St. Paul church's removal from denomination highlights division over LGBTQ+ unions

A man stands for a photo
Lead Pastor Micah Witham poses for a photo in his office at Awaken West 7th in St. Paul.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Earlier this year at the Evangelical Covenant Church’s annual conference, Alyssa Paulson stood in front of delegates denomination-wide. She was there to defend her church. 

“You think that if you can just get them to see, like, ‘Hey, here I am just another human bopping around in this world … then the rest won't matter,” Paulson said later.

Awaken West 7th in St. Paul, where she is an elder, was removed from the Evangelical Covenant Church, or ECC, in late June. The removal was due to being “out of harmony” with the denomination’s policies and teachings on homosexuality and gay marriage. 

“It's not OK that my pastor could perform my funeral, but he can’t perform my wedding,” Paulson said, adding that she was seeking acknowledgment that queer Christians who want to marry exist. 

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“You can speak on my love in death, but not in life.”  

A person poses for a photo in their home
Alyssa Paulson, an elder at Awaken Community and member of the Pastoral Advisory Team.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Reevaluating the conversation

Awaken West 7th's removal from the ECC is just the latest episode in a wider conversation for churches about the place LBGTQ+ people have in their congregations.

At the conference, Paulson says that it seemed most people had already made up their minds, even before she gave her defense statement. 

“I'm talking to everybody making friends, and everyone was kind and loving and accepting,” Paulson recounts. “The second people found out that I was from Awaken, and who I was — literally eyes shot the other direction.”  

For Awaken West 7th, run-ins with church leadership have a more extended history. In 2017, Lead Pastor Micah Witham was suspended for giving a blessing over a same-sex couple in his congregation. His decision to officiate a same-sex wedding in 2020 ultimately led to the church's removal. Witham said he met “with the Board of Ordered Ministry, like five different times.”

Witham believes everyone should be able to participate fully in church life at Awaken. He decided to officiate the same-sex marriage ceremony partly to make the ECC reevaluate its rules for pastors and churches. 

“The last time this happened was 1996. That's almost 30 years ago, right?” 

Witham is referring to a resolution on human sexuality. It was adopted as the basis for Church policies in the 2000s.  

“Gay marriage wasn't legal in the United States of America at that time. To say we've already had this conversation is just so ... inadequate.”   

The outside of a church
Awaken West 7th in St. Paul.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

A grieving fellowship

The ECC’s official stance currently is “faithfulness in heterosexual marriage, celibacy in singleness — these constitute the Christian standard. When we fall short, we are invited to repent, receive the forgiveness of God and amend our lives.” 

Updated guidelines from the 2010s state that pastors can attend as a congregant but can't bless, pray, officiate or participate in same-sex weddings. ECC member churches are also prohibited from hosting same-sex weddings. 

According to Witham, these new guidelines were not voted on or discussed by the majority of pastors in the denomination. This discussion and voting process is typically required before adopting such measures. 

When the church updated these guidelines, Witham said that there were “no pastor[s] who dissent[ed] on this theologically in the room.” 

Like Paulson, Witham spoke at the annual national conference to argue against removal. He made his case for LGBTQ+ acceptance but didn't seek to change the ECC's overall stance. Instead, he wanted more dialogue and for individual churches in the denomination to make their own decisions. 

Books on a bookshelf
Books belonging to pastor Micah Witham sit on a shelf in his office at Awaken West Seventh in St. Paul.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

In the end, 75 percent of delegates voted to remove Awaken from the Evangelical Covenant Church.

Awaken also isn’t the first church involuntarily removed. In 2019, First Covenant Church in Minneapolis was also removed for adopting similar policies accepting LGBTQ+ congregants to participate fully in church life, including marriage.   

In an announcement to media, Evangelical Covenant Church Executive Board Chair Tim Rodgers said, “We are always grieved when fellowship is broken ... we pray for God’s blessing on Awaken and the Covenant Church as we each continue to join God in mission.” 

The Evangelical Covenant Church did not respond to requests for comment in time for publication.  

The situation isn't unique to the Twin Cities. Quest Church in Seattle, Wash., voluntarily left the denomination over similar issues this year.

“The Evangelical Covenant Church leadership at that time was very dogmatic in opposition to that,” said Brent Carlson, leadership chair at First Covenant. “Unfortunately, that is not the tradition of the [ECC].” 

The financial factor

Carlson and Witham have repeatedly said that, in their view, the ECC has historically valued having various opinions on religious beliefs and interpretations.  

“The Covenant Church was about dialogue, community, love within the community ... it seems to have changed, and that's unfortunate,” Carlson said.

“For a lot of people, this topic brings up a lot of fear about what's next. Kind of the classic slippery slope argument,” Witham said.

He also believes money plays a big part. 

“There are a lot of churches who have said, if the covenant moves on this, we will leave.” 

A saintly figure is depicted in a stained-glass window
A stained-glass window depicting St. Oliver Plunkett, patron saint of peace and reconciliation, is pictured at Awaken West 7th.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

The end of polite disagreement

The politicization of evangelical Christianity means churches risk losing their base if they move towards LGBTQ+ inclusion, said Anthea Butler, chair of the religious studies department at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert on evangelicalism.

“Sexuality has always been a part for evangelicals to be, not just a moral issue, but a political issue as well,” Butler explained. 

In her opinion, the time for polite disagreement within churches, especially evangelical ones, is over, and she doubts it ever truly happened.

“This is a theological issue. And so, [for the ECC] the theology says, ‘We don't do same-sex marriage.’” 

Since First Covenant in Minneapolis was removed from the ECC, they have concentrated on social justice issues, mainly housing and homelessness. They are considering how churches must adapt, down to the language they use. 

“We don't call them services anymore. We call them gatherings because we want to get away from the traditional preaching down from on high,” Carlson said. 

Awaken is not currently seeking to join a new denomination. A recent annual budget increased by 20 percent. Witham questions if being removed might hurt the ECC more than it hurts Awaken. 

“If a Christian church is in the sweet spot of God's heart, where the Spirit is leading, it will produce good fruit,” Witham said, borrowing from a passage from Galatians. 

“[If you] look around at Awaken, there's fruit everywhere. So, [in] some ways, I'm sad for the Covenant.” 

An empty church sanctuary
The main sanctuary at Awaken West Seventh in St. Paul.
Ben Hovland | MPR News
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