Whitewood, USA - The nation's newest church denomination - formed by Lutherans breaking away from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America - is expected to be launched today.
Creation of the North American Lutheran Church is the culmination of long-standing divisions within the ELCA that date to the 1990s.
Last year, those divisions deepened when the ELCA voted to allow non-celibate gay pastors to serve in its 10,239 congregations.
The 4.5 million-member ELCA is the nation's largest Lutheran denomination and the dominant one in the Sioux Falls metro area and much of the Upper Midwest. It is the state's largest Protestant denomination, with 123,000 members in about 250 congregations within the ELCA's South Dakota Synod.
More than a dozen Lutheran churches nationwide already have indicated they will become members of the North American Lutheran Church, but it's unclear how many might eventually join, said the Rev. David Baer of Whitewood. Baer is on the leadership team of Lutheran CORE, one of the reform groups helping to start the new denomination.
The Rev. Paull Spring predicts that more than 200 churches will join the North American Lutheran Church by the end of 2011, he told the Centre Daily Times, a newspaper in his hometown of State College, Pa. Spring is chairman of Lutheran CORE and is a nominee to become the new denomination's first bishop, who will serve an initial one-year term. Regional leaders, known as deans, will report to the bishop.
So far, almost 200 ELCA congregations nationwide have decided to leave the denomination since last summer's vote on gay clergy. Fewer than a dozen of South Dakota's ELCA congregations have chosen to leave so far. More churches - including congregations in Midland, Philip and Lead - are voting later this year on whether to break ties with the ELCA.
The bishop will be chosen and a constitution will be adopted for the new church body during a meeting of Lutheran CORE, which is taking place this week in Ohio.
"By design, the people are only being elected for one year," said Baer, who is the pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Whitewood. "The real intent is that Lutheran CORE is giving birth to this but not defining what it's going to look like forever. The people that join are going to make those decisions."
Baer thinks that, at least for its first year, the new denomination will have its offices in the Twin Cities suburb of New Brighton, Minn., in office space used by Lutheran CORE. Lutheran CORE includes a mix of Lutherans who remain in the ELCA and those who have left.
"It's not going to have a huge national staff, but there will be some national structure and some intentional oversight of both congregations and pastors within the NALC," said the Rev. Mark Chavez of Landisville, Pa., Lutheran CORE's director.
The New Brighton office also is home to WordAlone Ministries, a key group behind the reform efforts.
WordAlone began after about 40 ELCA pastors in 1996 began e-mailing each other to share concerns about a proposed agreement with the Episcopal Church, according to a timeline of events from Lutheran CORE.
The agreement, known as "Called to Common Mission," was approved by the ELCA in 1999. It established full communion between the ELCA and the Episcopal Church, which allowed for the exchange of clergy between the two denominations.
Conservative Lutherans thought the ELCA was straying from Lutheran tradition and biblical authority.
Angered by the new partnership with the Episcopal Church, Lutherans in the WordAlone Network began discussing the idea of forming a new denomination as early as fall 1999, according to accounts of meetings held across the country.
In 2005, WordAlone started Lutheran CORE to push for reform within the ELCA.
In February, Lutheran CORE announced plans to begin the North American Lutheran Church for those who decide to leave the ELCA entirely.
After the North American Lutheran Church forms, Lutheran CORE and WordAlone Ministries will continue to exist and partner with the new denomination, Chavez said.