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.
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.
Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries is seeking candidates to serve in an Operations Support role.
Interested candidates should email their cover letter and resume to ELM’s Executive Director, Amanda Gerken-Nelson at email@example.com
About the Position:
The Operations Support position performs and organizes tasks to bolster ELM’s programs and provide general assistance to our staff.
Full job description: Operations Support Position Description (Fall 2019) .
Applications will be accepted until September 20th.
This position is based in Chicago.
Questions may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
ELM is committed to providing equal employment opportunities to all qualified individuals and does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, ethnicity, religion, sex, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, national origin, disability, age, marital status, veteran status, parental status, or any other basis prohibited by applicable law.
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.
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
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.
One Proclaimer’s perspective that may feel relatable to many LGBTQIA+ ministry leaders in the ELCA.
Thank you Analyse, for speaking truth to power.
Please take a minute to hear the Spirit moving through our sibling Analyse.
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!
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.
Below is a letter from our Workin Scholarship Committee to congratulate Cassie on her achievement.
Congratulations Cassie, and thank you for your prophetic voice!
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.
By Chelsea Achterberg
In February I spent a month learning how to jump out of airplanes, build relationships, and even do marital and personal counseling! Most people want to hear about jumping out of planes, and why not, it’s sexy, adventurous, dangerous. What people need to hear about is caring for people, asking about their careers, families, faith, and the heartbreaking reality that other chaplains might refuse to care for them.
We live in a culture that says, “if you don’t agree, walk away.” A divestment culture — not only monetarily but also relationally. The church is no exception, as members of Proclaim or an advocate for Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries we have lived this. Our wrestling as a Church, with divestment in instances of injustice, military chaplaincy can get caught up in debates around the military as a whole. As a result we discourage military chaplaincy and have allowed for exclusionary voices to take the lead in chaplaincy.
See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves
When I counseled a newly married military lesbian couple, hearing their stories of the struggles of distance, marriage to another soldier, and adjusting to married life, I couldn’t help but be reminded, these women will face many chaplains who will not care for them. When many chaplains hear “my wife” they are going to politely but firmly say unless they want to “repent” of their sin of homosexuality they will have little to offer. Many denominations are known to tell chaplains who they are allowed to counsel and who are allowed to lead services. This is the price of divestment from chaplaincy. The face of siblings who will navigate spirituality, sexuality, and marriage without a spiritual caregiver.
There is a great need for more welcoming and affirming chaplains, and we as LGBTQIA+ pastors and seminarians bring a special witness, in addition to all of the gifts we bring as Lutherans. We have felt this pain in our own Church and many of our congregations and seminaries and we are blessed to bring that experience, along with our own identities and affirmation to those we care for. We have the opportunity to live into a vision and hope of the Gospel that many can scarcely imagine yet alone have seen.
The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.
What can you do about all of this?
Resist the call to divest relationally from military chaplaincy. It is an imperfect institution but God’s children who serve deserve spiritual support from chaplains who will support them, not turn them away and cause spiritual harm.
Consider if God might be calling you (or someone you know) to military chaplaincy. If you desire adventure, are active, have a heart for people on the margins, and an eagerness to learn a new way of life, then chaplaincy might be for you!
Join the conversation. Be engaged in the work and needs of ELCA chaplains across the federal government in their care for service members, veterans, and those in prison. Meet with those local to you.
Pray for service members and their chaplains, especially our ELCA chaplains who have answered the call to care for God’s people.
If you are attending the 2019 Churchwide Assembly in Milwaukee, look for military chaplains in uniform on Tuesday (Aug. 6) and have a conversation about their work!
Bio: Chelsea Achterberg (she/her/hers) is a Chaplain Candidate, allowing her to serve in the Army Reserves while continuing to work towards ordination. She is married to Proclaim Chaplain Mandy, together they have a house rabbit Mosby. Chelsea is enjoying a return to parish ministry as a Pastoral Intern at Holy Trinity in Charlotte, NC after two years serving in hospital chaplaincy.
Special thanks to Currents in Theology and Mission (www.currentsjournal.org) for allowing Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries to share this excellent resource with our wider ELM community! Click their link to read other great articles from this quarterly publication.
Proclaimer Lectionary Series– PDF File