Since she was excommunicated from her Lutheran church four years ago, LaVonne Pfeil says that her life has been ruined.
“I lost my church, I lost my husband, lost my reputation, lost a lot of money,” said Pfeil, who’s 79 years old. “I can go to a grocery store. If people see me, they turn around with their cart. I used to know everybody. Now I have no friends.”
Shortly before he died in 2013, Pfeil’s husband, Henry, urged her to file a lawsuit against their former pastors and church, St. Matthew Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Unaltered Augsburg Confession of Worthington. They accuse the church of defaming the couple with false accusations that have rippled throughout the farm town in southwestern Minnesota.
The guarantee of religious liberty in the U.S. and Minnesota constitutions have generally kept the courts out of ecclesiastical disputes. But the Minnesota Supreme Court agreed to hear Pfeil’s argument that judges should have a role in sorting out what’s said in church if it damages someone’s reputation far beyond the congregation.
That prospect would be a “terrible and dangerous decision,” according to the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, which filed an amicus brief in the case: “Courts should not pry into the mind of a pastor with respect to his judgment that a member of his congregation sinned.”
The pastors named in Pfeil’s complaint, Tom Braun and Joe Behnke, have since left St. Matthew. They declined an interview request, but provided a joint statement through their attorney, William Davidson:
“We believe a civil court is not in a position to second-guess the internal decision that the church took in this case, and to do so would chill a church’s practice of its faith and the communications within a church between other members and the leaders of a church.”
Yet from Pfeil’s perspective, what happened at St. Matthew cannot be separated from its effect on the rest of her life.
Pfeil thinks the trouble began in the church kitchen during a funeral in 2010. Someone started swearing when coffee grounds got in the coffee, and the foul language was unfairly blamed on her, she said.
The conflict between the Pfeils and the pastors escalated. The church accused the Pfeils of slandering and trying to discredit the pastors, court records show. Then, in August 2011, the Pfeils were excommunicated.
“The discipline that ultimately was undertaken was done so reluctantly and after many different attempts to discuss the matter with the Pfeils, and after many, many attempts at reconciliation,” the pastors said in their statement to the Star Tribune.
Click here to read more.
James Eli Shiffer