Lutherans in the Twin Cities

Calvary Lutheran Church finds compromise in vote about relationship to ELCA

Since the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) 2009 Churchwide Assembly debate and votes on human sexuality and the ordination of clergy in monogamous, lifelong, same-gendered relationships, individual congregations have reacted in a variety of ways.

ELCA secretary David Swartling recently reported to the ELCA Church Council that, as of August 3, his office had been advised that 504 of 10,239 congregations have taken first votes to terminate their affiliation with the ELCA. Of those, 348 passed and 156 failed. Synods have also reported that 212 congregations took second votes to leave the ELCA, of which 199 passed and 13 failed, he said.

Many eyes are now watching the actions of Calvary Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Golden Valley, Minnesota. At its annual meeting in October 2009, Calvary members voted 54 percent to 46 percent to amend the congregational budget to withhold its benevolence contribution to the ELCA.

The church council at Calvary then formed an Affiliation Task Force to develop a process for evaluating its on-going relationship to the ELCA. Congregation president Jeff Johnson selected 10 former presidents to serve on the task force.

The task force hosted numerous forums, including information sessions with representatives of other Lutheran church bodies. The ELCA Minneapolis Area Synod bishop was also invited to address the congregation.

Johnson and Soby both believe that the task force’s commitment to on-going ELCA relationship, and to Calvary’s commitment to welcome gay and lesbian people, helped the congregation move forward.

The task force then prepared its findings, detailing 36 items defining Calvary’s positions or beliefs about its identity. The report cited historical incidents of tension between Calvary and the ELCA, especially around some governance issues. It stated, “The ELCA and the [Minneapolis Area] Synod have respected Calvary’s mission efforts while being critical of Calvary’s independence.”

Johnson explained that “the assembly vote forced us to discuss [whether we should be] a constitutional member of the ELCA or not.”

On May 17, at a special congregational meeting, congregants voted 800 to 310 to terminate Calvary’s legal relationship with the ELCA. The vote exceeded the required two-thirds margin for withdrawal from the ELCA. The congregation’s constitution requires a second vote before the decision is final. That vote will be held September 27.

According to Johnson, the congregation will not immediately make a decision on future affiliation with another Lutheran body. “We’ll be better off going our own way for a period of time,” he explained.

To affiliate or not to affiliate

Dayton Soby, chair of the Affiliation Task Force, stressed that all task force members were not initially in the same position on affiliation with the ELCA. But, a consensus developed that Calvary was not leaving the ELCA, but simply “terminating the legal relationship, but not terminating any relationship. We are seeking this new paradigm of cooperating in ministry.” This understanding was important for many people to feel comfortable with their vote, according to Soby.

“I am confidant we will have a relationship [with the ELCA],” said Johnson. “Bishop [Craig] Johnson is interested in that; I know Pastor Steve [Dornbusch] is.”

“There are faithful people on both sides [of this dispute],” said the Rev. Craig Johnson, Minneapolis Area Synod bishop. “I am deeply saddened that Calvary Lutheran Church has found itself in such division.”

Another task force recommendation which likely affected the vote was that Calvary state its intention “to welcome gay and lesbian persons to worship with this congregation and to become members, both by public statements and by tangible actions,” according to the report.

Jeff Johnson said that Calvary will include all people in the life of the church. He has appointed a group “of about 12 or 13 people who have a passion for the issue of sexuality and biblical understanding” to develop recommendations about the forms of this welcome.

When asked whether Calvary might become a Reconciling in Christ church (a term used by Lutheran congregations that publicly support gay and lesbian people fully within all aspects of a congregation’s life), Johnson told Metro Lutheran that all options would be on the table but, given its diversity, it was “unlikely that the group would do something so drastic.”

A consensus developed that Calvary was not leaving the ELCA, but simply “terminating the legal relationship, but not terminating any relationship. We are seeking this new paradigm of cooperating in ministry,” according to Dayton Soby, chair of hte Affiliation Task Force.

Johnson and Soby both believe that the task force’s commitment to on-going ELCA relationship, and to Calvary’s commitment to welcome gay and lesbian people, helped the congregation move forward.

“We went in[to the process] knowing that regardless of the vote, we will lose some members,” said Jeff Johnson. “My goal is to minimize the controversy over ELCA membership and move on to focus on mission.”

“We refuse to tinker any longer with the machinery of denominationalism,” Soby explained. “When the ELCA sneezes, Calvary catches a cold,” he added.

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