Some ELCA Congregations Vote to Leave or Redirect Funds, Find It's Not Easy

10/29/2009 12:00:00 AM

     CHICAGO (ELCA) -- Throughout the Evangelical Lutheran Church in
America (ELCA), leaders and members have responded in a variety of ways
to changes in the church's ministry polices, a decision made by voting
members of the 2009 Churchwide Assembly. Some members agreed with the
decision. Some were opposed. Some weren't sure how to react.
     Since the assembly, some ELCA congregations have taken votes to
leave the denomination or redirect funds away from the ELCA. Leaders and
members in a few such congregations report it's not always easy to make
such choices, and there can be unintended consequences.
     The 2009 assembly, which met Aug. 17-23 in Minneapolis, adopted
proposals to change ELCA ministry policies. One change makes it possible
for Lutherans in publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous same-gender
relationships to serve as ELCA associates in ministry, clergy,
deaconesses and diaconal ministers.
     For some ELCA leaders and members, the assembly directive was
inconsistent with their understanding of biblical authority. They often
repeat the assertion that "the ELCA has left them."
     The assembly also adopted by exactly a two-thirds majority a social
statement on human sexuality. The statement addressed a wide range of
matters related to human sexuality, but a portion of it addressed same
gender relationships, causing disagreement among the voting members.
     Through Oct. 27, the ELCA Office of the Secretary reports an
estimated 50 of the ELCA's 10,396 congregations have taken first votes to
leave the denomination or have scheduled them, nearly all because of the
assembly's actions on sexuality. Five such votes have failed. The
estimate is based on reports from synod bishops, said David D. Swartling,
ELCA secretary.

Some Vote to Leave the ELCA or Try
     Generally congregations that want to leave the ELCA are required to
take two votes, at least 90 days apart, and must achieve a two-thirds
majority of voting members present for each vote. They are also required
to "consult" with the synod bishop between votes to leave. Former
Lutheran Church in America congregations and ELCA-established
congregations must be granted "synodical approval" before their ELCA
membership is terminated. The same approval is needed if the congregation
chooses to be independent or relate to a non-Lutheran church body.
     At Wangen Prairie Lutheran Church, Cannon Falls, Minn., 31 members
of the 40-member congregation voted 20-11 to leave but failed to achieve
the required two-thirds needed under constitutional rules. That has left
the Rev. Joy M. Gonnerman, who serves the congregation half-time, with a
difficult situation. And she expects some members to challenge the vote.
     Gonnerman told the ELCA News Service the congregation narrowly
defeated an attempt to leave in 2005, after the churchwide assembly that
year declined a proposal to change ministry policies. She said Wangen
Prairie's ELCA membership "has been tenuous at best."
     "I keep praying for them, keep preaching and keep administering the
sacraments," she said.
     Gonnerman noted that most of the 11 who voted to stay attend worship
regularly, and many of the others don't. "I find that those so angry
about the sexuality issue talk a lot about God, but not much about Jesus.
We (Lutherans) read the Bible through the lens of Jesus," Gonnerman said.
     Gonnerman said she focuses on keeping the congregation together. "I
work on unity. My goal as pastor is to work on unity and welcome people
with their diverse ideas." In the coming weeks she said she will offer
guidance to members and keep in mind that whatever the congregation
decides to do "must come from within."
     A similar situation exists at Christ Lutheran Church, Cottonwood,
Minn., which voted 74-44 on Oct. 18 to leave the ELCA, but the vote
failed to achieve a two-thirds majority. The congregation's president,
Joel C. Dahl, declined to be interviewed by the ELCA News Service, but
said in an e-mail message, "I have hopes that after some further
education of our congregation, we will vote again in the affirmative to
separate from the ELCA and join another Lutheran denomination." He told
the Marshall Independent newspaper that an informational meeting for the
congregation is planned sometime next month.
     The Rev. James L. Demke, pastor, confirmed that the 600-member
congregation will have "more discussion about the issues."
     St. John Lutheran Church, a 1,200-member congregation in Roanoke,
Va., voted 342-143 to leave the ELCA Sept. 27, barely achieving the two
thirds majority required. The congregation plans to take a second and
final vote to leave the denomination Jan. 10, said the Rev. Mark A.
Graham, senior pastor.
     Graham explained that the congregation has been discussing issues of
marriage, family and human sexuality for many years. After the churchwide
assembly acted, he and St. John's two associate pastors recommended to
the congregation council that St. John begin the process to leave the
ELCA on the grounds that "the ELCA has left traditional biblical
     It has not been an easy process. Graham expects as many as one-third
of the members will leave the congregation. Some have already left.
     "The last thing I ever expected is to bring a recommendation that
would cause conflict and division," he said in an interview. "I know
there are good Christians who disagree with us. It breaks my heart, but
we see no other way."
     Even if the pastors had not made their recommendation, Graham
believes many members would have left on their own, perhaps more than the
one-third St. John expects to lose. "We would have had conflict here
either way if we had not taken action," he said.
     And what will happen if St. John fails to achieve a two-thirds
majority at its second vote in January? Graham paused when asked that
question. He said he will have some decisions to make about his own
future in the ELCA.
     "We've had publicity about this, and it's not the kind I'm proud of.
It's a hard thing to convince people that were not anti-homosexual. We're
trying to convey a deep love for the Word of God. It breaks my heart that
my own denomination would make decisions based on other factors," he said.
     About five congregations have taken two votes to leave the ELCA so
far this year, the ELCA secretary reports. Of those, the largest was
Community Church of Joy, Glendale, Ariz., which formally left Sept. 27.
Only 129 of its 6,800 baptized members were present for the second vote,
which was unanimous.

Some Choose to Withhold Funds
     Some ELCA congregations, unhappy with the assembly's actions, have
stopped sending funds to support synod and churchwide ministries. The
funds are used, for example, "to plant and renew congregations, to raise
up and train leaders in seminaries and campus ministries, to send
missionaries, to respond to hunger at home and abroad, and to rebuild
communities after natural disasters," said the Rev. Mark S. Hanson, ELCA
presiding bishop, in a Sept. 23 letter to the church's professional
     The ELCA Constitution requires the churchwide organization, synods
and congregations "to share in the responsibility to develop, implement
and strengthen the financial support program of this church." Similar
required language appears in the ELCA's Model Constitution for Synods and
the Model Constitution for Congregations, yet, decisions are being made
in some places to direct funds elsewhere.
     The congregation council at 250-member Peace Lutheran Church,
Rockdale, Texas, suspended its benevolence payments to the ELCA shortly
after the congregation's pastor, the Rev. Janice A. Campbell, returned
from the assembly where she was a voting member. Instead, it sent its
September funds to support a Lutheran orphanage in Tanzania and will send
funds for the remainder of 2009 to a local food bank and Lutheran
Disaster Response, a collaborative ministry of the ELCA and the Lutheran
Church-Missouri Synod. Peace's annual benevolence is nearly $21,000,
according to the 2009 ELCA Yearbook.
     Campbell told members from the beginning that she didn't want anyone
to leave, and she urged the congregation members to respond together.
Campbell said she is concerned about a member and a family that may leave
the congregation. "I don't want to lose those people. It is important
that we listen to one another," she said.
     Some members are talking about joining Lutheran Congregations for
Mission in Christ (LCMC), she said. "I don't know if I'm going with them
or not. LCMC is not for me," she said. Campbell said she has been a
strong supporter of the ELCA Southwestern Texas Synod in the past.
     Global relationships are more valuable to Campbell than is the
denomination, she said. In particular Lutherans in Africa have much to
teach the ELCA, she said. Campbell said she was not happy that objections
to the sexuality proposals voiced by Lutheran churches in Africa
were "skimmed over" and not shared with voting members at the assembly.
     "I wish there was a way for the ELCA to come to realization that
this was a catastrophic (theological) error," she said of the actions on
sexuality. "I will continue to pray for the ELCA, for the synod and for
the bishops."
     The congregation council at St. Luke Lutheran Church, Cottage Grove,
Minn., made a similar decision. St. Luke's senior pastor, the Rev.
Timothy J. Housholder, a churchwide assembly voting member, declined to
be interviewed for this story. But he wrote to his congregation earlier
this month that, since the assembly, he had received more than 100
communications, most expressing concern about the decisions. The council
redirected remaining 2009 benevolence funds away from the ELCA Saint Paul
Area Synod and the churchwide organization, he said, "to allow time for
St. Luke to 'breathe' and discern what the ELCA's recent actions mean for
us." Lutheran Social Services and Lutheran World Relief will be sent
St. Luke's funds, Housholder reported. St. Luke has 2,200 baptized
members, and gives about $43,000 annually in benevolence funds.
     Not all are in agreement. Two members of St. Luke, Rebecca and Alan
Holz, wrote to the South Washington County Bulletin newspaper saying that
the decision to withhold the funds was made without approval of the
church's members. "My husband and I feel strongly that this act is
counter to what St. Luke's prior statement to the community was of 'the
Welcoming Church,' and we are deeply disappointed we were not allowed to
express our views prior to the council's decision," their Oct. 14 letter
     Member Natalie Seim also wrote the paper's editor to point out that
the council's vote to begin "discernment" was not shared by all members.
     The council has scheduled a forum for St. Luke members on Nov. 1.

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