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Hawley church votes to leave ELCA

HAWLEY - More than 70 percent of Hawley (Minn.) Lutheran Church members who took part in a Sunday vote backed cutting ties with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

That was the first of two votes yielding a two-thirds majority the church needs to secede from the ELCA. About 58 percent of members who took part in a May vote backed leaving the ELCA, an outcome that fell short of the needed supermajority.

Since, supporters of disaffiliation campaigned vigorously among fellow members, especially those who didn't vote in May.

"We had a grassroots movement of lay people who worked hard to explain their position," said Pastor Jeff Teeples.

The push to part ways with the ELCA comes on the heels of its Churchwide Assembly in the summer of 2009, when leaders decided to allow those in same-sex relationships to serve in the clergy.

Hawley Lutheran has more than 1,000 baptized members. In May, 158 of them voted to disaffiliate with the ELCA, while 114 backed staying with the denomination.

"That was so discouraging that we could have rolled over and died," said member Marv Gerhardson.

He was among more than 50 members who called for a second vote and reached out to fellow members in the church's coffee room and at their homes. The push brought a better turnout Sunday.

"We ran out of chairs, and we had to put people in the overflow section," Gerhardson said.

On Sunday, 241 members, or more than 73 percent of voters, backed leaving. In turn, 87 voted against.

"That was a strong majority, so the outcome felt like a relief because we'll be able to move forward," Teeples said. "It's been a long process, and it's been divisive."

The buildup to Sunday's vote had sown deep divisions in the congregation, and heated arguments broke out at church over it, Gerhardson said.

Supporters of leaving the ELCA had argued the church would lose many members alienated by the Assembly decisions.

Said Gerhardson, "I might have joined the Catholic Church or something - anything but what the ELCA was trying to do to us."

But Floyd Synstelien, a former part-time pastor at Hawley Lutheran and an outspoken supporter of staying in the ELCA, said Sunday's outcome will likely drive away members, too.

"I think we will be looking somewhere else," he said of himself and his family. "We are ELCA people, and we want to stay ELCA."

Synstelien said he felt the church leadership favored those who supported cutting ties with the ELCA, which made for an uneven standoff. He criticized the church's refusal to host a meeting last week, at which 10 area pastors pleaded with residents to back sticking with the ELCA.

"We felt it hasn't been fair," he said. "We haven't had a chance all along to voice our response."

Hawley Lutheran has to hold another vote in at least 90 days to leave the ELCA. This Wednesday and Sunday, the church is hosting rallies at 6 and 9:30 p.m. respectively.

"This was really an intense experience," Gerhardson said. "You can't imagine how emotional it really was."