Bishop Jim Arends of the La Crosse Area Synod has friends grieving and others celebrating over the recent vote to allow gay clergy. The work to come is bringing those two groups together, he said.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's national assembly voted Friday to allow individual ELCA congregations to hire gay men and women as clergy as long as they are in committed relationships. Before they had to remain celibate to serve as clergy.

Arends has received no notice that churches in the La Crosse Area Synod will break away or withhold giving after the vote, he said.

"I am very hopeful that our people will be united in that we are a church," Arends said. "First and foremost, we are about being loved by Christ and serving Christ."

Our Savior's Lutheran Church in La Crosse had a booth at La Crosse Pride on Saturday, an event it has participated in for several years, said Mark Jolivette, pastor.

"Today we were there with a little extra joy and there were a lot of hugs going around because we belong to a church that was willing to make new things happen," he said.

Jolivette knows there will be one or two congregations that feel as strongly opposed to the vote as he is excited. He said the church first voted to agree to disagree, so individual congregations can still decide whether to hire gay clergy.

"I hope no one feels there is no room for them in the ELCA," he said.

Because individual congregations can decide on their own, Stephan Sandness, pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in La Crosse, said he didn't think the vote would have an immediate impact on congregations.

"There are people in every congregation that are deeply divided on this issue, but we continue to struggle with it together and see what God has to say to us today," he said.

The discussions on sexuality will continue in the church as "sexuality is always an issue in our society so it is also a part of our faith discussion", Arends said.

Arends hopes the process of reaching this decision will show the ELCA is able to work together despite differences. Every 20 minutes during debate delegates stopped to pray, he said.

"It is powerful to see people standing in line ready to state their opinion, pro and against, holding hands and praying for one another," he said.

Members of the ELCA have voted on many other items during the 2009 Churchwide Assembly which wraps up today. Among other news, ELCA members voted to support a program that seeks to eliminate malaria in south-Saharan Africa by 2015 and to raise $10 million to continue to fight HIV/Aids in the U.S. and around the globe.

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