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.
The ELCA denies threatening or bullying anybody.
“I would deny that completely,” said Bishop Gary Wollersheim of the ELCA’s Northern Illinois Synod. “That’s not happening in northern Illinois. I’m sure that’s not happening anywhere in the country.”
More than that, the bishop said, the denomination has taken the opposite approach toward those who back traditional sexual morality.
“I have done the exact opposite,” Bishop Wollersheim said. “I have assured clergy, roster leaders, that hold different opinions on the decisions that [neither] the synod nor I will discriminate against them in any way. The last thing that I would do as pastor of the synod would [be to] bully somebody or threaten them.”
Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson, the head of the ELCA, also denies that the synod is engaging in intimidation and questions reports of any split.
“I think some of the characterization of polarization is a simplification,” Bishop Hanson said. “To be brutally honest, it seems to me media can only tell stories about polarization and fragmentation.”
The head bishop recently met with subordinate bishops from across the country, and told The Washington Times that he is not aware of “any allegations” of improper or illegal acts by ELCA officials - or even that an exodus is taking place.
Through the end of October, the church estimates that “50 of the ELCA’s 10,396 congregations have taken first votes to leave,” said ELCA spokesman John Brooks in an e-mail. “Five such votes have failed.”
To leave the ELCA, a church must conduct two votes, 90 days apart, with both votes attaining a two-thirds majority.
Bishop Hanson also questions pastors who are making accusations of wrongdoing by officials.
“It saddens me when any descriptions by those who are in opposition to our actions or those who support them are less than what I would call a faithful Christian witness,” he said.
Hosanna Lutheran Church in St. Charles, part of the Metropolitan Chicago Synod, does not agree with that assessment and voted overwhelmingly on Nov. 8 to leave the ELCA. In that case, according to the church’s senior pastor, the threat was financial, against a pastor’s pension.
“It was threatened to me by a representative of the synod,” the Rev. John Nelson said. “We have defined-contribution pensions … we are the owners of them. I just looked at him and said, ‘You know that’s illegal. You can’t do that.’”
Mr. Nelson declined to name the synod representative but said the motive for these threats is rooted in fear.
“The ELCA is scared,” Mr. Nelson said. “They are making decisions out of fear.”
Bishop Wayne Miller, of the Metropolitan Chicago Synod, declined repeated requests for specific comment about the Hosanna situation and the pension-threat charge.
Instead he sent The Times a general “pastoral letter” written to synod members, asking people to “give time for conversation and reflection” during this time.
“Bishop Miller stated that he had no more comments to give you,” Mary Richardson, executive assistant to the bishop, said in an e-mail. “And [he] would appreciate it, if you would stop calling him.”
Lutheran churches are leaving across the nation, not just in the Midwest.
“I, too, have talked with both lay and clergy people around the country who tell some pretty horrific stories,” said the Rev. Mark Graham, of St. John Evangelical Lutheran Church in Roanoke, Va. These are stories of “duplicity and deceit and outright mean-spirited action - even illegal action.”
His church voted to leave the ELCA shortly after the controversial gay vote, though no one in “Virginia has acted in an untoward manner,” Mr. Graham said.
Some pastors say a Lutheran exodus has been going on for some time. Mr. Kallestad was head of one the largest ELCA churches in America. But he said his congregation decided to leave two years before the gay vote at the national convention.
“We started the process before the convention because it was clear that the vision, values and direction of the ELCA was totally opposite of where we believe that the New Testament church was destined and designed to be,” Mr. Kallestad said.
The bone of contention is not “strictly about sexuality,” he said, but a fundamental view of Scripture. “Either the Bible is the final authority or it is not.”
According to Mr. Kallestad, disaffected Lutherans are also closing their wallets in protest.
“I do know financially the ELCA revenue is down,” Mr. Kallestad said. “I’ve heard figures between 20 percent and 40 percent.”
Bishop Hanson called such reports of massive declines unsubstantiated, acknowledging a “drop” in offerings but “certainly not 20 percent to 40 percent.” He did not provide exact figures.
Some supporters of the decision to ordain openly gay clergy say they are homosexual Christians who love God and feel called to service. And some churches encourage and celebrate this act of faith.
“For this place, it was a celebration in August when the church voted to make it possible for clergy who are in committed same-sex relationships to be open about that,” said the Rev. Pam Fickenscher of Edina Community Lutheran Church in Edina, Minn.
There, no one is heading for the exit door.
“We’re actually seeing more life and people coming instead of leaving,” she said.
Robert Gagnon, New Testament scholar at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and author of “The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics,” called the whole debate surreal for a church named after one of the principal leaders of the Protestant Reformation.
“It is impossible to imagine … how [Martin Luther] would have reacted to a church endorsing homosexual practices. It’s off the charts.”