Lutheran churches in Philip, Midland and Long Valley voted Sunday by large margins to leave the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America for the newly created North American Lutheran Church.
First Lutheran Church in Philip, Trinity Lutheran in Midland and Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Long Valley, which share a pastor and a parish structure, all voted by margins of 98 percent to 100 percent to end their affiliations with the ELCA over theological differences. A fourth church in the parish, Deep Creek Lutheran Church of Midland/ Hayes, had to schedule its second vote for Sunday, Sept. 5, but it has already voted 12-0 to leave.
“We are not divided on this at all. We just feel renewed, like the Holy Spirit is moving among us,” said the Rev. Frezil Westerlund, pastor of all four churches and an ELCA minister of 23 years who will move her credentials to the NALC. The NALC was officially created Aug. 27 at a convention of the Lutheran Coalition for Renewal, a group that opposes the new gay clergy policies that the ELCA Churchwide Assembly passed at its 2009 convention.
The four parishes are the most recent of the 13 former ELCA churches statewide that have taken the requisite two congregational votes to depart the ELCA in the past year. They will not be the last.
Lutheran churches in Whitewood and Lead have each taken first votes, by overwhelming margins, to leave the ELCA. Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church in Lead has a second vote scheduled for Sept. 26. Immanuel Lutheran Church in Whitewood will vote again Oct. 10, following its first 40-0 vote July 11. Two people abstained at Immanuel.
Two Buffalo-area churches have also left the ELCA: Ladner and Capitol, Mont. A new Lutheran church is being formed in Ludlow, and Mobridge has a new Lutheran congregation, Sacred World Lutheran Church, formed by a group that broke away from the main church after a failed vote to leave.
Churches voting to leave the ELCA may take their church properties with them, as long as they are transferring to another Lutheran entity. Because the four Midland-area congregations previously voted to affiliate with the Lutheran Church in Mission, they retain ownership of their churches.
“We were very intentional in the way we came out,” Westerlund said. “Since we’ve decided to do this, we’ve gained members.” The four churches have a combined membership of about 400 people, she estimated.
Many of the new members are younger people, she said. “Social relevance isn’t what younger people are looking for.”
The NALC is not focused on opposition to gay clergy, insists Westerlund, who attended the Aug. 26 and 27 convention in Ohio and says homosexuals are welcome in the new denomination.
“There’s very little talk at all about sexuality. That is really not an issue. What we’re interested in is a return to our Lutheran traditions, to reading the Bible, to letting the canon be our guide in life.”
The NALC was formed, in part, because of what people saw as poor stewardship of resources in the ELCA and a disconnect between the national church and local congregations, Westerlund said. “We’re really happy to be out of that.”
Many of the departing churches might have left, even without the 2009 vote that allows ELCA churches to roster homosexual clergy in committed, monogamous relationships, Westerlund said.
“That just came as the final blow. People realized how totally out of touch the church was with people,” she said.