Until a few weeks ago, the Rev. Gail Sowell was pastor at two Lutheran churches in the small Wisconsin town of Edgar. That was before members of both congregations jumped headfirst into the simmering debate over gay clergy in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America.
"It was pretty gruesome," Sowell said, recalling shouting matches inside the sanctuary; the mass resignation of one church's council, save one member; even whispers around town that she was a lesbian. "For the record, I'm not," she said.
When the smoke cleared, the congregation at St. John Lutheran Church narrowly voted to not leave the ELCA. Across town at Peace Lutheran, they voted to leave and fired Sowell. "Fortunately, I'm thick-skinned," she said.
Not all ELCA congregations have seen that level of turbulence over the ELCA's decision last August to allow pastors in committed same-sex relationships to serve openly. But by most accounts, it has been a confusing and murky time in the nation's largest Lutheran denomination.
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Several hundred congregations are moving toward a permanent split with the ELCA and more will likely come, but the number is still a small portion of the 10,000-church denomination.
Last week, a conservative Lutheran group announced its plans to establish the North American Lutheran Church, a new denomination that will recruit dissident congregations. Rather than setting up a clear-cut choice, though, even some critics of the ELCA's new policy say the move could further confuse already splintered Lutherans at a time when Protestantism in general seems to be moving away from a denominational model.
"It just feels like we're stepping off a sinking ship, and I'm not inclined to get on another boat," said the Rev. Bill Bohline, lead pastor at Hosanna! in Lakeville, Minn., which had been the state's second largest ELCA church until its members voted overwhelmingly in January to sever ties with the denomination.
"That's not where the spirit is moving."
Pushing plans for the new Lutheran denomination is Lutheran CORE, an activist group that led opposition to the gay clergy policy. Critics say liberalizing policies toward homosexuality directly contradicts Scripture.
Lutheran CORE leaders hope to have the North American Lutheran Church up and running by August. They hope for a denomination that is less bureaucratic than the ELCA, but still makes it easy for congregations across the country to collaborate on shared goals.
"We heard from many congregations who came to us, who said we'd like to leave the ELCA, but for us the other options aren't quite right," said Ryan Schwarz, a private equity manager in Washington who's leading the effort to organize the new denomination.
Since August, congregations have not left the ELCA in huge numbers. The denomination has about 10,000 congregations, and in all 220 have taken at least one of two required votes to leave. So far, only 28 congregations have actually approved leaving, which requires two separate votes that each attain a two-thirds supermajority.
"Even if that number doubles or triples, it would still be less than 5 percent of the ELCA," said Bishop Peter Rogness of the St. Paul, Minn. synod. "So it's not as though a schism has happened, where we're a denomination split in half. Nothing on that magnitude is in the offing."
Lutheran CORE leaders say the process for leaving is laborious and time-consuming, and those that already left were on the leading edge of opposition.
"I think they should be alarmed by these numbers," said the Rev. Mark Chavez, Lutheran CORE's director. Many churches, he said, just started the discussion.
"I don't think the wave has hit them yet," Chavez said.
Some of the breakaway churches have already found alternative denominations to take them in.
The Lutheran CORE effort isn't coming together quickly enough to be viable, said the Rev. Kurt Rau, whose Calvary Lutheran Church in Kalispell, Mont., instead opted to affiliate with Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ.
"They're a little slow to the party," Rau said.
His church's new, much smaller denomination itself split from the ELCA in 2000 over perceptions that the bigger congregation was getting too liberal, and so far has been the chief receptacle for congregations leaving the ELCA.
St. Paul Lutheran Church in New Braunfels, Texas, also joined LCMC, said Brian Baese, a self-employed salesman who is president of the church council.
Lutheran CORE's proposal came "too little, too late," Baese said. "We can't hang around when we don't know how long this is going to take. The momentum was carrying in this direction, and we had to go with it."
At St. Luke's Lutheran Church in La Mesa, Calif., the congregation also voted to ditch the ELCA — although the Rev. Mark Menacher said that had less to do with gay clergy and more to do with other long-standing theological disputes. St. Luke's is affiliating with yet another small denomination, the Fellowship of Confessing Lutheran Churches.
Menacher is skeptical about the success of the North American Lutheran Church. "If all that joins you together is concern about same sex relationships, I don't think that's a very strong reason for being," he said.
Bohline, the Lakeville pastor, said Lutherans should stop worrying so much about how they organize themselves. It's a main reason for the decline of mainline Protestantism in recent decades, he said.
"When I went to seminary, I wasn't sure I should be a pastor because I didn't understand what was so different about Lutherans or Baptists or Methodists. And you know, we're not that different," Bohline said. "We're working on the same playing field here. So let's get on with it."