Lutheran Brotherhood, a Minneapolis-based insurance and financial services company, plans to buy a small nearby thrift so it can offer banking services to its 1.1 million customers.

The 81-year-old company, which sells its products exclusively to Lutherans, announced an agreement this week to buy $19 million-asset Metro Community Bank, Minneapolis, for $3.5 million in cash.

Lutheran Brotherhood intends to use the thrift charter to offer checking accounts, home mortgages, certificates of deposit, and trust services to customers through its 1,500-agent network, said Rolf F. Bjelland, chief investment officer. He said Lutheran Brotherhood would spend two or three years building the thrift in Minneapolis before offering banking services to its customers nationwide over the Internet.

"There's a lot of opportunity here," Mr. Bjelland said.

The Lutheran Brotherhood considered chartering its own thrift but Mr. Bjelland instead struck a deal with a fellow Lutheran, Norman Jones, chairman and owner of two-year-old Metro Community Bank.

The deal, expected to close in the fourth quarter, is the latest example of the insurance industry's push into the thrift business. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co., which has 16,300 agents, applied for a charter last year with the Office of Thrift Supervision, and the Independent Insurance Agents of America also has an application pending.

Ben B. Crabtree, a bank analyst with Dain Bosworth Inc. in Minneapolis, questioned whether Lutheran Brotherhood's conservative customers would use the planned Internet banking service.

"Branchless banking appeals to a smaller slice of customers, and maybe not the slice represented by Lutheran Brotherhood," he said.

Mr. Bjelland acknowledged that his company's customers are not known for their risk-taking. The Lutheran Brotherhood is counting on its agents to educate customers about Internet banking.

Though the company sells its insurance, annuities, mutual funds, and other nonbank products only to Lutherans, its banking services would be open to anyone.

However, those services would be marketed only to Lutherans-except in Minneapolis. There, Mr. Bjelland said, "We're going to be a regular downtown community bank."

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