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April 13, 2021

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Concordia: How years of internal strife over gay rights helped turn it into a “$400 million crater”


Concordia University Portland staged a gala dinner in April 2018 for President Charles Schlimpert, who was retiring after 35 years. The Concordia board of regents announced it intended to rename the business school in his honor.

Behind the genial bonhomie of that night, Concordia was in disarray.

Concordia’s conservative Lutheran owners were fed up with Schlimpert and wanted him out. The denomination’s leadership in Missouri demanded Schlimpert’s resignation, citing his support of a gay pride club on campus.

In a January 2018 letter, the church’s top brass accused Schlimpert of “publicly endorsing teaching and behavior that endangers human souls.” They told him he needed to step down “to allow another to shepherd your institution properly as one of the church.”

Schlimpert was gone within six months.

In April 2020, Concordia itself vanished from the scene. The Northeast Portland college shut down leaving more than 5,000 students in the lurch and about 1,500 employees without jobs.

The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, as the denomination is formally known, has always insisted that the school’s collapse was a matter of money. Concordia Portland ran short of cash and, this time, the mother church declined to loan Concordia more money.

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It’s no secret that differences over LGBTQ issues were a factor in that decision. New documents offer fresh detail on just how divisive the issue was.

Shaken loose in the course of ongoing legal fights launched by former students and creditors, the documents chronicle five years of ecclesiastical infighting that in the end may have been as debilitating as Concordia’s financial weakness.

The Lutheran bosses repeatedly issued stern memos that homosexuality was a dire sin. When it became clear that Portland wasn’t toeing the line, church leadership sent fact-finding delegations to Portland to learn more. They responded with wide-eyed accounts, professing shock at a culture that openly embraced LGBTQ rights.

Church leaders never backed off their hard line even after recognizing that it could cost them their entire Portland operation.

In the end, was it the gay club or was it Concordia Portland’s increasing financial weakness that caused its demise? Missouri Synod officials are not talking. Even Schlimpert said he’s unsure.

“You know what, I’m asking the same question,” Schlimpert said from his home in Scottsdale, Arizona. “It’s probably cultural concerning the gay club. It was probably financial. It was most likely both.”

Asked whether he was treated fairly by church leadership, Schlimpert said he didn’t want to get into that.

“It would be like throwing rocks at a dead skunk,” he added. “I’m trying not to think about it. I’m trying to think about improving my golf game.”

The center of the country

Concordia allowed its first gay student club on campus about a decade ago. It always was a terrible idea in the minds of some senior officials in the St. Louis hierarchy.

In a Jan. 15, 2015 letter, Dean Wenthe, president of the Concordia University System, offered leaders of the Concordia schools some unequivocal advice: “Do not establish or permit a club that espouses sinful behavior as OK.”

“At least in the center of the country, most expressions of the ‘Pride’ movement are unqualifiedly supportive of behaviors that Sacred Scripture condemns,” he wrote. “None of us, I’m sure, would permit a ‘Hook-up’ club dedicated to promiscuity among heterosexuals.”

The gay issue escalated in 2017 and 2018 as Concordia officials tried to reconcile the hard-right approach of the LCMS with the enthusiastically open-minded approach in Portland. The issue reached a fevered pitch when Ernesto Dominguez arrived on campus.

An aspiring social worker and openly gay man who grew up Salt Lake City, Dominguez was a natural leader and organizer. He was at the forefront of an effort to recast the existing gay student club into a bigger, more visible operation.

The new club – now called the Gay-Straight Alliance – scheduled a new event: Drag queen bingo night.

“The LCMS didn’t even want to teach evolution, that’s how backwards they are,” Dominguez said. “No women on the pulpit. No openly gay professors.”

In the club

Concordia Portland’s position on the gay club seemed to change with the seasons. First, it was tolerated, then it was banned, then all clubs were banned.

In 2017, Missouri Synod sent two senior officials to Portland on a fact-finding mission.

They met with Schlimpert, Dominguez, who by then had been elected student body president, and Reed Mueller, a Concordia professor and advisor to the Gay-Straight Alliance, among others.

Mueller wanted to clear up what he thought were faulty assumptions about LGBTQ students.

“We wanted to present the view of the students, they were dear to us,” Mueller said. “I don’t think it’s fair to assume that students of faith are not also people who identify as LGBTQ…They expected Concordia would be a place where they would feel welcomed. And for some it wasn’t.”

It was all very earnest and civil. One of the church’s investigators remarked to Dominguez that he had played a role in integrating Blacks in his church in an apparent attempt to find common ground, Dominguez recalled.

“It just felt like these were people who were living not just in another place, but in a different time,” he said.

After-action report

The investigators did not hold back when they wrote up their findings.

Of Schlimpert, they found he was not appropriately adhering to LCMS policy. Schlimpert admitted to them that Concordia Portland had never adopted the church’s 2016 Lutheran Identity Statement, which set theological standards.

Of Mueller, they said his analysis of gender identity from a psychological view “was without any theological substance and exhibited vocabulary that opened the door for LGBT legitimacy.”

Of Dominguez and other students whom they met, the investigators were taken aback by their candor that they were LGBTQ.

“The leader of the Pride club and next year’s student body president (Dominguez) indicated that he was a practicing gay man,” they recounted in the report. “He also indicated that he had not gone to George Fox or another Christian university because they required a statement/agreement to not engage in certain sexual behaviors.

“He immediately asked us to go around the room and indicate what pronouns we preferred to be addressed by in our conversation. One of the girls indicated she preferred the pronouns ‘they and them.'”

The investigators were alarmed to hear the students talk about their legal rights and protection under federal law.

“The perception arose that from his perspective the church and Concordia University were hostage to the law and to the local culture,” they wrote.

A separation

Less than two months later, the Synod made a stunning pronouncement: It requested that Concordia Portland consider leaving the Concordia family of colleges. In response, the local board of regents voted unanimously to begin exploring the possibility of spinning off from St. Louis.

Schlimpert had hoped to retire in 2017. Church leadership convinced him to stay at least another year to make the separation happen.

But he just couldn’t escape the controversy over gay rights.

Things came to a head when the press got wind of the flap. Willamette Week reported in January 2018 students’ concerns that the university had shut down the gay club. Schlimpert almost immediately reversed course and declared he would approve all existing club charters.

Schlimpert dashed off a letter to St. Louis claiming that he had to make the decision to allow the gay club “to avoid catastrophe.” After the story broke a “firestorm erupted in social and mainstream media,” Schlimpert wrote. If he hadn’t acted to douse the flame, it “could have caused irreparable financial harm to the institution, even perhaps to the point of having to close the university.”

Matt Harrison, the Missouri Synod’s forceful president, was having none of it. He issued his Feb. 2 demand that that Schlimpert leave Concordia Portland.

Harrison said part of Schlimpert’s job was to watch over “the spiritual welfare” of your students. “Your recent public statement is irreconcilable with this principal charge of your office. You have caused great offense to the church…”

Schlimpert left Concordia for good in July.

A ‘$400 million crater’

In a presentation later that year to church officials in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Harrison seemed to agree with Schlimpert: Being singled out as intolerant in Portland of all places could be very bad for business.

Concordia’s activists “went public in Portland, which is very pro-gay,” Harrison said at the Fort Wayne conference. That got the attention of the local teachers’ union and Portland Public Schools, which routinely offered 550 internships to Concordia education students each year.

If Concordia lost that internship program, a cascading series of calamitous events would follow.

“That would have collapsed the school of education, which would have collapsed the entire university,” Harrison said. That’s because Concordia had a contract with online education company Bertelsmann to supply new graduate students to study online through an affiliate called HotChalk.

That was an essential source of revenue to the small Portland university.

“We had the potential, and we do have the potential for a $400 million crater. So it has to be treated very gently,” Harrison told church officials. “But it may finally be the case that we simply cannot run a Christian Lutheran university in that context.”

Johnnie Dreissner replaced Schlimpert as president. In a Jan. 14, 2019 letter, Wenthe, president of the university system, warned Dreissner that the LGBTQ issue would continue to be a problem. He suggested that Dreissner reach out to local leaders to explain the church’s side of the LGBTQ debate.

This proactive damage control “would lessen, to some degree, the publicity that will undoubtedly come,” Wenthe wrote. “Your engaging and winsome manner may be the Lord’s tools for a satisfying solution.”

But it was a bit late for a charm offensive.

On Feb. 10, 2020, stunned students learned Concordia Portland was shutting down. The announcement came the day after the deadline for students to seek tuition refunds.

Concordia Portland officials hoped for another loan from the church’s financial arm. But after years of hostility, they couldn’t reach a deal.

The Oregonian/OregonLive was the first to report Concordia Board of Regents meeting minutes that indicated the church’s Missouri leadership was dangling a $4 million line of credit, but only on the condition that Concordia Portland come into compliance with LCMS policy on homosexuality.

In some of his first public comments since Concordia’s collapse, Schlimpert said his departure had nothing to do with Harrison’s demand that he resign. He says he can’t even remember reading the stern reprimand from his boss. The retirement was his idea on his terms, he said.

As for Concordia’s closure, Schlimpert said it still mystifies him.

“It came out of the blue, I don’t know that it had to happen,” he said. “It makes me sad. After investing 35 years of my life there, yeah, that makes me sad.”


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