A Lutheran congregation in Fort Pierce, Fla., was recently denied permission to end their affiliation with the denomination.
Though members of St. Peter Lutheran Church voted unanimously to leave the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, they were informed last week that their request for dismissal was rejected by the Florida-Bahamas Synod.
ELCA Secretary David D. Swartling told the denomination's news service that this was a rare instance in which a congregation was not allowed to leave.
The Rev. Edward R. Benoway, bishop of the Florida-Bahamas Synod, explained that the request was denied because of the potential for mission in the area.
"Fort Pierce is an important mission field for us, and we want to maintain our witness to this community," he said, according to the ELCA News Service. "We want to move forward with the people.
"We're hoping to build a relationship. It's going to be a difficult road, no doubt."
St. Peter's Lutheran Church was founded in 1961 in the Lutheran Church in America, which is no longer in existence. ELCA congregations which were affiliated with the LCA are required to take two votes and receive synodical approval before terminating their membership with the denomination.
The 105-member congregation attained the necessary votes to leave the ELCA.
The Rev. Ted Rice, pastor of the local congregation, said the synod council's decision to reject their request for dismissal shows desperation on the part of ELCA leaders.
"I think the synod and the national are saying, 'We better try something,'" he said, according to Lutheran CORE, a renewal group. "If the ELCA wants to keep us on the rolls, let them keep us on the rolls. It won't affect us."
Despite the disapproval, St. Peter's Lutheran Church has moved on to join a different group – Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ. LCMC is an association that was founded in 2001 by Lutherans who were discontent with the liberal direction of the ELCA on the Bible and homosexual relationships.
Since last August when the ELCA's chief legislative body voted to allow noncelibate gays and lesbians to be ordained, LCMC has grown by 139 congregations departing the ELCA.
LCMC chair the Rev. Larry Lindstrom says congregations considering changing their membership have been experiencing backlash. In some cases, synod leaders have attempted to prevent congregations from cutting ties. In other cases, former members or pastors returned to criticize the decision to join LCMC. And still in other cases, the conversation over leaving the ELCA has split congregations.
"Courage is needed," Lindstrom said in the latest LCMC newsletter. "Our witness will help to give the courage that others may need to make their stand for the truth of the Gospel."