Two days after 56% of the congregation voted to leave the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (falling short of the 67% required by the constitution), the congregation council of Grace Lutheran Church voted tonight to join Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ (LCMC).
The council, before an overflow crowd in its church parlors, approved a motion that would have the congregation dually affiliate with LCMC and ELCA. Proponents of the measure said action needed to be taken to demonstrate to the 288 people who voted to leave the ELCA that they should stay with Grace, and joining LCMC demonstrated that their voice was heard on Sunday. Some dissenters warned that the ELCA has said it does not allow dual rostering, but others pointed out that several churches in the 90's were affiliated with both Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and ELCA, and only stopped dual rostering with the Missouri Synod forbade it.
The vote to join LCMC was one of several taken by the council Tuesday night. Early in the meeting, Pastors Rolf Nestingen and David Irgens were asked to leave the hall while an e-mail to them from ELCA Synod Bishop Duane Pederson was read to the gathered crowd. The email, which was addressed to the pastors by the bishop at 6:37p.m. April 3, about two hours after the vote to leave ELCA fell short, advised the pastors that they must now move forward and work to stop schismatic discussions in the congregation, and work toward healing. Bishop Pederson indicated in the letter that, as bishop and pastor of the Synod, he intended to hold a worship service this Thursday night, April 8 at Grace Lutheran Church. The bishop said he would lead worship, and he intended for pastors Netingen and Irgens to assist him in the liturgy. The bishop, in the email, instructed the pastors that they had a clear choice, and said if they were unwilling to support the ELCA, they should resign their call at Grace. He promised to work with them to come up with an appropriate severance package. Bishop Pederson concluded the email by saying the public vitriol that had occurred over this issue had diminished Christ in the Eau Claire community, and that the decisions they make will affect the congregation from this day forward.
Council President Anne Carter said the Bishop has no authority to declare that he will hold a service at Grace, that there is no such provision of a "forced service" in either the Grace constitution or that of the ELCA. The council decided there will be no service April 8.
The chair also pointed out that the 56% who would have chosen to leave the ELCA in Sunday's vote were also standing with the pastors, and that it was inappropriate for the bishop to suggest they resign. The council passed a resolution affirming full support of both Pastors Irgens and Nestingen in the call that Grace has made to them, and furthermore resolved to preserve the ministry at Grace Lutheran Church by thwarting those who would remove them or request their resignation. The resolution passed. The pastors were invited to return, and they were greeted with warm applause by most of those gathered. Council President Carter pointed out that it is unlikely the pastors will get any pastor care themselves, and that the congregation must help take on that role.
A resolution was brought before the council to declare a nine-month moratorium on discussion of the disaffiliation to allow a period of healing. If staff took part in uttering disparaging remarks against the ELCA or its leadership, they would be subject to a 30-day suspension without pay. That resolution was defeated.
The council spent a great amount of time discussing the membership roster. A number of people showed up to vote Sunday who were not on the membership roles. At the direction of the pastors, anyone who declared in good conscience that they were active members who had either giving or attended worship in the past two years was allowed to vote, even if they weren't on the roster. Work will continue on firming up the roster.
There was significant discussion about a mailing that was sent out just a few days before Sunday's congregational meeting by an unofficial organization calling itself Grace For All. That letter, which was sent to much of the congregation in a highly produced piece, made several inflammatory statements about the ramifications of vote in favor of disaffiliation with the ELCA. This mailing was sent in spite of a motion the council had passed at its last meeting that neither side of the issue would disseminate materials to the membership unless those materials were first approved by the council. There is some question about whether congregational funds or materials (such as the official mailing list) were used to send the mailing. Those things will be investigated, and the congregation has asked the committee of Grace for Call to come before it at a special council meeting Tuesday, April 12 at 7 p.m.
During the discussion regarding joining LCMC, which occurred late in the meeting, the pastors pointed out that such a decision would not change they way they preach or how the Gospel is shared at Grace. One member said she had surveyed the 25 Sunday School teachers, and 18 had indicated to her that they would finish their commitment through May, then leave Grace with their families to a church in which they felt the materials and the teaching could be purely Biblical. She supported the resolution to join LCMC as giving those teachers some reason to stay.
After the vote to join LCMC, it was recommended a committee be formed to implement that change.