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Luther roseFor past posts on the 2009 ELCA 11th Annual Churchwide Assembly, click here.

Conservative members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America note that the Assembly stopped short of allowing gay marriage to be celebrated in their churches.  However, they believe this will be the next step. 

Many congregations and pastors are considering leaving.  This poses questions about church property, pension plans, insurance and where to go next.  WordAlone, a grassroots network of ELCA congregations and individual members, have compiled a document outlining what people can do if they wish to withdraw from the ELCA. WordAlone founded although is now largely separate from an organisation called Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ, which provides resources for congregations at odds with ELCA leadership. 

It’s a sad time indeed when it comes to the following advice, paraphrased from ‘What to Do When … (John 6:68)’, however necessary:

Lay response as a single person with no children: Try to find a suitable Lutheran church, using the resources in Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ. In any event, research the new church well, worship there frequently and interview the pastor.

Lay response as a family with children: Evaluate your current ELCA church on the basis of worship, activities and committees.  Discuss how your current network of friends and church work could change in a new church.  Sunday school, confirmation class and youth groups are important considerations for children.  Parents must live up to their baptismal responsibility when considering their children’s needs.

Pastor deciding to leave the ELCA although his congregation remain: Clearly explain to the congregation what exactly the ELCA has approved in Assembly and the theological and scriptural reasons for your disagreement with the decision.  Co-operate with your bishop and his office with regard to resigning from the ELCA roster.  Work with the bishop’s office, the ELCA Board of Pensions and your lawyer with regard to pension and health care packages as well as personal and professional issues.  Try to find a posting in another Lutheran synod.

Pastor remains in the ELCA and congregation leave:  A pastor who wishes to remain in the ELCA even though his congregation decides to leave it can contact the bishop to arrange for another post in a nearby ELCA church, as mandated by the church constitution.  The synod may also approve a pastor serving in a non-ELCA Lutheran church until he finds another ELCA appointment. 

Pastor retires: In the event a pastor retires provoked by disagreement with an ELCA Assembly decision, his health and pension benefits remain no matter where he chooses to worship.  He may elect to remove his name from the ELCA roster.   

Both congregation and pastor leave the ELCA:  The congregation owns the church land and property, provided they transfer to another Lutheran church body.  ELCA churches which were once part of the LCA or were ELCA mission start-ups should see the WordAlone document for more information, as special circumstances apply.  Congregations wishing to leave the ELCA will need to evaluate and research which Lutheran church body they wish to join.  The document gives helpful suggestions.  [Also see the article below from the Charleston Gazette, which states that the Synod needs to become involved with this type of decision.]

WordAlone emphasises that the document is not definitive nor is it meant to limit the choices ELCA pastors and congregations have.  You can find the document in the Resources section of Churchmouse Campanologist — ‘WordAlone – What to Do When’ — for future reference. 

As non-Lutherans can see, this is serious business, especially considering the ELCA has lost close to 500,000 members since 2001.  The Charleston Gazette (West Virginia) recently featured an article, ‘St Timothy Church at a crossroad‘, examining one ELCA congregation’s reaction to the historic Assembly vote in August (emphasis mine):

St. Timothy’s pastor, the Rev. Richard Mahan, received national attention when The Associated Press quoted him calling homosexuality ‘immoral and perverted’ at the ELCA assembly.

He got more notice after he hung black cloth over the word ‘Lutheran’ on the church’s signs, in protest of the vote …

Bishop Ralph Dunkin of the ELCA’s West Virginia-Maryland Synod plans to meet with Mahan in the next few weeks …

‘I know that Pastor Mahan took the decisions very hard. I think he’s personally hurt,’ he said. ‘I think part of Pastor Mahan’s struggle is, how do we show that we disagree or dissent without leaving? And covering up the sign is one way to do it …’

In Dunkin’s synod, many don’t accept the decision, he said.

‘Our congregations are very conservative,’ he said. ‘I think one of the real divides of our church is that the urban areas have been discussing this for 40 years. This synod’s only been talking about it since 1997.’

Dunkin said the ELCA always has welcomed gays and lesbians. Before the assembly’s vote this month, they could serve as clergy if they took a vow of celibacy …

If St. Timothy or any other church wants to break away, the congregation must vote to do so by a two-thirds majority, according to the ELCA Constitution. Then, church members must meet with Dunkin and take a second vote.

If the church decides to separate, the Synod Council has to grant permission for the congregation to keep its property, according to the ELCA constitution …

Let’s pray for our Lutheran friends in Christ that they may arrive at appropriate spiritual decisions for themselves and their families.  Difficult days lie ahead.

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