A Church Divided, Together: The ELCA One Year after the Vote
by Andrew Haeg, Public Insight Network
In the audio above you hear Rev. Daniel Ostercamp from St. John’s Lutheran Church in Webster, South Dakota, who opposes the ELCA vote, followed by the voice of Joseph Haletky, a member of the congregation at First Evangelical Lutheran Church of Palo Alto, California, who has supported it.
On August 21st, 2009, the Evangelical Church in America voted to allow gay pastors in committed relationships to serve as clergy. To understand the impact of the vote on the church, we’ve been reaching out over the past several months to Lutherans who are part of the Public Insight Network, and many others. More than 2,000 have shared their story or insights. We’re using what they have shared to produce an online project that will unfold over the coming weeks.
Many of the stories we’ve received come from many Lutherans who rejoiced over the vote, and whose congregations have experienced a new, stronger sense of inclusiveness and welcome. And we’ve heard from those who were saddened and distraught over the vote. In many cases, their congregations have chosen to un-affiliate from the ELCA, weaken ties to the national church, or to express their displeasure by withholding money. We start by tuning into the very different experiences of two congregations — one in South Dakota, one in northern California.
St. John’s Lutheran Church in Webster, South Dakota sits on Main Street next door to other fixtures of small town life, the city hall and the library, and a block down from the post office. The church just celebrated its 125th anniversary. Five or more generations of families have worshiped here. It’s a congregation of 800 in a town of 2,000.
When the vote took place last August, the pastor, Daniel Ostercamp, was saddened and disappointed. He and much of his parish were strongly against the push to make gay pastors full clergy. But the traditions of the church ran too deep to be uprooted so quickly. “It’s very much a sense of history, a sense of connection,” he says. “To walk away from a church because you lost a vote is a very hard thing.”
He says the church is a powerful bricks-and-mortar expression of a community and their beliefs. “As much as Americans want to talk about being a people that travel that move — a mobile society,” Ostercamp says, “a sense of place is still important. When you’ve been baptized in a congregation, your kids have been baptized here, and you were married here. That’s where you’ve said your prayers, that’s where you’ve sung your hymns,” he says. “You’ve been in a sanctuary. And if there’s a controversy that’s forcing you to make a choice, that’s very gut-wrenching.”
St. John’s has not chosen to leave the ELCA. They’ve opted instead to symbolically proclaim independence from the authority of the national ELCA through gestures such as withholding money they would normally give and sending it instead to the Lutheran church in South Dakota, or to local missions.
He says he believes that “congregations are going to be more responsible for who they are, and that the synod and the national are going to have fewer and fewer resources and less and less influence, for better or for worse.”
The experience at First Evangelical Lutheran Church in Palo Alto, California is a world apart from St. John’s in Webster. It’s in the middle of the largely progressive Sierra Pacific Synod. Years ago, First Evangelical had voted to be a Reconciling in Christ congregation — meaning it was open and welcoming to gay and lesbian members, and pastors.
This, in marketing terms, gave them a kind of “first-mover” status in town, and as Haletky says, the church drew new congregants who were looking for a church that was inclusive and focused on social justice.
Last year’s vote was enthusiastically supported in this church, and as Haletky says, has given the congregation confidence to reclaim the words “evangelical” and “confessional” from conservative Christians who they say have co-opted them.
Yet their joy is tinged with some sadness. Seven of the 206 churches in the First Evangelical’s Sierra Pacific Synod have left the ELCA. That’s a small percentage, and fewer than in other parts of the country, but it’s evidence of a major fissure that’s opened underneath the ELCA — one that has to be mended if the church hopes to stay together. “We weren’t going to succumb to some sort of triumphalism, that we had won somehow,” Haletky says, “because there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done healing the church.”
The vote brought to Haletky’s mind a “beloved” pastor who had served the church back in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Well into his 40’s, the pastor revealed to a few congregants that he was, in fact, a gay man. Haletky says all the “little old Swedish ladies tried to marry him off to their nieces,” while he kept his secret for fear of being defrocked and shunned.
Now pastors who were similarly closeted can come out and participate fully in the life of the church. This makes Haletky happy. He says that for First Evangelical, the vote “has been a plus all the way around.”
Check in here for periodic stories of the impact the ELCA vote on the lives of individuals and communities. And, tell us your stories about how this issue is affecting your community.