The face of Lutheranism in East Central Illinois will change this fall.
Three small-town congregations that have been part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America – the largest Lutheran denomination in the U.S. – for 22 years are switching affiliations.
The dispute pits orthodox, or traditional, ministry against progressive changes.
The trigger point was a vote almost a year ago, at the denomination's biennial national meeting, to open its clergy roster to gay and lesbian ministers who are in committed, same-gender relationships. Previously, homosexual clergy had to remain celibate to stay in the pulpit.
"That's just the spark and the boil-over point," said the Rev. Jeffray Greene, pastor of American Lutheran Church, Rantoul. "Please don't say it's about sex. ... It's become sexually charged.
"You're gay, not gay; who cares?" he said. "It's a scriptural issue. We all misbehave. Why focus on one sin? Every sin qualifies you for hell."
Three congregations in East Central Illinois Lutherans have taken their first vote to leave the ELCA:
– At American Lutheran, Rantoul, with a weekly average attendance of 360, 94 percent voted to leave.
– At Immanuel Lutheran, Flatville, 240 average attendance, 94 percent.
– At St. John's Lutheran, Royal, 220 average attendance, 97.6 percent.
Their final votes to leave will be mid-October at the earliest.
"I do not see a change in the vote," said the Rev. Jay Johnson, pastor in Royal.
The procedure required to leave the denomination requires two votes of two-thirds of members at a congregational meeting. The votes are separated by a minimum of 90 days with a consultation of the bishop in between. The rules were set up when three Lutheran denominations merged to form the ELCA in 1988.
Said Greene, the Rantoul pastor: "I also do not expect a sales pitch from the bishop, just the question of 'Where can we do mission work together?'"
Bishop Warren Freiheit of Springfield, head of the Central/Southern Illinois Synod, said: "A consultation is not a pep talk or a begging process. It is an opportunity to make sure the leaders of a congregation, together with the members, understand what leaving an established denomination means for the future of their mission as a Lutheran congregation. ... It is my hope that we can maintain some type of cooperative relationship with these congregations if they become a part of a different denomination."
The synod is made up of 151 congregations located roughly in the southern two-thirds of Illinois. Freiheit said that as of July 30:
– First Lutheran and St. John Lutheran in Dongola, which share a pastor, have taken two votes and are no longer part of the ELCA. Dongola is south of Carbondale and along Interstate 57.
– Eight congregations have taken first votes with four adopted and four failed. Besides the Rantoul, Flatville and Royal congregations, the fourth that took its first vote to leave is St. Peter in Emden, which is north of Lincoln on Interstate 155.
Nationally, as of June 30, among 10,400 ELCA congregations, 462 have taken first votes to leave the ELCA with 312 adopted while 150 failed; and 196 have taken a second vote, with 185 adopted and 11 failed.
Before the 1988 ELCA merger, Greene of Rantoul remembered:
"Twenty-seven years ago, when I was in the seminary, (Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, Calif.), there were two mutually exclusive theologies going on in the ELCA. ... The ELCA was formed to be what it is. Three gay guys I went to school with had this as their agenda. ... I was banished to Illinois. It's a very strange day. I feel more affinity with the Catholics and some Baptists."
The Rev. James Lehmann, pastor in Flatville, said two major points of contention are "the authority of Scripture" and "way to salvation."
"The new idea is that there are several ways to achieve salvation, but Scripture says there is no other way than Jesus," he said. "I think it's unfortunate that we had to take the vote (to leave), but to be true to our faith, we need to do that."
"The church has turned upside down," said the Rev. Jay Johnson, pastor in Royal. "These German farmers say, 'Don't they read the Bible (when they talk about ELCA decisions)?'"
Johnson, who has 18 years experience in Lutheran mission work outside the country (in Bangladesh, South Africa and South America), said overseas Lutherans are asking: "What's the ELCA doing?"
The Rantoul, Flatville and Royal congregations that have voted to leave the ELCA are affiliated not only by denomination, but by history and family connections. They were started by Western German immigrant farmers.
Three other area churches with similar histories – Prince of Peace Lutheran in St. Joseph; Zion Lutheran, Philo; and First Lutheran, Paxton – probably will be the next to take separation votes.
– In St. Joseph, the Rev. Seth Jersild said, "All indications are that we will vote to initiate separation from the ELCA. We probably will affiliate with the (new) North American Lutheran Church. We'll send a letter to the congregation and vote (on ELCA separation) the middle to end of September."
– In Philo, the Rev. Richard Tomlinson said there was concern among his congregation members about nontraditional stances taken by the ELCA. He said his members probably would take their first vote in early fall.
– In Paxton, First Lutheran is taking a survey of members about what to do. Its pastor, the Rev. Jeff Cottingham, predicts a "major shakeup" in the ELCA but says he sees no need to rush to a separation vote.
When some 160 area pastors and congregants gathered in Flatville to talk with Bishop Freiheit in mid-June, Cottingham stood up to say, "I feel like my church died Aug. 21, 2009."
That is the day that the national conference – called Churchwide Assembly of the ELCA – adopted two major resolutions. One acknowledged that church members disagree on same-gender relationships and recognize different "bound conscience" beliefs. The other allowed congregations to call, but does not require them to call, a homosexual pastor in a committed same-sex relationship.
Since the national vote, pastors and members of ELCA churches and their members – from Iroquois, Ford, Livingston, McLean and Champaign counties – have met almost monthly.
The first meeting, last September, attracted about 650 people from 14 congregations.
At first, discussion was about the national votes. But after a downstate Illinois synod meeting in Springfield in May, pastors and parishioners had more concerns to discuss.
Some delegates to the synod meeting tried to pre-sent resolutions against the national votes. Their efforts were defeated. But their major complaint was how they were disrespected for their views.
At the June meeting with the bishop, the Rev. Ron Rasmus – a semi-retired pastor who has recently served churches in Gibson City and Royal – said he asked the May assembly if there was a place for conservative people and ideas in the denomination but heard "boos" and "If you don't like it, get out."
Lehmann of Flatville said at the meeting, "We've been black-balled by my alma mater (Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa) and cannot be an internship congregation. Our last intern (in 2003) was warned, 'He's orthodox.' As politics of the church have changed and become charged, it feared I was going to pollute."
All six area churches with the historical, German ties plan to send representatives to a meeting of the Coalition for Renewal in Ohio next week. The session is expected to form the new, NALC denomination that Jersild of St. Joseph mentioned.
In larger area cities, ELCA Lutherans are either embracing or ignoring progressive changes in the denomination.
"In my congregation, 10 to 15 percent are thrilled with the (national) resolution, 10 to 15 percent are lividly angry, 60 to 80 percent are neutral. I'm going to emphasize unity," said the Rev. Donna Hacker Smith, pastor of Good Shepherd in Champaign.
Blocks away, at Grace Lutheran, the pastor, the Rev. Roger Digges, said, "Our congregation is not planning to hold a vote. ... A family or two has decided to leave because of the national church."
The Rev. Robert Rasmus in Urbana said, "There's no spirit for leaving (the ELCA) at St. Matthew. ... A couple of families have left for a variety of reasons."
In Danville, the Rev. Ed Stone, pastor of Bethel Lutheran, said he's "certain" his church will remain in the ELCA.
"We have no intention of spending inordinate amounts of time on issues that are destructive to that ministry," Stone said. "There has been some measured and decent discussion about the issue and that's where we've left it – at that."
On the University of Illinois campus, the Rev. Elaine Olson – pastor of St. Andrew's and director of Lutheran Campus Center – said, "It's kind of a nonissue with us. Our congregation voted several years ago to be a Reconciling in Christ Congregation.
"That means we're a welcoming congregation with radical hospitality, where we give full inclusion to LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) persons and try to create an open place for all classes and orientations."
The Rev. Ray Bowers at Lutheran Church of Mahomet did not return repeated requests for comment.