Parishes leaving ELCA find an unexpected price to pay

Associated Press Modified: October 4, 2010 at 2:39 pm •  Published: October 4, 2010
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(RNS) South Dakota pastor Julius Badigo has long known that Christian discipleship is costly. For him, that cost is increasingly measured in dollars — to the tune of thousands per month.

Badigo lost his $2,200 monthly salary earlier this year when his church cut ties with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), in protest of new denominational policies to allow non-celibate gay clergy and the blessing of same-sex unions.

Badigo's seminary coursework ended abruptly, too, when the ELCA stopped funding his tuition. Married with two children, he still leads Falls Community Church in Sioux Falls, but his only income is $70 per week from a part-time job as a security guard.

"I'm hoping to get my Master of Divinity degree, but I don't know how I'm going to pay for it now," Badigo said. "In the church, I'm the only pastor, but nobody's paying me, and we have a lot of bills ... That's why I'm just praying for God's help."

Parishes unhappy with the ELCA's new gay policies are exploring alternatives, such as switching to the more conservative North American Lutheran Church (NALC), which officially launched in August. Weighing options, however, includes counting what can be considerable costs — and determining how much they're willing to suffer for their convictions.

Since the ELCA approved its policy switch in August 2009, 362 of its 10,000-plus congregations have voted to leave the denomination (some have not yet taken a requisite second vote).

Financial costs haven't always loomed large in congregational decisions since, unlike some other mainline denominations, the ELCA lets a congregation retain its building if it joins up with another recognized Lutheran denomination, such as the NALC.

Even so, some Lutheran parishes are debating whether the price of separation from the ELCA is worthwhile. And for fledgling congregations — including the ELCA's 105 mission churches that serve African immigrants in the United States — financial issues play an important role as well.

Most of the ELCA's African mission churches in the U.S. don't own buildings and depend on ELCA financial support to pay pastors and fund outreach programs. Yet all 105 strongly oppose the ELCA's new policies, according to Jordan Long, a pastor in Rochester, N.Y., who directs African ministries for Lutheran CORE, the group orchestrating the NALC launch.

"I know a lot of congregations that are stuck," Long said. "It's not because they support the resolution (on gay clergy and same-sex blessings), but because they are afraid of the consequences" if they leave the ELCA.

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