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Local churches weigh leaving ELCA after gay clergy vote

The Rev. Ralph Olsen of King of Kings Lutheran Church said some congregants have taken opposing views of how the congregation should respond to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's policy change on gay clergy, but the controversial issue has not dramatically altered King of Kings. "It hasn't changed anything about the congregation," Olsen said.

A recent decision by the country's largest Lutheran denomination regarding gay clergy prompted local congregations to reconsider their ties to the organization.

At least two area churches are reviewing their affiliation with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), following a vote to allow gays and lesbians who are in monogamous relationships to serve as clergy, if called by a church.

King of Kings Lutheran Church in Woodbury last week suspended its financial support for the ELCA. Its leadership is deciding whether to leave the organization.

"We wanted to somehow say, 'Gee, you put us in a tough bind, mother church," said the Rev. Ralph Olsen of King of Kings. "We're kind of in a quandary here."

Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church in Afton also is discussing whether to remain in the ELCA. Other local ELCA churches - including Resurrection Lutheran in Woodbury and Memorial Lutheran in Afton - did not return calls seeking comment.

Decision angers some

The controversial vote to ease the 4.6-million-member denomination's stance on gay clergy came at a national assembly last month in Minneapolis. Some 1,200 congregation leaders upset over that decision met last weekend in Indiana to discuss branching out from the ECLA.

"There are many of us who are very concerned about the erosion of the word of God," said the Rev. Steve Kramer of Shepherd of the Valley. He did not attend the Indiana meeting, but said he will watch what transpires with the group.

Olsen founded King of Kings nearly 30 years ago. The issue - whether to stick with a denomination allowing non-celibate gay clergy - has generated more congregant reaction than other controversial topics in the church.

"This one is the most volatile," he said.

King of Kings used a congregational meeting and vote to gauge members' views of the issue. Church leaders are considering whether to stay in the ELCA and reinstate financial support, to permanently suspend that support or to split from the ELCA. Olsen said they will gather information about each option before returning to the congregation.

"Right now a lot of people are just going on emotion, and that doesn't get you very far," he said.

King of Kings' decision divided congregants. Some wrote to church leadership to say they may stop donating to the church. Others discussed the issue on the church's Facebook page, including a woman who wrote that she liked the congregation's decision.

But Woodbury resident Amber Schuster disagrees with King of Kings' direction. The married 28-year-old said she joined a year ago, but is looking for a new church largely because of King of Kings' response to the ELCA change.

"I was under the impression that they were accepting of all people, which seems of late not the image they are projecting," Schuster said. "While I do think it is beneficial to have different opinions, ideas and backgrounds so that we may learn from each other, this is a very specific and important issue to me that I feel that my church must be congruent with in order for me to be wholeheartedly supportive."

Leaders surprised

Regardless of what direction the congregation takes, it could lose members because of this issue, Olsen acknowledged.

"If that happens I will be sad, but at the same time would say, 'Thank you for what you've done at this church,'" he said.

The issue stirred discussion at Shepherd of the Valley, Kramer said. The pastor said he was surprised by the ELCA's decision and fielded phone calls and e-mails from congregants after the vote.

"I really thought we'd walk away from this going, 'Yeah, we're sticking with what we've always done,'" Kramer said.

Shepherd of the Valley plans a congregational forum to discuss its future. It contributes to select ELCA-related initiatives, such as world hunger relief, but does not provide direct financial support for the ELCA.

Kramer talked about the ELCA decision with his congregation shortly after the vote. He said he and church staff "are really not wanting to see the church go in this direction."

"It's not because we're anti-gay or anything like that," he said. "It's simply on the basis of what scripture teaches, and we want to be faithful to the word."

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