There is a news report about the experiences of a small town Wisconsin congregation of the ELCA that brings back memories. The experience of St. John Lutheran Church of Edgar, Wisconsin mirrors that of my former church, Gethsemane Lutheran of Upsala, Minnesota, twenty-two years ago.
Late in 1987, the Gethsemane council voted 11-1 that Gethsemane would not join the ELCA on the occasion of the merger that would go into effect on Jan 1, 1988. My wife was the one dissenter.
Emotions were high, members were polarized and lay leaders in both congregations wanted to vote quickly to leave the ELCA. St. John congregational council members held a meeting that first week [after the 2009 Church wide assembly] and voted unanimously, with one abstention, to recommend the congregation leave the ELCA.
Several high tension congregational forums were held at Gethsemane. Opponents of the newly formed ELCA attacked Lutheran Social Services (LSS) as promoting pornography. The ELCA didn’t take the Bible seriously enough, it was said, since the ELCA used a watered-down word “inspired” instead of “inerrant”.
[St John in Edgar] held two congregational forums, on Oct. 18 and Nov. 1. The Oct. 18 forum was particularly nasty, with many members reported to be “yelling and screaming” at one another.
At the January 1988 Gethsemane annual congregational meeting, a motion was made to rescind the action of the Council (which was probably unconstitutional anyway), and the vote was approximately 60% to stay ELCA and 40% to leave. Many of the conservatives quit the council and quit service positions such as Sunday school teachers.
What happened next was a surprise to many. St. John members voted 106-67 on the proposal to leave the ELCA, but failed to achieve the required two-thirds by four votes. That night the council and other congregational leaders met and resigned their leadership positions. The one exception was the deacon who had earlier asked his colleagues to slow down.
New leadership emerged at Gethsemane, and members stepped forward to replace those who had resigned from the council, to teach Sunday school, and to accept other responsibilities. While the conservatives stopped giving benevolence, others dramatically increased their financial support of the congregation.
[The first Sunday worship after the St John vote] was another surprise: 145 people showed up for worship — the most that had been there since [the assembly]. “We had people come back who had stopped coming at least since the Oct. 18 meeting,” [Pastor Sowell] said. With a shortage of Sunday School teachers, the result of the previous week’s resignations, six people volunteered on the spot to teach, Sowell said. Since that time, “dozens and dozens” of members have stepped forward to volunteer for various roles at St. John.
A refreshing spirit of hope and “can do” lifted Gethsemane in the next several years despite the departure of most the conservatives who formed their own Free Lutheran congregation.
“The next Sunday I saw such warmth in the people that were left. We’ve seen a real consensus of people who really wanted to make this work.”
In the 90’s, Gethsemane took on a building project to replace their 100 year old building. Half the necessary funds were raised during a fund drive, and the balance on the mortgage is now nearly paid off on the brand new church building that went into service in 1997.
[T]he situation at St. John was “like a death and resurrection experience.”
“I have grown so much because of this,” [Pastor Sowell] said. “I have been carried by the prayers of my former congregation. People have called me out of the blue to say, ‘I’m praying for you.'”
“I am sure St. John is not only going to survive, it’s going to thrive,” Sowell said.
Based on my own experience at Gethsemane, I’m sure Pastor Sowell is absolutely correct. Good luck, Pastor Sowell, and the rest of the reinvigorated congregants of St. John’s. We’ll be praying for you. Check out Gethsemane’s website and see what’s happening at a congregation that survived and thrives still.