Patrons Needed More than Partners

Lutheranism in Russia


Siegfried Springer longs to see vibrant congregations in Russia. That's why his retirement is on hold; the 71-year-old pastor resides half-time in Moscow and serves as European bishop for the ELCROS (Evangelical Lutheran Church in Russia and Other States). A survivor of heart surgery, Bishop Springer intends to carry on "as long as God gives me strength and I can expect the necessary sacrifices from my family".


During the 1990s, at least 100 new Lutheran congregations sprang up in the European portion of Russia. But to realize his dream, the Bishop needs the aid of sisters and brothers in the West. He nevertheless complains, "When I speak in German or North American congregations and ask for assistance, they offer me partnerships. Yet administering partnerships only increases my load. It's understandable that Western partners want to be more than a dairy cow: They want to meet people and experience new things. But most of our congregations are not yet capable of being partners."


Bishop Springer adds: "I can win an educated Russian for the work of our church, but he or she will usually be incapable of relating to Western congregations. What we need most are patrons - not partners. We need partners even though we ourselves are not yet capable of being partners. In time, patronages should evolve into partnerships. That will happen when our congregations mature and become of age. But for now we need patrons willing to take a congregation by the hand."


Russia once again has the structures in place for a revival of Lutheranism. Yet the spiritual substance is very weak. The grave worker shortage is evident in the fact that the Moscow Bishop needs to function without assistants. He alone is responsible for settling all financial, legal and building matters "sometime between 8 a.m. and midnight". "We need qualified missionaries who can come and bring their salaries with them," he adds. "We still have no local income sources in Russia."


The Past

Russia's - primarily German - Lutheranism enjoys the blessing and scourge of a long history and tradition. It is both blessed and burdened by the fact that hundreds of battered Protestant churches crying for the restorator's hand are scattered throughout European Russia. As an example, Bishop Springer cites the church in Marx/Volga with seating for 1,200 persons. If 2,500,000 ethnic-German Russians had not left Russia in the past ten years, saving this church would have been relatively easy. But now the church is frequented by 90 believers, two-thirds of whom have already celebrated their 70th birthday. "This group insists on retaining the church", recounts the Bishop, "for many of them were baptized or confirmed in it. Yet only 1% of the population in this region (near Saratov) is of German origin. Earlier, the proportions were nearly reversed." One-hundred years ago, Moscow boasted 17,000 Lutheran believers. Today, it has 700.


Yet Siegfried Springer is not concerned primarily about the preservation of cultural memorials - he is most interested in usable meeting halls. He constantly asks himself: "Will I smother a congregation when I apply for the return of a church building for which it cannot pay the repairs?" When Lutherans cannot guarantee the upkeep of an old church, it is unfortunately often passed on by the state to other interested parties.


Bishop Springer does not believe that the old status quo will ever return. Future pockets of Germanness in Mother Russia will be more modest, smaller and more Russian than they were prior to the communist revolution. Germans were severely chastened after 1917, the wealth gap between Germans and Russians dare not be allowed to reoccur. Cultural ghettos are to be avoided: Even now many church services are held only in Russian.


Biographical matters

The Bishop needed to wait very long - until 1992 - for a return to the land of his childhood. Thanks to his long-term involvement with Protestant groups working on Eastern Europe, he was long before then well-informed on the lot of East European Lutherans. Since 1984 he has among other things directed a church fellowship of Lutherans from Russia based in Bad Sooden-Allendorf, Germany near Göttingen.


It was his Christian faith which brought Siegfried Springer back to Russia. His father, the teacher Edgard Springer, was executed by the Soviets in 1938. Fortunately, his family was not deported to Siberia during the German invasion of 1941. When the German army later retreated, the family fled to West Prussia. As a forced laborer in Poland from 1944-47, the lad had his first experiences with the Christian faith. He says: "I was enthralled by the Christian faith and asked myself how it was possible that the peoples of the Soviet Union could survive without faith." He therefore felt the call for 45 years, "to bring the Gospel to that region which I had left as an unbeliever".


Does the death of his father fill him with resentment towards Russians? "No", he answers, "I also met persons with misdeeds such as these on their consciences later in Germany. Such behavior results from a certain type of system. Only when I see people with Stalin banners and the old slogans do I today need to struggle to control myself and remain quiet."


William Yoder

Baltimore/USA, January 25, 2002


Text offered to "The Lutheran" in Chicago/USA, 915 words


Note from September 2021: Siegfried Springer died in Bad Sooden-Allendorf (Germany) in January 2019. He had been a bishop in Russia until 2006.