The Evangelical Covenant Church voted Friday to evict the Rev. Dan Collison from the Minneapolis denomination, ending a five-year conflict over LGBT inclusion and cementing the denomination’s position on same-sex marriage.
Covenant leaders also voted to expel Collison’s First Covenant Church, a historic church in downtown Minneapolis that was a founding member of the 134-year-old denomination.
It was the first time a pastor and a church have been involuntarily removed in the denomination’s long history.
Collison was one of two pastors on the docket to be defrocked Friday at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Covenant Church in Omaha. The Rev. Steve Armfield, a retired Michigan minister who officiated his son’s same-sex wedding in Minneapolis, also was charged with violating the denomination’s same-sex marriage ban. Covenant leaders voted Friday night to remove Armfield.
“I’m not surprised. I’m saddened,” said Collison shortly after he was voted out. “I feel grounded in the path we have chosen. I feel grateful for the pastors and churches who stood up for us. I feel compassion to those caught in the middle.”
First Covenant will continue moving forward, he said, “but the denomination will never remain the same.” The vote “cements its position” on LGBT inclusion — for now anyway, Collison said.
Covenant Church leaders had recommended that Collison, Armfield and First Covenant be forced out because they violated its policies on human sexuality, namely “celibacy in singleness and faithfulness in heterosexual marriage.”
“The ECC [Evangelical Covenant Church] is mindful of the complexity, the sensitivity and the pain that matters of human sexuality can bring,” said Michelle Sanchez, an ECC executive minister. “We talk about the desire for both freedom and responsibility as a denomination. Those two things were coming into tension in this case.”
First Covenant is free to keep operating as a church, said the ECC, and can keep its church building across from U.S. Bank Stadium.
Wedding sparks conflict
First Covenant’s conflicts with the denomination erupted after a staff member officiated a 2014 wedding of two women from the church worship band. The wedding was off site, but the denomination said it violated its rules.
The denomination later declared First Covenant “out of harmony” with its policies, including after a sermon was delivered that opposed the LGBT restrictions and after the church adopted a slogan of “Love All.”
First Covenant Church has deep roots in Minneapolis, founded by Swedish immigrants in 1874. For decades it was one of the Covenant denomination’s largest churches nationally, until membership declines began in the 1970s. Today the denomination has about 875 churches with 280,000 members nationally.
Its website describes the denomination as “Evangelical, but not exclusive. Biblical, but not doctrinaire. Traditional, but not rigid.” The ability to have different opinions within the denomination has been one reason it has been growing in recent years.
This week’s evictions come as the Covenent denomination finds itself with emerging voices of disagreement over its LGBT policies. The Rev. Judy Peterson, former campus pastor at North Park University in Chicago, had her clergy credentials suspended in 2017 after officiating at a former student’s wedding. She resigned those credentials this year.
Armfield, a Covenant pastor for 47 years, also was suspended in 2017. He had served a Covenant church in Red Wing, Minn., in the 1970s before moving to Michigan. He officiated his son Matthew Armfield’s wedding at Mill City Museum in 2017.
“It is so unbelievably upsetting to see my father, Dan, and my fellow members of First Covenant experience the hate, deceit and actions that go against the teachings of love and inclusion that Jesus Christ preached,” said Matthew Armfield, who attends First Covenant. “My father, Dan and FCCM [First Covenant Church of Minneapolis] are some of the most loving and caring people that I have ever met.”
John Wenrich, president of the Evangelical Covenant Church, issued a statement following the evictions saying, “I grieve the loss of First Covenant Church of Minneapolis.”
“I hope this historic church someday changes its mind and then returns to our family,” he said.
Collison, who became a pastor at First Covenant in 2009, said he has been working to rebuild and energize the congregation as well as to reach out to the neighboring communities. The church building houses an emergency homeless shelter and a child care center, and Collison is active in several nonprofit organizations, including the Minneapolis Downtown Council.
Collison said the church will continue on its path, “welcoming all” to its Christian community. The building is paid for, so there is no debt. While deeply saddened by the church’s dismissal, it offers a “turning point,” he said.
“We don’t consider the ECC the enemy,” Collison said. “Like families that break up, you are always connected. But now we are no longer in conflict.”