person to fully express themselves. I have found when this happens, the fallacy of their ways are exposed by their own words and you didn't drop to their level of negativity. In conclusion, I'm reminded by advice my father gave me years ago that has served me well - Don't argue with an idiot, they will bring you down to their level and then beat you from years of experience. All the best.

  10. The snake behavior has been around since 2004 at least. I was in that church as a middle schooler when his wife was leading the youth program (they were only engaged at the time, I believe).

    Even back then he was sneaking fundamentalist mini-lessons (with the help of his wife) into the otherwise mainline curriculum. Stuff like an anti-evolution lesson that was trying so hard to hide its actual purpose and completely lacking in Biblical content that it was almost completely ineffective and most of us just thought it was weird and ignored it (and yes, I hope he's reading this and knows I had no problems with the theory of evolution when I actually learned it the next year (-:).

    That's the only one that stuck out in my memory, but there was also anti-abortion material once in a while, the Gresh books were selected for an abstinence unit, and I'm pretty sure he was behind a survey asking us whether we've engaged in various types of sexual acts...and we were 8th graders, some of us didn't even know what the questions meant and felt really uncomfortable.

    Just a lot of weird, shame-y, "anti" material that lacked Biblical content and felt distinctly different from the normal lessons.

    My parents were shocked when they left the church over him and one of the pastor's behavior after the 2009 decision (eventually the church was asked to leave the ELCA because of that behavior, it did not become LCMC by the congregation's choice) and I told them about all that.

    To be clear, the survey didn't seem like it was a predatory thing and I'd never say I got those vibes from him. I'm not one to slander off of deliberately misinterpreting an anecdote (ahem) and I want to make that part absolutely clear.

  11. Obsessive concern about what others think and say about you is a common symptom of narcissism.

    1. Sure, conceit is a sin. But so is bearing false witness. Both invite "calling out"... However, the later can be much more destructive to the common good than the former. It's why slander can get someone jail time. Sometimes public push back against sin warranted. When it is, the motivation doesn't come from egoism. It comes from selfless love.

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  12. Interesting. Classic troll work. Engaging with him as you did is what I call 'poking the beast'. We poke at a situation, sometimes playing along, sometimes making it angry, to see how it responds and thereby learn about it. It's important to learn about a thing to decide how to respond to it but at the same time the danger is to be perceived as either agreeing or being thrown up as a negative example. So, when you get snarky, he can simply say, "Well, and you see how they are!"

    When dealing with trolls, it's easy to forget that our need to respond is based more on fear than confidence. The troll takes grains of truth and posts them in the most negative way possible and, because there is an element of truth, causes us to fear that the troll will have real influence over others. We feel the need to respond because we want to prevent that from happening. In a way, we are intimidated by the troll's message - knowing that it will be difficult if not impossible to win a victory over their message that's based on facts, which the troll already has mischaracterized, or logic, which is a game the troll won't play. By engaging with them, we play the game their way and let them have all the advantages. We yield the battlefield to the troll.

    A better way to combat the troll is by NOT engaging with them in reaction to their message but to proactively engage the public with OUR message - on our terms. This is what the USAF doesn't say in their chart.. it's not just monitoring, it's also all their other positive marketing that's carrying their message to the world.

    Dan is most attractive to those who already have a tendency to believe his message and are looking for justification. It's just fact that you have folks in your congregation who are unhappy with the ELCA, for whatever reason, and want an excuse to leave. For those folks, Dan's message may be appealing. But, you have FAR, far, more influence over them than Dan and his website by simply engaging with them personally and by acting in concert with your beliefs. Seeing all that you do and say, if they still aren't on your side, nothing you can do or say to Dan will keep them in your pews.

    If your people are concerned about Dan's message and may think his 'facts' are true, that would only be because there's some defect in your communication to them. They don't 'get' what the ELCA is really about. That's good news. It means that you have the opportunity to fix things and to correct their perception in your message to them. Engaging the troll doesn't make this happen - it's your message delivered on your terms, without anything to do with him, that's the answer.

    So, conclusion is, Dan isn't worth the time to worry about. Knowing about him is enough. If you have folks that can be influenced by his message and don't respond to yours, there's probably nothing you can do. If they're concerned about his message and are willing to address it with you, you might have a chance to correct things. But, either way, the number of folks who are at risk of being swayed by his message are small. Until your post, I'd never heard of the guy and probably that's true for the majority of ELCA folks. Most people, seeing his post, will recognize him for what he is, after all, he's not being very subtle about it. Fight your desire to 'feed the trolls', it's unnecessary and only helps them.

  13. You won't allow this post to stay on your blog, but you Clint Schneckloth are describing yourself above... a troll and the biggest bully I have ever experienced. I hope someday people will see you for who you really are.

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    2. I think Beth's basic mistake is confusing a person's well-defined stand for bullying. Self-definition is not coercion.

  14. "Mit der Dummheit kämpfen, Götter selbst vergebens." ;)

    Many years ago, I once engaged in a similar bit of sparring with someone from the infamous Westboro Baptist Church; we initially engaged publicly on some forum, then went to private email exchanges. Each accused the other of downplaying/ignoring certain scriptural passages while emphasizing others, as driven by ideological orientation, etc. (though they were spectacularly unconscious of how this works - which is to say, it was clear this person never really questioned or examined how they came to hold their beliefs in the first place). Ultimately I suppose it was an exercise in futility, as typically, one never gets to find out whether their argumentation finds any purchase in the mind of their opponent or not. But regardless of how the encounter affected this person, I confess it was (self-indulgently) very gratifying to challenge them, to not just let the offensive falsehoods pass undisputed. Overall, this isn't necessarily a bad thing, we can even argue that it's a "healthy" way to exorcise some frustration, or at least make a positive, public stand. Of course, there are good & not-so-good ways of going about this, so if/when one feels they must indulge, I humbly suggest considering the following two precepts:

    1). Stay conscious! The temptation to lower the level of one's discourse (say, to the "God hates fags" stratum, etc.) is very seductive and must be vigilantly resisted. Keeping your awareness raised is essential - if one truly is (perhaps especially if so) on the "right side" of some issue, we only undermine ourselves by yielding to afflictive emotions and/or baser instincts. Keeping your head also makes it much easier to find the humor in such encounters; this is very beneficial on a number of levels.

    2). Don't make it a habit. The thing that intrigued me about this post is that there was at least some reflection, some reasoned assessment of how to go about mounting a challenge to Dan Skogen's very pointed provocations (which suggests it's not a reflexive habit). I agree such bullies DO need to experience other kids who will stand up to them on the playground from time to time. Even so, in the online Lebenswelt, the delineations between "playground defender" and bully can get tricky, with _frequency_ of engagements being a major determinate. If our forays into rhetorical dueling are rare (and we follow precept #1 when we do indulge), the less likely we are to veer into bully-ish territory.

    Put another way, we've all seen (often the best intentioned) folks who've somehow transitioned into a constant "defender" mode, unintentionally coming to resemble the very demagogues they contend against. This is also where the "don't feed the trolls" exhortation comes in. As much as how we do it, knowing where, when--and how often--to rattle a provocateur's cage is half the battle.

    For most of us, abstaining completely from polemical engagements (esp in self-defense) is unrealistic, if not impossible. But when we find ourselves embroiled in it - in spontaneous defense, or by conscious choice - we are far more effective in proportion to how mindful we are, and in taking care that our motivation is the exact opposite of that of our adversary.