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Parishes leaving ELCA find an unexpected price to pay

October 14, 2010

WASHINGTON, D.C.

South Dakota pastor Julius Badigo has long known that Christian discipleship is costly. For him, that cost is increasingly measured in dollars — to the tune of thousands per month.

Badigo lost his $2,200 monthly salary earlier this year when his church cut ties with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), in protest of new denominational policies to allow non-celibate gay clergy and the blessing of same-sex unions.

Badigo’s seminary coursework ended abruptly, too, when the ELCA stopped funding his tuition. Married with two children, he still leads Falls Community Church in Sioux Falls, but his only income is $70 per week from a part-time job as a security guard.

“I’m hoping to get my Master of Divinity degree, but I don’t know how I’m going to pay for it now,” Badigo said. “In the church, I’m the only pastor, but nobody’s paying me, and we have a lot of bills ... That’s why I’m just praying for God’s help.”

Parishes unhappy with the ELCA’s new gay policies are exploring alternatives, such as switching to the more conservative North American Lutheran Church (NALC), which officially launched in August. Weighing options, however, includes counting what can be considerable costs — and determining how much they’re willing to suffer for their convictions.

Since the ELCA approved its policy switch in August 2009, 362 of its 10,000-plus congregations have voted to leave the denomination (some have not yet taken a requisite second vote).

Financial costs haven’t always loomed large in congregational decisions since, unlike some other mainline denominations, the ELCA lets a congregation retain its building if it joins up with another recognized Lutheran denomination, such as the NALC.

Even so, some Lutheran parishes are debating whether the price of separation from the ELCA is worthwhile. And for fledgling congregations — including the ELCA’s 105 mission churches that serve African immigrants in the United States — financial issues play an important role as well.

Most of the ELCA’s African mission churches in the U.S. don’t own buildings and depend on ELCA financial support to pay pastors and fund outreach programs. Yet all 105 strongly oppose the ELCA’s new policies, according to Jordan Long, a pastor in Rochester, NY, who directs African ministries for Lutheran CORE, the group orchestrating the NALC launch.

“I know a lot of congregations that are stuck,” Long said. “It’s not because they support the resolution (on gay clergy and same-sex blessings), but because they are afraid of the consequences” if they leave the ELCA.

Potential consequences include repaying tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars to the ELCA.

“In the event the new or mission congregation leaves the (ELCA), it is supposed to return all funds it has received to the ELCA,” ELCA spokesman John Brooks said in an email. Debt repayment obligations are evaluated on a case-by-case basis, Brooks said.

Long’s congregation, Niles Lutheran Mission, left the ELCA in August, triggering a requirement to repay more than $150,000 the congregation received since 2007. The ELCA made an exception and forgave Niles’ debt in a Sept. 16 letter, Brooks said.

To date, almost all African mission congregations have remained in the ELCA.

Members of the One in Christ Mission in Telford, PA, have been disillusioned with the ELCA since last summer, according to Mission Developer Didi Panzo. But they have opted not to sever their ELCA ties — “not yet,” Panzo said — choosing instead to keep Panzo on board as their ELCA-supported leader. His five-year term as head of the 30-member congregation ends in December.

“For the members, it is a shame to be named ‘Lutheran”' because of the denomination’s homosexuality policy, Panzo said. “The (One in Christ) Mission never participates in any ELCA event ... But leaving is a process. I’m still in conversation with my bishop.”

To date, the NALC officially claims fewer than two dozen congregations. NALC Bishop Paull Spring hopes the denomination will grow to 200 or more congregations by the end of 2011.

Still, even well-established churches on solid financial footing must first be convinced that the benefits are worth the costs.

At St. John’s Lutheran Church in Grove City, OH, members have been reluctant to give up a sense of ownership of ELCA institutions, including camps, according to Pastor Donald Allman.

Allman said his parish faces cold treatment from other ELCA churches who assume he and his flock must be anti-gay since they voted to join the NALC this year. (For St. John’s, the divisive issue wasn't homosexuality but rather the ELCA’s lack of emphasis on evangelism, Allman said.)

Even so, these costs are likely to be accepted if the church votes, as expected, to leave the ELCA in coming months.

“There is always a cost for discipleship, and we have talked about some of those costs,” Allman said. “Nobody has raised the question of whether the cost was worth it or not. They just seem to have assumed that the cost has been worth it.”

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