The Rev. Dan Collison is the lead pastor at a historic downtown Minneapolis church that houses a homeless shelter, child care center and several social justice projects. But this week, national leaders of his Evangelical Covenant Church denomination are voting whether to evict him, and his entire church, because of disagreements over support of the LGBT community.
If evicted, it would be the first time in the denomination’s more than 130-year history that a minister, much less a minister and his entire church, have been forced out, church leaders said.
“We just want to have the freedom to disagree,” Collison said. “This is a denomination that has always given one another freedom to disagree, even on stated positions. We’re asking for equal treatment.”
But some ECC national leaders view Collison and First Covenant as pushing the boundaries on its position of no same-sex marriage.
“I believe the future is now at risk,” wrote ECC President John Weinrich in a letter to denomination members. “There is now a movement seeking to subvert the historic trust we have placed in the discernment of the annual meetings.”
Collison’s fate will be determined at the ECC’s annual meeting in Omaha this week. Its Board of Ordered Ministry will vote today whether to recommend he be ousted for being “out of harmony” with congregation policy of “celibacy in singleness and faithfulness in marriage.” There will be two more votes this week.
Both sides agree it’s a pivotal juncture for the denomination, and emotions run high.
Deep Minneapolis roots
The Evangelical Covenant Church is not a well-known denomination today, but it has a deep history in Minneapolis. First Covenant Church, founded in 1874, was an original member of the denomination when it was formed a decade later. The Minneapolis church founded by Swedish immigrants was, until the 1960s, one of the nation’s largest Covenant churches, historians said.
Today the red stone building across from U.S. Bank Stadium is one of about 1,000 ECC churches with about 280,000 members nationally. It is known for allowing theological openness within the broad parameters of traditional Christianity, said Jay Phelan, former president of its North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago.
Collison became pastor in 2009 and the church developed the slogan of “Love Minneapolis, Love All.”
He worked to be welcoming in the downtown community, including to younger and diverse members.
Lisa Albinson, whose family has deep roots in the church, is among the small but growing LGBT community at the church. She met Heather Weideman in the church worship band, and the two decided to marry in 2014.
They didn’t ask Collison to marry them, because “we knew right away that someone in the Covenant denomination can’t do that,” said Albinson. So the church worship band leader married the couple at another downtown location. Staff involvement in LGBT weddings was subsequently banned by the denomination.
That wedding set in motion a yearslong conflict with some denomination leaders.
“It was a surprise to everyone that the wedding lit up the whole thing,” said Albinson. “We were trying to be respectful by not having it at the church. But when Heather and I came back from our honeymoon, we came back to leaders from Chicago at the church saying ‘This is how we operate.’ ”
First Covenant members are watching and waiting for the decisions of this week. On Tuesday, the ECC’s Board of Ordered Ministry voted to delay its decision on revoking Collison’s ordination license until Wednesday. All ministers at the annual meeting will then vote on the board’s recommendation. On Friday, the 900-some ministers and lay leaders attending will vote on revoking Collison’s ordination as well as forcing out the church.
“This is a very big deal,” said Phelan, who is also a member of First Covenant.
“In the church’s 134-some year history, we’ve never removed a church. Churches have left.
“And we never had a pastor removed for theology [differences], but for moral failure. These two things are unprecedented.”
Church vows to stay open
Whatever is decided this week “won’t end things,” said Phelan, noting that a decision to keep or evict First Covenant has implications for the entire denomination.
If the church votes to oust Collison and his church, First Covenant will continue operating, Collison said.
But it’s time for a decision either way, said Collison, adding, “We can’t live forever in limbo.”
“There’s a minority of pastors and churches who resonate with our position of equality for LGBT members and have been grieving, too,” said Collison. “Let’s at least confront the problem and hopefully come to a better outcome than what is proposed now.”