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March 16, 2010

Synod council denies Florida congregation's request to leave ELCA


The synod council of the Florida-Bahamas Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America declined a request from a Fort Pierce, Fla., congregation to terminate its membership in the denomination after the congregation successfully completed two votes to leave as required by the ELCA Constitution.

The decision was a rare instance in which required synod council approval was denied. David D. Swartling, ELCA secretary, said he was not aware of another instance in which a congregation's request to terminate its relationship with the ELCA since the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly had been denied.

St. Peter Lutheran Church, Fort Pierce, was founded in the former Lutheran Church in America (LCA). The ELCA Constitution, section 9.62, states that congregations established by the LCA must "receive synodical approval" before terminating their ELCA memberships.

St. Peter's decision to leave resulted from its disagreement with actions of the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly. That assembly approved proposals that would create the possibility for Lutherans in committed, publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous same-gender relationships to serve as ELCA clergy and professional lay leaders. It also adopted a social statement on human sexuality.

The synod council made the decision during its Feb. 27-28 meeting, and the congregation was informed in writing last week, said Edward R. Benoway, bishop, Florida-Bahamas Synod, Tampa. "The synod council prayed about this decision, and for missional reasons, we felt we could not approve this," he said. Benoway told the ELCA News Service that there's no other ELCA congregation in Fort Pierce.

St. Peter's current annual report lists 105 baptized members, with an average worship attendance of 46 people. Members voted 20-0 to leave the ELCA.

"This is the first (former) LCA congregation in the synod that has voted to terminate its relationship with the ELCA. Fort Pierce is an important mission field for us, and we want to maintain our witness to this community. We want to move forward with the people," Benoway said, adding "it will be a challenge." Benoway said he called to inform the congregation's pastor, Theodore C. Rice, of the synod council's decision. He also said the pastor and he agreed to meet to discuss the situation.

"We had a lot of discussion, and we prayed a lot," said Cheryl G. Stuart, Tallahassee, synod vice president and synod council chair. "We took a fair amount of time on this one."

The council discussed St. Peter's request, what it means for the synod council to have authority to grant such a request and the church's mission in that area of the synod, Stuart said. The council's decision was unanimous, she said.

"The council tends to be mission-focused," Stuart said. "It was really about mission for us in the area."

Stuart said the council and synod staff don't have specific plans yet for next steps with the St. Peter congregation, "but we are committed to trying to walk with them and rebuild the relationship."

Rice told the ELCA News Service that the synod council's action had put the congregation into a "dual relationship" with both the ELCA and Lutheran Congregations for Mission in Christ (LCMC), a church body which the congregation joined. He said the congregation didn't want a relationship with both — just LCMC.

Rice said he doesn't believe there's any way the congregation can work with the synod. "How are they going to work with us? We completely disagree with them," he said.

"There's nothing we can do. They don't want to let us off the rolls. We joined LCMC, and that's where we'll do our ministry," he said.

The Metropolitan New York Synod Council has acted on three requests from congregations to terminate their relationships with the synod and the ELCA, but its approach was different. The congregations are Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, New Rochelle; Advent Lutheran Church, Elmont; and St. James Lutheran Church, Stewart Manor. In each case, the synod council adopted a resolution "respectfully" requesting each to "remain in the fellowship of the Metropolitan New York Synod," according to the synod's records.

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