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updated: 7/20/2011 8:00 PM

Lutheran split shakes up social service network

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Associated Press

NEW YORK -- One of the largest social service networks in the United States, working in areas ranging from adoption to disaster relief, faces a shake-up because of Lutheran divisions over the Bible and homosexuality.

The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, a theologically conservative denomination, said Wednesday that direct work with its larger and more liberal counterpart, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, has become "difficult if not impossible," because of doctrinal conflicts, including the 2009 decision by liberal Lutherans to lift barriers for ordaining gays and lesbians.

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Neither denomination would discuss the potential financial impact Wednesday. Many Lutheran-affiliated agencies receive substantial state and federal grants that would not be directly affected by any split. However, similar to Catholic Charities, Lutheran agencies are some of the biggest service providers in their communities.

Just one of the joint Lutheran agencies, Lutheran Services in America, said on its website that it encompasses more than 300 health and human services organizations with a combined annual budget of more than $16 billion.

"We recognize that this is a difficult issue. It's complicated," said the Rev. Herb Mueller, first vice president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, based in St. Louis. "We're trying to take a nuanced and caring approach to all of these situations that's also faithful to what the Bible teaches on these issues."

The Rev. Donald McCoid, an ecumenical officer for the Chicago-based Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, said, "we are deeply concerned about the ministries of care that may be challenged by the recent action of The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod."

The 2.3 million-member Missouri Synod has been studying the issue for more than a year through its Committee on Theology and Church Relations. This week, the panel issued a 15-page document of guidelines for churches, congregants and ministries deciding whether they should cut off any direct joint work with the Chicago-based Lutherans.

The only immediate announced break was for the Missouri Synod to stop its decades-old practice of training military chaplains with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The president of the Missouri Synod, the Rev. Matthew Harrison, said in a statement that the decision, effective next year, was based on the ELCA decision on gay ordination, and on the military's plan to repeal the "don't ask, don't tell," policy.

However, the guidelines for evaluating the joint relationships made it clear that cooperative work in many of the agencies is likely to end.

The Missouri-Synod theology committee said members of its denomination should examine whether joint cooperative agencies:

• Adopt operational principles "alien or contrary" to Scripture.

• Hire staff or a leader "whose lifestyle is scandalous or openly and unrepentantly sinful."

• Have board members overseeing an agency who "become conflicted because of differing beliefs."

• Have leaders or staff who advocate policies "contrary to the Christian faith."

The committee used its most direct language to discuss the future of its corps of chaplains who work outside of the military, in nursing homes and hospitals, and on college campuses, among other assignments.

"The ELCA's current theological course presents serious theological challenges to any continued cooperation in endorsement procedures," according to the Missouri-Synod report.

The tangle of Lutheran agencies is the mainly the result of decades of splits and mergers among Lutherans in the United States. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, with about 4.5 million members, was formed from a merger of four church bodies with Danish, Finnish, German and Swedish backgrounds. Mueller said in an interview that 81 of the 120 recognized service organizations of the Missouri-Synod cooperate in some way with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Mueller said the agencies would be evaluated on a case-by-case basis in a process that could take months.

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