More than a year after a Marion congregation narrowly rejected a move to leave the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the nation’s largest Lutheran denomination has removed the church and its pastor from its rosters.
The Southeast Iowa ELCA synod, based in Iowa City, moved in April to remove St. Mark’s Faith and Life Center, 8300 C Ave., Marion, from the church rosters after the congregation became dually affiliated with both the ELCA and another Lutheran group, Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ.
Both Bishop Michael Burk, of the synod, and the church’s pastor, the Rev. Perry Fruhling, call the move “saddening” and “disappointing,” but that’s where their views on the removal part ways. Fruhling calls the dual affiliation an attempt to “bring healing and unity” to a congregation divided by the vote to leave the ELCA. Burk said the dual affiliation with the LCMC is “becoming a member of two groups that are opposed to each other.”
“What in the end they sought to do was, on a congregational level, redefine membership in the ELCA,” Burk said. “They were looking at their local interests but I’m charged with looking at the issue as a whole.”
Fruhling sees it differently.
“To bring healing and unity to St. Mark’s, our leadership held conversations with the congregation and with Bishop Burk ... about different congregations that had dual affiliations with the ELCA,” he said.
The congregation at St. Mark’s in 2010 had started discussing the possibility of leaving the ELCA. At issue for many in the congregation was the ELCA’s 2009 decision to allow gay and lesbian pastors in committed relationships to serve as clergy. Others felt leaving was a decision that would change the congregation’s outreach to those considered “unchurched.”
The ELCA requires two congregational votes on issues to leave, and each vote must receive at least a two-thirds majority, or 66 percent. In the congregation’s first vote in October 2010, 67.1 percent voted to leave the denomination. In the second vote, taken in January 2011, only 60 percent voted to leave.
Fruhling said the dual affiliation was a way to bring the congregation together, remaining in the ELCA while at the same time branching into the LCMC, the denomination to which the congregation would have gone had the vote to leave the ELCA succeeded.
“There were several things that were a part of that decision to dual-affiliate,” Fruhling said, “the first of which was a moratorium on voting to leave the ELCA. We didn’t want there to be continued votes to bring that up, we wanted to put that to rest.”
“The goal of the dual rostering was unity,” he said. “We really wanted to bring people of two differing opinions together.”
Burk said the dual-rostering or dual affiliation is against ELCA policy and he and synod council members met with church leaders to encourage them to refrain from affiliating with both denominations. When the congregation failed to rescind one of the affiliations, the synod council removed Fruhling from the roster of ELCA pastors. A month later, St. Mark’s was removed from the ELCA church roster.
“Their council decided to join that body knowing that’s prohibited in the ELCA,” Burk said. He said ELCA policy doesn’t allow for dual-rostering, “especially if the church body you want to join is schismatic body.”
According to a timeline on its website, www.lcmc.net/timeline, the LCMC was formed following the adoption of the Called to Common Mission adopted by the ELCA in 1999. The first gathering of “those who are committed to resisting the requirements of the CCM and the direction of the ELCA” was held in Roseville, Minn., in November 1999.
Without the ELCA affiliation, St. Mark’s loses the resources and benefits associated with belonging to the largest Lutheran denomination in the United States, including world outreach, youth programs and international ministries and missions. The ELCA has just about 10,500 congregations in the U.S., while the LCMC has just 500.
Many ELCA congregations that left the denomination after the vote regarding gay and lesbian pastors then joined the LCMC denomination because of its stance on homosexuality.
“(The LCMC) wasn’t just upset with the ELCA and deciding to leave, but they were doing everything they could to disenfranchise the ELCA, to undermine everything that the denomination believes,” Burk said.
Members of the St. Mark’s congregation are reluctant to talk about the situation. Even the congregation’s president, Kurt Beneen, referred all questions to Fruhling.
Burk said removing St. Mark’s from the ELCA’s rosters was not an easy decision.
“I encouraged them to take another vote, clearly they did not want to remain with the ELCA,” he said. “We wanted to be able to publicly wish them well, but their leadership didn’t want to follow the policy.”
He acknowledged there are other churches that have dual affiliations with other denominations, but those, he said, are transitory affiliations designed to ease the change from ELCA to the new denomination.“There is not one congregation in the ELCA that dual rosters with the goal of staying in the ELCA,” he said.