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MINNEAPOLIS | The Rev. Richard Mahan cried last summer inside a Minneapolis convention hall when delegates for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America voted to allow openly practicing gays to be pastors.
Mr. Mahan, lead pastor at St. Timothy in Charleston, W.Va., said he realized he would likely leave the denomination in which he had invested 42 years of ministry. A year later, the ELCA is moving gay pastors into its fold - it’s now the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S. to ordain gays in active sexual relationships - even as the most visible dissidents strike out on their own.
Mr. Mahan and other critics of the decision plan to gather this week in Columbus, Ohio, for another Lutheran convention. Leaders of 18 former ELCA churches are expected to vote Friday to create a new Lutheran denomination to follow the Scriptures more faithfully: the North American Lutheran Church.
“The issue is departure from the word of God,” Mr. Mahan said. His church already has voted twice to end its longtime identity as an ELCA church, also ending an annual $36,000 in tithing to the denomination.
As of early August, 199 congregations had cleared the hurdles to leave the ELCA for good, while another 136 awaited the second vote needed to make it official. In all, there are 10,239 ELCA churches with about 4.5 million members, making it still by far the largest Lutheran denomination in the U.S.
Pastors in a few churches that plan to join the North American Lutheran Church say there are still good reasons to be part of a larger church body.
“For a lot of congregations and a lot of churchgoers, there is value in a larger Lutheran fellowship,” said the Rev. Mark Braaten, pastor at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Tyler, Texas, another charter member of the new denomination.
About 75 percent of the churches that already have left the ELCA have affiliated with Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ - another, smaller denomination. But the Rev. Mark Chavez, director of Lutheran Core (Coalition for Renewal), said some Lutherans found that denomination too loosely structured and wanted a choice that retained aspects of the ELCA identity.
Some ELCA refugees have a more bottom-line reason to join a new denomination. Under many church constitutions, congregations that leave the ELCA and try to strike out as wholly independent churches could see their ELCA synod council assert legal ownership of their property and church buildings. “People don’t see it as too likely, but it’s not a discussion too many want to have,” Mr. Braaten said.
So why go through the hassles - especially when even critics of the ELCA’s more liberalized policy admit that no congregations likely will be compelled to install a gay pastor?
“I don’t think it’s the issue of whether someone is going to have a gay pastor forced upon their church as much a question of what a straight pastor is going to be teaching,” said the Rev. David Baer, pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Whitewood, S.D., another charter member of the new denomination. “What’s God’s intention for marriage, for sexuality?”
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