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Northwest Minnesota Synod has financial problems

Northwestern Minnesota Synod finances

Financial difficulties, staff layoffs and strife over the denomination's decisions on sexuality have added up to a tumultuous year for the Northwestern Minnesota Synod of the nation's largest Lutheran church body.

In a report he will deliver at the annual synod assembly Friday and Saturday in Moorhead, synod Bishop Larry Wohlrabe writes that statements of intent for mission giving by congregations in 2010 are down more than a quarter of a million dollars from what was budgeted.

Mission giving is the synod's "primary income stream," Wohlrabe said. Typically, 49 percent of a congregation's mission funds stay at the local synod level; the other half is passed on to the churchwide offices of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. A significant amount of the funds that are passed on eventually come back into the synod.

That financial curveball follows a tough 2009 when, according to the report, "mission support giving from congregations fell short of anticipated income by around $145,000."

The synod closed fiscal year 2009 with a $90,000 deficit. Covering that deficit dropped reserve funds to around $120,000. The synod, which has 268 congregations, has targeted roughly $175,000 as the floor for where reserves should be, Wohlrabe said in a phone interview.

Financial difficulties have hit more than the bottom-line numbers. The Northwestern Minnesota Synod eliminated two positions in April: assistant to the bishop for discipleship and communication director.

"I think that, number one, the economic downturn across the country certainly was the major factor," Wohlrabe said.

He also believes the reaction of some individuals and congregations to controversial decisions last year was a factor. At its Churchwide Assembly in August, the ELCA moved to allow individuals in committed, same-gender relationships to serve in the clergy and passed a much-debated statement on human sexuality.

Wohlrabe has spent roughly a third of his time since the ELCA Churchwide Assembly dealing with the aftermath of those decisions on sexuality, his report to the synod states.

But even if the sexuality decisions had not passed, Wohlrabe believes the synod would have faced some sort of significant financial shortage.

The crunch isn't limited to the synod level.

"Our financial situation is a mirror of what many of our congregations are experiencing," Wohlrabe said. He said it may be worse for the synod because sometimes congregations prioritize using funds locally before sending money outside the local church.

A committee of the whole meeting is set for Saturday at the assembly at Concordia College to discuss mission priorities.

Wohlrabe said the synod is at "a point where depending almost solely on congregational mission support may be something that we have to revisit," noting possibilities such as grants and direct fundraising by the synod.

The synod's money crunch has also hit the national offices. A March ELCA news release said the "current operating income to the churchwide organization in 2009 was $76.5 million, down nearly $7 million from the previous year."

According to the release, the ELCA cut costs and finished the year with a net income of $3.9 million.

If you go

* What: The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's Northwestern Minnesota Synod Assembly

* When: On-site registration begins at 7 a.m. Friday and Saturday.

* Where: Concordia College

* Info: For more information, call (218) 299-3019 or visit