A decision to ordain actively gay clergy has caused deep fissures in the nation’s largest Lutheran church group, with some traditional Lutherans saying they have been subjected to threats and retaliation as they consider breaking away.
Several disaffected members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) say the decision made at the church’s national convention in Minneapolis in August could prompt a major exodus from one of America’s biggest Protestant denominations.
“I wouldn’t even begin to tell you how many thousands [of calls] I’ve gotten,” said Paull Spring, chairman of Lutheran Coalition for Renewal, or CORE, a national coalition based on traditional values. His group said last month that it cannot remain inside the 4.7-million-member ELCA and will form a new synod.
He is not alone.
“I am receiving every single week dozens of phone calls, e-mails, from pastors of the largest Lutheran churches in ELCA,” said the Rev. Walter Kallestad, senior pastor of Community Church of Joy in Glendale, Ariz., who left the synod after having been “rostered” as a minister with the ELCA for 31 years. “I’ve answered hundreds … from congregations looking to transition out of the ELCA.”
For reasons of church structure - Lutheran congregations retain their property as long as they are affiliated with a Lutheran synod - the fallout from the ELCA’s decision isn’t likely to lead to the kind of court fights that followed the U.S. Episcopal Church’s 2003 ordination of an openly gay bishop.
But the splits within the ELCA, which is more than twice the Episcopal Church’s size, are getting ugly in their own way. Pastors taking their churches out of the ELCA are making charges of “unethical, immoral and in some cases, illegal” acts by bishops and other officials, Mr. Kallestad said.
“I’m talking to some pastors and leaders from many states around the nation, whose [ELCA] bishops are becoming very hostile,” Mr. Kallestad said.
The Rev. Mark Gehrke, of Faith Lutheran Church in Moline, Ill., said that “if you do not agree with the direction of the ELCA, you are … bullied or ostracized or threatened. The threat has been to even remove me and suspend me from ministry,” he said.
In early September, he said, he was leading meetings and seeking ways to leave the ELCA. His bishop heard of this and sent a three-man team to address the problem.
“They spent their first 10 to 12 minutes bashing me and the leadership,” Mr. Gehrke said. “Quoting things out of context, just totally humiliating me in front of the entire congregation.”
Mr. Gehrke said other pastors have been bullied into silence.
“In Illinois, I’m one of the only few pastors that have taken a stand,” he said, noting there are others who are too frightened to openly criticize the denomination’s position on homosexuality.
“They are afraid for their jobs,” he said. “They are afraid of standing against the church, the bishops.”
In November, his church voted not to leave the ELCA but to compromise by joining Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ, an independent conservative Lutheran association.