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Published August 15 2010

ELCA: A dialogue in disagreement

Amy Kippen watched the live video feed from the Churchwide Assembly in Minneapolis last August as her denomination voted on whether individuals in same-gender relationships would be allowed to serve as ministers.

“And when the vote came, I screamed, jumped, was thrilled, and within about two minutes, my heart was breaking,” Kippen said as tears came to her eyes. Her sadness was “for the people who were sitting in that room who love their church and disagreed.”

Kippen is director of faith formation at Faith Lutheran Church in West Fargo. Her reaction is a microcosm of her denomination’s recent struggles.

In August 2009, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America changed its ministry policy to allow people in same-gender relationships to serve in the clergy and passed a controversial statement on sexuality. Those actions were met with joy by some but also sent shock waves through the ELCA, a denomination of more than 10,000 congregations. To date, about 200 congregations have voted to disaffiliate from the denomination.

That recent history in the nation’s largest Lutheran denomination formed the backdrop of a discussion coordinated by The Forum as six individuals sat down together to talk about the assembly actions one year later. The civil-but-passionate group spoke of grief and joy, love and law, Scripture and practice, discussing one of the most contentious issues in ELCA history.

Here is what the members said about some of the key topics surrounding those decisions:

Grief and joy

While the news made national headlines, for Brandon Jones, a 21-year-old senior at Concordia College, the actions at the 2009 Churchwide Assembly were profoundly personal.

“For the first time in my life, I felt like someone in the church said that they loved me,” said Jones, who is gay and plans to enter the ministry. He saw the decisions as opening the door for him to “be called to a church as (he) had been called by God.”

Yet many on the other side of the issue also found the decisions hitting home at a deeply personal level.

Meanwhile, Dennis Nelson said he was “deeply grieved” by the assembly’s actions.

“I had to sing (at church) the next Sunday,” said Nelson, a Fargo Realtor who left First Lutheran in Fargo. “I sang, ‘I’d Rather Have Jesus,’ and I was thinking I’d rather have Jesus than the ELCA. I was just – it was a pretty emotional time for me.”

Like Nelson, Cheeri Hestdalen described herself as “deeply grieved.”

“I really feel that the ELCA left me,” said Hestdalen, who no longer attends an ELCA congregation.

John Swensen, an ELCA pastor who was ordained in 1961, saw the decision as a response to the prophetic.

“I felt like, thank God … the prophetic voice of the church is finally being heard, but now let’s get on with the healing and with going ahead. We’ve been dealing with this issue for so many years. It’s distracted us from reaching out in the name of Christ,” he said.

One year later

A few hundred of the ELCA’s thousands of congregations have taken at least one of the two required votes to leave the denomination. And while they disagree on the decisions of the Churchwide Assembly, Kippen and the Rev. Jon Sorum agree that the pain in a post-Churchwide Assembly ELCA outstrips those raw numbers.

“There is no … inkling of taking a vote in our church – not even an inkling of it, but there are people who have left,” Kippen said.

Sorum, pastor of First Evangelical Lutheran Church in Parkers Prairie, Minn., described the ELCA as in “survival mode,” a characterization with which Kippen disagreed. Sorum said the number of church votes doesn’t tell the story of what’s going on in “so many other congregations” where no vote has been taken but “that are just being roiled inside with all the tensions that are going on.”

But there are those in the church who want to see the ELCA move forward and past this particular issue.

Swensen, who frequently travels to fill in where congregations need a pastor, believes he’s hearing from the faithful that the church needs “to get back to preaching the gospel and being about who (they) are.”

We’re tired of having an endless discussion on this one issue,” he said.

Jones, the junior member of the roundtable, said he has friends who were excited about the changes, “and they didn’t get why it had to take this long.” But he also has friends in the ELCA for whom the changes are an issue. But they’re going to stay, he said, “because it’s their church; it’s their family.”

The backlash

The road for the ELCA over the past year has been a difficult one. About 200 congregations have passed the second of two votes required to leave the denomination.

Jones likened the backlash of the assembly’s decisions to what he faced when he told his family that he’s gay.

“The first things that happened: major turmoil, which is expected (since) I come from a family (where) I had grown up hearing that homosexuality was an abomination,” he said. “What has to happen now (in the ELCA) is the process of healing. … I don’t think necessarily there’s ever going to be agreement, but I think that the process of healing is going to come.”

Jones says his parents are still not supportive of his sexuality, but that, “for the most part, it’s pretty peaceful.”

“Some things have been resolved, and some things haven’t,” he said.

As to whether some sort of resolution to the ELCA’s recent struggles will be coming, it is unclear. But Hestdalen expects the backlash to continue.

“I think there are a lot of congregations that are in turmoil. I know a lot of people who are still deciding what to do,” she said.

Of course, there are those who are pleased with the decisions.

“I think also we’re finding a lot of people are saying ‘thank God for an openness,’ ” Swensen said. “And they feel the gospel is being lived out, and we’re grateful for that.”

The doctrinal divide

Many who oppose the changes in the ELCA say it really isn’t about homosexuality but about the role of Scripture in the church.

“The decision (at the 2009 assembly) was that everyone was going to decide for themselves what is right and true” as opposed to the teaching of Scripture, Sorum said.

“The case that is made for homosexuality is purely on the basis of individual experience and making that individual experience authoritative morally and even against God’s word.”

Kippen responded, “An individual’s – not experience – I would say an individual’s interpretation of the word of God, because you can’t tell me the people that were sitting at that assembly did not have a heart for God. I mean, they were seeking and studying and came up with a different conclusion than you.”

For his part, Swensen favored the assembly’s actions and is among those who take a non-traditionalist view of the Scriptures related to the issue of homosexuality.

“Homosexuality as we talk about today wasn’t even talked about in the Bible,” he said. “The understanding of homosexuality has changed over the years.”

But some see the decisions at the assembly as a profound move away from the Christian Scriptures, tradition and faith.

Sorum put the issue in stark terms, saying the ELCA has “cut themselves off from the Christian tradition.”

“And they can go on and do their own thing, but it won’t be Christian,” he said.

Opponents of the changes

that came at the 2009 Churchwide Assembly see it as acquiescence to culture. Hestdalen said she did a great deal of “soul searching” after the vote.

“I want to be a light shining in the darkness,” she said. “I want to be defending God’s word, not trying to change the truth of it to fit a culture.”

Nelson believes the ELCA has fallen into heresy and points to what he sees as the Bible’s consistent message about human sexuality.

“I have a lot of friends that are gay or lesbian,” he said. “I love those people. And God does have a lot of love, but I look at it as a redemptive love.”

Despite the fact that the positions of those on the two sides often appear set in stone, change is not unheard of. A decade ago, Kippen said she would have been on the other side of the issue. But in the past 10 years, people in her family and her church have come out as gay. And she’s grown to “know and love many gay and lesbian people and find them to be so faithful.”

She said she simply can’t be certain about what the Scriptures teach on this issue.

“And so when I get to heaven and I’m standing there and have to answer for my actions, I am going to be able to say I couldn’t know,” she said. “And so I did the best that I could and in the end, I have to choose love over law. That’s the bottom line for me.”

The panel

Video from the panel discussion

The basis for the actions of the Churchwide Assembly

On where the ELCA is one year after the Churchwide Assembly

Panel member Amy Kippen explains the rationale for her position

Panel member Brandon Jones likens what's happening in the ELCA to when he came out to his family

Panel member reactions to the ELCA decision

Panel members discuss the implications of the notion that some are born gay

Readers can reach Forum reporter Shane Mercer at (701) 451-5734