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Fargo's Hope Lutheran halts funding to ELCA over decisions on gays in clergy

Fargo's largest congregation in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has suspended its funding to the denomination because of controversial decisions regarding homosexuality made at the recent Churchwide Assembly.

A letter on the Hope Lutheran Church Web site states that the "leadership has suspended all financial support to the ELCA and will develop a process to define who our mission partners will be." It also affirms that pastoral leadership at Hope Lutheran is to uphold the standard that human sexuality is "to be maintained within a marriage relationship between one man and one woman."

The letter is signed "Hope Lutheran's Church Council and Pastors."

The Rev. Chuck Olmstead, Hope Lutheran's senior pastor, did not immediately return calls asking for comment. Other church officials deferred comments to Olmstead. Eastern North Dakota Bishop Bill Rindy could not be reached for comment.

Hope Lutheran's statement references recent ELCA Churchwide Assembly decisions related to homosexuality. In August, the assembly voted to find ways for congregations to "recognize, support and hold publicly accountable" committed gay relationships and to allow individuals in such relationships to serve in rostered ministry.

"What the ELCA vote has accomplished is to make each congregation even more autonomous," the Hope Lutheran letter states. "That independence frees us to choose who we work with in mission and who we support financially."

Hope Lutheran has two campuses in Fargo with more than 10,000 baptized members.

The church's decision makes it the third such act in the Fargo ELCA community. Earlier, First Lutheran Church, Fargo's second-largest ELCA congregation, opted to designate its benevolence funds so that they bypass the national ELCA offices. And Pontoppidan Lutheran Church in downtown Fargo has voted to suspend its benevolence giving to the ELCA while a committee studies the impact of the ELCA's recent decisions on Pontoppidan.

This isn't just a Fargo phenomenon; ELCA churches across the nation are protesting the assembly vote. Some congregations are acting more strongly.

The ELCA's Office of the Secretary estimates that 50 of the ELCA's 10,396 congregations have taken votes to leave the denomination or have scheduled them, according to an ELCA news release. Nearly all of those votes are related to the assembly's actions on sexuality.

At least two unidentified congregations in the Northwestern Minnesota Synod have taken an initial vote to leave. Two such votes are required in order for a congregation to exit the ELCA.

About five congregations nationwide have taken two votes to leave the ELCA this year. The largest of those was the 6,800-member Community Church of Joy in Glendale, Ariz.

This isn't the first time the ELCA has seen churches pull their funding. Some congregations left when the ELCA passed the controversial ecumenical "Called to Common Mission" agreement with the Episcopal Church in the 1990s.

But while conflict may be difficult, Michell Lelwica, an associate professor of religion at Concordia College, said a "conflict doesn't necessarily need to be a division."

"I think the word 'crisis' may tend to dramatize a very real conflict that has the potential for being an opportunity for new growth and doesn't necessarily need to be approached in a kind of alarmist way," she said. "I think it could be a time of deeper exploration, not just of the issue of homosexuality but also of the issue of what it means to follow the teachings of Jesus in this case."