My first “official” call was to the bishop’s office. I had arrived in Kansas City, Missouri, in the evening, August 30, 2000. The next morning, I arrived at my first church office (yay!) and called Charles Maahs, bishop of the Central States Synod. When I told the administrative assistant who I was, there was a pause. Then she connected me with Bishop Maahs, and I apologized.
My apology was clear: I wasn’t apologizing for being a lesbian, or for accepting the call Abiding Peace Lutheran Church extended me in his synod. I apologized for the extra work my acceptance would create for him and his staff. Even after spending over half of my life in the San Francisco Bay Area, I was still Midwestern enough to apologize for something that wasn’t exactly my fault. As I told the bishop that day, there was no other way to answer God’s call to ministry and maintain my own integrity than to do so via the extraordinary candidacy process.
A team from Abiding Peace met with the bishop and members of his staff regularly for months. In the end, Bishop Maahs censured us, but didn’t recommend the removal of the congregation from the ELCA, as had been the case with the last congregations to call openly gay or lesbian pastors. We were barred from serving on synod committees (a sort of Br’er Rabbit briar patch of a punishment). And for ten years, I attended the synod assembly as the “Visitor” serving as pastor of Abiding Peace.
During that ten years, things changed. Other people—really good people and really great pastors—were ordained by the Extraordinary Candidacy Project. In 2009, the rules changed, and eventually most of those folks were received to the ELCA roster.
I knew that change was afoot earlier, though. In 2004, I was leaving morning prayer at the fall Bishop’s Convocation to grab a cup of tea and go to the plenary room, when a colleague from rural Kansas approached me, looking very serious.
“I want to talk to you,” he said.
“Oh good,” I thought.
He pulled me into the now empty worship space and said these immortal words: “I’m on the other side of ‘the issue’ from you. But you’ve been coming around here for a few years now, and we’ve gotten used to you. You’re kind of like an old shoe. So I guess what I’m saying is you should keep coming around.”
All these years later, and I remember his words precisely. Don’t have a clue what I said, though. Probably something brilliant like, “Um, okay.” When I tell that story to other people, they are generally appalled. But for me it was a signal that seeing us in ministry changes things. The change is slow. It’s one person at a time. But it happens…and the next thing you know, you’re working in that synod office you called with an apology all those years ago.
Rev. Donna Simon serves as pastor of St. Mark Hope and Peace Lutheran Church and as one of two Directors for Evangelical Mission of the Central States Synod of the ELCA. In both capacities, she focuses on mission, service, and justice for all persons. She was ordained extraordinem in Kansas City on October 28, 2000. Donna lives in the parish she serves with her wife, Colleen, and several cats and dogs.