Lutherans receive LGBT pastors
by Matthew S. Bajko
Twenty years ago two San Francisco Lutheran congregations ordained a lesbian couple and a gay man as pastors in defiance of their denomination's ban against non-celibate LGBT people becoming clergy.
The two churches' decision in 1990 set off a two-decade fight over the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's anti-gay policy. While the congregations were ultimately ejected from the ELCA for their decisions, 15 additional LGBT people became Lutheran pastors in the ensuing years through an extraordinary ordination process.
Although their local congregations considered them to be pastors, in the eyes of the national Lutheran Church they were deemed unofficial clergy. Church leaders subsequently disciplined many of the churches that ordained them.
Last year the national Lutheran Church revised its policies and dropped the requirement that LGBT pastors need to be celibate. This weekend six LGBT pastors ordained extraordinarily and two pastors who had been dismissed from the ELCA clergy roster will be received as full-fledged pastors in the church at a ceremony Sunday, July 25 at St. Mark's Lutheran Church in San Francisco.
"I think this is a very significant step for the church, which has been in this two-decade process of studying gay and lesbian people and talking about finding ways to include us. That process has now come to an end and the church has decided that LGBT people are to be welcomed fully as leaders and members of the church, so it is a huge step that the church has taken," said the Reverend Jeff Johnson, whose ordination 20 years ago as an assistant pastor at the city's First United Lutheran Church sparked the internal dialogue within the national Lutheran Church.
Johnson, 48, now lives in Oakland and is the pastor at University Lutheran Chapel in Berkeley. He will be taking part in the formal Rite of Reception service this weekend presided over by the Reverend Mark Holmerud, fourth bishop of the Sierra Pacific Synod, which covers northern California and northern Nevada.
"I am deeply grateful to the [extraordinary] pastors, and the two pastors who were removed from the ELCA roster, for their grace and good will in being a part of this process," Holmerud said in a statement about the ceremony. He added that the actions of the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly "have brought us to a new day."
At the Sierra Pacific Synod assembly in May, Holmerud lifted a public censure and admonition placed on the Berkeley church in 2000 after it called Johnson as its pastor even though he was not on the ELCA clergy roster. At the meeting Johnson was also elected to serve on the regional synod's council pending his participation in this weekend's rite.
The other extraordinary Lutheran pastors taking part in the service are the Reverends Craig Minich, pastor of youth ministries at the Oakland-Berkeley Lutheran Youth Program; Dawn Roginski, pastor of parish programs at St. Francis Lutheran Church; Megan Rohrer, executive director of Welcome, which feeds the homeless in San Francisco; Paul R. Brenner at St. Francis Lutheran Church; and Sharon Stalkfleet with Lutheran Ministry to Nursing Homes in Oakland.
"I think you can't go through this kind of wilderness walking in the church and not be stronger because of it," said Rohrer, 30, who identifies as a transgender dyke and was extraordinarily ordained in 2006 by four San Francisco Lutheran churches. "It feels like coming out to your parents and having them react really poorly for a long time and then one day they change their mind."
The two pastors being reinstated this weekend are the Reverends Ross D. Merkel, pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Oakland, and Steven P. Sabin, pastor of Christ Church Lutheran in San Francisco. In 1998 the ELCA removed Sabin from its clergy roster after he admitted to being in a committed, same-sex relationship while serving as pastor at Lord of Life Lutheran Church in Ames, Iowa.
"For two decades, many have been grieved and alienated by the ELCA's exclusion of gay and lesbian pastors blessed with loving spouses. I hope and pray that they can, like me, lay aside the hurts and take hope from the gracious power of God to renew and direct the church into evermore faithful and effective proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ," stated Sabin.
Retired Revered James DeLange, who was the senior pastor at St. Francis Lutheran Church in 1990, called this weekend's service a "vindication" for those who fought against the church's discriminatory policies and the beginning of the healing process for many Lutherans impacted by that struggle.
"For those of us who have been just staying with the struggle and have tried to work to try to change the policy this is a vindication of our efforts," said DeLange, who is straight and chairs the San Francisco Interfaith Council. "I am just glad I lived long enough to see the change of policy."
As for the lesbian couple his church ordained the same day as Johnson, the Reverends Ruth Frost and Phyllis Zillhart, DeLange said they now live in Minneapolis and are expected to have their own rite of reception sometime this fall.
Also this Sunday St. Francis will vote on whether to return to the ELCA. In a nearly unanimous vote, the 300 delegates at the Sierra Pacific Synod assembly this spring adopted a resolution inviting both First United and St. Francis to rejoin the national church. First United has yet to schedule a similar vote.
Johnson expressed mixed emotions about how long it has taken the Lutheran Church to fully embrace LGBT pastors.
"I think that the church's taking this step does not change the difficult things the church has done over the past two decades, so it is very important for people to tell the truth about the discrimination they have taken part in as we celebrate this momentous, wonderful happening," he said.The formal Rite of Reception for the pastors is open to the public. It will begin at 4 p.m. Sunday, July 25 at St. Mark's Lutheran Church, the corner of Franklin and O'Farrell Streets in San Francisco.
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