North Heights Lutheran Church, once numbered among the nation’s biggest ELCA congregations, is shutting down.
The church in Arden Hills, along with a sister congregation in Roseville, had 7,600 members at the beginning of the century. Then a noisy civil war, in which breakaway members created a ferocious website posting internal church documents, led first to the closing of the original building and finally the shutdown announcement on Sunday.
Church officials declined to comment Tuesday, as did others connected to the church.
“I really have no comment on this right now,” said Mike Bradley, director of the Alliance of Renewal Churches, the church network with which North Heights affiliated itself after breaking away from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).
At its peak, North Heights conducted several services on Sundays. But a voicemail message Tuesday said it is down to one — this Sunday’s.
Pages on North Heights’ own website that had listed a once-enormous staff, with more than 80 people on board, were empty.
Lead pastor Mindy Bak, in a newspaper interview last year, blamed the church’s troubles on sexism — a claim that others denied at the time.
The minutes of a 2014 North Heights annual meeting, posted on the breakaway group’s Church Torn Apart website, record a somber assessment by Bak of the state of the church even then:
“Mindy shared some truths for North Heights. Financial mistakes have been made. … There is a cash flow issue, but we can handle it. … Staffing/programmatic mistakes have been made.”
North Heights was a modest congregation of 500 around 1960 when the Rev. Morris Vaagenes arrived. By 1999, he’d built it to more than 7,500, with another 1,500 attending regularly at two sites, according to an interview with him then.
The Star Tribune’s religion editor described the church at the time as one that “can wield incredible influence within the [ELCA] denomination.”
Within a few years, however, the church broke off from the ELCA over social issues such as the denomination’s more liberal posture on homosexuality.
By 2010, the Hartford Institute’s megachurch database listed North Heights as down to around 4,500 members.
Attendance of late reportedly had dwindled to just a few hundred, with anxious pleas for financial support.
Dissident members were meeting at a hotel instead, and the Roseville church closed last summer amid mass staff layoffs.
Calls to an affiliated school, North Heights Christian Academy, went unanswered Tuesday.