A Brookfield church has voted overwhelmingly to leave the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the first Milwaukee-area congregation to begin severing its ties since the ELCA's 2009 decision to allow gay and lesbian clergy.
Members of Calvary Lutheran Church, 1750 N. Calhoun Road, voted 185-40 this week to leave the nation's largest Lutheran denomination, the first of two ballots needed to break with the church.
Although the sexuality issue dominated the debate, the vote became a referendum of sorts on the ELCA's "activist" and "social justice" agendas, according to church leaders.
"It certainly confirms what we felt the congregation wanted, and that is to move in another direction," said Kevin Wahlgren, president of Calvary's church council.
The Rev. Jeff Barrow, bishop of the ELCA's Greater Milwaukee Synod, said he was saddened, but not surprised, by the vote.
"To me, the idea of separating like-minded churches does not serve the body of Christ very well," said Barrows. "I do believe there's a place in our church for different points of view, so, I'm sad about that."
Calvary is one of at least 395 congregations - out of 10,000 nationwide - that have voted to leave the Chicago-based ELCA since the decision on gay clergy last year, according to the ELCA's website. As of Oct. 7, 258 congregations had voted twice to leave, though some remain on the roster of denominations.
Calvary must wait 90 days to conduct its second vote. It is required by church law in the interim to meet with Barrow; however, Wahlgren said that is unlikely to change the outcome, given the spread on the first ballot.
About 20 other ELCA churches in Wisconsin, most of them in the central part of the state, have held at least one vote to leave the ELCA church, according to one website that tracks the issue.
Barrow, who met with Calvary members before Monday's vote, said some believe the ELCA - which has advocated on such issues as poverty, the environment and peace in the Middle East - has come to focus on social justice issues over the Bible.
"I've said that you have to connect the two," said Barrow.
Wahlgren said social justice has always been a part of the ELCA's mission, but current leadership has taken it too far.
"They're taking the church in a direction the majority of church members nationwide would not agree with," he said.
Calvary has not yet decided where it would affiliate if the congregation ultimately severs its relationship with the ELCA. He said it is exploring options with North American Lutheran Church, a small denomination formed by churches that have broken away since the 2009 sexuality vote; and the Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ, a group of 500 congregations that formed in 2000 in response to the ELCA's progressive policies.