ELCA meets this week, likely to vote on rules involving gay pastors
GRAND FORKS - The largest U.S. Lutheran denomination looks to be set to decide this week if it's going to change its rules and allow gays and lesbians in committed relationships to be pastors.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, like other mainline Protestant denominations, has been debating the issue for years. Only the United Church of Christ and the Episcopal Church allow it officially.
The ELCA, with 4.6 million members, will be the largest U.S. denomination to approve such ordinations, if that's what the vote is Friday during the biennial assembly that begins today and ends Sunday in Minneapolis.
Whatever happens in Minneapolis, its effect here in the greater Red River Valley will be large, where the ELCA is most dense.
The 510 ELCA congregations in the region have 210,000 baptized members, representing 27 percent of the total population.
Both the Eastern North Dakota and the Northwestern Minnesota synods, in nonbinding votes, disapproved of changing the ELCA's policy on clergy and sexual behavior.
Current ELCA policy is: "Single ordained ministers are expected to live a chaste life. Married ordained ministers are expected to live in fidelity to their spouses, giving expression to sexual intimacy within a marriage relationship that is mutual, chaste, and faithful. Ordained ministers who are homosexual in their self-understanding are expected to abstain from homosexual sexual relationships."
The policy does get enforced, and it's not just about homosexuality. That was seen in headlines this summer when the Rev. Mark Ostgarden, Valley City, N.D., was named by police as the alleged victim of extortion by an exotic dancer who said the pastor had paid her for sex. Ostgarden resigned from his congregation once the woman identified him; whether he can remain on the clergy roster will be decided this fall by synod officials.
Bishop Bill Rindy, head of the Eastern North Dakota Synod of the ELCA, said that while forgiveness is available for a pastor as well as for anyone caught in such a scandal, clergy are held to a higher standard by the church.
The vote in May in Moorhead of the Northwestern Minnesota Synod disapproving of changing the clergy policy was "about as razor's edge as you can get," Bishop Larry Wohlrabe told The Forum: 225 to 223, with 13 abstaining. Wohlrabe said he wasn't surprised the vote was "no," but he was "amazed" it was so close.
Such a close vote in the conservative Red River Valley may be a harbinger that change is in the offing this week in Minneapolis where 1,045 representatives from all 65 synods of the ELCA will decide. Two-thirds of them are lay people; one-third are clergy.
Bishop Rindy hasn't been public with his own views on the issue.
In the synod's newsletter this month, he wrote that while this week's assembly will no doubt be frustrating, filled with "wrangling," that he remains hopeful for his church.
"No matter what happens in August, call committees, councils and congregations will still continue to discern whom God is calling to serve them, through them. No matter what happens in August, candidacy committees and seminary faculties will still determine who is qualified to be considered for call in this church."
Bishop Wohlrabe, in his blog, at www.larrywohlrabe.blogspot.com, wrote recently of his concerns the ELCA might change its policy from long-held traditions, including losing members.
"The gospel is not best expressed as: 'God accepts you just the way you are' -- so therefore the church must fully accept gay and lesbian persons and their same-sex relationships. A fuller, richer expression of the gospel is that God graciously receives us 'just as we are,' (captive to the condition of sin that infects even our genes) in order to go to work on us, transforming us into new creatures in Jesus Christ."
The Rev. Bradley Schmeling, the Atlanta pastor whose long-term gay relationship led to him being disciplined by the ELCA, says the denomination will lose members if it doesn't change.
"We're losing people now who see that exclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals by the church is unloving and hypocritical," he told The Associated Press. "We have the chance to demonstrate to the next generation of Christians that our church can be open and loving to all people."