Why My Family Is Changing Churches (and Denominations)

Fifteen years ago this month, I walked into Salem Covenant Church in New Brighton, Minnesota. Save for a sabbatical in Virginia in 2016, I’ve been at Salem ever since. Not surprisingly, that congregation and its larger denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church, have been regular topics here at The Pietist Schoolman.

So I think I ought to let readers know that my family will no longer be attending Salem — will not attend any Covenant church, for that matter — and will instead look to join a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Salem Covenant Church logo

I can’t begin to express how much we’ve agonized about that decision in recent months. Even now that we’ve come to a conclusion, I can’t think of it without grief.

So I don’t want to belabor this. But I do want to revisit our thinking just long enough to share two reasons that had nothing to do with our leaving, and one that made all the difference.

First, it has nothing to do with any grievance against Salem.

I know that this announcement will be a surprise, if not shock, to many dear people at Salem. So above all else, I want them to know that I’m not leaving Salem because I’m upset with Salem. I cherish that church’s past, love the people of its present, and wish I could be part of its bright future.

It’s been a wonderful fifteen years, and I don’t regret any of it. On the contrary, I’m profoundly grateful for my time at Salem, which has done so much to shape my sense of who I am and who I can be. More than half those fifteen years were spent on Salem’s leadership team, six of them as church chair. I sang in three different choirs there and taught at pretty much every level of children’s ministry — plus several adult courses and the occasional confirmation class. I served meals at Salem on Wednesdays — and packed meals with Salem folk at Feed My Starving Children. I have friends of all ages at Salem, including several who knew me long before I came to Salem and a few who work with me at Bethel. I respect our pastors and other staff, none more so than our senior pastor, Mark Pattie, who also happens to be my Pietist Option co-author and a close friend.

As best I can, I hope to sustain many of those relationships even apart from regular Sunday and Wednesday fellowship. And I don’t mean to be a total stranger to the corner of Silver Lake and 5th: if Salem’s Swedish Singers still need a tenor this winter, I’ll try to make those practices; and I’m sure that several holidays, funerals, and other special services will find me in the Salem sanctuary — savoring the look and feel of a blue hymnal that will never fail to remind me of former Salem pastors Glen Wiberg and Jim Hawkinson.

Second, I’ll never truly leave the Covenant Church.

And now the grief really sets in… It’s the thought of disappointing Glen and Jim that makes this decision almost unbearable: I know they saw me as being part of a new generation of Pietist leaders in the ECC. But if you read my “love letter to the Covenant” this summer, you already knew that I was feeling ambivalent about a denomination whose current leadership insists on elevating a secondary matter to the status of essential or fundamental, denying the possibility of faithful dissent on an issue about which Jesus-loving, Bible-reading Pietists can honestly disagree.

I’m a fifth-generation Covenanter, and nothing will ever make me stop feeling like a Mission Friend. “As much as I love the Covenant in my memory of these and other relationships,” I wrote this past June, with Jim, Glen, Mark, and many others on my undecided mind, “I expect to love it in the future — whether within its fellowship, or as one who has moved on but remains your companion, striving for the mission we share with all the Church.”

Whenever I write or speak about Pietism — as I did last month at a Baptist church and as I’ll do at a Lutheran church this November — I will refer readers and listeners to the history and literature of the Covenant. And I pray that individual, small group, and congregational reading of my book with Mark will continue to offer hope for better times in the ECC.

Left to my own devices, I would surely stay in the Covenant Church and seek its renewal from within.

But this decision does not belong to me alone, and my family is more important to me than my denomination.

Third, it’s time my wife got to feel truly at home in church.

Katie and I met at Salem, and for thirteen years she’s been willing to stay in the Covenant for my sake, even working at Salem in recent years. But much as she has thrown herself into the mission, ministry, and community of Salem, I’ve always known that I can’t change one important fact: I married a Lutheran, a Luther College graduate who is the daughter of one ELCA pastor and the sister of another.

So here’s what matters most to me: I am not the spiritual head of our family, and it’s long past time that we inhabit Katie’s denominational tradition, not mine. And that our kids have the chance to explore that aspect of their religious heritage.

For that matter, it’s an important part of my heritage, too. On the Swedish side of my family, there are as many Augustana Lutheran ancestors as Mission Covenanters. The ECC itself grew out of Lutheran churches, and I learned Luther’s Small Catechism in my Covenant church’s Confirmation class. In adulthood, I’ve increasingly understood my own theology to be Lutheranism leavened by Pietism.

So as we settle into an ELCA congregation, I expect to be drawn to some aspects of our new church home and put off by others: feeling at once at home and in exile, as a Pietist among Lutherans and an evangelical in the mainline. If nothing else, I’m sure I’ll find plenty of inspiration for new blog posts.

But it will be a difficult transition. So I would appreciate your prayers: that I would be able to sustain meaningful connections to the church and denomination we’re leaving behind, and that the anger and sadness I’m feeling in the wake of that departure would abate with time; that I’ll be slow to speak and quick to listen as I encounter different ways of following Christ and experience different ways of doing church, and that I would find new ways to serve in and through our new congregation.

Guds frid — God’s peace — to you all.