Lutherans propose local solution for gay pastor issues

A committee of Lutheran Church leaders recommended last week that the church consider allowing gay and lesbians in committed relationships to be ordained as pastors, but not all LGBT Lutherans are satisfied with the proposal.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Feb. 19 “Report and Recommendations on Ministry Policies” proposes allowing local churches to decide for themselves whether or not to permit coupled gay and lesbian pastors to lead their congregations.

Currently, the ELCA allows gay and lesbian individuals to be ordained, but they must remain celibate, while heterosexual Lutheran pastors are allowed to marry.

The “Report and Recommendations” proposed to change that stipulation to allow for the ordination of individuals who are also in “lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships.”

The proposal, drawn up by a 15-member ELCA task force, would recommend that the church first consider if it is committed “to finding ways to allow congregations and synods that choose to do so to recognize, support and hold publicly accountable” gay and lesbian pastors in committed relationships. The task force then recommended that the church should consider if it can allow gay and lesbian clergy to serve while still “respect[ing] the bound consciences of all.”

The proposal stipulates that if the church can agree on those provisions, it could then put into place a policy of “structured flexibility,” whereby individual churches, regional churches known as synods, candidacy committees or bishops can formulate their own positions “according to their convictions.”

Emily Eastwood, executive director of Lutherans Committed/North America, which works for the inclusion of LGBT individuals into the Lutheran community, said the local stipulation could allow LGBT discrimination to overshadow a church’s selection of a pastor.

“In the ELCA, congregations retain the right to call the minister of their choosing from approved rosters of the whole church. The recommendations could restrict a congregation’s ability to call a well-suited minister in a same-gender relationship,” Eastwood said. “Candidates in locations with unsupportive leadership could be denied candidacy. Congregations who don’t wish to call ministers in a committed same-gender relationship could exercise their conscience no matter where they are, but congregations who do wish to call such ministers would not have the same freedom. Whatever divisions there are in the church are widened, not reduced, by this recommendation.”

The Rev. Jay Wiesner, the openly gay pastor of University Lutheran Church of the Incarnation in Philadelphia, noted that many local churches already permit openly gay pastors in relationships to serve.

“When I first read the document, my first thought was, ‘Whether the ELCA likes it or not, this is already happening on a local level,” Wiesner said. “It seems like the local option is already taking place, so if these recommendations pass, it seems like it would just codify what’s already taking place.”

Wiesner, a member of the Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries Roster, which supports openly gay ministers who oppose the church’s same-sex celibacy rule, noted that the taskforce’s recommendations would create complications for gay and lesbian individuals seeking to join the church, but who live in areas where church leaders are against the inclusion of those in same-sex relationships.

“The big problem I see with this is that it doesn’t offer any words of hope for those people who feel called to the church but who find themselves in places that are not welcoming in certain areas of the country,” Wiesner said. “Would this mean that these people would have to move somewhere where they’re welcome? The local option is one step in the right direction, but it’s a step where the church should have been a long time ago. It’s helpful, but not helpful where all people are concerned.”

The taskforce also published a broader report, “Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust,” which decries discrimination based on sexual orientation, expresses support for legislation that prohibits LGBT discrimination and invites all members of the LGBT community into the church. It notes, however, that the church is still unsure of how to address same-sex relationships: “Consensus does not exist concerning how to regard same-gender committed relationships, even after many years of thoughtful, respectful and faithful study and conversation. We do not have agreement on whether this church should honor these relationships, uplift, shelter and protect them, or on precisely how it is appropriate to do so.”

Eastwood criticized this document for not expressing firmer support for same-sex marriage.

“[The document] does not proffer a means of public recognition of same-gender relationships, no rite of blessing or marriage,” Eastwood said, calling this an “unacceptable but correctable inconsistency.”

The 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly, the church’s primary governing body, will consider both documents during its August convention in Minneapolis.

Jen Colletta can be reached at [email protected].