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MINNEAPOLIS-As residents gradually returned to their flood-damaged homes and businesses in the Red River region of North Dakota and Minnesota, one group gained a temporary reprieve from having to make monthly employee benefit premiums while they sorted through the mess.

Churches affiliated with the Minneapolis-based Evangelical Lutheran Church in America that pay the benefit expenses of pastors, lay workers, retired employees and their families have a 60-day disaster grace period under the terms of their contract covering their health and dental coverage, defined contribution retirement plan, term life insurance and long-term disability program.

Their benefits, bundled in a package by Hartford, Conn.-based Aetna Life & Casualty Co. and paid for by congregation contributions, would otherwise be in jeopardy, because hundreds of churches may have been uprooted and placed into turmoil by the disaster, said John G. Clark, president of the church's Board of Pensions.

There are 1,091 ELCA congregations in eastern North Dakota, southern North Dakota, northwest Minnesota and southwest Minnesota that could have been affected by the flooding, though Mr. Clark said it was too early to say just how many congregations had problems.

The denomination has 13 churches in Fargo, N.D., and seven in Grand Forks, N.D., two cities hit the hardest by the floods.

Rev. Leon Phillips, director of Lutheran Disaster Response, said he witnessed "huge damage in some of the churches and parsonages (ranging) to minor damage," and that in many of the congregations, about 70% of their members were driven out of their homes by the flooding.