ELCA members still split on gay clergy issue

Published 8:00 am Wednesday, September 22, 2010

By Michelle Haacke
Albert Lea Tribune

NORTHWOOD, Iowa — About 200 church leaders and members from Lutheran churches across north Iowa and southern Minnesota filled the pews at the First Lutheran Church in Northwood Sunday to discuss issues within the ELCA and explore alternative denominations.

The event was an informational session, hosted by the Albert Lea-Austin Chapter of WordAlone Ministries, a service organization that assists area Lutheran churches within and outside of the ELCA with reform and renewal ideas.

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“There’s a fork in the road right now, and the question is, ‘Where do we go from here?’” said the Rev. Dan Baker of the First Lutheran Church of Albert Lea, who also serves as vice chairman on the local WordAlone chapter.

Baker said that WordAlone has helped people who have struggled with the decisions and actions of ELCA, giving them a voice to those concerns.

“As a chapter, our goal is to serve those people who are struggling, whether they decide to stay or leave,” he said.

Lutherans throughout the United States have been wrestling with the implications of actions by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America since its leaders approved a social statement in August 2009 that changed church teaching on sexuality and authorized a policy reversal on same-sex relationships. ELCA pastors are now allowed to be in same-sex relationships and to officiate at same-sex union ceremonies.

On Saturday, it was announced that bishops of the ELCA would preside over a ceremony at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in St. Paul, officially receiving three lesbian pastors onto the denomination’s roster.

Baker said the biggest fear now is that culture is acting as the guiding force, directing churches rather than the word of God.

The Rev. Mark Chavez, director of Lutheran CORE, a nondenominational affiliation, was the guest speaker at the event on Sunday. He said there were a number of problems within the ELCA since it began with a merger of three church organizations in 1988.

“It’s not well-grounded in scripture and theology,” he said. “The other mistake is they tried to create an elaborate structure … In 1988, ELCA began as a dinosaur. It was never going to function effectively.”

Chavez fielded questions and concerns from area leaders and parishioners alike about not only ELCA’s social statements, but also the side effects.

One main concern is that churches already struggle with budget issues, and to begin discussions about separating from ELCA can split a congregation, further cutting into their floundering budgets.

“It may not be the right time in your congregation. It may take some time to even begin to think about it,” he said.

Other issues that churches run into when beginning such discussions, Chavez said, are disturbing generations of social relationships and friendships within the congregations.

“The challenge is that it’s hard to leave,” agreed Baker. “It’s hard to shake up your congregation, so staying with the status quo if often easier.”

Jeanne Venem, a member of the West Freeborn Church in Hartland, said she’s concerned with ELCA’s repeated drafting of social statements. After their social statement about sexuality, she said they’re now trying to play their hand in the use of genetics on farms.

“They’re trying to direct farming management practices,” she said. “We don’t believe it’s the churches place to give recommendations on farm management practices.”

While the First Lutheran Church in Northwood hosted the event, the Rev. Barbara Wills said they are not endorsing whether to stay or leave the ELCA.

“We’ve been studying the whole issue,” she said.

The bottom line in the debate, she said, is the authority of scripture. “It’s Biblical authority — how seriously we understand what the Bible says,” she pointed out.

The Rev. Julie Fiske of Emmons Lutheran Church in Emmons attended the event because her church council is in the preliminary stages of talking about their options.

“Some of our leadership is concerned about the direction of ELCA and our council felt the responsible thing to do is to learn about other options out there,” she said.

Chavez said that it’s important for churches that do decide to leave the ELCA to not get separated from an affiliation, because keeping connected is important. Two alternative denominations that some churches that leave the ELCA are choosing to join up with are the Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ and the North American Lutheran Church.

LCMC was founded in 2001 and has a total of 524 congregations worldwide. NALC was established just last month.

According to Tom Walker, vice president of WordAlone’s national chapter, both are very similar in their theology but structured a little differently.

“The LCMC is an associate of congregations with more of a free-form worship found here in the Midwest,” he said. “The NALC has a core head group to act on behalf of congregations. It’s more liturgical, found more in the eastern United States.”

Baker said in the southeastern Minnesota area, Wangen Prairie Lutheran Church of rural Cannon Falls and Rejoice! Lutheran Church in Northfield have left the ELCA. He said that Rushford Lutheran Church of Rushford and First Lutheran of Ellendale have taken first votes to leave the ELCA, but second votes have not yet been held.

Baker also said that a first vote to leave the ELCA at Zion of Clear Lake passed, but the second vote failed.