St. Francis Continues to Light the Path

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Guest blog by Malina Keaton, member of ELM’s Ministry Engagement Team

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ELM’s Ministry Engagement program connects congregations allied with ELM’s mission. Team member Malina Keaton has recently been interviewing some of these congregations to find out what makes them so, well, extraordinary! We begin, of course, with St. Francis Lutheran.

Nestled in the Castro District of San Francisco California, St. Francis Lutheran Church has long been involved in the gay rights movement with early ministry of the church centering around outreach to congregants and their families during the height of the AIDS crisis. As a significant portion of the community was impacted, the church served as a bridge for Lutheran families grappling with deaths of their brothers, cousins, or friends and looked to St. Francis for support.

At around the same time, the church decided that it was important to have LGBTQ pastors and hired a lesbian couple to minster to the congregation (Revs. Ruth Frost and Phyllis Zillhart). Due to the ELCA’s previous policy of mandated celibacy for openly gay pastors the church was removed from the roster of congregations for twenty years, but St. Francis was determined to stay active as an independent Lutheran church- a successful ministry that can be contributed to strong lay leadership throughout its tenure. After this period, the church was invited back to the ELCA, and its outreach has continued to grow and evolve partially due to the fact that St. Francis has continued to support LGBTQ leadership.

Elaine Whitney, a longtime member of the church, considers having an LGBTQ minister important because of the different perspective they can bring, “I’m African-American, and so I have experiences in the world that give me a different perspective just because the way people treat me gives me a different side. It’s a similar kind of thing with rostered LGBTQ pastors, that you know they’re going to have different issues because life has given them, in our society at least, a different set of experiences.” It is this intentional uplifting of diversity in the body that has allowed the ministry of St. Francis to grow into various forms of outreach to the LGBTQ community.

Many of the pastors that have served the church have been on the front lines advocating for marriage equality. The church has a homeless/ marginally housed ministry, due to the fact that San Francisco has a large amount of young people who have been rejected from their homes due to their sexuality. Many partnered seniors have found that entering assisted living means they must essentially go back in the closet, and the church has become a place for individuals to be welcomed and come as they are. It has inspired a reexamination of liturgy and intentional conversation about whether God needs to always be referred to as male, or if the institution of marriage is only for straight couples.

But mainly Elaine sees the benefits of an LGBTQ pastor in the message the church can send to its congregants, “Bringing in an LGBTQ leader does a few things. One, it says visibly that a congregation is casting a wider net. That you don’t have to be a straight couple, don’t have to be a certain age, but you can be different and be Lutheran… I think it gives an opportunity to people maybe questioning or wondering- now that I know who I am, now what? It gives them someone who’s a role model of what it means to be Christ-centered in a way that makes it less frightening for those people coming out to their families. You don’t have to be afraid that you’re going to get rejected, or talk to someone who just doesn’t have a clue.”

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To find out more about how your congregation can be more extraordinary(!), see our resource for congregations and call committees – Enrich & Transform: Welcoming LGBTQ Candidates into the Call Process.