In the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, some 600 congregations left in 2010 and 2011 following the denomination’s 2009 decision allowing the ordination of pastors in same-sex relationships.
That the denominations’ changing stances on gay ordinations and same-sex marriages were a key factor in the exodus is without question. But new research into why congregations decided to leave reveal differences on sexuality issues were only part of a much larger divide.
Among the broader, longstanding concerns that convinced departing congregations that they no longer had a home in their denominations that Carthage College researchers found were:
• “Bullying” tactics by denominational leaders.
• A perceived abandonment of foundational principles of Scripture and tradition.
• The devaluation of personal faith.
“The ones that left said reform was not possible,” said Carthage sociologist Wayne Thompson, study leader.
The Final Conflict
Each side suffered losses in the congregational exodus, according to researchers taking an in-depth look at the process at the recent annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion and the Religious Research Association.
The congregations that left were larger than the typical congregation, with some having more than 1,000 members. The losses for denominations already hemorrhaging members at historic rates have been significant.
For example, the more than 70,000 members in congregations leaving the Presbyterian Church (USA) in 2012 and 2013 accounted for more than a third of the denomination’ s 192,000 net membership loss for those years, researchers Joelle Kopacz, Jack Marcum and Ida Smith reported.