Featured Stories, Lutherans in the Twin Cities

Congregational votes don’t reflect the personal pain

When the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) churchwide assembly, meeting in Minneapolis in August 2009, voted on five resolutions related to sexuality — one social statement and four resolutions — a hush hung over the convention floor. The gravity of the situation seemed apparent to all gathered.

This event has played itself out over and over again in congregations across the country, including in Minnesota’s six ELCA synods. In many congregations, members shared a common reaction to the assembly action — sometimes the vast majority were in favor, sometimes opposed.

Many other congregations experienced uncertainty. With a wide diversity of opinion about the assembly’s decision, these congregations have searched for processes to aid conversation and determine how to move forward.

The Affiliation Task Force at Calvary Lutheran Church, Golden Valley, Minnesota, queried Bishop Craig Johnson for almost three hours, asking about 47 questions.

A handful of congregations locally concluded it was time to leave the ELCA. Such a move required two votes, each with at least two-thirds of the voting members in attendance voting affirmatively. The two votes needed to be separated by 90 days. Between the two votes, the congregation must be in consultation with the office of the local synod bishop, which usually means an open direct meeting with the bishop.

Nationally, about 264 congregations have taken votes; in 60 cases the proposals to leave have failed. So, approximately 200 congregations, or about two percent, have disassociated themselves from the ELCA.

In the St. Paul Area Synod of the ELCA, three congregations have voted, with two deciding to leave (Hosanna! in Lakeville and Shepherd of the Valley in Afton). Bethesda Lutheran Church in Inver Grove Heights voted against withdrawing from the ELCA.

The Minneapolis Area Synod (MAS) is seeing similar numbers, according to the Rev. Craig Johnson, bishop of the synod. Currently, six of the synod’s 167 congregations have voted to disassociate themselves.

St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church on Portland in Minneapolis was the first ELCA congregation to leave. Both of the congregation’s votes were near unanimous, according to the Rev. Roland Wells, senior pastor.

Central Lutheran Church in Elk River voted in November 2009. The vote was 574 to 171 to terminate the relationship. The congregation has affiliated with Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ (LCMC).

A new ELCA church start, including many former members of Central, has begun to worship in Elk River.

Other congregations having voted to leave are Lord of Life in Ramsey, Redeemer in Fridley, Lutheran Church of the Master in Brooklyn Center, and Christ Lutheran in Otsego.

Bethany Lutheran Church on 36th Avenue in south Minneapolis took a vote in early February. The vote to end the relationship with the ELCA failed. The congregation’s pastor, Bruce Nelson, subsequently resigned.

Calvary Lutheran Church, Golden Valley, Minnesota, is in the midst of an extensive discernment process. The executive committee of the church council appointed an Affiliation Task Force in December to gather information that would serve as a report to the council. “Ten past presidents were appointed [to the task force], and we are required to report back on March 16,” explained Karl Cambronne, task force member.

Beginning its work in January, the Task Force invited representatives of four Lutheran groups to open meetings. Pastor John Brecount told Metro Lutheran the list of guest presenters included the Rev. Bill Sullivan of LCMC, the Rev. Mark Chavez of Lutheran CORE, Jim Bradley of the Alliance of Renewal Churches (ARC), and the Rev. Craig Johnson, bishop of the ELCA’s Minneapolis Area Synod.

Guest speakers were invited to answer prepared questions from the task force. In an effort to be transparent, members of the congregation could attend the inquiry and submit questions themselves.

“The task force will make a report to the church in council in March, explained Laura Jensen, a member of Calvary’s executive committee. “[Then] the council will discuss the report in April, and will bring a recommendation to a congregational meeting in May.”

Jensen has attended several of the inquiries and said “My thoughts are not completely formed.” She added, “It has been good to hear different perspectives.”

LCMC’s Sullivan spent an evening with the task force earlier in the year. “I appreciated the concern for mission of the church and how it could fit with LCMC,” he said. “I addressed the most common questions about the association … including dual affiliation.”

Johnson also recognized the strong mission orientation of the congregation, stressing the joint efforts of the congregation and the synod. He stressed his hope for continuing this ministry. When asked whether there could be common work even if Calvary votes to leave, Johnson said, “I would hope so.”

“Regardless of the outcome, great effort has been put in the process,” Cambronne said. “And Calvary will do what it believes is right for Calvary.”

UPDATE: On May 17, 2010, members of Calvary Lutheran Church held a first vote concerning discontinuing its relationship with the ELCA. Congregants voted 800 to 310 to end affiliation with the national church body.

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