In my first blog post as the Executive Director of ELM, I wrote about how I was one of “those” people. I am someone for whom “coming out as queer and coming out as a pastor has been a journey intimately intertwined.”
I recall watching the livestream of the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly with tears in my eyes as the votes came in just over the margin needed to recognize me as a beloved child of God with a call to serve the church. What power that moment held – what power it still holds over us.
When I was in discernment, I did not know the stories of Jeff, Joel, Greg, Jim, Ruth, and Phyllis; I did not know about the Extraordinary Candidacy Project (ECP) or Lutheran Lesbian and Gay Ministries (LLGM); I didn’t know the stories of the countless queer and ally lay people who devoted years of their lives to transform our church.
I had a sense that I stood on the shoulders of giants, I just didn’t know their names.
As we approach the 30th anniversary of the first extraordinary ordinations, it has been a joy to feature the stories of some of those giants and to learn their names. And, we must also acknowledge, that in the retelling of ELM’s history there are glaring absences of the stories of our bi, trans, ace/aro, and intersex siblings as well as our queer siblings of color.
There is significant work that must be done to uncover the phobias and -isms of which we as a justice-seeking ministry are not immune so that we can repent and offer reparations so as to live more fully and truly into our values and our gospel-calling.
Today, we in the Lutheran tradition commemorate the Reformation by retelling the story of Martin Luther and his 95 theses. But, there was more to that story too.
In 2017, I participated in a 500th Anniversary tour of Germany with my parents where we went and viewed the historical Reformation sites: Wittenberg, Leipzig, Augsburg and more!
It was on this trip that my dad learned about Philip Melanchthon and all of his contributions, especially the Augsburg Confession – “why didn’t I ever hear about him in my confirmation classes?”
It was on this trip that I learned about Lucas Cranach the Elder and how his prints helped Luther tell the biblical stories through art. The trip gave me some perspective on the militaristic imagery that caused me angst in the song “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” when I saw the large, fortified castles that literally provided sanctuary to Luther and kept him safe during his life.
My mother was aghast at what Luther wrote about our Jewish siblings and how it was used by the Nazis during World War II – even worse, the ways the Lutheran Church allied itself with the Nazi party. “But, how could they?”
ELM seeks to be a movement that isn’t afraid to tell its whole story and won’t shut the door on those who wish to hold us to account – whether it’s 95 theses or 5 – with all of the change, accountability, and story-telling that goes along with it.
A movement is not one person and it is not immune from the phobias and -isms that plague our society. A movement must constantly be in motion and changing so that, in the words of Bishop Yvette Flunder, it doesn’t become a monument.
I think, when God called me to this ministry, the intentional intertwining of my marginalized identities with my call was meant to help prepare me for a ministry such as this. I pray daily that I am worthy of the call and am grateful for the giants and accountability partners who make it possible to continue the hard work of dismantling systems of oppression and injustice.
Rev. Amanda Gerken-Nelson (she/her/hers) is the executive director of ELM and in this role has the blessed job of meeting giants of this movement on a daily basis. Amanda and her wife, Tasha, are new homeowners and so they will have no life outside of house projects for at least the next five years.
At the start of the 30 Extraordinary Years campaign we highlighted the original footage from the “In the beginning” video of the Extraordinary Ordinations of the Revs. Ruth Frost, Phyllis Zillhart, and Jeff Johnson. In 2013, through a grant funded by St. Francis Lutheran Church, ELM told its story about the work that we continue today. Here is that video…
CW: spiritual abuse/trauma
Larell Fineren (she, her, hers) retired from 50 years in nursing and now lives in Petaluma, CA. She keeps busy with the immigration fight and has applied to be a sponsor for a trans asylum seeker who’s currently detained. In her spare time she joyously welcomes new foster babies into her extended family, like little Annalee, our latest angel.
There is a moment that I imagine sometimes, that I think is coming soon.
It’s that part of an ordination service when all the clergy gather around their new colleague, the bright colors of their stoles standing out against the white of their robes, their feet shuffling to make space for everyone, and they lay hands on the shoulders of the newest pastor in the ELCA. I imagine feeling the weight of so many hands, the energy moving from the fingertips that cannot reach me, that grasp for the backs and arms of people closer by. I imagine that if these hands surround me and hold me and build a safe place of support, I will be, just in that moment, invincible.
When Phyllis Zillhart, Jeff Johnson and Ruth Frost were ordained in San Francisco in 1990, they walked from the altar to the center of the sanctuary and held hands, just the three of them. Around them, the people—not just the ones in the stoles and robes—were invited to gather. They got close. They laid hands on one another. I wasn’t even born yet, and I know that the Holy Spirit was present. Watching the footage now fills me with a funny mix of awe and sadness.
I am in awe of thirty years of extraordinary ordinations, and in awe of the fact that because of this history, my ordination might be among the ones of the next thirty years. I am in awe of the members of Proclaim that I encounter every week in the course of parish work and in our online community, and I’m even in awe that I’m writing this reflection at all. So much progress has been made and so many LGBTQIA+ people have served God’s church with creativity, resilience, grace, and strength.
But at the same time, my awe is tinged with sadness when I imagine the world that Ruth, Phyllis, and Jeff faced in the days, months, and years that followed their ordination. I know things are different now, but I still feel the sting of microaggressions, offhand comments, or whispered rumors in the communities I serve. Stories about conversion therapy and high rates of mental illness among LGBTQIA+ youth break my heart. News bulletins about another trans woman of color lost to senseless violence makes me feel desperately lost. Our community is resilient, but we are not without our battle scars.
One evening, I drove another Proclaim member home after we’d been at a synod event, and our conversation turned to this old, tired struggle. She was angry; I just sighed because it had been a long day. As she swung my car door open, we reminded each other: “I’m proud of you. You are fierce and powerful and you’re called to this work. I’ve got your back, no matter what happens.”
There is a moment I imagine sometimes, where Ruth and Phyllis and Jeff and all the extraordinarily ordained said these things to one another. We build each other up and call each other to shine. For a moment, we make each other invincible. We’ve done it for more than thirty years, and we’ll keep doing it far beyond thirty more.
Cassie Hartnett (she/her/hers) grew up on the Connecticut shoreline and graduated from Union Theological Seminary in May 2019, where she studied psychology and religion, and wrote a new play for her thesis project. Previously, she studied at Barnard College and spent two years in the Twin Cities serving with the Lutheran Volunteer Corps, including work with ReconcilingWorks. In August, Cassie began her internship year at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Parkville, MD. In her spare time, she practices ballet and yoga, bakes excellent cookies, and can recommend a great queer young adult novel.”
As we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the first extraordinary ordinations, most of the focus has been on the three pastors who were ordained and on other pastors who followed them.
But none of this would have happened without the actions of the congregations that called them. This work started before January 20, 1990.
In American Lutheranism ordinations only happen after a candidate has received a call from a congregation. The extraordinary road began in 1989 when the members and pastors of First United and St. Francis Lutheran Churches decided to defy the ELCA policy requiring celibacy of lesbian, gay, and bisexual clergy. Call votes were taken at St. Francis on October 29 and at First United on November 12, 1989. They did not make this decision lightly or expect that there would be no consequences.
These two congregations were tried, suspended, and expelled from the ELCA. (Click link to read the full decision) Although it took ten years for the next one, fifteen other extraordinary ordinations occurred between 2000 and 2009. Two extraordinarily ordained pastors also received second calls. These calls and ordinations all happened because congregations (21 in all in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada) were willing to risk discipline in order to call a candidate that they believed would best lead and serve their ministry. Some of them were disciplined, but all remained in the ELCA or ELCiC.
The ministries of these congregations and their pastors demonstrated that LGBTQIA+ people (lay and clergy) are a vibrant part of the church. The members of these churches believed more in the Gospel than in church policy. They saw that the policy barring pastors in same-gender relationships was not only in violation of the gospel message, but also in violation of the ELCA constitution.
The Extraordinary Congregations were:
- First United Lutheran Church, San Francisco: Jeff Johnson, 1990
- St. Francis Lutheran Church, San Francisco: Ruth Frost and Phyllis Zillhart, 1990
- Abiding Peace Lutheran Church, Kansas City: Donna Simon, 2000
- St. Paul and United Lutheran Churches, Oakland and University Lutheran Chapel, Berkeley: Craig Minich, 2001
- St. Paul-Reformation Lutheran Church, St. Paul: Anita Hill, 2001
- St. Paul, Resurrection, and Trinity Lutheran Churches, Oakland, and Trinity Lutheran Church, Alameda: Sharon Stalkfleet, 2002
- Bethany Lutheran Church, Minneapolis: Jay Wiesner, 2004
- St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square, Chicago: Erik Christensen, 2006
- Her Church, Christ Church Lutheran, St. Francis Lutheran Church, and Sts. Mary and Martha Lutheran Church, San Francisco: Megan Rohrer, 2006
- St. Francis Lutheran Church, San Francisco: Dawn Roginski, – June 1 2007
- Resurrection Lutheran Church, Chicago: Jen Rude, 2007
- Salem English Lutheran Church, Minneapolis: Jen Nagel, 2008
- Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Newmarket, Ontario: Lionel Ketola, 2008
- Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church, Houston: Lura Groen, 2008
- Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries to a hospital chaplaincy in Minneapolis: Jodi Barry, 2008
- First United Lutheran Church, San Francisco: Jay Wilson, 2008
- Holy Communion Lutheran Church, Philadelphia: Steve Keiser, 2009
- University Lutheran Chapel, Berkeley: Jeff Johnson second call, 1999
- University Lutheran Church of the Incarnation, Philadelphia: Jay Weisner second call, 2008
Margaret Moreland (she/her/hers) lives in Berkeley, California. She is happy to be married to Bennett Falk. Margaret was one of the founders of ECP (Extraordinary Candidacy Project) and has served on the Boards of ECP, LLGM (Lutheran Lesbian & Gay Ministries), and ELM. She will be retiring from the ELM Board in February which will give her more time for tai chi and bicycling.