St. Matthew Lutheran Church votes to extend call to new pastor

Members of St. Matthew Lutheran Church (ELCA) voted after services Sunday, by the requisite two-thirds majority, to call the Rev. Bill Flippin as its new pastor.

The vote came some eight months after the Rev. Larry Barksdale resigned. His departure was in response to his church’s decision to stay with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America after the larger group passed a resolution stating that partnered, committed gay people can serve as clergy.

Flippin said Sunday he plans to accept the call in the next couple of days.

“I feel good, and I’m very proud of the church,” said Flippin, who with his acceptance becomes St. Matthew’s first African-American pastor in its 54-year history.

Flippin came to the Macon Road church as the associate pastor in 2008, on a two-year contract that would have expired later this month. He was hired primarily “to re-invest in the community, to people of African-American descent.” St. Matthew is predominantly white.

Less than a year after his hire, conflict developed in the ELCA. In August 2009, the national church voted on various resolutions dealing with human sexuality. One was that partnered, committed gay people can serve as clergy at ELCA churches that want to hire them.

In that decision, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America was allowing for it, but not mandating it for congregations.

After the vote, Barksdale, who was pastor at the time, sent letters to St. Matthew members expressing his disappointment with the national vote. He believes homosexuality is a sin; and, among options he envisioned, Barksdale thought St. Matthew could leave the national body and join another Lutheran group.

The office of the Synod bishop, Julian Gordy in Atlanta, got involved. Gordy told the Ledger-Enquirer that congregations and leaders can disagree with the national decision, but schism — which would then lead to property disputes — would require Synod intervention.

This past January, with the issue at a head, St. Matthew members voted to remain in the ELCA. The Southeastern Synod, which takes in four states including Georgia, has lost seven of its 172 churches since the national vote. All are in Georgia.

To leave the ELCA, two congregational votes held six months apart are required, with two-thirds’ majority vote needed.

At odds with his congregation, Barksdale resigned in February.

“We will be very focused on helping (St. Matthew) through this,” Bishop Gordy said at the time.

Also earlier this year, a new congregation of Lutherans formed in Columbus. The name is Reformation, and currently they meet in rented space on Veterans Parkway. It’s affiliated with a group called Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ (LCMC). Columbus has two additional Lutheran churches, both affiliated with the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS). The ELCA is the most socially progressive of the three.

St. Matthew has lost about 30 members — between a quarter and a third of its active membership.

The past few months have been especially educational for Flippin, who did not see eye-to-eye with his former boss on the sexuality resolutions.

“I’ve learned that the most important task for a pastor is to foster and cultivate relationships,” Flippin said in a recent interview. “We’ve been through a lot. I’ll brag on them; the people are hanging in there with loyalty and love.”

He said his immediate focus is pastoral care and “empowering the laity.” He said he’s also looking to form deeper neighborhood partnerships with nearby Edgewood Presbyterian and St. Thomas Episcopal churches.