Extraordinary Congregations Called Extraordinary Pastors

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.

Step Out of Line

On Saturday, January 20, 1990 at St. Paulus Lutheran Church in San Francisco, unbeknownst to the ELCA (indeed, unbeknownst, at first, to most of the ordinands themselves), there was a mass extraordinary ordination of approximately 1000 people with hundreds more participating at satellite services in Seattle, Minneapolis, St. Paul, Holden Village, Washington D.C., Phoenix, and Milwaukee.


Only three of the ordinands present (Ruth Frost, Jeff Johnson, and Phyllis Zillhart) had letters of call to local parishes. In electing to call Pastors Frost, Zillhart, and Johnson, St. Francis Lutheran and First United Lutheran had set the extraordinary event in motion. Technically, none of the three ordinands were “available for call”: the ELCA’s “interim guidelines” (a predecessor of “Vision and Expectations”) required celibacy of gay and lesbian candidates for ministry. The ELCA chose to discipline and eventually expel both congregations. 


The vast majority of those ordained that day, however, were (again, “technically”) lay people without seminary degrees. Many of them were gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or something else altogether, and none of them pledged to be celibate. Largely unnoticed by the ELCA, they left St. Paulus and the various satellite services to pursue their new-found ministries extra ordinem.


What had happened? In the sermon she preached that day, The Rev. Dr. Carter Heyward explained:


…I am here today to speak of what it may mean to be blessed by God, because, my brothers and sisters, we have been blessed abundantly by the sacred spirit. 


Our presence here today bears this witness: the Holy One who breathes our only hope into the world; She whose tenderness and tenacity topples principalities and powers; He whose compassion and humor fortifies our lives one day at a time; this God has gathered us today to celebrate a blessing we have already been given, each of us in his or her own way — and yet, a common blessing it is: ours, not simply mine or yours, not simply Ruth’s, or Phyllis’, or Jeff’s, not simply theirs, but a blessing we share, all of us who have been drawn here today. And therein is its sacred power.


Ordination, ultimately, is not about clergy rosters. Ordination is sacred empowerment. It is rooted in the blessing from God that we hold in common: the people blessed by God are empowered to be agents of God’s blessing for others. On January 20, 1990, the scope of that empowerment expanded far beyond the three newly ordained pastors.


More than a few of those present for ordination in January, 1990 encouraged their home congregations to consider a more inclusive process for calling pastors. Some put their efforts into the newly-formed Lutheran Lesbian and Gay Ministries (LLGM), supporting ministries and congregations at risk by virtue of the ELCA policy of exclusion. Others established the Extraordinary Candidacy Project to certify qualified candidates for ministry excluded by ELCA’s requirement of celibacy for sexual minority pastors.  Even others connected with Lutherans Concerned/North America (LC/NA, now Reconciling Works) or Wingspan or Soulforce or Goodsoil to work for policy change. 


Fifteen more extraordinary ordinations (and more disciplinary actions) followed. Nineteen years later, ELCA  policy changed, though that was no more than the tip of an enormous iceberg, and the truth of the Gospel message, the truth of the blessing we have all received, has yet to be fully embraced. 


The 1990 ordinations stand in a line of irregular, extraordinary, improbable events that reaches back even further than the first Pentecost. These are the sacred events by which the community of those blessed and empowered by God moves forward. 


We pray the future will be no less extraordinary.

Bennett Falk lives in Berkeley, California. He is happy to be married to Margaret Moreland. He and Margaret were present at the 1990 ordinations and at the fifteen extraordinary ordinations that followed. He was webmaster for goodsoil.org (now defunct) and proprietor of lutheranconfessions.com (inactive, but still online). He has a bass guitar and a recumbent tricycle, and he’s not afraid to use them.

An Extraordinary Time to Be the Church

Almost 50 years ago in 1971, University Lutheran Chapel of Berkeley, where I serve as pastor, declared itself to be a “sanctuary” during the Vietnam War for conscientious objector sailors on board the USS Coral Sea aircraft carrier anchored in the San Francisco Bay. The following month, the City Council of Berkeley took action and declared Berkeley to be a “sanctuary” for these sailors, becoming the first municipality in the country to identify itself in this way.


There was no law or official statue in 1971 that authorized either the city of Berkeley or the congregation of the Chapel to act in solidarity with conscientious objectors or to create zones of “sanctuary.” There was only a bit of courage and determination to act for an alternative vision of living together in the world that valued conscience, respected individual agency, and prioritized human dignity.


There is a decades-long link that connects these original actions at the Chapel and the city of Berkeley in 1971 to contemporary declarations of “sanctuary” across the country and within our church. The response of this summer’s ELCA Churchwide Assembly in Milwaukee to the current hostility against asylum-seeking refugees was to declare the whole church to be in solidarity as a “sanctuary denomination.” Once again, there are no rules permitting such solidarity; indeed, there are federal laws against aiding and assisting undocumented migrants. But our church found the courage it needed to stand in solidary from a deeply held, faith-rooted vision for an alternative way of living together in the world that values conscience, dignity, and basic human rights; a way we see reflected in Gospel.


As well, at this same Churchwide Assembly, we celebrated the 10thyear anniversary of the dismantling of the church’s policies of discrimination against lgbtqia+ people. Again, there is a decades-long link connecting this dismantling and our illegal, illicit, and extraordinary ordinations 30 years ago at St. Paulus church in San Francisco, when I was ordained with Ruth Frost and Phyllis Zillhart in spite of ELCA policy. A time when ELCA rostered and lay leaders and congregations summoned faith-rooted courage and promoted an alternative vision for the being church together — risking their own careers and reputations to stand alongside us. Pastors like the Revs. Charles Lewis, Lucy Kolin, Jack Schiemann, Ross Merkel, John Frykmann, James Delange, and hundreds of others, who pledged solidarity and subjected themselves to denominational hostility and compliance-based-pressure because of their resistance to the ELCA’s hastily created policies of discrimination that destroyed faith, disrespected our relationships, and fueled church-sponsored hostility toward lgbtqia+ people.


ELM and PROCLAIM are heirs and beneficiaries to the provocative resistance and courageous solidarity of those who refused to follow unjust rules, to submit to anxious church authorities, and to implement faith destroying policies. Together with this cloud of witnesses — allies, accomplices, advocates, and activists — we provoked into being an alternative way of being church in the world centered in sanctuary, resistance, non-compliance with injustice, and solidarity with the oppressed.


Sanctuary was a way to stand in solidarity with war resisters in the early 1970’s. It is a powerful and provocative frame for accompaniment with refugees and migrants terrorized in today’s context by our government’s brutal and inhumane immigration, asylum, and detention policies. And it was and continues to be a life-saving form of resistance and liberation with lgbtqia+ people during the era of ELCA sponsored hostility and oppression, and especially as we provoke the church again to respect us more deeply and the gifts we offer for ministry, and to honor the diversity and multiplicity of relationship models and covenants that are intrinsic to and held in high esteem within our community.

Pastor Jeff was ordained in 1990 and is the fourth pastor to serve University Lutheran Chapel of Berkeley, the Lutheran Campus Ministry at CAL. He is a member of the Boards for SHARE El Salvador, Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries, and the LuMin Network for ELCA Campus Ministries; on the Steering Committee for the Faith Alliance for a Moral Economy; a member of the East Bay Interfaith Immigration Coalition, and serves on the Spiritual Care Team at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary.  Prior to his ministry at the Chapel, Pr. Jeff was the pastor of First United Lutheran Church in San Francisco’s Richmond District. He was married in 2014 and lives in Oakland’s Piedmont District in a 1920’s stucco bungalow with his husband, J Guadalupe (Pepe) Sánchez Aldaco. He enjoys working around the house, mystery novels, watching movies, genealogy, cooking and dinner parties, visiting family, studying Spanish, playing piano, and salsa dancing.

The Extraordinary Ruth Frost

Pictured above: Jeff Johnson, Greg Egertson, Phyllis Zillhart, and Ruth Frost at the 2016 Proclaim Gathering

I cannot reflect on my call of almost thirty years ago without seeing it as deeply embedded in the calls of my beloved spouse Phyllis Zillhart and our gifted partner in ministry, Jeff Johnson. We three built upon the courage of such pioneers as Anita C. Hill, Joel Workin and Carter Heyward who laid the groundwork for us and shed light on our path. It can truly be said that “my” call was so much more than “me.” I have always said that the best part of our work was the company we kept. And this includes alliances with many other gifted leaders across the nation, way too numerous to count. But they all do count. And together, we were all a force for change within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Every change agent works for a world they may not live to see. In our case, we have lived long enough to see the changes we worked for because our work was taken up by so many others who made it their work and advanced it further. For that, I am deeply grateful. Justice-love is unstoppable. And God’s grace knows no bounds.


We anchored our ministries in the San Francisco Bay Area during the height of the twin epidemics of AIDS and homelessness. This meant we were steeped in grief and sustained by love: the love of God, and two small church communities that never left our sides. In such a time life is lived close to the bone and closer to the heart. Those fifteen years have shaped the arc of our life together.


Returning to Minnesota in 2005, we chose not to seek parish calls because we knew we had already experienced the best and because it was time for a quieter form of soul-care that was less public. Hospice chaplaincy became our next chapter in ministry. As a chaplain and trained legacy guide, it is very rewarding to help people identify their legacy of love and realize that both love and forgiveness have traveling power across space and time. This quiet, bedside ministry was very different from, but no less rich than, our very public ministry of advocacy. And it certainly was shaped by our ministry at St. Francis as well as by our work with LLGM/ELM.


When I first retired in 2013, I wondered what my next act would be. God soon showed me my new calling, which has been to provide childcare for my wonderful grandson Ciel who lives with us, together with his parents. Blessedly, my grandson naps for two hours daily and I have used this time wisely. I have just completed a book entitled “Homes with Heart: Reflections on Turning Living Spaces into Loving Places.”  I have come to believe that ultimately, finding home means taking a spiritual journey in good company. We are all one. Together, the way home is love.

In the words of Ram Dass, “All we are doing is walking each other home.” What if that is the most important thing we do in this life?

My thanks to all who have taken this walk with us.

On January 20, 1990 Ruth Frost was 1 of 3 individuals Extraordinarily Ordained – as in outside the parameters of the policies of the ELCA – because of her publicly known sexual identity. Ruth was called by St. Francis Lutheran Church in San Francisco. After the 2009 ELCA policy change allowing partnered LGBTQIA+ ministry leaders to serve, Ruth and her partner, Phyllis Zillhart, were then finally welcomed as ELCA rostered ministers.

The Extraordinary Phyllis Zillhart

As part of our recent exhibit at the Badé Museum at Pacific School of Religion entitled “Extraordinary Callings: Holy & Queer Resistance in the Lutheran Church,” we shared this story from Phyllis Zillhart, one of the individuals extraordinarily ordained 30 years ago.

Ordained to Word and Sacrament Ministry in the Lutheran Church nearly 30 years ago, I currently work as a hospice chaplain. As death approaches, I affirm the gracious power of radical love. The settings are intimate – a family, a bedside, a handhold, whispered prayer; trust arises. 
Few flinch when they learn that I am an ordained Lutheran minister married to a woman. It is legal. It is policy. It is old news. It is not their concern now. That was not always the case. At the outset, we were disqualified, censured, expelled, silenced. 

We tell and listen to the stories of the past so that we can remember why it is important to stand up for justice in every time and place. The demonization of “the other” continues. The names change  – a little. But the fear of difference and the protectionism of privilege march on. So it is important that we call out stories of hope and solidarity and creativity and courage. It is important that we speak our names and tell our truths, challenge complacency and embody gracious love!

Gracious and healing God, we give you thanks for the ministry of Phyllis. For her bold “yes” to your call to serve, for the peace-filled presence she provides at the bedside of the sick and dying, and for her ability to channel your grace in her ministry and life, we thank you! May she continue to be blessed in her ministry. Amen.

On January 20, 1990, Phyllis Zillhart was 1 of 3 Extraordinarily Ordained outside the parameters of the ELCA because of her publicly known sexual identity. Phyllis was called by St. Francis Lutheran Church in San Francisco. After the 2009 ELCA policy change allowing partnered LGBTQIA+ ministry leaders to serve, Phyllis and her partner Ruth Frost were then finally welcomed as ELCA rostered ministers.


Extra ordinem- A term that birthed Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries

In 1989, my father, the former Dean of Harvard Divinity School and Bishop Emeritus of the Diocese of Stockholm, Krister Stendahl, was invited to come and participate in the joyous but unsanctioned ordinations of Ruth Frost, Phyllis Zillhart, and Jeff Johnson. That participation in the San Francisco ordinations—indeed, his particular hands upon the heads of the ordinands—would have been seen by many as a valuable endorsement of an action being taken despite the ELCA’s denial of approval. This church was still in its post-merger infancy and was perceived by many to be a fragile thing, so very vulnerable to the conflicting and centrifugal passions within it.  All the active bishops of the ELCA would be expected to close ranks against the dangers of disorder and schism but my father was in the unusual position of being both a much-respected bishop and yet technically outside of the ELCA’s structure. Though now again a member of our old home congregation he had been in the Church of Sweden when the ELCA was formed and was therefore no longer “rostered” here. 


I asked him if he planned to attend and remember being surprised by his response. Though he clearly wanted to give strong support both to the ordinands and to the recognition of their ministry, he also seemed uncomfortable with having a personal and physical role in the service itself. There were in fact some schedule conflicts that would make it difficult to attend, and in addition I think he was concerned about a seemingly cavalier exploitation of his privileged episcopal status as at once eminent outsider and connected insider. But I believe his decision was even more driven by his sense that he could have become too important to a story that was not about him. The validity and sanctity of what was to be done didn’t need him.  “I know why they want me there,” he said to me, and it wasn’t at all said unkindly but rather with the savvy insight that such an intended enhancement could instead prove a distraction from the important truth and meaning at stake.


And so he did not go but instead wrote this heartfelt letter to the three ordinands. My mother told me years later that he had been embarrassed, indeed mortified, to hear that his personal note had been shared at the service as if it had been an epistle reading, words from a biblical apostle. That wouldn’t surprise me—he would probably have thought it tacky—but it also seems to reinforce the thought that his written words of greeting achieved far more than his physical presence would have.


When my father showed me his letter, I smiled to see the Latin phrase extra ordinem. I recognized it from a conversation we’d had years earlier, a discussion of the eleven Episcopal women ordained in 1974 without their church’s canonical permission. The General Convention had twice voted down proposals to ordain women but then three bishops of the ECUSA—two retired and one who had resigned—had gone ahead with the ordinations in defiance of their church’s policy. 


Both my father and I had expressed support for those new priests and for all the many who longed for the full inclusion of women in their church’s ministry.  Both in his native Sweden and then in the American Lutheran sphere, my dad had played an important part in advancing the ordination of women, and—despite empathy for some Anglican friends in distress—I was convinced that those ordinations would come to be seen as signs of a Gospel that is itself similarly proleptic, i.e. a leaping forward to inhabit a future that has not yet fully arrived.


Our conversation had then touched on the way that a liturgical (or “high church”) ecclesiology could recognize a distinction between what was “licit” and what was “valid.” Something declared illicit might still be—or even have to be—recognized as valid. Though bishops of the ECUSA (even many who supported the ordination of women) did close ranks in 1974 to censure their renegade colleagues and declare the ordinations invalid, just two years later, when at last the General Convention had approved priestly orders for women, the validity of those earlier ordinations was officially recognized. It was in reference to this that one of us (I don’t recall which) remarked on how it was therefore that an ordination could happen outside the ordinary realm of order.  “Extra ordinem” was the phrase we had used then played with the interrelated words extraordinary and ordination. So now in January of 1990 I smiled when I saw that earlier wordplay deployed not as mere intellectual observation but to serve in an urgent and holy cause, and in the years since I have frequently felt a similar gratitude play on my face as I saw Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries working to apply that same vision and wisdom. 


As the 30th anniversary of those ordinations approaches and as we also look back on the decade since the ELCA allowed room for Queer people on its rosters, my rereading of this letter has reminded me of something more as well, something in its speaking not merely of change but of an ethic of fidelity and mutuality, of insight and openness to experienced human reality, of a pioneering ministry, and of grace and joy: all gifts at once ordinary and extraordinary. 


The Latin root at both ends of the phrase “ordinatio extra ordinem” speaks of an order. My dad was of course referring to legitimate defiance of an oppressive and exclusionary order, but that defiance was also grounded in an ordo, an order still more fundamental, that sacramental joining and interplay of what is extraordinary with the ordinary stuff of our common humanity. I see that in his letter, and I remember that perspective from our subsequent conversations. It was part of our conviction that what was at stake was not what some Lutherans were arguing for as a Gospel-versus-Law grace but in fact a fidelity to that justice which is the ordo to which God calls us. It was also there in my dad’s later reminder to me that the urgent cause at hand was, for all of its importance, not the only importance before us, that we should not let that urgency blind us to the greater breadth of the many tasks and challenges to which we were called.


I suppose it might be thought that I’m overthinking, or at least over-theologizing, the significance of one little phrase, but I think that I’m correct at least in this: that our work and advocacy, and also much of the blessed change that has come, has in fact involved just such an interplay as I’ve tried to suggest. On one side has been the recognition and affirmation of the extraordinary gifts and the particularity of the lived experience that LGBTQIA+ persons bring to the church.  But along with the celebration of the gift of those gifts there has also been this other side, the conviction and insistence that such particular and extraordinary individuals are indeed, simply and sacredly, ordinary.


I think—no, I know—that my father would have approved on both counts.  In fact, I now see his smile.

John Stendahl was born in Sweden but came to the US when his father became a junior professor at Harvard Divinity School. What in 1954 had been expected to be a shorter sojourn in this country extended to deeper formation and belonging and thirteen years later the Stendahl family became citizens, pledging themselves to the life and political shaping of this nation. John graduated from Harvard College with a concentration in American History and Literature and went on for his MDiv at Yale Divinity School. After his ordination in 1974 John served parishes in Pennsylvania, Maine, and Massachusetts and was also active, both regionally and nationally, in ecumenical and interfaith dialogue. He was a voting member at most of the ELCA Churchwide Assemblies from 1993 to 2009 and had the privilege of casting one of the votes that paved the way to reform of the church’s policy ten years ago.

John retired last year and lives with his wife in the Boston area, not far from their two daughters and each of their families.

Statement from Bishop Holmerud

Nearly 30 years ago, the Bishop of the Sierra Pacific Bishop, the Rev. Lyle Miller, responded to the calls and ordinations of Pastors Ruth Frost, Phyllis Zillhart, and Jeff Johnson at First United Lutheran Church and St. Francis Lutheran of San Francisco by saying:

“I sincerely regret the action of these two congregations in determining their own standards for call and ordination.”

(In the Beginning, Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries

see http://bit.ly/ELM-news)

Thirty years later, the current Bishop, Bishop Mark Holmerud, of the Sierra Pacific Synod (home synod to First United and St. Francis) proclaims a different message that he would like the church to hear in honor of the 30th anniversary of the ordinations of Ruth, Phyllis, and Jeff and the 10 years since the ELCA policy change to remove barriers for LGBTQIA+ ministry leaders who are publicly out and partnered. 

In The Beginning

January 20, 1990 was a monumental day for the LGBTQIA+ movement in the Lutheran church. In a letter, Bishop Stendahl affirmed the ordinations of Phyllis Zillhart, Ruth Frost, and Jeff Johnson. Bishop Stendahl said if the church will not ordain these individuals then they must be ordained “extra ordinem” or Extraordinarily. Thirty years later, Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries continues to affirm and support LGBTQIA+ Lutheran rostered leaders, and those preparing for rostered leadership, while also engaging allied congregations and ministries to proclaim God’s love and seek justice for all.

As we approach the upcoming anniversary, Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries will dive into our history with personal stories, including videos of the ordinations, reactions from Bishops, interviews with leaders in the movement, and words of hope for the future of ELM from our current Proclaim members. ELM will also be introducing several fundraising goals to help sustain the efforts and ministry of ELM. Our FIRST exciting fundraiser includes a goal to get 30 new monthly donors in the month of August! Click here to learn how to become a monthly donor to receive this  T-shirt! 

Thank you for your continued support of Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries. 

To kick-off the 30 Extraordinary Years campaign, we could think of nothing better than to show you this EXTRAORDINARY video from the day where three unique ordinations took place. Please watch and stay tuned over the next few months to learn more about ELM! 

Cassie Hartnett, 2019 Workin Scholar

Each year, Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries names a Joel R. Workin Memorial Scholar to honor the life and ministry of Joel Workin. Joel was one of the three gay seminarians who were refused ordination in 1989 after “coming out” to their candidacy committees. Our world can sometimes feel like an unwelcoming place, where hope and inspiration seem in short supply. But prophetic voices like Joel’s, and all those who applied for this scholarship, continue to highlight that publicly identified LGBTQIA+ ministers and seminarians can be beacons of courage and powerful models of justice in action. Thanks to a generous endowment started by Joel’s friends and family, and other ongoing contributions, this award comes with a $6,500 scholarship for academic or spiritual study and is available for members of ELM’s Proclaim group who are studying to be rostered leaders in the Lutheran church.

We are thrilled to announce that this year’s Workin Scholar is Cassie Hartnett, a recent seminary grad from Union Theological Seminary.

Below is a letter from our Workin Scholarship Committee to congratulate Cassie on her achievement. 

Congratulations Cassie, and thank you for your prophetic voice!

Dear Cassandra, 

I am now writing to officially inform you of your selection as this year’s Workin Scholar. It was the Workin Scholarship Committee’s conclusion that your application, reflecting on Joel Workin’s essay “The Light of Lent,” stood apart from all the rest, not only for its outstanding writing, but for its sound theological reflection.

While referencing Joel’s thoughts on the comfort we take from darkness in our own lives, you revealed something of yourself, as a queer woman, who has struggled with her own “darkness” of anxiety and depression. The committee was particularly captivated by your imagery of this, and there was a lot of discussion about it and its relation to God’s grace. To quote your eloquent essay:

“…the depression-sweatshirt is so comfortable and familiar that something in us begs us to put it on, pull the thick hood over our head, and block out the world, surrounded instead in something that doesn’t make us happy and doesn’t allow us to connect with others, but nonetheless feels like the miserable, moth-eaten home we deserve… The good news of grace and truth and light and Christ is new and raw and scary and we don’t want to peel off our sweatshirts of sin and pretension and selfishness in order to stand shivering before the cross and the empty tomb.”

During this year that celebrates Stonewall 50, we were also impressed by your reference to the times in which Joel lived and wrote. It was certainly note-worthy that you, as a young seminarian, strove to identify with him and related his life experience to the present day. Joel wrote that “the light unfailingly shows us where we must die” and your response to that was most moving:

“Joel Workin would have known something about death, even when he spoke these word in his mid-20s. The AIDS epidemic had begun, and suddenly young, previously healthy gay men were watching their friends sicken and die instead of fall in love and make mistakes and raise families and learn new things and create beautiful art. For him to say that God’s light shows us where we must die was not a throwaway line…For gay men like Joel, and for queer people even now who watch as trans women of color are killed in the streets, as young gay men and their friends are shot during a night out dancing, or as queer youth are bullied into self-harm when school is supposed to be safe, death does not feel so far away.”

This was an insightful connection to his life and times.

On behalf of the committee, I congratulate you on a splendid essay and becoming this year’s Workin Scholar. As you continue to pursue the ministry of Word and Sacrament, may you continue to strip away your own sweatshirt of darkness and despair and, to paraphrase Joel, embrace the light which was does not require perfection, only your presence.

Cassie Hartnett (she/her) 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. Cassie will begin her internship year at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Parkville, MD this August. In her spare time, she practices ballet and yoga, bakes excellent cookies, and can recommend a great queer young adult novel.