- Church members forced to hand over keys to members who left years ago
- Judge rules Eau Claire church congregation to hand over keys, removing membership
The following report is from Dean Kallenbach -
Tonight, I attended a meeting at my congregation, Faith Lutheran Mission Church, called by the now disenfranchised members of Grace Lutheran Church of Eau Claire. The sanctuary normally seats about 100 people comfortably. 230 people jammed the pews and extra chairs set up in the sanctuary and in the fellowship hall (which had a closed circuit TV signal).
The meeting lasted two hours. Pastor David Irgens opened with some words from 2 Corinthians 1, and reminded the congregation that they have done nothing of which to be ashamed -- they have simply proclaimed the power of Jesus Christ's salvation for all who believe.
After singing "Crown Him with Many Crowns," Anne Carter, who has served as Grace's president, shared details with those assembled about the judge's decision on Tuesday which I have detailed in previous emails. Essentially, the judge decided that the 67 current and former members who left Grace to form a new congregation called Amazing Grace are now the only legitimate members of Grace Lutheran Church, relegating the 767 active members who did NOT abandon the church to "associate" status, meaning they have no voting rights, cannot serve on the council nor hold any elected position.
After considering civil disobedience after being ordered to turn the keys of the building over to a representative of Amazing Grace, Anne and custodian Cindy Meyer -- at the advice of their attorney and under the threat of a contempt of court citation -- surrendered the keys this morning.
An attorney with the ELCA Synod Office then instructed staff to take their personal belongings and leave the building (though they were not told what their employment status is). Some volunteers cleaned out the office Pastor Rolf Nestingen, who is visiting family in Arizona. Pastor David Irgens, whose office had a large collection of books and other materials, got some help -- but the Amazing Grace contingent sent a police officer in to monitor the activity and try to hurry them up. The Amazing Grace people eventually came into the building in the afternoon, and restricted access to the building. Anne said that an attorney for the Northwest Wisconsin Synod of the ELCA was in the church directing the evacuation of the staff.
Many immediate questions remain, including what happens to organizations like the Boys Scouts, Ham Radio Club, Alcoholics Anonymous, and the Grace Food Pantry?
As pointed out in an earlier note, the emergency stay filed yesterday in an effort to keep possession of the assets and management of staff with the original Grace Lutheran group was denied in the Wisconsin Court of Appeals. However, attorney Jay Heit did file a stay with the appelate court today in an effort to return building management to the duly elected council and regular members. A decision on whether that stay is granted will come in two-to-three weeks.
The group plans to appeal the overall ruling on the grounds that the judge made several legal errors. Anne said that if the congregation doesn't not proceed with an appeal, non-profits and churches throughout the country will fall victim to courts that will turns the assets of one corporation over to another corporation.
There was discussion about starting a new church in the meantime to continue to worship together. Much discussion was held on how that might come about. While no final decision was made on the form and possible affiliation of the new church, it was decided that the congregation would meet for worship Sunday morning at the chapel of the Stokes-Mundt Funeral Home in neighboring Altoona. The choir will meet for rehearsal before the 9 a.m. service, with Sunday School planned at 10. Afterward, the group will meet again to discuss further the formation of a new church organization.
The now-ousted Grace church council plans to meet next week Tuesday at Faith Lutheran Mission Church to begin to execute whatever plans are developed from the meeting on Sunday. Meanwhile, congregation leaders are looking into possibilities for office space.
Marian Spoolhoff, President of the Grace Lutheran Foundation, was told by Deb Sands, who claims to be the new council president of Grace Lutheran Church, that the meeting of the board today was being postponed until tomorrow, and that the annual meeting of the foundation was being called off. The Grace Lutheran Foundation has holdings of $26 million in real estate, and $3 million in bonds. The foundation employs 600 people, and provides Christian-based adult day services, elderly-care facilities, skilled nursing care, assisted living programs, retirement housing and daycare throughout the Chippewa Valley.
Several members of the congregation were concerned that the new leadership of Grace -- the Amazing Grace council -- will have access to their personal giving records. Another mentioned that her son planned to be married in the church in August -- what happens now?
While no formal action was taken to form a new congregation, there was general agreement that if and when that happens, the council that led the now disenfranchised members at Grace should be the council for the new church. Two nominations for a new name were made -- "Grace Lutheran Church in Absentia" and "People of Grace."
After more than two hours of conversation and information, the meeting closed with the Lord's Prayer, and a time of food and fellowship hosted by the Faith Lutheran Mission Church congregation.