Incarnating the Issue: A conversation with Proclaim members Rev. James Boline and Intern Becca Seely

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Guest blog by Proclaim member and First Call Candidate Brenda Bos

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Intern Becca Seely and Rev. James Boline

The 2005 Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America looked like most Churchwide Assemblies.  A few thousand earnest Lutherans, ready to discuss and debate the issues which vex and motivate the church.  Pastor James Boline, fresh-faced blond South Dakotan, now serving a congregation in Santa Monica, heart pounding, knew his destiny was about to be sealed.

“I incarnate the issue which is before this assembly…”

The resolution was the vote regarding the ordination of gay and lesbian pastors. Boline had tearfully told his church council and his bishop Dean Nelson just a week earlier it was time to come out at Churchwide.  He had received his church’s blessing and his bishop’s prayers and had headed to Orlando to face the church he loved.

Holding the Bible he had received in his third grade Sunday School class at Trinity Lutheran Church in Vermillion, South Dakota over thirty years earlier, Boline leaned down to speak into the microphone.

“…I am a third-generation pastor of this church, a gay man, in a relationship of profound love and commitment with my beloved partner of eight years, Christopher Ma, who is also your child, named and claimed in the waters of baptism.  With my beloved Christopher I share my life and my home and my soul, my meals, my body, my ministry, my joys and my sorrows, and all that the years bring…” Boline reminded the church of both his and his partner’s Christ-marked lives and asked for their prayers, for his family, his church, his bishop and himself, who “refused to be banished from this church.”  A few speakers later another man who had been in the same Sunday School class decades earlier spoke against the resolution.  The resolution would fail that year and two years later, finally passing

While Boline was in Orlando, Becca Seely was preparing for her senior year in college.  She joined a friend at St. John St. Matthew Emanuel Lutheran church in Brooklyn, New York and liked what she saw and heard.  Raised Unitarian Universalist, Becca was baptized Lutheran and slowly answered the call to ordained ministry, entering Yale Divinity School in 2009.  Her coming out was much less public or dramatic than Boline’s.  In fact, Seely admits her friends and family find her call to ministry much more unusual than her sexuality.

Both Boline and Seely are members of Proclaim, the professional community for publicly identified LGBTQ Lutheran rostered leaders, seminarians and candidates.  Both also graduated from Yale Divinity School.  As part of her seminary education, Seely is serving her internship at Boline’s church, St. Paul’s Lutheran in Santa Monica, California.

St. Paul’s is proud of their story, which includes going “under sanction” while supporting their gay pastor before 2009.  And yet, that moment of courage is only one piece of their eighty-eight year history.  Now the church asks the question most churches ask: what’s next?  What is their mission going forward?  Two years ago, they decided to become an internship site.  Once they agreed to join with other congregations in the community to raise the funds for the internship, they realized they were in a unique spot to offer internships to LGBTQ seminarians.

Boline: St. Paul’s has always been ahead of curve on the LGBT issue by calling me and keeping me after my coming out.  When we realized the great need for LGBTQ interns to have welcoming sites, we found ourselves saying, ‘Of course we need to be this place’.  We have a great community; we have a supervisor who is a leader in the LGBTQ Lutheran community, and it just sort of all clicked.

St. Paul’s called their first intern, Brenda Bos, in 2012.  Bos lived in Southern California and could waive intern housing.  This allowed the church to try the internship program out for a year before making the enormous financial commitment interns require.

Boline: So there was this moment in our annual congregational meeting when we had to decide whether or not we would continue, not only with the internship, but as an intentionally welcoming site for LGBTQ interns.  The congregation was confronted with the challenge of finances and housing in the second year, and that was the defining moment, when they raised their hands, literally, by the Holy Spirit of God, when calling LGBTQ interns became St. Paul’s own calling.

St. Paul’s second intern, Becca Seely, arrived in September, 2013, just days after she married her wife, Abby.

Seely:  I had my own “a-ha moment”, when I was interviewing for a site where the supervisor was really supportive, but said, “You know we would really have to work through whether this would be an OK fit with you with the council.  They’ve been damaged in these conversations before and I don’t think anyone would be unkind to you, but it’s something the congregation would have to work on.”  It was a totally fair response. I realized this is a reality so many other interns are facing.

The supervisor said, “Do you want to be the intern who goes into a place who has those hard conversations?  Maybe you will change hearts and minds and help the congregation move forward on this issue.  Or do you want to go to a place where it’s a non-issue so you can work on other parts of your formation without that being a distraction?  What do you feel called to in the internship process?”  I realized it was important to go someplace where I could work on ministry and not be that person who was pushing that envelope.  So I was really grateful for St. Paul’s, where I could have a supervisor who has walked this road of being a gay man and also a pastor, and see how you do that.

Boline: It’s been important for me to think about being a gay pastor again, in this new light.  It almost feels self-aggrandizing to talk about gay inclusion because the people of St. Paul’s are on the same page of acceptance already.   But we need to constantly receive those who are often not welcome by the church, and we need to continue naming the exclusion of LGBTQ people in the church, even though that means we are naming our own oppression.

Seely: On a practical level, I hope St. Paul’s can serve as a pioneering example of what other congregations can do and the collaboration between several funding congregations can happen in other communities.

St. Paul’s has received financial support from Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries, Lutheran Church of the Master, Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Chapter of Reconciling Works and the Southwest California Synod’s Mission and Ministry Endowment, for this LGBTQ internship.

Boline: And for the record, I can’t wait for our first transgender seminarian.

Seely: And I bet there’s a transgender seminarian who can’t wait for an internship site that can’t wait for them!

Boline: We don’t remark on this very often, but we have a unique combination of being internship site with a gay pastor and a gay intern with a transgender person on the internship committee.  Actually, the reason I asked Suzanne to be on your committee is because she’s a lifelong Lutheran and works in Hollywood.

Seely: She gives great sermon notes!

Boline: The fact that she’s transgender is certainly interesting, but it was not the reason I put her on your committee.  Gay supervisor and intern, gay and transgender people on your committee:  it all happened in one place.  All that, AND a gay bishop too!  Like I said, we don’t remark on it often.  Maybe we forget how remarkable it is.

Seely:  We forget because we’re just being church.