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Monday, June 12, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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New Bishop Seeks `New Believers'

A Seattle minister who has a passion for pastoring, sees the church as a womb for new believers and is open to ordaining gays and lesbians has been elected to guide the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's (ELCA) Northwest Washington congregations into the next millennium.

The Rev. Donald Maier, lead pastor of Phinney Ridge Lutheran Church for the past seven years, was elected Saturday as bishop of the ELCA's Northwest Washington Synod, a body of 117 congregations and 60,000 members that stretches west of the Cascades from Kent to the Canadian border.

The synod is headquartered in Seattle.

Maier, 59, begins his six-year term Aug. 1.

He succeeds the Rev. Lowell Knutson, who retired last year, and the Rev. Paul Bartling, who has been bishop in the interim.

Bartling, 64, did not seek election. Maier was selected from among 16 nominees in the third round of balloting by lay and clergy members at a synod assembly.

Maier said the No. 1 goal of the church was to spread word of God's presence in the world and Jesus Christ's message of redemption and reconciliation.

But he said the church today is much as it was in the early centuries of its existence, a minority group in a secular world.

He called on congregations to reach out to the unchurched. Lutherans traditionally have come to the faith through baptism as infants and confirmation as teenagers, he said.

Now the church must find ways to embrace adults who may never have been exposed to Christianity, so-called "new believers."

Maier said people at Phinney Ridge Lutheran Church call him "gently directive." As bishop, he will work with people, not impose his will, he said.

On homosexuality, Maier said he personally is open to ordaining gays and lesbians as ministers.

However, he noted the church still is grappling with issues of sexuality; its policy is not to ordain gays and lesbians unless they are willing to take a vow of celibacy.

"In our church we are not apt to pass down decisions from on high on these things. We believe in the Christian individual's freedom of conscience. People have to come to their own peace with themselves on these issues," Maier said.

Ordination aside, he said he believes gays and lesbians "belong in the church."

Maier said he supports ELCA policy that abortion could be a choice for people in certain circumstances, such as rape, incest, abuse, or when the health of the mother is threatened by pregnancy, but that abortion should not be used as a form of birth control.

Maier said he opposed any formalized prayer in the public schools. But he said he hopes all Christian youngsters are praying in school and elsewhere on their own.

This was Maier's third nomination for ELCA bishop. He topped the Rev. R. James Rismiller of Lord of Life Lutheran Church in Renton by seven votes on the final ballot.

Bartling, the current bishop, said both were highly qualified. But he noted Maier previously served as Northwest bishop of the old Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches.

The Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches, the American Lutheran Church and the Lutheran Church in America merged in 1988 to form the ELCA, the largest Lutheran body in the U.S. Knutson was a bishop of the old North Pacific District of the American Lutheran Church.

Maier, who was born in Pocatello, Idaho, can serve up to two terms as ELCA synod bishop. He and his wife, Sylvia, have five children and nine grandchildren.

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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