Church Rift Requires Court Intervention


An ideological rift in an Eau Claire Lutheran Church has led to most of the congregation being officially ousted by a circuit court judge.

If a congregation splinters, who ends up with the church building and the bank account? A county judge answered that question this week.

It started in 2011, when members of Eau Claire’s Grace Lutheran Church called a vote to leave the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA), claiming it had abandoned certain traditions. The vote failed but a decision was made to allow some members to join another, more conservative denomination while staying in the church. Church Council President Anne Carter says unlike the Catholic hierarchy, Lutheran churches are autonomous and allowed to have what’s called “dual affiliation.”

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“So, at that time, since there was nothing on the books that said we could not dually affiliate, we became affiliated with LCMC, Lutheran Congregations and Mission for Christ, as well as being affiliated with the ELCA.”

But other parishioners disagreed, left Grace Lutheran, formed their own church called Amazing Grace and sued, claiming that they had rights to the building and its assets. At the same time the ELCA Synod Council, a rule-making arm of that branch of the Lutheran Church, ruled against Grace Lutheran having two denominations in the same building. Attorney Drew Ryberg represents the members who sued.

“The Synod Council is the highest adjudicatory authority in the church. They have spoken: it is final.”

This week a Polk County Circuit Court judge agreed with the Synod and ruled that the members who split off should have control of the church and its money. Former pastor David Irgens says the judge’s ruling will be appealed.