Next, Thrivent for non-Lutherans?

In a poll, the fraternal benefit society found support for extending membership to any Christian. That change would require a vote.

For years, anyone wanting to join Thrivent Financial for Lutherans has had to check the "Lutheran" box in some fashion. That could be changing.

As the children and grandchildren of its membership base drift from the denomination, the Minneapolis-based fraternal benefit society is actively exploring dropping its Lutheran requirement altogether, opening its membership up to all Christians.

Thrivent polled a selection of its 2.5 million members earlier this year and has held several focus groups around the country in the last nine months. The upshot: There's broad support for moving the Fortune 500 company beyond its Lutheran base, said Thrivent's senior vice president and general counsel, Terry Rasmussen.

"There's a significant majority that would be supportive of this notion of extending a common bond," Rasmussen said in an interview Tuesday.

Members would have to vote on any change, she said, and Thrivent is working on a potential timeline.

The issue of expanding Thrivent's focus beyond the Lutheran faith has been discussed internally for years, Rasmussen said. Members have expressed concern that their children and grandchildren can't take advantage of Thrivent's services because they're not necessarily practicing Lutherans.

Minnesota membership in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the state's second-largest denomination, sank nearly 14 percent to 737,537 in 2010, from 853,448 in 2000, according to the latest U.S. Religion Census.

Thrivent's menu of financial services includes life insurance, health insurance and annuities, among other things. Its for-profit bank, in the process of converting to a credit union, and its range of mutual funds are open to everyone, although when the bank becomes a credit union it will operate with the field-of-membership model used by credit unions.

That would grandfather in existing bank members, but require new members to belong to Thrivent.

After taking a hit during the recession, Thrivent's sales rose 6 percent last year to $7.9 billion. Assets under management grew nearly 4 percent to $76 billion.

'A common bond'

As a fraternal benefit society, Thrivent is required to donate to the community an amount that's at least equivalent to what it would pay in corporate income taxes. Last year it donated about $175 million to charities, schools, congregations and people in need.

It's also required by law to have a "common bond" or membership theme that necessarily excludes certain people. If it dropped the Lutheran connection, it would most likely replace it with a Christian common bond, Rasmussen said.

"There are other Christians out there that need our help," she said. "We've read statistics that 40 percent of Christians have a two-week savings horizon. We think with what we have to offer, that they could find that compelling."

Right now, to be eligible for Thrivent membership a person either needs to be Lutheran or married to a Lutheran. Membership is also open to people who attend a Lutheran school, such as St. Olaf, or who work for a Lutheran organization such as Lutheran Social Services.

"There's go to be a connection to Lutheranism in order to be eligible for membership," Rasmussen said.

The talk of change has stirred deep feelings among some members, she said, particularly in more rural areas.

"I think the people that are questioning it are worried that we're going to lose our Lutheran heritage or our identity," she said. "So it's very important that we honor that tradition."

Jennifer Bjorhus • 612-673-4683

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