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Stephen J. Lee, Forum News Service, Published June 08 2013

Northwestern Minn. Synod sees turbulent times

MOORHEAD – More than 600 lay leaders and clergy, from Hallock to Bemidji to Alexandria, gathered Friday at Concordia College here for the annual assembly of the Northwestern Minnesota Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Electing a bishop, which happens every six years, and celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Chicago-based ELCA, the nation’s largest Lutheran church, top the agenda of the event, which ends Sunday.

The Rev. Lawrence Wohlrabe, ending his first six-year term as bishop, is eligible for re-election. Any ordained minister can be nominated during the assembly.

Wohlrabe’s tenure happened during nationwide turmoil over the ELCA’s national vote in 2009 to approve clergy in same-sex partnerships as donations fell nationwide and membership and the number of congregations decreased sharply, relative to former years. His synod took about as big a hit as any of the 65 regional synods.

“We have weathered some storms the last few years – multiple natural disasters on our territory, the loss of congregations after 2009, and a serious embezzlement by the synod’s former bookkeeper – but we seem to be hitting a ‘new normal’ that gives us hope,” Wohlrabe said when asked to reflect on his tenure.

Looking up

The synod, which includes 21 counties, went from 107,082 members in 271 congregations in 2007 to 97,693 members in 241 congregations in 2011, according to ELCA figures. There’s little doubt the numbers are lower now.

At least until the past two years, the ELCA’s membership in the two synods on either side of the Red River have represented about 27 percent of the general population, a bigger slice than anywhere else in the United States or any other local denomination.

More recently, things have looked up, Wohlrabe said.

“Mission support offerings from congregations increased in each of the last two years. The synod’s congregations are on their way to over-subscribing a $225,000 goal toward the ELCA Malaria Campaign – over 70 percent of our goal has been achieved in just the first year of a three-year gift period.

“People in our congregations show signs of being willing to make some of the changes they’ll need to make to capture the next generation of our young people for mission and ministry,” he said. “Support for signature ministries like youth ministry, outdoor ministry and campus ministry continues to be strong. God has given us plenty to do – and we are responding faithfully and fruitfully.”