Two churches in Little Falls are learning just how polarizing the topic of gay clergy can be among its members.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's decision to allow homosexuals in monogamous relationships to serve as church leaders even resulted in one Little Falls pastor's resignation.
The Rev. Nate Bjorge's last day as lead pastor at First Lutheran Church in Little Falls is Friday.
On Oct. 11 the church held a congregation-wide vote on whether the church should remain in the ELCA or join Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ, another Lutheran body. The church voted to stay in the ELCA and three days later Bjorge announced his resignation.
Bjorge didn't respond to attempts to reach him for comment for this story, but David Sperstad, associate pastor at the church, did.
Rev. Nate Bjorge
"I knew Nate felt strongly. I anticipated (his resignation), but it's not what I wanted," Sperstad said. "I expected to work with him in ministry for quite a while."
An Oct. 25 vote to remain an ELCA church also passed at Bethel Lutheran in Little Falls.
The Rev. Blaine MacNeil said many in his congregation, including himself, are upset about the ELCA's decision.
"It was a shock, but not a surprise," he said. "It was stunning the ELCA did this to themselves."
MacNeil said many members have left the church and even more are talking about leaving.
"I'm hoping and praying the ELCA will correct themselves and return to being true and faithful to what our faith should be," MacNeil said.
Pat Rioux, Little Falls, is among a group of about 75 people - mostly disgruntled First Lutheran and Bethel Lutheran members- who are planning to start an LCMC church in Little Falls.
"There are no hard feelings on our part," he said. "It was a matter of our convictions and our interpretation of the Bible. I believe the ELCA vote adopted some resolutions we could no longer accept."
Rioux said starting Sunday, Bjorge will lead the group's worship services. The group has been meeting since the Sunday after First Lutheran voted to remain in the ELCA.
"I believe Little Falls should have a Lutheran church that is true and faithful to our orthodox Christianity," MacNeil said. "I believe the startup church would fit that mission."
Although MacNeil passionately disagrees with the ELCA's decision to accept gay clergy, he plans to remain an ELCA pastor "until God says otherwise."
MacNeil and Sperstad are working to keep what's left of their congregations moving in a positive direction, focusing on God.
"We're trying to move on the best we can," Sperstad said. "Church splits happen all the time. I trust that God's here with us and will lead us into the future."
In the ELCA, pastors are not appointed. Congregations decide who their pastor is going to be, so ultimately, church members have the authority on whether to accept a gay pastor.
Sperstad said he's torn on the issue.
"I don't like the aftereffects of the decision. It ultimately hurts the whole church body," he said. "Nobody wins in this whole thing. Feelings are hurt on both sides of the issue."
The Rev. Mark Skinner from Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Brainerd was a voting member at the August ELCA Assembly in Minneapolis where the decision was made. Although Skinner wouldn't reveal how he voted, he did say, "I tried to vote on what would be best for the church as a whole."
Skinner said in the early 1990s the ELCA decided it would welcome homosexuals as participating members of the church, so he wasn't surprised by the decision to accept gay clergy.
He said his congregation has handled the decision well, even though many don't agree.
"I'm very proud of our congregation," Skinner said. "They've tried to respect each other and look at the greater mission of the church."
Light of the Cross Lutheran Church in Garrison is having a forum Nov. 10 where members of the congregation are invited to learn about and discuss the decision.
The Rev. Chris Hill said he plans to discuss how decisions are made in the ELCA and the Biblical perspective on both sides of the issue.
"Some say, 'It's about time,' some say, 'How could we get here?,'" Hill said. "I'm not surprised by the decision. They've been working on this since the ELCA was formed."
Even though some church members are upset, Hill tries to remind people of the bigger picture.
"I think the whole thing is distracting us from what the church is really about," he said. "Our church is really more about sharing Jesus' love with people, so that's what we focus on."
The Rev. Andy Smith of First Lutheran Church in Brainerd said his congregation is "on all different sides of the spectrum" regarding gay clergy.
"The church is a place of grace. All people are welcome," Smith said. "It's a place for sinners to come and find forgiveness and new life. For me, that's the most important thing."
HEIDI LAKE may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 855-5879.
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