By Allison Bengfort, Proclaim Member
What is the Proclaim Gathering? ELM’s annual Proclaim Gathering was held August 5-8, 2018 at Pearlstone Retreat Center outside Baltimore, MD. The Gathering brings together members of Proclaim (ELM’s professional community for publicly identified LGBTQIA+ Lutheran rostered ministers and candidates) and their families, for a time of renewal, community building, and professional development as publicly identified leaders.
I am new to Proclaim – just joined in April. As a seminary student at LSTC, I was aware of Proclaim’s presence and had heard good things, but it wasn’t until I entered the first call process that my need to join became apparent. In the midst of ignorant comments in interviews and losing call opportunities because of my orientation, I needed a community. Apart from initial welcome emails, this year’s Gathering was my introduction to the community. I am pleased to say that I went away from the experience excited about new friendships, inspired by the idea of queerness as central to Christianity, and heartened by the potential of this group of leaders. The Gathering exceeded my expectations, but more importantly, it offered something I hadn’t expected.
In the world of clinical social work, which is my background, we talk about something called “unconditional positive regard.” Unconditional positive regard is an intentional, emotional posture that the best therapists extend to their clients. As its name implies, unconditional positive regard assumes the best in the client. It assumes that the client is inherently good, worthy, and worthwhile. It is able to separate misguided choices and challenging behaviors from who the person is deep down. It is essentially a clinical description of love and grace.
While I had experienced unconditional positive regard from outstanding therapists, until the Gathering, I had never experienced this posture from an entire community of people, all at once. I felt it extended to me in conversations about my difficulties in the call process, in theological discussions about problematic aspects of Lutheran theology, and in conversations about bisexuality and being “queer enough.” I witnessed it being extended to others in sessions on polyamory that challenged more traditional views, in worship services that intentionally included expansive language, and in day-to-day interactions in which both friends and strangers were deeply seen and accepted. Experiencing this openness and radical acceptance made me want to participate in it – want to reciprocate and extend this attitude to others. It made it so much easier to turn to my neighbor and offer them the same attention and acceptance.
Ideally, this experience of communal unconditional positive regard would be the mark of the church. Can you imagine congregation members feeling this way every Sunday morning or at every church event?! Talk about changing the world. Of course, this is not the case at many churches, and it is also important to recognize that my experience of the Proclaim Gathering was likely not universal. That being said, I truly believe that this community of leaders has something powerful to offer. Our experience as queer people has taught us the importance unconditional positive regard, and God has empowered us to offer it to others. Thank you all for extending this unexpected gift to me.
Bio: Allison Bengfort (she/her/hers) is an approved candidate for ordination, currently assigned to the Metro Chicago Synod. Born and raised in the Midwest, Allison moved to Seattle in 2016 for a final-year internship and loved the area so much, she decided to stay while she awaits call. Allison holds a bachelor’s degree from St. Olaf College, a Master of Social Work from the University of Chicago, and a Master of Divinity from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. As a bisexual woman, Allison is passionate about dismantling systems of oppression in the church and the larger world. While awaiting her first call as a pastor, Allison stays busy teaching violin lessons, working at a church preschool, and playing lots of Ultimate Frisbee.
Photos by Emily Ann Garcia