One year after the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Decisions, we take a look at how the actions affected one ELM pastor…
By Rev. Craig Minich
When I was asked to preach at Trinity Lutheran Church in Oakland (one of the churches who are part of the collaborative youth ministry, called the East Bay Lutheran Youth Program), I was unprepared for what was to unfold for me in the life of the church, my ministry, and my faith. I knew that I would be preaching on the first Sunday after Easter (an opportunity, as a youth pastor, I am offered consistently each year) and that the Gospel would undoubtedly be the ‘Doubting Thomas’ text. As an out gay man ordained Extra Ordinem on February 18th, 2001 and rostered by Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries (ELM) I had a pretty good idea what I would be focusing on for my sermon.
The ELCA Churchwide Assembly in August of 2009 had passed a resolution to roster qualified gay and lesbian pastors who are in “publically-accountable, life-long, and monogamous relationships.” As a pastor who is gay and in a partnered relationship this was welcome news. As an out gay pastor, who has been doing ministry with the “yes” of ELM for 10 years while still standing in principled non-compliance against the ELCA’s policy of exclusion against GLBT pastors, their “no,” this day seemed like it would never come. In the midst of that astounding vote in August, even though I wanted to believe it, I found myself saying to myself, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” I know how slow the church can move, I know the institution can take a long time to codify it’s policies, and hence when dealing with the institution, I ‘don’t count my chickens before they hatch.’ I have been disappointed before, and I knew from experience that until the policy is officially changed, I had reason to be careful. I wanted to celebrate with straight clergy allies who came up to me effusively saying things like, “aren’t you happy!” and “great news, huh?” In those situations, I found myself only being able to smile tersely, all the while thinking to myself, “I’ll believe it when I see it.”
The road to policy change has long indeed. Shortly after the August Assembly in 2009, we were told that November was the date to look forward to when the Conference of Bishops would next meet. As November came and went, we were told that it would be March 2010 until a decision would be made at the next Conference of Bishops meeting. As the winter months passed, more and more colleagues congratulated me and said things like, “we did it! – the day is here.” Again, I would smile tersely and think to myself, “The day is not here yet… I’ll believe it when I see it.”
As the Bishops deliberated in March 2010 about requiring the ‘re-ordination’ of ELM pastors who had been ordained Extra Ordinem by ELM and their calling congregation(s), my “believe it when I see it” position was in full gear. “See,” I would say to myself, “see the day is not here.” And yet, as that meeting continued, word began to spread that transformation was occurring in their ranks and the offensive notion (and the theological contradiction) of re-ordination was off the table! Surprised and heartened by this unexpected change of course, I knew that this was simply a recommendation from the Conference of Bishops that would still need to be ratified by the ELCA Church Council meeting in April 2010, and I was not confident that that would happen either. My wounded heart which had been betrayed so many times by the ELCA, still echoed the phrase that Thomas uttered after Christ’s crucifixion in the presence of his Lord, “I’ll believe it when I see it”…
As those weeks spilled into April, still more people were anticipating celebration at the implementation of the change, yet I was still with Thomas “I’ll believe it when I see it.” So as I prepared my sermon the week after Easter, I knew exactly what I would preach. I would share with this congregation my experiences with the August resolution, the November postponing of decisions, the March transformation, and the April discussions at the ELCA Church Council. I would share with this – one of my five – congregations that I longed to celebrate the direction of changes in the ELCA in regard to gay and lesbian clergy who are in relationship, but that I had found myself over the last 8 months instead repeating my frustrated mantra “I’ll believe it when I see it.” As I finished preparing my sermon on Saturday morning which named that reality which I have just explained, and yet went on to proclaim my assurance of God’s love presence with me in my struggle, and by extension God’s presence with all of us in each of our struggles – God’s grace showered on us all – I read of the results of the ELCA Church Council.
They had voted to ratify the Conference of Bishops proposal and voted to implement the policy changes necessary to receive gay and lesbian clergy in relationship onto synodical rosters of the ELCA. I was stunned, I was dumb-struck… and I didn’t know what I was going to preach the following day.
I found myself throughout that day overwhelmed with emotion – this was the day and I indeed now I did believe it. I also prayed and prayed continually and found myself compelled to sing the song ‘This is the air I breathe” on endless loop in my mind. Throughout that day, into my dreams that night and into the next morning as I walked to the pulpit to read the Gospel, that is the song that did not cease. As I walked to the pulpit, I was again overtaken with emotion as I felt the weight of those GLBT pastors and seminarians who had gone before me, many of whom had been driven out of the church, and many others who were living half-lives in the Church’s closet. I found myself completely overwhelmed and humbled to have been called to serve in my ministry for the last 10 years with this and 5 other congregations who had said “yes,” in the face of the ELCA’s “no.” I found myself humbled to be called to proclaim the Gospel this day, to be asked to preach this day in the midst of such profoundly Divine irony.
I could not get the first word out, my grief and tears welled up so quickly. I sobbed my way through the Gospel reading, a reading that seemed to take ages, and I cried as I confessed at it’s conclusion, that “I was OK, no one has died.” I jettisoned my prepared sermon, and I preached from the depths of my heart, sharing what had happened the previous day (which most people had not heard about yet), sharing my surprise, and sharing that what I had intended to preach, was no longer the case. A new day had come, one that I had a hard time embracing at first, and yet here we were, we were at this day and their was no denying it. I could experience the change in the ELCA and feel their welcome in a new way, believing that this day had finally arrived, but more important than that, I shared that all along my journey to get to this day, I had seen the risen Christ like Thomas along the way, and I indeed, like Thomas, believed.
Rev. Craig Minich who serves the East Bay Lutheran Youth Program was received onto the ELCA roster of ordained ministers on Sunday, July 25.