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updated 8/25/2010 3:21:04 PM ET 2010-08-25T19:21:04

Richard Mahan and Anita Hill are both Lutheran pastors who were inside a Minneapolis convention hall last summer when delegates for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America voted to allow non-celibate gay and lesbian pastors.

Afterward, each cried for different reasons.

Mahan, lead pastor at St. Timothy in Charleston, W.Va., said he cried because he realized he would likely leave the denomination in which he had invested 42 years of ministry. For Hill, the openly gay lead pastor at St. Paul-Reformation in St. Paul, they were tears of "joy and relief."

A year later, the ELCA is moving gay pastors into its fold — it's now the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S. to allow noncelibate gays into its ranks — even as the most visible dissidents strike out on their own.

Mahan and other critics of the decision plan to gather this week in Columbus, Ohio, for another Lutheran convention. Leaders of 18 former ELCA churches are expected to vote Friday to create a brand new Lutheran denomination that they claim will follow the Scriptures more faithfully: the North American Lutheran Church.

"The issue is departure from the word of God," Mahan said. His church has already voted twice to end its longtime identity as a ELCA church, also ending an annual $36,000 in tithing to the denomination.

Meanwhile, Hill will finally join the official roster of ELCA pastors. She was ordained in 2001, but she had been kept off the roster because she lived openly with her lesbian partner, with whom she'd shared a commitment ceremony in 1996. That meant she was not eligible for the full housing allowance and retirement benefits and could not be a voting delegate to churchwide assemblies.

Next month, Hill and two other lesbian pastors will gather to receive the ELCA's newly designed Rite of Reception and officially join the roster of the St. Paul Synod. The St. Paul bishop will "lay on hands," Hill said, in a ceremony that is becoming more frequent around the country. Seven gay and transgender pastors were received last month in San Francisco. Similar ceremonies are planned soon in Minneapolis and Chicago.

"At my church there is a sense of great celebration, of people being very happy that our work to make the ELCA a more inclusive place has come to fruition," Hill said.

Her denomination will be slightly smaller: As of early August, 199 congregations had cleared the hurdles to leave the ELCA for good, while another 136 awaited the second vote needed to make it official. In all there are 10,239 ELCA churches with about 4.5 million members, making it still by far the largest Lutheran denomination in the U.S.

And the breakaway members gathering in Ohio will face their own challenges if they vote to start another denomination at a time when attendance at mainline Protestant churches is falling and denominational distinctions appear irrelevant to a growing number of churchgoers.

But pastors in a few churches that plan to join the North American Lutheran Church say there are still good reasons to be part of a larger church body.

"For a lot of congregations and a lot of churchgoers, there is value in a larger Lutheran fellowship," said the Rev. Mark Braaten, pastor at Our Savior's Lutheran Church in Tyler, Texas, another charter member of the new denomination.

About 75 percent of the churches that already left the ELCA have affiliated with Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ — another, smaller denomination. But the Rev. Mark Chavez, Lutheran CORE's director, said some Lutherans found that denomination too loosely structured and wanted a choice that retained aspects of the ELCA identity.

Some ELCA refugees have a more bottom-line reason to join a new denomination. Under many church constitutions, congregations that leave the ELCA and try to strike out as a wholly independent church could actually see their ELCA synod council assert legal ownership of their property and church buildings. "People don't see it as too likely, but it's not a discussion too many want to have," Braaten said.

So why go through the hassles — especially when even critics of the ELCA's more liberalized policy admit that no congregations are likely to be compelled to install a gay pastor?

"I don't think it's the issue of whether someone is going to have a gay pastor forced upon their church, as much a question of what a straight pastor is going to be teaching," said the Rev. David Baer, pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Whitewood, S.D., another charter member of the new denomination. "What's God's intention for marriage, for sexuality? The concern is the ELCA is trading in its teaching and losing its grounding in scripture and no longer having a moral center."

Organizers of the new denomination will reveal on Friday its 18 charter churches — a number they hope will grow to 200 or more within a year.

Earlier this month, the ELCA reported a nearly 3 percent drop in total receipts for its congregations from 2008 to 2009, and a decline in membership of 90,850 people. Three times since April 2009, the ELCA's council cut the denomination's budget by a total of $17.5 million and eliminated the equivalent of nearly 76 full-time jobs.

ELCA spokesman John Brooks said departures over the new clergy policy played a part in the picture but that the bad economy has also been a major factor in the denomination's financial struggles.

Hill, who in her early days at the church helped found a ministry for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, said she was disheartened by the departing churches.

"There are some who feel they must leave the ELCA over that," she said. "I feel sad about that, it's unfortunate. But to feel you have to leave over the inclusion of your brothers and sisters — that diminishes who we are as the body of Christ."

___

Online:

Evangelical Lutheran Church of America: http://www.elca.org/

Lutheran CORE: http://www.lutherancore.org/

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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