FRIDLEY, Minn. - The Rev. Dave Glesne stood before the members of Redeemer Lutheran Church a few weeks ago and told them there might be some painful decisions in the near future.
Glesne is against letting people in same-sex relationships serve as pastors of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, and he says his congregation is behind him. They're worried this suburban Minneapolis church could find itself on the losing side as leaders of the nation's largest Lutheran denomination vote on whether to take that step at their biennial national convention, which starts Monday in Minneapolis.
"Of course the question was asked: 'What will we do, Pastor Dave, if this goes?'" Glesne said. "The conversation we had left me no doubt that we will definitely have a discussion about leaving the ELCA."
Avoiding such divisions was a main goal of an ELCA task force that prepared recommendations for debate by the 1,045 voting members at the convention. One is a revision of ministry standards that would let individual congregations employ gay and lesbian people in committed relationships as clergy. The other is a broader statement on human sexuality, a 34-page document that tries to craft a theological framework for differing views about homosexuality - but which critics say would simply liberalize the ELCA's attitudes.
At 4.7 million members and about 10,000 congregations in the United States, the ELCA would be one of the largest U.S. Christian denominations yet to take a more gay-friendly stance on clergy.
In 2003, the 2 million-member Episcopal Church of the United States consecrated its first openly gay bishop, deepening a long-running rift in the worldwide Anglican Communion about homosexuality and Scripture.
Last month in Anaheim, Calif., the Episcopal General Convention declared gays and lesbians in committed relationships eligible for "any ordained ministry." The move came despite Anglican world leaders' calls for a clear moratorium on consecrating another gay bishop.
The divide in the Episcopal Church in the last few years has led to the formation of the more conservative Anglican Church in North America, which claims 100,000 members.
Headed into next week's convention, ELCA leaders on both sides of the issue wonder if a similar split could be in store for them.
"I'm not going to predict that," said Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson, the national leader of the Chicago-based denomination. "I'm also not going to deny that I have concerns about the implications about whatever we do, for our life together coming out of it."
A variety of views are represented at Redeemer Lutheran, a congregation of about 2,000 that has grown steadily in recent years.
"We value intellectual honesty around here, and we are willing to look at other views," Glesne said.
But he said most of the congregation sides with him against changing church policy on gay clergy.
"I think I'm a voice that represents the great majority of the people in the ELCA who are sitting in the pews," Glesne said.
That wasn't the case, however, in recent synod votes on the proposed change. Thirty-four synods approved resolutions supporting the change and 12 called for its rejection. The votes put synods on record for advocating for a position, which ultimately will be decided by voting members at the national assembly.
Past efforts to change the ELCA's policy on gay clergy have failed. ELCA churches can already take on celibate gay and lesbian pastors, a policy in place since the early 1990s. Some churches are already testing the denomination's position by taking on pastors who are open about their gay relationships.
The proposed changes are designed to avoid divisions by letting congregations decide whether to have pastors in same-sex relationships.
The Rev. Bradley Schmeling, an Atlanta pastor who became the focus of a church disciplinary hearing in 2007 after he acknowledged being in a relationship with a man, said he's aware of the argument that the ELCA would lose some members and churches by liberalizing policy.
"What they don't say is that we're losing people now who see that exclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals by the church is unloving and hypocritical," said Schmeling, who was removed from the ELCA clergy roster but whose congregation kept him on as pastor. "We have the chance to demonstrate to the next generation of Christians that our church can be open and loving to all people."
Glesne and many of his allies say they're not homophobic. They say the issue is not about homosexuality but about being true to the word of God as dictated by Scripture.
"It is our feeling and our belief that what the Bible is telling us is that same-sex marriage and relationships are harmful," said Diane Baardson, a member of the Redeemer Lutheran Church council. "We welcome homosexuals into our church, and we love them. But we're not going to say hey, that's a good idea."
People who favor the recommendations to be considered in Minneapolis say the Evangelical Lutheran Church has never demanded what Schmeling calls a "blind obedience to one point of view."
Bishop Peter Rogness, leader of the church's St. Paul, Minn., synod, said differences over homosexuality are "driven more by the hysteria in the culture" than by what Scripture says.
"If someone tries to argue this is going to be the test as to whether we are scripturally faithful or not, that's a hard argument to make because Scripture says so little about homosexuality," Rogness said.
At the grass-roots level, he said, "people don't want their church to go to war over this."
Few on either side of the debate want to predict how many members and churches the ELCA might lose if it moves toward greater acceptance of clergy in gay relationships. Even Glesne said he would lean toward staying in the ELCA and "struggling from within."
"I think leaving the ELCA would be on the table - it would have to be," said Baardson, the Redeemer member. "But my first reaction would not be knee-jerk, 'Let's leave.' My first reaction would be, can we stay and work on our disagreements? That's a biblical approach as well."