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Schism in ECLA reaches Minnesota

Two churches in the Northwestern Minnesota Synod have voted in favor of leaving the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, while a congregation near Pelican Rapids recently canceled a Dec. 6 vote on its own status with the ELCA.

The actions come on the heels of the ELCA's Churchwide Assembly in August when the denomination moved to allow gays in committed relationships to serve in the clergy. The assembly also approved a social statement that some critics have seen as betraying biblical teaching against same-gender sex.

In Erskine, 80 percent of congregants at Rodnes Lutheran Church voted on Oct. 18 to leave the ELCA, the Rev. Peter Satren said.

And congregants at Bethlehem/West Elbow Lake Lutheran Church, in Elbow Lake voted 42 to 11 in September to break from the denomination, congregation President Brian Boeddeker said.

That congregation, however, will retake its vote. After the vote, there was discussion about whether proper notice had been given. Boeddeker said to make sure all are content with the handling of the vote and to make sure it's done properly, they'll hold the vote again. He said he believes that vote will be Dec. 13.

A two-thirds majority is required for such votes to carry. To leave the ELCA, the congregations must also take a second vote with two-thirds majority at least 90 days after the initial vote.

According to 2008 numbers on the ELCA Web site, Rodness had 68 baptized members and Bethlehem/West Elbow Lake had 156. There are 270 congregations in the Northwestern Minnesota Synod.

But Boeddeker does not see the Elbow Lake congregation's vote as a reaction to the assembly's actions related to gays.

"It had nothing to do with that," he said.

"Basically ... we just feel the ELCA doesn't represent our congregation any more as far as the way we feel," he said. "They're getting away from teaching the Scriptures the way they were written."

As for the Erskine congregation, Satren said the "tipping point was the homosexual issue at the assembly. But the argument that people (in his congregation) made was that the ELCA has forsaken the truth of Scripture."

Rodnes' second vote is set for May.

"We're grieved to hear of their desire to leave," Northwestern Minnesota Synod Bishop Larry Wohlrabe said of the two congregations. "We are a family. ... It's akin to a family member saying I won't be coming to Thanksgiving, or I have to leave this family."

Meanwhile, the congregation president of North Immanuel Lutheran church near Pelican Rapids posted a notice this week that that church's Dec. 6 vote on leaving the ELCA had been canceled, the Rev. Curtis Tilleraas said.

Tilleraas said the now-canceled vote was scheduled in response to the assembly votes on sexuality. But he added that the issue is "more a question of biblical authority and the role of biblical authority in the church than it is, for us, about gays and lesbians."

He also said there is a range of opinion on the ELCA's decisions in his congregation, from those who are happy to those who are displeased.

And Tilleraas said the vote wasn't to be simply a vote to leave, but rather a vote on whether to leave or stay.

Tilleraas said he does not know if the vote will be rescheduled. He directed questions regarding why the vote was canceled to congregational President Chris Thysell, saying he was not at liberty to talk about that. Thysell did not immediately return calls for comment.

The congregation, which 2008 ELCA numbers put at 206 baptized members, is scheduled to host Bishop Wohlrabe on Dec. 1 for an informational meeting.

As for the Eastern North Dakota Synod, Bishop Bill Rindy was not aware of any votes to leave the ELCA by congregations on his side of the river. And he said he wasn't aware of any that were scheduled.

The schism has also made its way to Arrowhead region

While members are still respectful, "the August vote has caused some disagreement between people and divisions in the congregations," said the Rev. Deborah Lunde, pastor of Zion Lutheran Church in Finland and Zoar Lutheran Church in Tofte.

Some parishioners, like 30-year-old Proctor native Eric Wong, have left the church. And Lunde's Tofte church has voted to split from the ELCA.

Others, like Sue Anderson and her Gloria Dei Lutheran Church congregation in Duluth, have rejoiced. Gloria Dei has long had a formal decree welcoming and accepting gay and lesbian members. When the vote passed, it only affirmed what the church had been living.

"The vote was a very welcome step," said the Rev. David Carlson, pastor of Gloria Dei, who said social justice is an important part of members' faith. At the national assembly where the vote took place, "there were tears of joy that people expressed, believing that this church they have grown up in fully welcomes them and recognizes their call."

Many pastors have contacted the bishop of the ELCA's Northeastern Minnesota Synod, Thomas Aitken, with a full spectrum of responses: affirming, uncertain and upset, he said.

"Overall, by the measuring rod that only a handful have taken a vote to leave over it ... [for] the vast majority ... it's not a big enough issue to be torn apart by it," Aitken said.

The Northeastern Minnesota Synod, which stretches from Koochiching County to Mille Lacs County, encompasses 147 churches with 72,000 members.

Five churches have taken the first of two votes needed to withdraw from the ELCA. In four cases, the move failed; Tofte was the fifth. Another -- French River Lutheran Church -- will vote today.

Nationwide, about 80 of 10,300 congregations have taken a first vote. Congregations need a two-thirds majority vote to pass, and the Tofte church passed with 85 percent in favor. The church now must wait 90 days before the second vote can be taken. The church has become a member of the Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ.

(The first part of the story came from Shane Mercer of the Fargo Forum and the last part of the story came from the Duluth News-Tribune.)