Lutherans reflect on gay clergy decision

MINNEAPOLIS - Vicki Schmidt watched a streaming video of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's national assembly Friday with tears streaming down her face.

MINNEAPOLIS - Vicki Schmidt watched a streaming video of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's national assembly Friday with tears streaming down her face.

Voting members gathered in Minneapolis approved four resolutions Friday that opened the door for churches to recognize homosexual relationships and for people in monogamous, same-sex relationships to serve as clergy.

"Because I know so many people that are affected by the previous decisions, I feel elated for the folks who now feel like they're welcome at the table," said Schmidt, worship coordinator at Faith Lutheran Church in West Fargo, a congregation that has long welcomed gay and lesbians. "At the same time, I feel such sadness because there's so much pain over this issue."

Local congregations will likely struggle with some of the actions taken at the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly last week, church leaders said Saturday.

The vote to allow non-celibate gays and lesbians to serve as professional leaders in the church was close, 559-451. Individuals and congregations opposed to the changes may choose to leave the church. Those that remain must define what the actions mean to them.


But pastors are hopeful individuals and congregations can move forward in a collaborative way.

"I think it's a decision the church is going to have to grow into," said the Rev. Jeff Sandgren, pastor at Fargo's Olivet Church. "We as a church have some hard work ahead of us."

Sandgren said the changes in ministry policy likely will be addressed from the pulpit this morning, outside of the sermon.


One key point, Sandgren said, is that the vote does not force any congregation to recognize relationships or call non-celibate gays or lesbians to their ministry.

"We have a lot of congregational autonomy in the ELCA," he said. "Each individual congregation will be able to make decisions on its own."

For this reason, Bishop Bill Rindy of the ELCA's Eastern North Dakota Synod, doesn't anticipate the passed resolutions will lead to much change here.

"Many congregations would be conscience-bound not to call pastors in same-sex relationships," Rindy said.


The phrase "bound conscience" has been given a high profile during the assembly. The idea was described by Martin Luther in 1521, and refers to those who, after reflection and discussion, are convinced of their particular understandings of Scripture and tradition and feel they must abide by them to be faithful.

It also has been used to encourage respect for church members with opposing viewpoints.

Rindy said last week's vote will allow congregations that are conscience-bound to call a partnered gay or lesbian pastor to do so "with integrity." Until now, churches who called a pastor in a same-sex relationship could face discipline, as could the noncelibate homosexual pastors.

The standard that homosexual clergy be either celibate or in a committed, monogamous relationship, as approved in the resolution Friday, is the same as what's expected of heterosexual clergy.

Rindy said he has not heard of any Eastern North Dakota congregations that plan to leave the ELCA at this time, "although congregations will all wrestle with the traditional Lutheran question, 'what does this mean?' My hope is we will do what Lutherans traditionally do and wrestle with it together."

Parallel to women

Friday's decision by the Churchwide Assembly has drawn several comparisons to the 1970 vote allowing the ordination of women in the Lutheran Church in America and the American Lutheran Church, two predecessors to what's now the ELCA. Both were heavily debated, contentious decisions that opened the doors of ministry to a new group of people.

In both cases, the issues of women's rights and gay rights had been brought into the public forum before playing out within the church, said Roy Hammerling, associate professor of religion at Concordia College in Moorhead.


"For a long time, it seemed inconceivable to have women clergy," Hammerling said. "Then over time, some people, by thinking about the process, praying about the process, wondering about women in the church, the theological education of women, looking at Scriptures, came to a different conclusion."

The same thing seems to have happened on this issue, Hammerling said, as congregations looked at the issue more deliberately. At the ELCA Churchwide Assembly in 2005, a resolution to allow the ordination of noncelibate gay clergy was defeated.

Hammerling, a church historian, says that churches in the past have proven resilient during change and transition.

He is hopeful that despite the inevitable internal struggle, dialogue will continue.

"In the end, I think no matter which side of the issue a person is standing on ... the thing that binds most of those groups together is their attempts to be faithful to their Scripture and their church," Hammerling said. "Hopefully that faithfulness of trying to be people of God in the modern word is what will bind these people together and keep people dialoguing."

Bishop Rindy said another resolution passed at the assembly, a full-communion agreement with the United Methodist Church, will have a much more immediate impact in this region than the sexuality resolutions.

Rural Lutheran and Methodist congregations that have struggled to fill the pulpit may now hire a pastor together.

Rindy was also excited about an initiative passed to encourage work to eliminate malaria.


"There are significant actions that don't have to do with human sexuality that we've been dealing with this week as well, that deal with the mission of the church," he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Sherri Richards at (701) 241-5556

What To Read Next
Get Local