Members of Good Shepherd, a Lutheran congregation in Gilroy, Calif., are not lost but would agree to saying that they have been misplaced. And sometimes that gets kind of messy, according to Ronald Koch, pastor of the congregation.
The messiness comes in when people call the church office to inquire about Good Shepherd’s affiliation — is the congregation ELCA or Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod?
“Usually (callers) are from The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and want to make sure that we are not part of the ELCA. Or, they are from the ELCA and want to know if they are welcomed to Holy Communion on Sunday,” says Ron, who has a rather complicated response to such inquiries.
Although Good Shepherd is Missouri Synod, the congregation doesn’t function like one, says Ron.
Callers “need to know that we use the worship book from the ELCA, that we involve women in our worship and that we welcome all the baptized to receive Holy Communion,” says Ron. “I need to say all of these things because Good Shepherd is not where it belongs.”
So after years of feeling misplaced, members of Good Shepherd are finally moving to their rightful home. On March 18, 2012, members voted to adopt the ELCA constitution as their own and, in a somewhat parallel process, Ron is working to becoming a pastor of the ELCA.
To help make it official, Good Shepherd will be received May 18-20 at the ELCA Sierra Pacific Synod Assembly. In fact, Ron says it will be among the assembly’s first order of business — to welcome Good Shepherd and grant members voting privileges.
“People who are looking for an ELCA congregation in Gilroy will now find a church home here,” says Ron. “ELCA congregations are open to all Lutherans, so we would not be excluding any Missouri Synod folks, but inviting them to be part of a more inclusive community. And we would finally be ministering with integrity — that is, we would be ‘at one’ with who we are and where we belong.”
While the transfer process took about a year and a half, the question the congregation has been asking itself — where do we belong — lasted for more than 30 years.
It’s about time
Good Shepherd was founded in 1951 as a Missouri Synod parish.
But since 1970 “my predecessor, and then myself in 1978, have had a much more open and inclusive ministry in our community” that was unlike the Missouri Synod, says Ron, who summed up some of the ways in which Good Shepherd was unlike its parent denomination in a 2010 congregational newsletter.
He wrote that the ELCA is open to ecumenical relationships with other Christians; the ELCA offers Holy Communion to all the baptized; the ELCA is a member of The Lutheran World Federation; the ELCA has male and female pastors; and the ELCA “would have no problem with Good Shepherd participating in Gilroy’s annual pulpit exchange every January for the ‘Week of Prayer for Christian Unity,’” wrote Ron. He also wrote that the “ELCA is far more open to the gay and lesbian community.”
“We welcome all, and Jesus has shown us what it means to serve all people,” says Ron. “We do not discriminate or restrict the Eucharist — this is not the way Jesus started things off.”
As the congregation took steps to disaffiliate with the Missouri Synod, Ron says that “we have had hardly any resistance or dispute with the change. Only one family has moved on. Our intentional discernment process has taken about a year and a half. I guess that is a testimony to the people ‘getting it’ over the long haul of a consistent pattern of inclusive ministry.”
And to share with the surrounding community Good Shepherd’s new affiliation, members created a banner for their church sign that features the ELCA brandmark.
“We are happy to let the community know that there is a ‘new’ church in town. Not actually a new church, but a congregation that is aligned with a parent body that reflects how we have been doing ministry here for decades,” says Ron. “It’s about time.”