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A situation in flux

What does a fast-growing LCMC mean?

The Lutheran labyrinth is as puzzling as ever, but we still have this in common: Like Paul and Silas in prison — we sing.

Song was an agenda item at the 10th annual meeting of Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ (LCMC) October 3-6 at Calvary Lutheran, Golden Valley, and the sanctuary rang with a mix of traditional hymns and contemporary-worship tunes as over 1,000 voices joined in.

The reason for rapid growth in the band of rebel congregations is clear: ELCA’s move to allow gay clergy in committed, same-gender relationship was the last straw for some. Congregations have debated and divided, often bitterly, over whether to stay or go.

More than 1,000 people attended the Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ national gathering at Calvary Lutheran Church, independent Lutheran congregation, Golden Valley, Minnesota. Metro Lutheran photos: Bob Hulteen

Attendees at LCMC’s 2010 gathering numbered 1,067 — up from 715 in 2009 at Atonement Lutheran in Fargo.

At LCMC’s opening service, Calvary Senior Pastor Steve Dornbusch invited attendees to come forward for healing prayer. It went on for 20 minutes. Then a heartfelt “My Hope is Built on Nothing Less” closed the service.

As worshippers filed out, LCMC’s pastoral certification coordinator, the Rev. Paul Spaulding of Minneapolis, came by. “You asked what I was expecting,” he said, and pointed to the faithful, joyfully greeting one another. “This,” he said.

On a mission

LCMC claims a high calling. The Rev. William Sullivan, who resigned earlier this year as executive — the job is called “service coordinator” — dubs LCMC a “new reformation.” The group dates to ELCA’s 1999 alliance with Episcopalians, whereupon some ELCA congregations organized in protest. Since 2009, 258 parishes have voted to exit ELCA’s flock, still more than 10,000 congregations. Many departees joined LCMC.

Attendees at LCMC’s 2010 gathering numbered 1,067 — up from 715 in 2009 at Atonement Lutheran in Fargo, which in turn was more than double the previous high of 325 at North Heights Lutheran in Arden Hills in 2007.

At Calvary, attendees approved a 2011 budget of $694,000 — more than double that of 2009.

LCMC is adamant that it isn’t a denomination or synod. It is intent on a management model that leaves responsibility in the hands of congregations. Nevertheless, it will likely add staff to the five stalwarts who shouldered the burden of its large Golden Valley gathering.

Keynote speaker Johan Hinderlie addresses participants in the Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ national gathering.

LCMC theology tends to be conservative, but some partisans still wrestle with gay issues. A Nebraska participant has a gay brother. Another attendee said his church welcomes an openly gay teacher who leads pre-K Sunday school and vows celibacy out of wedlock. Is that OK?

If breakout sessions are any indication, LCMC is moving on. A session on healing in congregations drew 36; another on homosexuality, 39; one on calling a pastor, 46 — but twice as many attended concurrent sessions on community ministry and another called “Women and the Word.”

LCMC insists that its focus is mission — and that starts at home. “The Great Commission was given to the local church, not to the association or the denomination,” says the Rev. Mark Vander Tuig of Altoona, Iowa, LCMC’s new service coordinator.

Its thin management model, however, may have an inherent flaw. Leaders travel incessantly and, with growth, costs have mounted rapidly. Flying 200,000 miles to meet with restive congregations since ELCA’s gay-clergy decision in Minneapolis in 2009 was a factor in the resignation of Sullivan. He now leads New Life Lutheran in Sterling, Illinois, a startup including members who fled two congregations that voted to stay in the ELCA.

Different options for new Lutheran bodies

How does the new Lutheran body fit in with the North American Lutheran Church (NALC) organized earlier this year? “Theologically we come from the same place,” says Sharon MacFadyen, based in Cypress, Texas, as LCMC’s administrative coordinator — but NALC, she adds, is “more in a line” with ELCA structure. She calls it “a little bit more top-down than bottom-up.”

Both bodies accept women as leaders and pastors, reject gay pastors, and emphasize mission. Yet they are distinct. Some congregations want more structure, some want less. LCMC is “on the side of more freedom and NALC on the side of more structure,” says Spaulding.

LCMC national gathering attendees gather to lay their hands on and pray for those paricipants who feel they have been treated badly over the last year or two, especially by those who have remained in the ELCA.

The Rev. Mark Chavez of Landisville, Pa., director of the Lutheran CORE group that helped organize NALC, notes that dissident ELCA Lutherans now have “at least two very good alternatives.”

The difference between NALC and LCMC, says Chavez, is “about structure and oversight of pastors.” Also, NALC will apply for membership in Lutheran World Federation to build international ties. It also hopes for links with Roman Catholics, the new Anglican church that rejects gay clergy, and even with the conservative Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod.

NALC and LCMC do agree on networking — but LCMC networks parish to parish, while NALC’s Chavez says “that networking needs to cross denominational lines and national lines.”

In other words, it’s complicated. How should we assess LCMC’s fast growth? “I’m not sure what it means for all Lutherans,” says LCMC’s Vander Tuig. “What it means for us is we’re here to stay.”

So maybe, in the Lutheran labyrinth, like Paul and Silas in prison — we just keep praying and singing.

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