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Bishops not seeing any effects of ELCA vote

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news Detroit Lakes, 56501
Detroit Lakes Minnesota 511 Washington Avenue 56501

FARGO --  Despite all the noise surrounding controversial decisions made at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's Churchwide Assembly, the eight weeks since haven't seen a stampede of local congregations voting to sever ties with the denomination.

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It appears that only one congregation in the Northwestern Minnesota and Eastern North Dakota synods has taken a vote to leave the ELCA. That congregation is on the Minnesota side. A second two-thirds vote would be required to actually exit the ELCA. And two churches in the Northwestern Minnesota Synod have opted to suspend their funding to the synod and the national church in protest, Bishop Larry Wohlrabe said.

Wohlrabe declined to identify the churches taking those actions, saying those congregations were still in the midst of discussions on how to respond to the ELCA's decisions.

Those actions come on the heels of decisions made at the August Churchwide Assembly. At that meeting, the ELCA, the nation's largest Lutheran denomination, voted to allow gays in committed relationships to serve in the clergy and passed a social statement some see as betraying biblical teaching against same-gender relationships.

As for the other side of the river, Eastern North Dakota Bishop Bill Rindy was not aware of any congregations in his synod that had taken a vote to leave. He said one congregation had talked about suspending funding, but he didn't know if they actually had done so.

Rindy said he didn't have a gauge of how many, if any, congregations in his synod are seriously considering leaving the ELCA.

"I'm sure I'll know more sometime during this next year," he said. His sense of the people is that they are "taking their time, exploring options, and they're doing exactly what I asked them to do, and that is to respond rather than to react."

He did say "shared ministries" support in the synod - 40 percent of which goes to the denomination - is probably the strongest it's been in many years.

As to what decisions may be brewing under the surface, it's hard to tell. At last count, between 40 and 50 congregations out of the 271 on the Minnesota side have contacted Wohlrabe's office indicating "that they are having some kind of discussion, disagreement, dissention over this."

Of course, that reaction can range from "a pastor who met with a group of concerned lay people in the church all the way to this church that's decided to take a first vote," he said.

He estimated that he's been part of about a dozen meetings with synod congregations.

He also had a meeting with about 20 pastors from his synod who had told him that they were struggling with whether they could personally, as pastors, stay in the ELCA.

Rindy met with Trinity Lutheran Church in Carrington on Friday night. It was the first time a congregation had invited him to discuss the Assembly.

Wohlrabe said that, at the meetings, he believes he hears more grief than anger from those troubled by the ELCA's decisions. And at every gathering he's attended, he's also heard support for the ELCA's decisions on sexuality, he said.

"I think that it would probably surprise some of our people to realize how many there are in our part of the world who are fine and aren't troubled by this at all and are happy," Wohlrabe said.

Wohlrabe believes the state of his synod is "actually pretty good."

"And by that I mean there's, in general, a good spirit among our people in the midst of questions, concerns, disagreements over the sexuality decisions," he said.

It could be that the loss of individual members will make more of an impact on area synods than the loss of whole congregations. Wohlrabe said "we know of any number of churches, I would say a good number of churches," that are anecdotally reporting of members who have left.

And he said that "again anecdotally, it would seem to me that a fair number of those people, perhaps the majority of those who are leaving, would be considered active members and generous givers to the church."

That can hurt. He said he spoke to individuals from "one of our top-20-size churches." They said that three households had indicated they may stop giving or leave. Those three could account for a 10 percent bite out of that church's income.

It should be noted, however, that Wohlrabe said there are pastors who've said they've actually gained members because of the assembly's decisions.

Wohlrabe said it's too early to tell if the synod will see a large-scale departure of congregations or members from the synod.

"I anticipate we will see congregations that will leave us," he said. "We're going to do our best to encourage them not to."

Despite the expectation of some losses, he doesn't believe the synod is coming apart or about to split down the middle.

"I think when the day is done, the vast majority of our congregations and our members are going to still be with the ELCA in this part of the world," he said.

Rindy, who said he hasn't heard of any large-scale departure of members, doesn't see things coming apart in the Eastern North Dakota Synod either.

"I mean, if our finances are the healthiest that they've been in 10 years, and people are feeling really good about what we do together, it would be almost an insult to label the people I serve as coming apart," he said.

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