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A matter of faith might ultimately split rural parishes

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The Rock Valle Lutheran Church was founded in 1878 and through many of those years identified with the message on its sign, ''A changeless Christ for a changing countryside.'' Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny2 / 2

ROCK VALLE -- A matter of faith is splitting the congregations of some Lutheran churches affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Ch-urch in America.

Just over two years ago, the ELCA voted to open the ministry of the church to gay and lesbian pastors in committed relationships. Some congregation members have found the decision irreconcilable with their faith, and pressed for disaffiliation votes in their churches.

Nowhere are the stakes greater than in some of the area's rural parishes. With small congregations and aging populations, they partner with neighboring churches to have the resources needed to support a pastor and continue their traditional ministries and services.

"Extremely difficult,'' is how the Rev. Daniel Bowman, pastor of the Rock Valle Lutheran Church near Echo and the Hawk Creek Lutheran Church near Sacred Heart, describes the dilemma now facing the two rural congregations.

The Rock Valle congregation is "torn in two'' over the decision of whether or not to continue its long tradition of being a part of the ELCA, he said. Congregation members voted 34 in favor and 31 opposed to disaffiliation in November, which did not meet the two-thirds majority required for disaffiliation.

The vote has not ended the debate. Last Sunday, those in favor of disaffiliation had planned to hold a second and separate worship service in the church by inviting another minister to lead it. The weekend's snowstorm forced its cancellation.

Other members of the congregation responded with a petition that will go to a vote on Dec. 23. It asks for the affirmation of the "calling" of Pastor Bowman to serve the parish.

In the ELCA, a pastor receives a "call" as he or she begins serving.

The petition also would require a vote by congregation members -- rather than parish council action alone -- to open the doors of the church for worship services to be held by others.

The congregation of Grace Lutheran Church in nearby Belview had previously rejected a vote for disaffiliation -- 48 to 88 -- but a portion of the membership left.

Those former members are now using the historic Odeon Hall in Belview as their place of worship for the time being, and they have become affiliated with the Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ in place of the much larger ELCA.

They are apparently interested in joining with those at Rock Valle who also favor disaffiliation and possibly worshipping in the Rock Valle church, according to Bowman.

The congregation at Hawk Creek has not asked for a vote on disaffiliation, but members know the consequences if Rock Valle should leave the ELCA. Their partnership with Rock Valle would end, and each congregation would need to find a new partner in order to have the resources needed to support a pastor and continue.

The two churches enjoy a very strong partnership, according to Al Ims and Janet Hagen, two longtime Rock Valle congregation members who want to preserve the ties. They point out that both churches have long traditions of supporting missionary work, much of that through the ELCA. Rock Valle held its first mission auction in 1887, and this year's event raised $11,000 for mission work.

That's a big deal for a tiny, rural congregation, and it's no different at Hawk Creek Lutheran, according to Pastor Bowman. He grew up as the son of ELCA missionaries in Japan.

Bowman took up his mother's love for lefse, and so has the Hawk Creek congregation. Volunteers recently rolled 2,473 lefse rounds as part of their "lefse ministry.'' Bowman uses the lefse as an analogy for lessons from the Gospel, which are included with each round.

Both congregations also have long histories of involvement with the Women of the ELCA as well.

Preserving these traditions is very much at the heart of the debate, said Ims. He worries that many have not thought about all of the ramifications of disaffiliation.

Bowman said that those opposed to disaffiliation tend to be the older congregation members. They see the benefits of traditions and don't want to lose them, even though they may also disagree with the ELCA decision on gay ministry.

There is also much consternation that disaffiliation with the ELCA would lead to the loss of the calling of Bowman to serve one or both churches, Hagen said.

Bowman said he is concerned about the potential of losing congregation members in the small, rural parishes no matter the outcome of the debate. "The loss of one person is too many,'' he said.

Most of all, he is concerned about what a divorce would mean. "It's never pretty, never fun, always hurtful and always dangerous,'' he said.

The pastor said he cannot venture a guess on how this all will play out, but said he prays daily and calls on his faith in Jesus Christ to see the way through it.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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