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Published January 16 2011

ELCA looks forward amid recent turmoil

First Lutheran Church in Harvey, N.D., painfully broke in two last year after failing to pass a resolution that would have severed the congregation’s ties to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

But less than nine months after the church’s congregation divided, leadership at First Lutheran is far from downcast. Rather, they speak of renewal at the central North Dakota church.

Council member Ted Sitz says it’s “almost like if you’d said to our church, ‘Well, let’s go to one of these church renewal weeks and get our church revived again,’ I mean, this is the result you would have wanted.”

Interim pastor Phil Leer says he senses that the congregants at First Lutheran want to move beyond the controversy that followed the ELCA’s decision to allow individuals in same-gender relationships to serve in the clergy and its adoption of a controversial statement on sexuality.

“There’s been a real strong surge of momentum just in terms of moving forward and getting excited again about all the kinds of ministries that are out there that God may be calling us to partake in,” Leer says.

It would appear that the members of Harvey’s First Lutheran are not alone in their desire to push ahead.

Even as some Lutheran congregations continue to struggle with whether they should remain in the ELCA, Northwestern Minnesota Bishop Larry Wohlrabe believes there is a growing sense of the need to move forward with the work of the church.

“For whatever reason, this thing (the sexuality discussion) feels like being stuck to a growing number of our people,” Wohlrabe says.

Wohlrabe says in his remaining time as bishop, he wants to work on inviting “the next generation of God’s people into mission and ministry.” He says that notion “calls to people in ways that having an ongoing kind of struggle over doctrinal particulars like this just doesn’t have.”

One tangible sign of some forward motion within the denomination is the Rebuilding the Remnant event, to be held Jan. 28-30 at Concordia College in Moorhead.

The event, which is offered by the synods in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota, is for lay leaders and church staff whose congregations are “in a time of transition after a period of turmoil related to the human sexuality questions or other church affiliation issues.”

Wohlrabe hopes those who attend will find comfort as well as be equipped with tools to go forward with the mission of the church.

“I’d love the folks who come to walk away and say, ‘You know, we’re not alone. God’s with us, and we’ve got others who’ve walked through this experience with us, and we’ll be OK,’ ” he says.

The Rebuilding the Remnant event is not open to the general public.

Of course, it isn’t as though ministry in the ELCA stopped happening during the recent conversations about sexuality.

“It’s just that that isn’t the piece that people hear about,” says the Rev. Judy Holmen, associate pastor of mission development at Faith Lutheran Church in West Fargo and Journey in Faith, which currently meets at the Scheels Arena in Fargo.

Holmen, who leads the Journey in Faith congregation, says what her congregation is “really kind of focusing on is how do we show God’s love in practical ways to our neighbors and those in our community and our world.”

That outreach, which she sees as evidence of the desire of some to move forward, includes random acts of kindness in the community, such as car washes, putting up grocery carts for shoppers, carrying trays for people in the food court of West Acres shopping mall and handing out free hot chocolate early in the morning at Target on Black Friday this past November.

She noted the ELCA slogan. “ ‘God’s work. Our hands.’ That really is what it’s all about,” she says.

Despite the desire of some to move on from the issue, there are still some people struggling in the aftermath of the 2009 Churchwide Assembly vote.

For instance, it’s been only a month since the 1,100-member Hawley (Minn.) Lutheran Church passed the second of two votes required to leave the 4.5 million-member denomination.

The secretary of the ELCA’s national office said they had been informed of 308 churches that had taken second votes as of Dec. 7, up 17 from the 291 reported as of Nov. 3. Further, the secretary’s office had been informed of 596 churches that had taken first votes as of Nov. 3. As of Dec. 7, they were aware of 666 such votes, an increase of 70.

It’s an issue that’s still raw enough that some people remain hesitant to talk about it on the record, fearful of rubbing salt in wounds they hope will heal.

One pastor, who didn’t want to be identified, speaks of a congregation in her parish that has been “very conflicted and divided.”

That pastor had lost a spouse, and, regarding the situation at the church, says, “The pain and grief has been every bit as deep.”

But, while the experience has been painful for many, Wohlrabe hopes that the Rebuilding the Remnant event will help apply some salve to those wounds and provide some hope to those looking to move forward.

He wants them to come away with an understanding that they have resources

and opportunities and that “this experience, wrenching as it has been, even though it kind of cracked us open in a way that was very painful, maybe cracked us open to be listening more carefully to what God is calling us to do in the future.”


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