Monday, May 2, 2011

St. John Lutheran Church, Hatton ND, Leaves ELCA

Hatton church votes to leave ELCA

By: Stephen J. Lee, Grand Forks Herald at

St. John Lutheran Church, the congregation in Hatton, N.D., where native son, pioneer aviator and famed Arctic explorer Carl Ben Eielson was baptized and buried, voted Sunday to leave the nation’s largest Lutheran denomination and join another.

Steve Iverson, president of the 700-member congregation, said the vote Sunday — the second of the two required to leave — was 76 for leaving, 15 for staying, an 84 percent majority.

The 91 total voters is pretty close to the weekly attendance of 98, reported in the 2009 yearbook of the ELCA.

The congregation then immediately voted 80 to 10 — one member was in the basement and missed the vote — to join Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ, an organization formed a few years ago as an alternate to the ELCA.

Bethany Lutheran, a small rural congregation southeast of Hatton, which has been yoked in a parish with St. John, decided to remain in the ELCA and has linked up with two rural congregations, Little Forks, southwest of Hatton, and Goose River, west of Hatton, Iverson said.

Iverson said while the controversial vote in 2009 at the ELCA national assembly to allow gays and lesbians in lifelong, committed, monogamous relationships to serve as pastors was part of the reason for leaving.

That vote “has generated waves throughout the ELCA, but that’s not really the issue,” he said. “It’s just a symptom of what’s going on and it’s all part of what society is willing to accept versus what the Bible is willing to accept.”

“I do believe the majority of the congregation does believe that the ELCA is a very politically driving organization right now,” Iverson said.

St. John hasn’t had a permanent pastor for nearly two years and sort of delayed calling a new one, knowing it would probably vote to leave, Iverson said.

The congregation will rely on retired clergy in the area for pulpit supply while interviewing possible pastors, he said.

St. John posted a “potential” opening on a website with ties to the LCMC three weeks ago and already has received several applications, Iverson said.

Bishop Bill Rindy, head of the Eastern North Dakota Synod, attended Sunday’s meeting, about the third time he’s spoken to the congregation about its plans, Iverson said.

Fallout from the 2009 clergy decision has hurt the ELCA in the pocketbook. A church official reported in January that churchwide revenue for the past year was down $8 million, or 13 percent, from the previous 12-month period.

Many congregations have decreased or stopped giving to regional or national ELCA departments over disagreements with the gay and lesbian clergy vote, other issues, which coupled with the downturns in the economy the past three years have led to cutbacks at the national office in Chicago.

Hundreds of the 10,000 congregations in the ELCA have taken at least one vote on whether to leave the ELCA, officials have said. With about 4.4 million members, the ELCA is the nation’s largest Lutheran group and one of the largest Protestant churches in the United States.

At least three other congregations in the Eastern North Dakota Synod have completed two votes to leave, including Peace Lutheran in Devils Lake late last year, which will join the newly formed North American Lutheran Church, as will its pastor, the Rev. Rafe Allison, who left the ELCA roster.

St. John Lutheran gave about $30,000 per year to the ELCA in what are called “benevolences,” according to the ELCA yearbook.

The congregation got some national attention 81 years ago.

The funeral of Eielson, March 26, 1930, drew throngs estimated at 5,000 to 10,000 that filled the center of the city of 800, which is St. John Lutheran and its lot. Eielson was 32 when he died Nov. 29, 1929, piloting a plane in Alaska. He was buried in the St. John cemetery a half-mile north of Hatton.

Sunday’s vote is the start of a new thing for the congregation formed by Norwegian immigrants more than 120 years ago.

“The only bad part is there are 15 people who didn’t want to leave. I hope we will not lose any members. But overall, had we stayed in the ELCA, we would have lost a lot of members.”

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