At least seven congregations take steps to leave ELCA
East Lake Andes Lutheran Church is an eclectic, spiritually self-reliant congregation.
The 100 or so members from the farms and ranches near Armour and Parkston come from a variety of Protestant and Roman Catholic backgrounds, in addition to Lutheranism.
"It just kind of blended together into a community-type rural church," said Bill Van Gerpen, co-pastor and a Baptist.
So when the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America's general assembly voted in August to allow sexually active gay clergy in committed, monogamous relationships to serve as pastors, members of East Lake Andes who opposed the move explored the idea of leaving the ELCA. In the process, they've found that their own spiritual tradition runs deeper than their ties to the ELCA.
Still, leaving has come at a price.
As congregations across the state consider whether to split from the ELCA over the gay clergy issue, the situation represents more than simply a change in the church. The controversy has the potential to splinter small towns and communities where the Lutheran church has been an important part of the social fabric for decades.
"It tears at your heart in doing this," admits Dean Weber of rural Wagner, a 40-year member of the church and head of the church council when the effort to split from the ELCA began.
"Some are opposed, some are in favor, and when you have a close-knit church, that hurts.
"We hope it doesn't create deep caverns. We hope we're able to stay as a family in our church. But we know it's probably not likely."
Theirs is a journey at least seven congregations in the ELCA's South Dakota Synod have started on.
Summer Could Turn Heat Back Onto The Debate
Others, including the largest churches, with memberships of 1,000 or more, are waiting to see how events play out. The synod might respond to the general assembly's action when it meets in June. The general assembly itself could revisit the sexuality issue when it next meets in 2011, and an ELCA reform group, Lutheran CORE, could announce a split when it meets this summer, according to ELCA South Dakota Synod Bishop David Zellmer.
But in planning to leave the ELCA now, East Lake Andes' experience foreshadows many aspects of the gay clergy controversy that could affect the 123,000 South Dakota ELCA members in 249 congregations, including:
The economic effect of separation.
The mundane practicalities of how to do it legally and where to go afterward.
The personal toll on church members.
The Lutheran historical and theological tradition into which separation fits.
Economic hard times and displeasure with the general assembly already have resulted in $360,000 in reduced support from member churches to the synod, Zellmer said. He estimates that as much as $130,000 of that is directly related to the general assembly vote. Revenue will decline further if entire congregations leave.
The synod's overall budget is $2.1 million, and because it has been taking in less money, Zellmer has been forced to eliminate one staff position and cut back another.
He wants to protect the travel budget so he and other synod leaders can stay in contact with South Dakota's far-flung Lutheran congregations, and he hopes to safeguard support for seminaries.
"One piece of this for me is how we produce leaders for the future. Seminaries are important," he said.
East Lake Andes itself is wrestling with this issue.
"One of the problems we have is we have a member of the church in seminary," Weber says. "We will continue to support her in seminary, but she has to be a member of an ELCA church to be ordained."
After the general assembly vote, the East Lake Andes congregation took a straw vote. When a majority favored leaving the ELCA, it took the first formal vote to do so in January - 74 percent voted to leave.
That started a 90-day clock. During that period, Zellmer made a required visit to East Lake Andes. Since the general assembly decision, he has made three such visits to congregations that have taken initial votes to leave. He doesn't know how many more he will have to make.
At such meetings, "I make it pretty clear I am not mad at them. Then I sound like a lawyer for a while," he said.He explains the legal nuts and bolts of leaving the synod, assures church members the synod cannot take their property, asks whether disaffected congregations have considered the loss of their tax-exempt status afforded by membership in the synod and asks whether they have thought about where they will find pastors.
Finally, "I make it pretty clear I don't want them to go, and if they change their mind, I am open to a conversation."
After 90 days, congregations take a second, final vote. East Lake Andes will do so March 28. Then it will seek new affiliation with Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ, Weber said. There are about 15 congregations in South Dakota that already are part of LCMC or planning to join it.
The East Lake Andes church council and an additional committee researched what breaking ties with the ELCA involved, Weber said. Still, "there is a lot more to it than I ever thought when you leave a synod."
Unlike many rural churches, East Lake Andes is growing. Perhaps ironically, its ELCA heritage largely is responsible for that, Weber said. In the 1990s, the Rev. Nancy Nyland was pastor.
"She drew our congregation together. We've built on her foresight ... that turned our church in an excellent direction," he said.
Sense Of Family Tested At East Lake Andes
Great regard for the Bible characterizes church members despite their disparate religious traditions, Weber and Van Gerpen said. Many current members represent the third and fourth generations of their family at East Lake Andes, and their rural heritage unites them.
"There's that commonality of facing weather and storms, raising cattle and helping the neighbors out," Van Gerpen said. "It's just a church that works together."
For Weber, "it's a warm feeling to go into the church. It's something we look forward to when we have church services."
The tradition of a brief session of coffee and cookies after Sunday service has grown into an expansive buffet dinner because church members value each other's company, he says.
But the ELCA general assembly's action on the gay clergy issue has threatened such relationships.
"They have put our church in a position of being torn apart somewhat," Weber said.
Meanwhile, the assembly's gay clergy vote hardly resonates with younger ELCA members, Zellmer said.
"For most of them, this is not an issue."
But for congregations such as East Lake Andes, it is a line in the sand.
"We are not opposed to gay people, we have great compassion for them. ... We are opposed to having them in the pulpit," Weber said.
The willingness of ELCA congregations to contemplate leaving the synod is rooted in Lutherans' understanding of their faith, said Christopher Croghan, an assistant professor of religion at Augustana College and director of Luther House of Study. There is a realization that people are fallible. They will sin and die. God will forgive them and resurrect them. The rhythms of death and rebirth are deeply embedded in Lutheranism, he said. Something must die to be reborn.
Also, for Martin Luther, the real church consisted of people who hear the Gospel and proclaim it, Croghan said. The institutional church arose to aid that mission, "but institutions are not the church." And, when to ensure their continued existence, such institutions compromise Gospel truth, they can be readily shed, Croghan said.
"The ELCA is not the church, by Luther's definition," Croghan said.
Luther himself split from the Catholic Church, and there is a history of such division. In 20th century America, Lutheran churches tied to Norwegian, German and Slavic ethnic groups gradually combined. The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod founded in 1847 joined the growing association of Lutheran denominations in 1967, and the ELCA itself was founded in 1988 when the American Lutheran Church, the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches and the Lutheran Church in America merged.
The alliance was not a seamless meshing. It involved compromise on how churches should be organized and governed, and in the current controversy about gay clergy, "they're starting to dig up the old bones, you can hear that," Croghan said.
Dissatisfaction with the general assembly has been sufficiently widespread that Lutherans might re-evaluate the power granted it to make sweeping pronouncements, Zellmer said.
And in an apparent effort to soften the effect of its gay clergy action, the general assembly also adopted four wide-ranging statements. They span the belief that homosexuality is sinful, to a statement that it is less desirable than traditional marriage but should be accorded all the social and legal support of marriage. ELCA members can hold any of the four positions.
Such tolerance of ambiguity reflects spiritual maturity, Zellmer said. But he acknowledges that it hardly satisfies all Lutherans.
The bishop said he does not think the gay clergy controversy threatens the survival of the ELCA in South Dakota, but he also is sympathetic to the congregations in the process of breaking their ties with the synod.
"Part of it is we vote with our feet: 'I don't want to be part of this debate. I want to go where there is clarity,' " Zellmer said. "I get that part."
Reach reporter Peter Harriman at 575-3615.