Unlikely Partners in Ministry

Guest blog by Proclaim member, Rev. Mark Erson, pastor of St John’s Lutheran in New York City.

“We are a small congregation with a big mission.”  That is my stock line for introducing people to St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church – a 160 year old congregation in the West Village of Manhattan (literally across the street from the Stonewall Inn) that was coming out of a challenging decade when I accepted a call to serve as its pastor in 2011.  Accepting this call meant redeveloping a congregation that was close to death and had had little connection with the neighborhood of the West Village.  Neighbors that I spoke with actually were surprised to hear that there was still an active congregation in the building.

Pride Gospel Night 2015
Poster from this year’s Gay Pride Inspirational Gospel Showcase

Eager to connect with the neighborhood in new ways, and especially eager to proclaim the good news of God’s love to the many in our community who think they are not welcome in God’s church, I jumped at chances to collaborate with folks who came looking for space and support.  The needs of the neighborhood were so great and immediate, I did not want to wait for us to grow to a size that could take on issues like LGBTQ homeless young adults or too many people thinking that they were outside the reach of God’s mercy, love, and grace.

Like an answer to a prayer I wasn’t wise enough to utter, Miss Simone (a transgender performer and promoter) came to me and asked if she could host a fashion show in the sanctuary.  I was game.  The night was filled with women of transgender experience, showing their style and fabulousness, along with a couple doing lip-sync performances.  As one of the young women was leaving, she thanked me deeply for allowing this to happen in the church.

I reflected on that short exchange for quite a while.  These folks had grown up in faith communities that had either shown them the door or caused them to run out the door before they were found out.  They had grown up in communities where music was important and style was honored.  On that night, they could bring all those valued parts of their culture and themselves and be in the sacred space of a church as their authentic self.

We had a couple more similar events.  We also became known as the church for memorials of noted drag performers and transgender people.  In most cases, the family did not want to acknowledge the individual’s true self and/or did not want friends to be present for the “official” funeral.  So friends and colleagues would come to St. John’s and ask to provide a memorial event that truly celebrated the life of this child of God.  These have been some very moving events.

After one of these events of style and song, I asked the performers if someone would work with me to create a similar event in which presenters would perform gospel music.  I got a taker, and we were off.

Gospel Divas
           Gospel Divas at St John’s Lutheran

But what was this thing that we were creating?  Where did it fit into the church culture? In LGBTQ culture?  We could not call it a drag event, because most of the performers were transgender.  So, we started calling it Gospel Divas.  But then some guys wanted to join in, who would perform lip-syncing to the tracks of male singers.  So we started calling it Gospel Night.  Sometimes we even add in a live singer and instrumentalists.

It continues to evolve.  When we first started, one of the performers would MC.  But now, I am doing the hosting.  I use the time in between songs to bring the good news, to highlight lyrics of songs just performed for the sake of teaching of God’s amazing love.  I also see that we are starting to borrow more and more from the revival culture of American Christianity.

Christmas Performance
               Christmas Performance

True confession:  I am only starting to speak (and write) about this ministry.  I have been shy to even talk to colleagues about it for fear that they will be shocked and judge me crazy.   But I think of Boniface transforming pagan tree symbols into Christian symbols that pointed to the God that the missionary was bringing.  I think of the Wycliffe Bible Translators in the South Pacific who engaged a culture that had no concept of sheep and so they had to translate the image of Lamb of God into Pig of God, because pigs were cherished and valued most.  But mostly I think of that woman of Bethany who anointed Jesus’ feet much to the dismay and shock of those watching.  But Jesus welcomes the shocking behavior of sincere and heart-felt devotion.  And, transformed by the one who makes all things new, we have been anointing one another in Jesus’ name ever since.

So it continues to evolve.  What to call it continues to be the question of the hour.  The newest name:  Magnify:  An Evening of Music and Mercy.  Whatever we call it, whatever it evolves into, it is exciting to see the number of people drawn to this expression of faith and praise, to witness and hear of people being moved by this unique “church” experience.  As we continue to sing a new song, may God’s name be praised and may the good news of God’s mercy and grace be heard.

*Editor’s note:  A note about “drag” and “transgender.” Within the LGBTQ community there is a wide diversity of expressions of self and identity. We don’t always agree or have the same experience, but it is a value of ELM to create spaces of belonging and naming for diverse identities and expressions. In this article, Mark references both communities – drag and transgender.

Mark Erson picBy Rev. Mark Erson. Mark – a New York City native, Lutheran PK, and avid traveler – is ridiculously happily married to his high school sweetheart, Scott Jordan.  They are blessed with a feisty pit bull-rottweiler mix named Brooklyn.  After adventures in the world of theatre and teaching, Mark finally was pinned by the Holy Spirit and led to say “yes” to a lifelong-avoided call to ordained ministry.  He was ordained in April of 2009 and currently serves St. John’s, Manhattan.


Reflections from the Fall ELM Board Meeting

Guest blog by Proclaim Program Convener and ELM Board Member, Rev. Emily E. Ewing

ELM board and staff
ELM board and staff

I recently attended my first in-person ELM Board Meeting since becoming the Proclaim Program Convener.  It was wonderful to spend time with the extraordinary folks on our board, including people who have been a part of the movement since the beginning and shared incredible stories from the early days and newer folks and fellow Proclaim-ers who are also on the board.  I was blown away by the commitment and care of the folks who make up the Board as well as the amazing work they, and now we, are doing to support LGBTQ people in ministry!  We did a lot of great work together over the course of 3 days.

One of my favorite conversations was about the “why?” of ELM.  We did an exercise to get down to a basic “why” statement as a way of describing ELM’s purpose. Before the 2009 policy change, this was generally understood as “ELM believes LGBTQ people should be able to be pastors and is making that possible.” Since 2009, it’s been a little harder to describe. We began the exercise by sharing our own personal “whys” we have for doing this work.  Mine ranged from doing this because LGBTQ leaders have huge gifts for the church and still face unnecessary obstacles when encountering the institution of the ELCA to the reality that my being as a queer pastor is Good News for some and makes it ok for others to also claim their faith.  

After sharing our personal “whys”, we started picking out commonalities, words and phrases that resonated deeply, then combined them into a simple statement that we all felt connected to. That statement is “ELM believes that LGBTQ people have extraordinary gifts for ministry – through their public witness they proclaim the Gospel now.” The statement is not set in stone – for example we used “Gospel” knowing that depending on the context, it could make more sense to say “God’s love for all” or “God’s mercy,” etc., but the statement is helpful for me in talking about ELM and the work we’re doing together.  We also talked about our various programs and why they exist and why we are part of them, which was fun to think through.  Needless to say, there was some overlap between ELM’s organization-wide “why” and my “why” as Proclaim convener as well as the “why” of the Proclaim program.

We also talked about the new proposal for our Proclaim Gatherings, which adds more focus and resources toward regional/local gatherings while still continuing to offer an annual national gathering.  The Board affirmed the proposal and I’m excited for the opportunities we’ll have to not only gather together April 10-13, 2016 in San Juan Bautista, California, but also gather regionally for an evening or even an overnight for those of us that are more spread out.  We also will be starting to look at smaller, more specifically focused gatherings beginning in 2017!  This is so exciting!

Playing some "Workin Poker" after a long day.
Playing some “Workin Poker” after a long day.

I also got to hear about the Ministry Engagement program’s presence at Synod Assemblies, focusing on congregations to continue to expand the congregations that would potentially call Proclaim rostered leaders.  They are working to expand ELM’s presence at future Synod Assemblies, so if someone in your congregation might be interested in hosting an ELM table at your assembly next year, keep that in mind as Margaret Moreland, the Ministry Engagement Convener would probably love to talk to them! (morel@alumni.rice.edu)

Accompaniment continues to do amazing work from connecting those awaiting first call with coaches to journey with them through the process to the amazing work of our Proclaim Seminarian Team and the 60 seminarians in Proclaim!!

We began talking about our 2016 budget and staffing for the organization, especially as we are growing so much (with 210+ Proclaim members)!!  As part of our conversation around staffing we decided to make Amalia and Jen’s shift to a 36-hour, 4-day (Monday-Thursday) workweek permanent, recognizing the benefit it gives them in both their work and their personal life, which also means it benefits us.  

This was a great time and so affirming in the work that we are all doing together to support and encourage each other and all LGBTQ Lutheran rostered leaders, seminarians, and those awaiting calls.

As Proclaim continues to grow, I am excited for the ways that we are engaging each other as a community virtually and locally.  It is always a gift for me when I get to see fellow Proclaimers and ELM supporters, both through my computer screen and in person.  This is only possible because of the commitment of the work of ELM and the fierce support and affirmation of folks throughout ELM’s larger community.  So thank you, for your support: your prayers and your donations, which make it possible for us to continue to be fruitful and multiplying.

emily photoRev. Emily E. Ewing graduated in 2014 with an M Div from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.  Emily is thoroughly enjoying the role of Proclaim Program Convener.  Emily is currently living in West Jordan, Utah, enjoys live Facebooking conferences and is surprisingly fond of running half marathons.

Berkeley, Chicago & All Over the Internet

by Amalia Vagts
Executive Director

Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries is all over the place – alleluia!

Proclaimers Leslie Walton & Jen Rude meet in person!
Proclaimers Leslie Walton & Jen Rude meet in person!

Our Program Director, Rev. Jen Rude, is in the Bay Area this week. She spent some time yesterday doing a site visit in preparation for the 2016 Proclaim Gathering (a 4-day gathering for LGBTQ Lutheran rostered leaders, candidates, and seminarians). Then she headed back north to spend time with staff at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, Proclaim members, and ELM friends.  Many folks, including Proclaim member Leslie Walton, were happy to see (or meet) Jen in person!

And I’m wrapping up a quick visit to Chicago, where we are launching our Faithful & Fabulous Chicago effort – a friend-to-friend outreach campaign to connect more people to the ministry of ELM. I am so thankful for a very committed and passionate team  of volunteers who have been learning about faith and giving this fall and will be inviting others to join them in supporting our ministry.

Meanwhile through phone and web chat – the Proclaim chaplains met for their monthly meeting and the ELM Diversity Committee gathered to focus their work for the coming months. Also meeting this week – the Proclaim Team and the ELM Board Development Committee. And our new ELM Development & Communications Intern started on Monday! All told, about 30 volunteers will be busy at some point this week working to support LGBTQ people in ministry.

And YOU are supporting this work by staying informed – thank you – hope you are feeling extraordinary today! Thank you for all you do for LGBTQ people in ministry.


Amalia Vagts

Speak – and do not be silent (and don’t stop being yourself)

by Amalia Vagts, Executive Director

cropped-elm_logo-acronym-e1440457109754.jpgIt has been nothing short of a whirlwind for Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries these past few weeks. When I tell people that our work is “fruitful & multiplying,” some days I’m tempted to add, “maybe a little too much all at once!”

It is a glorious thing to see all the ways in which our belief in the extraordinary gifts of LGBTQ people in ministry is taking root and flourishing. Last week, the Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries’ Board met to discuss and plan the ministry we are doing through our Proclaim, Accompaniment and Ministry Engagement programs. Over the last few days, ELM Program Director Rev. Jen Rude and I each spent time at the ELCA Conference of Bishops meeting as they engaged in conversation about many matters related to our work (including candidacy, theological education, documents related to LGBTQ relationships and families, among other things).  There are 211+ Proclaim leaders engaged in the most inviting and fabulous of ministries. There are an additional 68 volunteers actively engaged in ELM’s ministry across the church right now.

Yesterday, I offered the chapel talk at Luther College as part of their fall chapel series, “With Good Courage.” The opportunity presented a great chance for me to connect and make sense of the many directions we feel pulled in these days – and the purpose of why so many of us continue in this work.

An excerpt,

“How many people hear something inviting and captivating about God, or the Lutheran church, or grace, or communion and come check things out only to get completely fed up with the reality of what they find in our churches, and like Gallio finally say – “I can’t be bothered with this nonsense!”

How many? Too many. And more and more all the time.

But, thank God, some have heard the call from God, “Do not be afraid, but speak and do not be silent; for I am with you,”

Speak – and do not be silent.

Because there is so much good here in the church and in the Gospel.” 

If you wish, you may read my chapel talk on Acts 18 9-17 or watch a video of it here (note: you need to scroll ahead about 15 minutes to see the video – my chapel talk begins at 18.30).

May you be renewed and clear in your purpose, your sense of self, and your voice these days.

Amalia VagtsAmalia Vagts, ELM Executive Director, is thankful for a Board, staff, and volunteers who are passionately committed to ministry by LGBTQ people. She is also thankful for a supportive partner who reminds her when it’s time to come home and go for a walk.