Leading by example
The ups and downs of his first five years as leader of the McCandless-based Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's Southwestern Pennsylvania Synod have, at times, been both literal and painful for Bishop Kurt Kusserow.
The pain has been tempered by the joy of sharing the journey as spiritual and administrative leader of 78,000 baptized members in 177 congregations over a 10–county region.
“I am often surprised by the depth of faith and hope and love that I find among the members of our congregations when I go to visit, even in difficult situations,” says the Hampton resident, raised by his missionary parents in the Far East, where he spent 15 years.
Significant challenges presented themselves soon after he was installed as only the synod's second bishop in 2007. He'll reach the end of his six-year term this summer.
“He certainly has experienced some trial by fire,” says John Frantz of Franklin Park, former synod treasurer, “with the economic meltdown of 2008, the loss of congregations, membership and financial support following the 2009 national church-wide votes on the sexuality statement and the ordination of gay and lesbian clergy, and his own personal recovery from injuries he sustained.
“He is intelligent, compassionate, spiritual and positive in spite of all the challenges facing the synod and organized religion,” says Frantz, who gives him high marks for his responses to the challenges.
Kusserow used one painful moment — a 30-foot fall in 2009 from a tree he was trimming in his yard in which he broke his sternum, back, neck and wrist and bruised a lung — as a teaching moment.
Reflecting on it in the context of his church's schism — in which some congregations left the ELCA over disagreement about its social statement, “Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust” — he focused on the pain of a broken body with the promise of healing.
He does not see the controversy in his church being resolved any time soon.
That is because the position that the national church most recently took in adopting its social statement is not a uniform stance, but a collection of convictions, he explains. “Our church has admitted that we are not of one mind in the matter of how best to regard same-gender relationships,” he says.
The schism, in which 17 congregations left the synod in the last three years, has deeply saddened Kusserow.
“By far, the greatest frustration I have felt is the irreconcilable contradiction between my understanding of the office of bishop being a sign of the unity of the church and the reality that I was unable to keep congregations of our synod from leaving the ELCA,” he says. “Sometimes I am grieved by the depth of anger and hurt that people carry with them, even in the community of the church.”
To him, it contradicts the most basic reality of what it means to be the church — “that in Christ we share one baptism, we become part of one body, we share one hope of life and salvation.”
In those cases where faithful members of his church disagree deeply with each other, he has made a conscious decision not to talk about his personal convictions, but to uphold the commitments of the church and the expectations of his office in caring for all members of the synod.
Kusserow's goal is to preserve the integrity of the office of bishop for all the people of this synod, “so that all of our people may trust that they have a voice that is valued and welcomed.”
The Rev. Sarah Lee Faulker of McCandless, one of two assistants to the bishop, says he is very humble and down to earth. “These have not been the easiest years, and he has handled this with love and grace, leading the synod into a time of stability.”
The synod and its people are in good hands with Kusserow, says his predecessor, Bishop Donald McCoid, who led the synod for 20 years and is now at the national ELCA office in Chicago.
He first met Kusserow as one of his pastors, serving in Apollo, Avonmore and Trauger near Latrobe.
Kusserow says he has wonderful memories of parish ministry. “It is an indescribable privilege to be part of a family of believers, to be present at the birth of children, to stand at gravesides, to baptize and confirm and marry dear friends, and to struggle with the questions of faith in a shared life,” he says. “I can't say well enough how privileged pastors are to be part of a faith community in such an intimate way.”
McCoid calls Kusserow “a great theologian and teacher.” “He is careful in assessing challenges that an individual, congregation, the synod or the church may be facing. He is a good listener.”
Soon after assuming his office, Kusserow faced reactions that came with some of the issues before the ELCA.
“I am certain that he received hostile comments from people who reacted emotionally and not spiritually.”
“While opposing schism in the church, he provided love and care for those who were most often reactive and angry,” McCoid says. “He took the upper road when others did not.”
The influence of Kusserow's missionary parents — the Rev. Ralph Kusserow and his mother, Carol Kusserow, now of Hampton — was strong. “They taught me to love people of every life situation because they are made in the image of God,” he says.
The Lutheran church is intent on being an inclusive community that has a place of welcome for everyone, Kusserow says. “While our church is not of one mind regarding the blessing of people in same gender relationships, as a church, we have taken a clear stand that declares a welcome to gay and lesbian people, in relationships or not, to hear the Word, receive the sacraments and participate in the life of our congregations.”
He brings a “wonderful openness” to others, says the Rev. Ed Sheehan of Plum, a bishop's assistant. “Having been raised in Singapore, he can see American society from a different perspective and uses that to explore new ways of being church in this time and place,” he says. “I truly believe that he is the right person, in the right place, at the right time, to bring the message of love and compassion of Jesus Christ to southwest Pennsylvania.”
Bishops across the country seek his counsel, says Brandon James of New Sewickley, a lay person who is vice president of Kusserow's synod. “People listen to him when he speaks,” he says. “I was sure two pastors who were violently opposed to the social statement of the 2009 assembly would leave the synod, but I am pleased that both have not, and that's because of Bishop Kusserow.”
Kusserow is a figure worthy of real emulation, says his friend, the Rev. Dave Ackerman, pastor of St. Paul United Church of Christ, Trauger. “In an age of division, one would be hard-pressed to find someone who labors so hard for unity in the church as Bishop Kusserow does,” he says. “He has handled the whole situation (of schism) with astonishing grace and amazing character.”
Kusserow, who turns 50 next August and can be re-elected in June, hopes that others see him as a steady patience and a sense of calm and optimism in challenging times. ”Our work is a work of anticipation, always hopeful, always bearing witness to the promise that is on the horizon.”
Rex Rutkoski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4664 or firstname.lastname@example.org.