On both a state and national level, church-council networks are part trade association, part lobbying group and part support network.

The organizations don't get involved in member denominations' internal issues. For one thing, there are so many of them that it wouldn't leave time for anything else: "If it's in the church, it's controversial," said the Rev. Peg Chemberlin with a laugh.

The councils act as trade associations by arranging training classes for clergy. They also can serve as lobbying groups by calling on members to speak out on political issues that affect freedom of religion, and they offer support to each other in times of stress.

"While the controversies are separate, we're certainly aware of what's going on inside each denomination," she said. "There's a lot of care and prayer."

In addition, the Minnesota Council of Churches owns a building that provides office space to 23 nonprofit faith-based organizations.

JEFF STRICKLER