Local Lutheran Church May Split Over Gay Clergy Issue

By George Garrigues

The Mountain Community’s only Lutheran church will hold a special meeting Sunday, Sept. 20 to decide whether to split from the nation’s largest Lutheran organization.

The reason: An assembly of delegates from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA—which represents 4.6 million members) decided in Minneapolis on Aug. 21 to allow homosexuals who are in “publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships” to serve as leaders in the church.

Jim Young, congregational president of the El Camino Pines Lutheran Church in Lake of the Woods, said in an August 31 letter addressed to local church members that the national ELCA shift was driven by what El Camino Pines church leaders consider “a major deviation from scripture.”

The national group had previously allowed appointment of gays as leaders, but only if they were celibate. ELCA’s change in policy was made after a lengthy, prayer-punctuated discussion in Minneapolis and a favorable vote by about 67 percent of 1,000 delegates.

The positions now open to those in committed life partnerships would include “pastors, associates in ministry, deaconesses or diaconal ministers,” explained Presiding Bishop Dean W. Nelson of ELCA’s Southwest California Synod, on the organizations’s website.

The purpose of the meeting in Lake of the Woods is to “vote on our continued participation in the ELCA synod,” Young wrote in a letter on September 2. In a telephone interview Tuesday, Sept. 15, Young said, “”I do not know which way the congregation is going to vote.”

In the Aug. 31 letter, Young said that Pastor David Swarthout was “taking a temporary inactive role” because “we are looking to join a Lutheran affiliation other than ELCA.” The congregation president wrote that Swarthout decided to step aside so that he would not be “thought of as providing undue influence. Leaving the ELCA is a congregational decision, not pastoral.”

Young said Tuesday that he had “no idea why The Mountain Enterprise is interested in this issue, but we are not going to go back and forth on it” by making any comments. “I understand there is another pastor in this community that would love to do that, but I am not going to,” he said. He did not identify the pastor. He apologized for not answering earlier phone calls.

On Monday a man identifying himself as Frank Haider telephoned this reporter to say he had talked to “both Jim and the pastor” and that it was Haider’s opinion that “there is nothing newsworthy in what [the church is] trying to do.” He said he did not have “a big appreciation of ‘your industry’ these days” and that “we don’t need to go on the record with anything…. This is coming from all of us…so I would appreciate it if you would tone down your [telephone] calls,” to report about the upcoming vote.

If the congregation votes Sunday to leave ELCA, a meeting will be held Sunday, Sept. 27, to “decide on another Lutheran affiliation,” Young wrote in the Sept. 2 letter.

Other congregations across the United States are pondering the choice as a national group called Lutheran CORE is being formed in reaction to the ELCA policy shift. It will hold an organizational convocation Sept. 25- 26 in suburban Indianapolis.

CORE’s proposed “common confession” states that “We teach and practice that sexual activity belongs exclusively within the Biblical boundaries of a faithful marriage between one man and one woman.”

Local historian Bonnie Kane, a church member for 25 years, said that “most people in the congregation feel that way,” but she called the choice to leave or remain within ELCA “a really hard decision.”

Church Board member Pat Best, a congregant since 1993, said she thinks the vote will be in favor of leaving. She said the board has discussed the issue and decided unanimously to “look into other organizations.”

She said there had been an “informal vote” of the “people who were at church one Sunday” and they approved investigating the idea. She agreed that the process did not come “out of the blue” but was fully discussed.

Historian Kane said the church was founded in the 1970s at El Camino Pines Camp (off Cuddy Valley Road), where worshipers gathered for a quarter century before moving in the last decade to a small building on Ivins Drive. In 2007 they moved to their new building on Lakewood Drive.

The church kept the name associated with the camp, but Pastor Glen Egertson, the current camp director, said that if the church leaves ELCA, “we would politely ask” for it to select a new name.

“It would really be up to the church,” he said.

Egertson said that local business people are already confused by the name identities and that this would be a “natural time” to make a distinction.

The congregational meetings have been called for 11:30 a.m., after 10 a.m. services led by Pastor Ron Bennett of Bakersfield in Swarthout’s absence.

Garrigues is a retired journalism professor who has taught at universities including USC and worked for newspapers including the Los Angeles Times. He moved to Lake of the Woods from West Los Angeles in 2008.

A note to our readers:

In the interest of full disclosure to our readers, the editor has written before, and notes again, that a relative of the publisher’s is a Lutheran minister for a church in Bakersfield. Chris Buma lives in Pine Mountain.

I have not discussed the subject of this story with Buma, and the newspaper takes no position on this issue. We view it as newsworthy in the context of community life on the mountain.

—Patric Hedlund, Managing Editor

This is part of the September 18, 2009 online edition of The Mountain Enterprise.

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