By Cheryl Magness
In 2022, the Concordia University Texas (CTX), Austin, Texas, Board of Regents (BOR) amended CTX’s governance documents, changing, among other things, the manner by which CTX regents are elected and removing any reference in CTX’s governance documents to following the bylaws of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS). This act of changing the CTX governance documents was done without LCMS approval and in opposition to LCMS bylaws, and the Synod has condemned it. The series of events leading to this moment is long and complex. A chronology that is not exhaustive but is intended to give a brief but faithful overview follows.
A faithful beginning
CTX, like all LCMS schools, was formed to train young people in the faith. Originally open only to males, with the purpose of preparing them to serve as LCMS pastors and teachers, CTX began almost 100 years ago under the name Lutheran Concordia College of Texas.
According to “A Cloud of Witnesses,” a 1986 documentary produced by the college in observance of its 60th anniversary, CTX traces its roots to 1894, when a group of Lutherans met in Giddings, Texas, to plan for a Lutheran college.
That plan, and another after it, didn’t succeed. But in 1923, the Synod resolved in convention “to found a high school in Texas.” It appropriated “up to $50,000 for this purpose,” with the LCMS Texas District pledging $30,000. Because of a drought, however, the district was unable to provide the funds, and the Synod Board of Directors supplied the needed funding.
Three years later, on Oct. 26, 1926, Lutheran Concordia College of Texas opened north of the University of Texas — which was then just inside the city limits of Austin — as a residential high school for boys. The first class had 26 students, some German-speaking and some English-speaking.
In 1951, the school added a junior college curriculum; in 1955, it welcomed women for the first time. In 1965, the college was renamed Concordia Lutheran College, Austin, Texas. By 1970, the high school had been discontinued, and in 1980, Concordia Lutheran College became a four-year institution. In 1995, the name was changed to Concordia University at Austin. Finally, in 2007, the name was changed to Concordia University Texas, and in 2008 the campus moved from its location in what had become near-downtown Austin to a location northwest of the city.
For many years after it became a four-year college, CTX enjoyed steady growth, becoming particularly well known for its nursing and education programs. The growth, however, was not without difficulty, and from time to time, CTX relied upon the Synod for grants, subsidies, lines of credit, backing of debts and promises of ongoing support. In recent years, it — like most institutions of higher education — has faced increasing enrollment and funding challenges, along with pressures from secular forces such as government and the prevailing culture.
But Concordia University System (CUS) President Rev. Dr. Dean O. Wenthe said that those external challenges are accompanied by internal ones:
“For 96 years, Missouri Synod Lutherans have sent their children and their gifts to Concordia, Texas. Concordia has been a blessing to the church, and the church has been a blessing to Concordia.
“But in recent years, we have seen at Concordia an ongoing lack of catechesis in Lutheran doctrine and practice, worship practice that is not Lutheran, a program of diversity and equity that takes precedence over the Gospel and the clear teaching of Scripture, and the skirting of Synod bylaws and governance in the hiring of staff.
“This is of grave concern to the church. The answer to outside pressures is not to weaken our confessional subscription but to strengthen it; not to run away from the truth but to run toward it. The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod gave birth to Concordia University Texas. Concordia owes fidelity to her mother, the church; to the church’s confession; and to the church’s practice.”
Concordia moves to separate: A timeline
- In 2019, the Synod in convention adopted Resolution 7-03, calling for a proposal for a new governance plan for the CUS, one that would “strengthen all CUS institutions’ connection to the Synod” and “strengthen [their] confessional Lutheran identity.” In 2020 and 2021, a variety of stakeholders were involved in reviewing and commenting on draft proposals of the plan. During this time, the CTX BOR expressed its concern to the 7-03 committee that the proposed governance plan would lead to CTX being disaffiliated without its consent, but this was never the intent of the plan. Any disaffiliation under the draft plan would result only if there were persistent ecclesiastical unfaithfulness and after extensive conversation. The CTX president and BOR chair also had been informed regularly of the 7-03 committee’s work and the rationale of the proposed changes and had provided input, which was considered by the committee.
- On Feb. 15, 2022, the LCMS BOD received a letter from CTX President Don Christian and CTX BOR Chairman Christopher Bannwolf stating that the CTX BOR had, at its Dec. 3, 2021, meeting, unanimously resolved to seek to become the sole governing board of CTX.
- On April 20–22, 2022, a Synod team led by LCMS President Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison visited CTX. A summary of the visit is available on Pages 173–78 of the 2023 Convention Workbook. As explained by Harrison in his March 31, 2022, letter to Christian announcing the visit, he undertook the visit “because of concerns addressed to me by lay and clergy members of the Synod, CUS representatives, current and former faculty, and students of CTX. CTX has been established by the congregations of the Synod, and its Board of Regents and administration are responsible to them for its faithful operation. The congregations allow the school great freedom in accomplishing its mission, but that mission is defined ‘within the broad assignment of the Synod’ (Bylaw 18.104.22.168). Concordia, as an ‘agency’ of the Synod, has a sacred responsibility to operate in accord with the bounds of the confession of the Synod (‘the written Word of God as the only rule and norm of faith and practice,’ and in accordance with the Symbolical Books of the Evangelical Lutheran Church), as expressed in Article II of our Constitution. The President of Synod ‘has the supervision regarding the doctrine and administration of … all such as are employed by the Synod’ (Article XI B 1 b). ‘It is the President’s duty to see to it that all the aforementioned are acting according with the Synod’s Constitution, to admonish all who in any way depart from it, and, if such admonition is not heeded, to report such cases to the Synod’ (Article XI B 2).”
- On April 21, 2022, CTX President Christian sent a letter to LCMS BOD Chairman Rev. Dr. Michael Kumm requesting a process for CTX’s separation from the Synod. In reply, Kumm advised CTX that the university should, pursuant to Synod bylaws and in good order, work with the CUS on its separation proposal since the CUS is responsible for its ecclesiastical oversight. Kumm referenced Bylaw 22.214.171.124(i), which provided the mechanism under the bylaws for CTX to pursue a proposed separation, in his letter to CTX.
- On July 19, 2022, CTX sent the CUS a “draft” separation proposal that referenced other documents to come.
- On Aug. 1, 2022, Christian asked the CUS for initial feedback on the separation proposal.
- On Aug. 6, 2022, Wenthe responded to Christian that it was not possible for the CUS to evaluate the proposal without all of the documents that were referenced in the proposal or were needed to evaluate the proposal.
- On Sept. 17, 2022, CTX sent additional documents, but the proposal was still incomplete and did not provide any documents that the proposal referenced.
- On Nov. 8, 2022, the CTX BOR voted to change its bylaws so that it could file paperwork with the State of Texas amending CTX’s Certificate of Formation with respect to its purpose and the operation of its BOR. It is the Synod’s understanding that as a precipitating cause of this action taken by the CTX BOR, CTX leadership advised the CTX BOR that the CUS might remove the CTX president or close or consolidate the institution and that the action was necessary to prevent that and to preserve the institution. (The BOD has since clarified that the only proposal under consideration was the separation proposal from CTX.) Of note, the CTX filing with the Texas Secretary of State includes language stating that “the corporation [CTX] is dedicated to the support and maintenance of an educational institution of higher learning that is aligned with, but not subject to the authority of or governance by, the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod” (emphasis added) and that “All determinations regarding the university’s alignment with the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, including but not limited to, the university’s subscription and adherence to the Confession of the LCMS as currently outlined in Article II of the LCMS Constitution, and qualifications for board members and the presidency, will be subject to and determined by the sole and exclusive discretion of the [CTX] Board of Regents” (emphasis added). This action officially made the CTX situation a BOD matter because the governance of the universities of the Synod involves the property and business affairs of the Synod, which fall under the authority of the BOD according to Constitution Article XI E.
- Following the Nov. 8 CTX meeting, two CTX BOR members resigned.
- On Nov. 11, 2022, the LCMS BOD released a statement noting that the CTX action was out of order because it was taken “without either the consent The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod Bylaws require of a university of the Concordia University System looking to change its bylaws or the consent they require for a university seeking to separate from the Concordia University System.” On Nov. 12, 2022, the CUS sent a letter to CTX condemning its action to separate and asking that it reverse itself.
- Following the Nov. 12 letter, members of the LCMS BOD reached out to CTX BOR Chairman Christopher Bannwolf and President Christian to discuss the action taken and set a meeting with the CTX BOR.
- On Jan. 12, 2023, President Harrison, Synod Secretary Rev. Dr. John W. Sias and representatives from the CUS and the BOD traveled to Austin and met with the entire CTX BOR on the CTX campus to discuss Harrison’s visitation report and the consequences of the governance change — the most consequential being that it placed CTX outside of the Synod — and to urge the BOR to reverse course.
- Following the meeting, the BOD submitted a series of questions to the LCMS Commission on Constitutional Matters (CCM) concerning the action taken by CTX. As part of the process, CTX received the questions and had the opportunity to provide input to the CCM.
- On Feb. 12, 2023, the BOR passed a resolution to “seek more information and counsel from the LCMS Board,” stating that “the CTX Board of Regents has a strong desire to be a part of the Synod.”
- On March 10, 2023, a five-member delegation of the CTX BOR traveled to St. Louis to meet with representatives of the LCMS BOD, presenting a list of questions for discussion. The meeting was requested by CTX. At the meeting, CTX asked for assurances from the BOD — specifically, that the BOD would not remove Christian (something it has no authority, under LCMS bylaws, to do) and that the BOD would not seek to close or consolidate CTX.
- On March 30, 2023, in response to questions submitted by the BOD, the CCM ruled, among other things, that an agency of the Synod does not have the authority, under the Synod Constitution and Bylaws, unilaterally to separate from the Synod or to change its governance documents without prior approval. The CCM opinion also found that each regent individually — not just the Board of Regents as a whole — also has a fiduciary duty to the Synod. The fiduciary duties regents owe the Synod are described specifically in the Synod bylaws. They involve the “comprehensive stewardship of the institution in the ecclesial interest of the Synod, which has put them in place to govern. Governing the institution as a ‘fiduciary’ or ‘agent of the [ecclesiastical] Synod, in which ownership is primarily vested’ (Bylaw 126.96.36.199 [i]) and, indeed, as a ‘governing board of the Synod’ (Bylaw 3.2.2), they owe duties of ‘good faith, loyalty, due care, and disclosure’ and a ‘high standard of care’ to maintain the institution in faithfulness to the Synod’s confession (Const. Art. II); in fruitfulness with regard to the accomplishment of the Synod’s objectives (Const. Art. III and relevant Bylaws, resolutions, and policies, as such pertain to the operation of a Synod university); and consistent in every respect with the governance model Synod has set forth to assure the institution operates in its ecclesial interests” (CCM Opinion 23-3006).
- On April 4, 2023, the CTX BOR, by a vote of 10 in favor, 5 against and 1 abstention, reaffirmed its Nov. 8, 2022, action to separate from the LCMS. Since that time, two more CTX BOR members have resigned. LCMS BOD member Andrew Grams said, “Without warning and without provocation, the CTX BOR voted to separate the university from the Synod, taking for the BOR an inheritance that belongs to the congregations of the Synod. They then asked the BOD to enter into conversation with them about the governance issues. The BOD did that on conference calls and in face-to-face meetings. We answered all their questions. We provided them with the specific assurances requested in the March 10 meeting. Yet they still voted, on April 4, 2023, to change their bylaws, the practical effect of which was to separate from Synod, confirming the action they took in November. While the November action could have been excused as a mistake or an action based on incomplete information, the April action was taken with full knowledge of the consequences of their actions.”
- At its April 2023 meeting, the LCMS Council of Presidents (COP) resolved to commend the Synod president, LCMS Texas District President Rev. Michael Newman and the LCMS BOD “in the work that they are already doing with the Concordia Texas Board of Regents.” On May 18, Newman told Reporter via email that he supported the COP resolution and is “thankful for the prayers and support of colleagues.”
- On May 9, 2023, the BOD sent a letter to the CTX BOR demanding that the BOR make an accounting to the Synod for its actions and demanded certain documents.
- On May 17, 2023, CTX BOR Chairman Bannwolf responded, declining to make the accounting or provide the requested documents and stating, “A consequence of the governance action taken is that CTX is no longer subject to the Synod’s Bylaws; therefore, demands made to CTX based on the Synod’s Bylaws are hereby respectfully declined.”
‘Spirit of love’
As the Synod prepares for the 68th Regular Convention of the LCMS this summer, questions loom about the future of CTX. The convention will also take up the CUS governance proposal. Read more about that proposal at lcms.org/cus-future.
Along with Wenthe, CUS BOD Chairman Dr. Gerhard H. Mundinger Jr. has been in regular communication with CTX.
“The presidents of the CUS and the CUS administration have a long history of ongoing retreats, discussions and meetings,” Mundinger said. “President Christian was the CUS presidents’ representative to the CUS for several years. We have had monthly Zoom meetings — for over five years — with all the presidents and CUS administration and advisory panel. We regularly discussed the 7-03 proposal. The 7-03 committee has four representatives from the CUS and three CUS presidents on it.”
“At our meeting on Oct. 5, 2022, President Christian was asked by all the other current CUS presidents not to cause or support a vote, at the next meeting of the CTX BOR, to leave the Synod. Unfortunately, they are holding to their ill-advised course, and the question remains: How can a term-limited board, elected through a Synod process, and a university president serving at the behest of the Synod, appoint themselves the ‘sole’ determiners of the Synod’s doctrine and practice on the CTX campus? We asked that question at our joint meeting with Concordia on Jan. 12 and were hopeful that our brothers would come to see the illogical nature of their action.
“We continue to plead that they reconsider. Error is not corrected by any negotiation that allows the error to remain. Rather, it is corrected when the error is confessed and repented of. We pray that such action from the CTX president and board will be quickly forthcoming.”
LCMS BOD member Rev. Josemon Hoem, a CTX alum, was part of the April 2022 visitation team.
“The Synod visitation team exhibited abiding patience, kindness and charity,” said Hoem. “We repeatedly asked, ‘How can the Synod help you? How can we serve you?’ But we were consistently met with resistance and suspicion.”
BOD member Christian Preus drew attention to the vagueness of the word “align.”
“The CTX proposal says that they wish to separate from the Synod while remaining ‘aligned’ with the Synod,” Preus said. “‘Alignment’ is not the same thing as ‘walking together’ — which is what ‘Synod’ means. The Synod ‘aligns’ with many other groups outside the Synod on individual issues. But we aren’t in fellowship with them. We don’t share the same confession. A desire to leave the Synod while remaining ‘aligned’ with the Synod suggests a loose affiliation that one can selectively ignore, not a churchly walking together.”
Preus added, “Everyone involved in this process — from the CUS to the COP to the Office of the President to the BOD — has carefully stayed in their own lane and proceeded in good order, following our Constitution and Bylaws. The only entity that has not done so is Concordia.”
When asked to comment, in light of CTX’s action to operate outside Synod bylaws, on the current status of rostered CTX workers, Texas District President Newman said, “With Concordia University Texas becoming self-governing and no longer part of the Concordia University System, it no longer has the authority to call church workers. The rostered church workers remain workers in good standing on the LCMS roster but must move to candidate or emeritus status in order not to be dropped from the roster of the Synod.”
Wenthe said that the Synod’s deepest concern is for Concordia itself.
“It was in a spirit of love that we went to Austin in January of this year. We went because we feared that our dear Concordia University Texas was on the verge of making a terrible mistake. In fact, they have already made a serious mistake in seeking a manner of governance that is at odds with our Synod structure.
“The proposal for self-governance will only further weaken an already compromised fidelity to the doctrine and practice of the LCMS. A self-perpetuating board with a president who has unbridled authority is in direct opposition to what Concordia’s founders desired and what the last three national LCMS conventions have advocated and supported.
“The BOD and CUS have shown ample grace, kindly asking, on numerous occasions, for Concordia’s Board of Regents to come back and resume walking together with the Synod. We sincerely hope and pray that the Board of Regents will, even now, willingly reverse their stated course and that CTX will remain an important member of the Concordia University System.”
Posted June 8, 2023/Updated June 10, 2023/Updated July 7, 2023