Dear Churchwide: by Chelsea Achterberg

Dear Churchwide, 
2022 will be my second time attending Churchwide Assembly. In 2019 I was the young adult voter for my home synod. I left Milwaukee aching that we did not discuss, yet alone vote on, an update for the Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust social statement. When I had a chance to serve again as a voter for 2022 in my new synod, it felt like a chance to finish the work. This year, a memorial to update the social statement has been removed from en bloc and will be considered by the assembly. Many, or maybe even most, of you reading this have strong feelings about the document as it is and about how it should be. Like many of you, it is personal to me.
In 2016, my wife Mandy and I were preparing to draft our Roster Ministers Profiles (RMPs) our senior year of seminary. We quizzed bishops who came to Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary about what we should select, married or publicly accountable lifelong monogamous relationship (PALMS). Of course, two bishops gave two opposite answers, both with sound reasons. One said, you should put PALMS. That makes clear you are in a same-sex relationship. It’s more honest and doesn’t look like you’re hiding anything. The documents of the church, the social statement and the now removed Vision and Expectations, still define marriage as between a man and a woman. Another said, are you legally married? Yes, we were legally married with a state issued license by an ELCA pastor in an ELCA seminary chapel. Then you are married and you should select married. The problem of course was that both were correct and both reflected legitimate views within our church.
That paperwork and plenty of others have changed since then. PALMS has been removed and non-gendered options have been added. Non-gendered titles for this assembly brought me great joy. It’s easy to change paperwork. Paperwork, especially RMPs, are only seen by a tiny number of people every year. Paperwork must be informed by policy and policy change is much harder. Policy is a public face of what we believe and discussing it opens us anew to scrutiny.
Since well before the Human Sexuality social statement, the policies of this church and all our predecessor bodies, have left some with privilege and some with the table scraps. We will not fix all of those at this assembly. But we might spend the rest of our collective days moving us closer to the mutuality we see in our triune God. My prayer is that this Churchwide Assembly will approve a reconsideration to revise the social statement not only in better accordance with our laws and our understanding, but in celebration of the great diversity of ways we glimpse the vastness of God through the diversity of people in God’s good creation.

Chelsea Achterberg(she/they) serves as pastor at  All Saints Lutheran Church in Aurora, CO and as a US Army Reserve Chaplain. While usually a solo runner, Chelsea is looking forward to running her first multi-stage relay race with a team other pastors this fall. She and her wife, Mandy have enjoyed the great community of Proclaimers they have found in Denver. 

Dear Churchwide: by Melissa May

Dear Churchwide, 
The first time I was ever aware that the ELCA was a risk-taking denomination was at the Churchwide Assembly in Milwaukee in 2003, where I was a young adult guest. On the street outside the convention center, a small group of protesters held up signs chastising our denomination for considering openness to queer leaders in relationships.

Controversy has been no stranger to our body. But I’ve always been glad that the ELCA is willing to take on challenging questions of faith and step boldly forward when the Spirit leads us.

However, realizing that you are in a persecuted group can slap you into the stark reality of never being far from churchgoing people who distrust your community.

The universal pressures of the last few years are compounded upon us who are ministers of vulnerable identities. If you’re a person of color, a woman, queer, and/or experiencing disability, you’re too frequently hammered with blame when congregants feel discomfort and fear. You’re hounded by more intense scrutiny and gossip. Frighteningly, many ministers from vulnerable demographics are chased away from places of ministry through parishioners’ passive-aggressive onslaughts, abetted by complacent status-quo-seekers.  Of course, sometimes queer, BIPOC, disabled, and female ministers are attacked outright. It can happen to anybody, but it happens to us so much more frequently.

I speak to no specific scandal here, but to many instances of beloved colleagues struggling desperately to hang on to a ministry call, find a new call in a non-toxic environment after being deeply wounded, or simply to find a call at all.

But “blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus declares to the crowds in Matthew 5. 

If we are who we say we are as the Body of Christ, and one of our goals is to lift one another up in our various beautiful identities–including but not limited to queerness–then we must continue to be courageous in the face of adversity and repeat: “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:11-12).

We are doing a God-led thing when we treasure and proclaim the sanctity of queer, black and brown, disabled, and women’s lives, and the lives of all who are downtrodden. We are choosing a Christ-like way when we describe the imago dei identity of all, especially folks who are persecuted. So my prayer for us all, Churchwide, from the bottom to the top, is that we keep being courageous in these ways, though people may leave our congregations. I pray they will stay long enough to have honest, thoughtful, and compassionate conversation before they depart, if they must.

Be brave, ELCA! God loves you deeply, and Christ is with you!

The Rev. Melissa May (she/her) is a regular supply pastor through the Virginia Synod, and teaches English as a Second Language at Eastern Mennonite University. She recently had the privilege of co-leading the SAWC Exploration known as the Virginia Eastern Shore Exploration. Some of her greatest joys are playing escape-room games with family, adventuring in Dungeons and Dragons, and engaging in creative writing.

Dear Churchwide: ELM Blog by Anna Tew

Dear Churchwide, 

It might sound odd, but I want you to know that I’ve watched you, as a body, since well before I became Lutheran. In 2011, I was a United Methodist pastor serving from the closet and I watched with longing your liturgies, your prayerful consideration, your earnest work. I saw a paschal candle and a baptismal font in the frame online, and it felt like home. My eyes welled up with tears as I imagined that I might belong.

This is not simply because of the decision in 2009, historic as it was, to stop officially persecuting queer people and let us serve as we are called by God, though that was certainly part of it. Watching online back then felt like looking into the window of a home to which I had never entered. You, just gathering for worship and doing your work, made me homesick. Three years later, at the Easter Vigil at St. John’s in Atlanta, I would officially, and for life, become a Lutheran. I had never been one of you before, but that was the night that I finally knocked on the door and was welcomed with open arms. I came home. 
I wanted to be ordained, an honor the Methodists withhold until well after seminary. So I had waited with hesitation outside that metaphorical door as others outside told me that you would be skeptical, that you would question my loyalty, that you would think that I only wanted to join you because I was queer. These fears never materialized. I was ordained in 2016 as my call from God was recognized by the Church. I became what I had always wanted to be: just a pastor, serving God’s people.

I know that we are far from perfect; even a glance at the news or into our churches will tell us that. We have a long way to go. The wounds of systemic racism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, sexism — the list goes on — remain with us. We have a long way to go before everyone feels as welcome as I did. We have to continue to reform. But beloved, reforming is what we do.

You gave me the language to describe the incredible capacity that we have for evil, and the incredible capacity that we have for doing good in the world: we are sinners. We are saints. We are saved by grace, full stop.

So know that as you do your work, there is probably someone watching, just like I was in 2011. Longing for acceptance. Longing for beautiful liturgy and a theology that makes the Gospel nothing less than a stunning story about God’s grace. Longing for home.

In all that you do, I am grateful for your service and I am praying for you. Let us show everyone the warm welcome that I received. Let us open the door to all who wish to enter.

Thank you for your work. Show them who we are.

The Rev. Anna Tew (she/her) is a Lutheran pastor serving Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in South Hadley, Massachusetts, where she has served for the past six years. A product of several places, she was born in rural Alabama, considers Atlanta home, and lives in and adores New England. A lifelong athlete, Anna enjoys hiking, backpacking, and cycling in the summer, snowboarding in the winter, and running and weightlifting in all seasons. She is typically quite happy to chat about the intersections of collective spirituality, congregational life, athletic pursuits, pastoral care, and incarnational theology. Since graduating from the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in 2011, she has served in a variety of settings, including hospital chaplaincy and small congregations in both urban and rural settings.