A church divided, together

-- St. Paul, Minn. | Aug. 20, 2010

On Aug. 21, 2009, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America voted to allow gay pastors in committed relationships to serve as clergy.

MAP: Perspectives on the impact of the ELCA vote
MAP: Perspectives on the ELCA vote
Over the past several months, hundreds of Lutherans have been sharing their story of how the vote has affected them and their church.
FORUM: The ELCA decision, one year later
FORUM: The ELCA decision, one year later
MPR News engaged its Public Insight Network to bring together 12 Lutheran pastors and church members to talk about how the vote has affected them and their congregations.
Chuck Sabin Ruth Frost and Phyllis Zillhart

The vote was clearly a big deal for Lutherans. But why did it matter to the rest of us? That's what we set out to discover in November of 2009 by querying Lutherans in the Public Insight Network. We expected some response, and some compelling behind-the-scenes insights.

But we were surprised, then flummoxed, by what happened next. Hundreds responded, and they shared the query with others. Soon we had thousands of responses from Lutherans around the country. They shared tales of anguish, of joy; of churches plunged into turmoil and planning to bolt the church, and congregations overjoyed and relieved by the decision.

"...whether congregations are talking about this or not, their people are, and they are making decisions."

We heard from gay pastors who finally, after decades, felt welcomed for the first time to serve their church. We heard from those who saw the vote as yet another in a decades-long slide away from the inspired word of the Bible. In short, we were given a privileged view of a generations-old religious community being transformed before our eyes.

Every community contains within it fault lines that can, under the right conditions, break open into chasms. We agree, sometimes silently, to disagree—or at least not to address our split for fear of upsetting the status quo.

What the episode with the ELCA church demonstrates—as did the furor over the decision by the Episcopal church in 2009 to allow gays and lesbians to serve in all roles of church ministry—is that sometimes it's not possible to agree to disagree any longer; that if enough people speak up, previously hidden fissures are exposed.

Our inquiry became a sort of social Richter scale revealing a community rocked by a temblor that the rest of us hardly felt.

We've created this online project to give our audience, Lutherans and non-Lutherans, a feel for the true impact of last August's vote. It's also a window into the cultural politics of the day—typified by wedge issues that leave little or no middle ground.

We could not possibly share every story we received, as grateful as we are for all of them. But we will continue to add to this as we hear more, and as this story unfolds. Share your story »

- Andrew Haeg, Editor, Public Insight Network

The Public Insight team wants to connect journalists reporting on this story with knowledgeable sources in our Network. If you're a journalist and would like to collaborate, please get in touch with us. All we ask is that you credit the Public Insight Network and link to this story.