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Parishes leaving ELCA find an unexpected price to pay

Associated Press Modified: October 4, 2010 at 2:39 pm •  Published: October 4, 2010

Potential consequences include repaying tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars to the ELCA.

"In the event the new or mission congregation leaves the (ELCA), it is supposed to return all funds it has received to the ELCA," ELCA spokesman John Brooks said in an e-mail. Debt repayment obligations are evaluated on a case-by-case basis, Brooks said.

Long's congregation, Niles Lutheran Mission, left the ELCA in August, triggering a requirement to repay more than $150,000 the congregation received since 2007. The ELCA made an exception and forgave Niles' debt in a Sept. 16 letter, Brooks said.

To date, almost all African mission congregations have remained in the ELCA.

Members of the One in Christ Mission in Telford, Pa., have been disillusioned with the ELCA since last summer, according to Mission Developer Didi Panzo. But they have opted not to sever their ELCA ties — "not yet," Panzo said — choosing instead to keep Panzo on board as their ELCA-supported leader. His five-year term as head of the 30-member congregation ends in December.

"For the members, it is a shame to be named 'Lutheran'" because of the denomination's homosexuality policy, Panzo said. "The (One in Christ) Mission never participates in any ELCA event ... But leaving is a process. I'm still in conversation with my bishop."

To date, the NALC officially claims fewer than two dozen congregations. NALC Bishop Paull Spring hopes the denomination will grow to 200 or more congregations by the end of 2011.

Still, even well-established churches on solid financial footing must first be convinced that the benefits are worth the costs.

At St. John's Lutheran Church in Grove City, Ohio, members have been reluctant to give up a sense of ownership of ELCA institutions, including camps, according to Pastor Donald Allman.

Allman said his parish faces cold treatment from other ELCA churches who assume he and his flock must be anti-gay since they voted to join the NALC this year. (For St. John's, the divisive issue wasn't homosexuality but rather the ELCA's lack of emphasis on evangelism, Allman said.)

Even so, these costs are likely to be accepted if the church votes, as expected, to leave the ELCA in coming months.

"There is always a cost for discipleship, and we have talked about some of those costs," Allman said. "Nobody has raised the question of whether the cost was worth it or not. They just seem to have assumed that the cost has been worth it."