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Grand Forks church member vote leaves choice of performing same-sex marriages to pastors

GRAND FORKS HERALD FILE PHOTO: Calvary Lutheran church parishioners receive communion. Jesse Trelstad/ Grand Forks Herald

The Calvary Lutheran Church in Grand Forks voted Sunday evening in favor of a resolution allowing individual pastors to decide whether they will fulfill requests to perform same-sex marriages at the church.

The resolution, which applied to on-site same-sex marriages, originally was introduced at a congregational forum earlier this year and was revised with input from members. The church council called the meeting and 225 confirmed members of the congregation attended. There were 147 votes for the proposed resolution, 76 against, and two abstentions. All voting was anonymous.

Council member John Bernstrom emphasized the core of the resolution, which states that however individual Calvary pastors feel about marrying same-sex couples, the church will support them.

There are currently two pastors at Calvary: Mark Halaas, who is serving as interim lead pastor, and Kristen Larsen-Schmidt. The church is in the process of looking for a new lead pastor and for a third, part-time pastor.

"When asked whether or not I personally will perform same-sex marriages, I have said that I will need to cross that bridge when I come to it," Larsen-Schmidt said. "The decision is not only about the couple, but about how it will affect the congregation at that point."

istock photoThe church takes every wedding it is asked to perform "very seriously" and requires all couples to go through premarital counseling, she said.

Larsen-Schmidt said she participated in the vote but would not disclose how she voted.

Calvary is an affiliate of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which last took a stance on same-sex marriage in 2009. In its "A Social Statement on Human Sexuality," the ELCA said it lacked any consensus on whether to permit the performance of same-sex marriages within ELCA churches, but acknowledged passionate beliefs on both sides and encouraged "profound respect for the conscience-bound belief of the neighbor."

A discussion at Calvary first opened when one of the church's pastors received a request to marry a same-sex couple in Minnesota. Though same-sex marriage was not yet legal in North Dakota, the council decided in February 2014 to leave the choice to perform off-site same-sex marriages up to each pastor.

"What that means is, not every pastor would necessarily want to do this or feel conscience-bound to do this, but if there were some on our staff who felt like this was a part of their calling, they would be given permission to do so," Larsen-Schmidt said.

istock photoThe church council also decided that when same-sex marriage became legal in North Dakota, it would revisit the policy.

That time came early this year after discussion among pastoral staff. A congregational forum on the issue was held Jan. 7, during which the resolution passed Sunday was introduced and members of the church were encouraged to voice their opinions to the council. A second forum was held April 24.

"Calvary is a church that is made up of people who are diverse in their political leanings, diverse in their social commitments, and there are lots of topics on which we do not all agree, and this is one of them," Larsen-Schmidt said. "And that's why we needed to have the vote, so that there was clarity. It is probably representative of where (the church) is at."

The tone of the meeting was positive and most discussion was based on logistical questions, such as how the resolution would fit into the church constitution, Bernstrom said.

istock photo"We as church council members try to keep it as formal as possible, fair for all perspectives," he said.

Larsen-Schmidt said she knew there would be people "deeply troubled" by the outcome either way the vote went. Now that the vote is over, the church's focus should be on a period of healing and what unites them as a congregation, she said.

"All of us who serve as leaders at Calvary feel heavy-hearted for those who voted no," Larsen-Schmidt said. "It is painful for all of us in this congregation to have disagreement with people we respect and care deeply about. It is a family disagreement, but we are still a family, united in our love for Jesus and his people."

The vote fell on the one-year anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling which legalized same-sex marriage in all states, including North Dakota. Previously, marriage in the state was restricted to one man and woman, and same-sex unions were not recognized.