Three Lutheran congregations in East Central Illinois have left their denomination over the issue of progressive ministry changes, and two more have taken the first of two required votes to leave the same denomination: the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
The churches that left ELCA – American Lutheran, Rantoul; Immanuel Lutheran, Flatville; and St. John's Lutheran, Royal – all decided to affiliate with the North American Lutheran Church, a denomination formed in August in Ohio.
Area congregations that have taken their first votes to leave the ELCA – Zion Lutheran, Philo; and Prince of Peace Lutheran, St. Joseph – will take final votes in January. Pastors in Philo and St. Joseph said their congregations are leaning toward joining the NALC, too.
One area congregation, First Lutheran of Paxton, took a first vote to leave that was not adopted, and congregations in Champaign, Urbana, Danville and Monticello have found no reason to take votes.
Most Lutherans eager to leave the ELCA have questioned some of its new policies. In August 2009, delegates to a national meeting narrowly voted to open the clergy roster to gay and lesbian ministers who are in committed, same-gender relationships. Previously, the ELCA required homosexual clergy to remain celibate.
The ELCA, headquartered in Chicago, is the largest Lutheran denomination in the United States with 4.6 million members on its rolls. It formed in 1988 from the merger of three smaller Lutheran denominations. Since the controversy started, about 229,000 people, or 5 percent, have left.
The NALC was formed by an ELCA offshoot committee called the COalition for REnewal (CORE) and is more hierarchal.
In Flatville, the Rev. James Lehmann said, "The reason why NALC is a good fit is because it is a church body, not an association of individual congregations. That is more our history; more our involvement – responsibility to and from the church."
Lehmann said as of early November, about 43 former ELCA churches nationally had joined the NALC.
Said the Rev. Jay Johnson, pastor of St. John's in Royal: "We just feel that the NALC sets the tone and direction that we are very happy with. We feel that the practices, policies and teachings supported by the NALC are in conformity with the teachings of Scripture and in accordance with the creeds of the church."
The NALC will use deans as supervisors, rather than bishops, he said.
"I want to emphasize one point," added Johnson, who has a history of missionary work. "I was very much intrigued by NALC emphasizing that churches really need to be involved in missions. Every local congregation in NALC is being urged to develop relationships with foreign churches and work with a group here in this country."
The Rev. Seth Jersild, pastor in St. Joseph, said his congregation's vote to leave was 97.4 percent. The church has about 650 members with an average Sunday attendance of 260.
The vote to leave the ELCA was 78 percent at Zion in Philo, the Rev. Richard Tomlinson said.
Tomlinson said discontent with the ELCA among his parishioners centers on "the misunderstanding of Scripture that the ELCA has started and how it's abandoned Christian traditions for 2,000 years."
Before joining the ELCA, most area churches originally belonged to the American Lutheran Church. Former ALC churches are allowed to keep their church property and bank accounts if they re-affiliate with another denomination.
Said Bishop Warren Freiheit of Springfield, head of the Central/Southern Illinois Synod of ELCA churches in the lower two-thirds of the state: "I think it is worth noting ... nearly 130 congregations (of 148) in our synod found no reason to take any vote whatsoever."