St. Francis Begins Process to Rejoin the ELCA

Amalia Vagts, ELM Executive Director

There are so many stories from last Sunday it’s hard to know where to start. If I go chronologically, I’ll begin with the vote at St. Francis. St. Francis was voting whether or not to accept the invitation of the Sierra Pacific Synod to restore their relationship with the ELCA.

Sunday’s vote didn’t mean the congregation was rejoining the ELCA, rather it meant the process would begin. With so much news about congregations leaving the ELCA, it may have caught a few people’s eyes that this one was talking about coming back.

Why did they leave? Well, St. Francis is where it all began for Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries–St. Francis and First United, both of San Francisco. These two congregations issued calls to openly gay and lesbian pastors in 1990, beginning a chain of events that led the ELCA to where it is today. It was the birth of the Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries movement: congregations willing to extend calls to gay and lesbian pastors that the ELCA refused to recognize, and LGBT pastors who gave up official recognition from the ELCA in order to live as openly LGBT people. The congregations were removed from the list of ELCA congregations in 1995 as a result of these actions.

Earlier this year, Bp. Mark W. Holmerud and the Sierra Pacific Synod passed a synod resolution inviting the two congregations to rejoin the ELCA. The vote on Sunday was about accepting the invitation.

After some lively debate, the question was called and with a sense of joy and anticipation in the room, the votes were cast. The result was 69-1, and it was announced to resounding applause.

In the photo below, former pastor Rev. Jim DeLange (pastor at the time of the calls) and St. Francis member Deb Cote (on the call committee for Ruth Frost and Phyllis Zillhart and crucifer for their ordination), react to the vote with smiles and applause. And this next part of the journey begins…

Sermon from Sierra Pacific Synod Service

Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber is the founding pastor of House for All Sinners and Saints a Lutheran emerging church in Denver, Colorado. They describe themselves as a group of folks figuring out how to be a liturgical, Christo-centric, social justice oriented, queer inclusive, incarnational, contemplative, irreverent, ancient – future church with a progressive but deeply rooted theological imagination. Nadia blogs at Sarcastic Lutheran and at Jim Wallis’ God’s Politics blog. Her writings can be found in the Christian Century, The Lutheran and

Below is her sermon at the Sierra Pacific Synod Service, Sunday July 28, 2010.

“Grace peace and mercy to you from the crucified and risen Christ. Amen. To say that it is an honor to be your preacher today would be an embarrassing understatement. So I will just say thank you.

I bring you greetings on this festive occasion from the people of God at House for all Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado a mission church of the ELCA. House for All is a liturgical, Christo-centric, social justice oriented, queer inclusive, incarnational, contemplative, irreverent, ancient – future church with a progressive but deeply rooted theological imagination. At least that’s what our website says.

You may not realize this, but this little mission church is kind of the spiritual granddaughter of many churches represented here today. Churches like St Pauls and St Frances. So I’d like to thank you and the ELM 7 for your faithfulness to the Gospel despite countless obsticles and say that you almost certainly have no idea how your witness to the Good News of Jesus Christ has rippled out into this hurt and broken and beautiful world.

Let me explain – many of the folks at House for All have been hurt by the church in one way or the other. Several have been victims of so-called ex-gay reparative therapy at the hands of Christians, some have been told they are not up to snuff in the eyes of God and needless to say, the vast majority of the folks at House were not regularly attending a church when they joined us.

In other words they were just like me in the Spring of 1996. It was 14 years ago that I walked into a Lutheran church for the very first time. I had not entered a Christian church for 10 years and when I finally did, it was St Paul Lutheran Church in Oakland. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. Well, here’s the thing: I had no desire to be Christian. I don’t like Christians and they don’t like me. See, I was raised in a sectarian and fundamentalist tradition called the Church of Christ. Not the gay-friendly liberal United Church of Christ. Nope. The Church of Christ – which can only be described as, like, “Baptist-Plus”. Women in this tradition were not permitted to pray out loud in front of men much less be pastors. I left that kind of exclusion in the name of God behind me and was perfectly happy about it.

And yet, despite my mis-givings about the church, that Sunday in 1996 I found myself with tears in my eyes. When I walked into St Paul’s Lutheran church it somehow felt like I was walking into the kingdom of heaven – there were young people and old, gay and straight, black folks and white folks and folks who used wheelchairs. And the worship was so beautiful. I had never experienced liturgy. I had never heard that kind of language used to speak of God. I had never heard… the Gospel.

After that first Sunday I unexplainably found myself thinking “I want to come back next week and hear those things and do those things and say those things again” And before I even knew what was happening I started going to Pastor Ross Merkel’s adult confirmation class. I could not believe I was choosing to spend my Wednesday nights in the basement of a church of all places…yet there I was.

I had at this point been clean and sober for 4 years following just the tiniest little drug and alcohol problem. God had literally interrupted my life and plucked me off one path and put me on another bringing life out of the death of this Sinner/Saint. So when Pastor Merkel taught me that God brings life out of death, that we are all simultaneously sinner and saint; when he said that no one is climbing the spiritual ladder up to God but that God always comes down to us; when he said that God’s grace is a gift freely given which we don’t earn but merely attempt to live in response to…well, when he said all of this, I already knew it was true.

I had undeniably encountered God’s grace when I got sober and now I was hearing a historically rooted beautiful articulation of what I had already experienced to be true. It’s what we like to call Lutheran Theology. And It changed everything.

Those classes… and Ross Merkel’s gracious acceptance of me… and my hearing the gospel …and receiving the Eucharist at St Paul’s was how God again simply came and got me. It felt like the Kingdom of Heaven and I fell in Love with this whole Lutheran thing. It was like that 5 minutes of a movie where the couple is gloriously ignorant of each other’s short comings and are vapidly skipping hand-in-hand through a field of wildflowers ….because you know as the viewer that as soon as the montage ends some kind of awful is gonna happen. The Lutheran church was so different from the conservative Christianity of my youth and I was so happy to have discovered something so beautiful – and so different from the church of my upbringing.

So when I was soon told that Ross Merkel had actually been removed from the clergy roster because of a policy in the ELCA prohibiting partnered gay folks from serving as pastors I was devastated. It felt like the rug of hope that the church might actually be something beautiful and redemptive was pulled out from under me. This Lutheran thing isn’t what I hoped after all. Because these Lutherans are just as bad as everyone else. Yet in his humble wisdom Pastor Merkle reminded me that God is still at work redeeming us and making all things new even in the midst of broken people and broken systems.

For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. You already know how the rest of the parable goes. The landowner goes about hiring whoever happens to be hanging out at the marketplace all day. And when everyone is paid the same wage, when the landowner makes the slept-till-noon new hires equal to the upstanding early risers who worked all day in the scorching heat, well…things get ugly.

You gotta love a kingdom of God parable in which the citizens who make up the kingdom of heaven are completely unlikable and entitled and whiney.

Don’t you picture the Kingdom of Heaven as more like a thing where everyone wears sandals and flowing white linen? Wouldn’t people in the kingdom of God appear more, I don’t know, spiritual? Wouldn’t people in the kingdom of God have that sheen of serenity and calm which is not unlike having taken a couple doses of xanex? Nope. Apparently the Kingdom of God is like a cruddy work place filled with type A personalities whose sense of entitlement would rival that of Paris Hilton working alongside slackers who take smoke breaks and earn what money they have through scratch tickets.

What kind of off-brand kingdom is made up of this kind of people?

God’s kind. Because here’s the thing: what makes this the kingdom of God is not the quality of the people in it. The kingdom of God is like a glorious mess of a kingdom where Paris Hilton and Hilton Perez and Fred Phelps and Fredrick Beuchner and ELM pastors and Core Lutherans all receive the same mercy we never saw coming because we were too busy worrying about what everyone else is doing.

What makes Lutherans blessed is not, as I thought, that they’re somehow different from the people in the Church of Christ where I was raised. What makes us all blessed is that God comes and gets us, dumb as we are; smart and faithful as we are; just as we are. Because the kingdom of God, is founded not on the quality of the people in it but on the unrestrained and lavish mercy of the God who came and got us.

Our gospel text for today is not the parable of the workers. It’s the parable of the landowner. Because what makes it the kingdom of God is not the worthiness or piety or social justice-yness or hard work of the laborers…it’s the fact that the trampy landowner couldn’t manage to keep out of the market place. He goes back and back and back interrupting lives…coming to get his people.

Like a parent throwing a wedding feast God goes out into the street and just grabs up any old wretch. Like a sower who just wantonly, wastefully casts handfuls of seed, God just CAN’T seem to be discerning. Like a father who runs out into the street to embrace his wasted betrayer of a son, God simply insists on coming to get us. Insists on making all things new, insists on ripping out our old hearts and replacing them with God’s own.

And anytime we think that this kingdom of God is just for the nice people, or the ones who are ethnically Minnesotan or the ones who really really believe it; anytime we think this thing is just for the liberals who are open and affirming or the ones who protect the Confessions, we become blind to God’s making all things new work. Work like the unexplainable fact that I am now in a clergy small group with a Church of Christ preacher who is my brother in Christ and friend and colleague.

This is the kingdom of heaven breaking in on us. A kingdom where yes, the people are somewhat questionable, but which is defined by the mercy of a God who is revealed in the cradle and the cross.

And so, Paul, Jeff, Craig, Dawn, Megan, Sharon and Ross… know this: The Kingdom of God is also like right here right now. The kingdom of God is like this very moment in which sinners are reconciled to God and to one another. The kingdom of God is like this very moment where God is making all things new…even this off brand denomination of the ELCA. Because in the end, your calling, and your value in the Kingdom of God comes not from the approval of the other workers but in your having been come-and-gotten by God. It is the pure and unfathomable mercy of God which defines this thing. And nothing. nothing else gets to tell you who you are.”

SF Chronicle Article on Sierra Pacific Synod Service

Gay and transgender Lutheran pastors reinstated

Alejandro Martínez-Cabrera, Chronicle Staff Writer

Monday, July 26, 2010

Seven Bay Area gay and transgender pastors were reinstated into the national Lutheran church on Sunday after being barred for two decades from serving in the denomination.

It was a day of mixed feelings for the “Bay Area Seven” – the Revs. Jeff Johnson, Megan Rohrer, Paul Brenner, Craig Minich, Dawn Roginski Sharon Stalkfleet and Ross Merkel – who saw the event as an act of reconciliation with the church that once shunned them.

“We finally got to the direction we knew the Lutheran church was heading. It just took it longer to get there,” Johnson said.

The pastors were welcomed almost a year after the national assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America – the largest Lutheran denomination in the country – voted to allow gay men and women, with partners, to serve as clergy members, making it the latest Protestant church to allow such ordinations.

Gay men and women were previously allowed to become Lutheran pastors but had to take a vow of celibacy. Some within the church saw the rule as discriminatory, and in 1990 two San Francisco churches, First United and St. Francis, defied the policy by ordaining Johnson, a gay man, and a lesbian couple.

As a result, the two churches were expelled from the denomination. In the last 20 years, more than a dozen pastors nationwide were ordained in defiance of the church, three removed by trial and many denied the possibility to serve.

It was “a policy that ruined lives, destroyed faiths,” Johnson said.

Rohrer, who serves in four churches and as a missionary for the homeless, said she did not feel Sunday was the day she became a pastor, but the day “the church gets to receive me as a pastor.”

In an extension of that spirit of reconciliation, on Sunday the St. Francis congregation also overwhelmingly voted to return to the national Lutheran church.

“It’s like an individual who was separated from his family after his mother kicked him out,” said the Rev. Robert Johnson, head pastor at St. Francis. “The mother church has come around and said ‘you were right.’ “

E-mail Alejandro Martínez-Cabrera at amartinez-cabrera(at)

New York Times article on Sierra Pacific Synod service

Lutherans Offer Warm Welcome to Gay Pastors
New York Times

With a laying on of hands, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America on Sunday welcomed into its fold seven openly gay pastors who had until recently been barred from the church’s ministry.

The ceremony at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in San Francisco was the first of several planned since the denomination took a watershed vote at its convention last year to allow noncelibate gay ministers in committed relationships to serve the church.

“Today the church is speaking with a clear voice,” the Rev. Jeff R. Johnson, one of the seven gay pastors participating in the ceremony, said at a news conference just before it began. “All people are welcome here, all people are invited to help lead this church, and all people are loved unconditionally by God.”

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, known as the E.L.C.A., with 4.6 million members, is now the largest Protestant church in the United States to permit noncelibate gay ministers to serve in the ranks of its clergy — an issue that has caused wrenching divisions for it as well as for many other denominations.

Since the church voted last summer to allow noncelibate gay clergy members to serve, 185 congregations have taken the two consecutive votes required to leave the denomination, said Melissa Ramirez Cooper, a spokeswoman for the church, citing a tally that she said was updated monthly. There are 10,396 congregations nationwide.

The Episcopal Church and the United Church of Christ also allow gay ministers. And the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s general assembly voted at its convention earlier this month to do so, though the vote will become church law only if is ratified by a majority of the church’s 173 regional presbyteries. Two smaller Lutheran denominations, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod and the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, do not ordain ministers in same-sex relationships.

The seven ministers welcomed at the ceremony on Sunday had already been ordained and have been serving at churches or outreach ministries in the San Francisco Bay Area, but they had not been officially recognized on the clergy roster.

“The effect of them being brought onto our roster is they will now be part of our national database of pastors who are available for service in any of our 10,500 churches,” said Bishop Mark W. Holmerud, who leads the Sierra Pacific Synod, which includes San Francisco. He noted that while some congregations were open to consider hiring openly gay ministers, others were not — and each congregation is free to choose.

The Evangelical Lutherans designed Sunday’s special “rite of reconciliation” to mark the formal inclusion of gay ministers who were ordained in “extraordinary rites” that were not recognized by the church but were conducted by a group called Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries. Three more gay pastors will be welcomed at ceremonies in September and October, two in the St. Paul-Minneapolis area and one in Chicago, Ms. Cooper said.

Amalia Vagts, executive director of Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries, said, “It’s been a long and hard journey for a lot of people, and it feels like this is a new beginning in the history of the E.L.C.A.”

She said that all together, there were 46 openly gay ministers who had previously been excluded from the church’s clergy roster and would now be accepted.

The change was made possible after the Churchwide Assembly, the Evangelical Lutherans’ chief legislative body, voted at its meeting in 2009 to allow the ordination of noncelibate gay pastors who are in monogamous relationships. The denomination appointed a task force to study the issue in 2001, and spent the next eight years in debate. In the end, the proposal to permit openly gay clergy members won just two-thirds of the votes, the minimum required for passage.

Some who opposed it are now poised to leave. The Rev. Mark Chavez, director of Lutheran CORE, a coalition of theologically conservative Lutheran churches, said his group expected to form a new denomination, the North American Lutheran Church, in August.

He said of the ceremony on Sunday, “It’s just another steady step taken by the E.L.C.A. to move the denomination further and further away from most Lutheran churches around the world and from the whole Christian church, unfortunately.”

Before the ceremony, one of the gay pastors, the Rev. Megan M. Rohrer, said it had been a long journey from her home in South Dakota — where fellow Lutherans regarded her sexuality as a demon to be exorcised — to being finally welcomed as a minister in the Lutheran church.

“It’s an invitation,” she said of the ceremony, “to join us in the pews every single Sunday, where not a single one of these pastors will care if you agree with us or if you think our families are appropriate. We’ll serve you communion, we’ll pray with you and we’ll visit you in the hospital.”

Associated Press article on the Sierra Pacific Synod Service

Gay Lutheran pastors to join church roster


The Associated Press

Saturday, July 24, 2010; 11:13 PM

SAN FRANCISCO — Seven pastors who work in the San Francisco Bay area and were barred from serving in the nation’s largest Lutheran group because of a policy that required gay clergy to be celibate are being welcomed into the denomination.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America will add six of the pastors to its clergy roster at a service at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in San Francisco on Sunday. Another pastor who was expelled from the church, but was later reinstated, will participate in the service.

The group is among the first gay, bisexual or transgender Lutheran pastors to be reinstated or added to the rolls of the ELCA since the organization voted last year to lift the policy requiring celibacy.

Churches can now hire noncelibate gay clergy who are in committed relationships.

“It’s going to be an extremely glorious and festive ceremony because it’s the culmination of decades of work to welcome LGBT people into the ELCA,” said Amalia Vagts, executive director of the Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries, a nonprofit that credentials openly gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people for ministry.

Megan Rohrer, one of the pastors who will participate in Sunday’s rite of reception service, grew up in South Dakota and attended a Lutheran college where she said students tried to exorcise her “gay demons” by throwing holy water on her. Some of those people are now Lutheran pastors in South Dakota, she said.

Rohrer, who is transgender and a lesbian, was ordained by four congregations in San Francisco in 2006, but could not join the ELCA roster until the denomination’s national assembly approved the new policy in August.

“I didn’t really believe the policy was going to change as quickly as it did,” she said.

Rohrer said she is hopeful Sunday’s service will be a “symbol” to young people that the Lutheran church is working toward becoming more welcoming of people of all different backgrounds.

Jeff Johnson, another one of the pastors who will be added to the roster, said the ELCA’s position for years of not accepting the choice of some congregations to ordain gay clergy was painful and disappointing.

“The actions the church is taking on Sunday affirms the decisions of those congregations,” Johnson, pastor of the University Lutheran Chapel in Berkeley, said. “The church is respecting our family, our partners, the choices we’re making.”

A small number of congregations have voted to leave the ELCA in response to the August vote. Johnson and Rohrer want Sunday’s service to heal some of the rifts.

Johnson said the goal, in part, is to show people the church has space for many different opinions.

“There’s room for them,” he said. “It’s a tolerant church.”

The special rite of reception that will be used for the first time on Sunday was developed specifically to welcome gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender pastors, said Melissa Ramirez Cooper, a spokeswoman for the ELCA.

Two more rite of reception services are scheduled for September in the St. Paul-Minneapolis area and another will follow in Chicago, Cooper said.

This article appeared online and in print in more than 300 media outlets, including: NPR, The Miami Herald, The Washington Examiner, the DC Daily Caller, the Fresno Bee, USA Today, Yahoo News, The Washington Post, MSNBC, Houston Chronicle, Manchester UK Guardian News, SFGate, Fox News, Star Tribune, Newsday, Seattle Times, etc

ELM pastors featured in Bay Area Reporter

An article in the Bay Area Reporter featured this Sunday’s Sierra Pacific Synod celebration and profiled ELM pastors. ELM roster member Rev. Jeff Johnson is featured:

“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.”

Many other ELM supporters and roster members are quoted, read the article here.
Watch a live stream of this Sunday’s service

Update on ELM Pastors Seeking ELCA Candidacy

Many ELM roster members are working towards becoming part of the ELCA roster. Currently, 12 ELM pastors have received approval for reception, reinstatement or ordination by an ELCA candidacy committee. We celebrate with the church as we live into the new ministry policies and we continue to support and work with those who are in the process of approval.


Sierra Pacific Synod
Reception: Rev. Jeff Johnson, Rev. Dawn Roginski, Rev. Sharon Stalkfleet, Rev. Megan Rohrer, Rev. Craig Minich, Rev. Paul Brenner
Reinstatement: Rev. Ross Merkel

Minneapolis Area Synod
Reception: Rev. Jen Nagel

St. Paul Area Synod
Reception: Rev. Anita Hill

Southeast Iowa Synod
Reception: Rev. Erik Christensen

Metro Chicago Synod
Ordination: Julie Boleyn

New England Synod
Ordination: Matthew James

Cara Knutson

Cara Knutson

I was born and raised in a family of faith that instilled deep values that continue to shape and form my identity to this day. Throughout my college years I searched to make my faith my own eventually discerning a call to ordained ministry while enrolled in graduate theological study. Through the next nine years I encountered many delays and roadblocks but still pursued where I felt God leading me. A wise friend once shared with me to pay attention to the opportunities that present themselves in life as this is one way a person can discern where God is calling them.

Through a series of events I was invited to apply to ELM and this summer was formally entered into the program. In the fall of 2009 I began seminary study at United Theological Seminary in New Brighton MN. I am looking forward to continued spiritual growth and formation through my courses at UTS and Luther Seminary and growing further into community with school, church, ELM and family.

My partner Maja Knutson and I were married in Des Moines IA in Aug. 2009 and are very excited at all the new beginnings in our life together. Maja’s family lives in the Twin Cities area and are delighted to have us living so close and have been incredibly loving and supportive.

Dr. Lisa Stenmark

Lisa Stenmark

Lisa Stenmark earned her M.Div. from Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, an MA in Systematic Theology from the Graduate Theological Union.  After serving for a year as an interim pastor in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, she went on to Vanderbilt University where she earned her Ph.D. in Religious Studies.

She currently teaches at San Jose State University, in the Comparative Religious Studies Program.  She has been active in the science and religion discourse for over a decade and was the founder and Director of Women in Religion, Ethics and the Sciences (WiRES). She currently serves on steering committee of the American Academy of Religion’s Science, Technology and Religion Group, after serving as Co-Chair. Her scholarly interests include the implications of narrative trajectories for understanding the relationship between science, technology and religion, and rethinking the ways that religion, science and the science and religion discourse can and should engage in the public sphere and is currently working on a book entitled  A Disputational Friendship:  Religion, Science and Democracy.

In her spare time she practices Aikido (in which she has a Black Belt) and other martial arts, trains for triathlons and is an avid Science Fiction fan.