Recently, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America voted to allow gay and lesbian individuals who are in same-sex relationships to become pastors, becoming the largest denomination in the country to adopt such a policy.
The ELCA already allowed openly gay and lesbian pastors but — before the 559-451 vote by church representatives Aug. 19 — required them to be celibate. The new policy, however, declares that the church will “eliminate the prohibition of rostered service by members who are in publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships.”
The Rev. Steve Keiser, pastor at The Lutheran Church of the Holy Communion in Philadelphia, has been with his partner since the two met in 1996, while Keiser was attending Lutheran Theological Seminary.
Keiser said he knew his relationship could have a substantial impact on his plans of becoming a clergymember, as it would prevent the ELCA from ordaining him. The year after his 1999 graduation from the seminary, however, Holy Communion recognized Keiser’s predicament and found a way for him to follow through with his goals.
“Knowing my situation and knowing that I was prepared for ministry but that the ELCA wouldn’t ordain me, Holy Communion invited me to come and serve as a lay pastor,” he said. “It’s really serving fully as a pastor but without the ordination and without going through that ritual.”
In the past nine years, Keiser said leadership at the church has had continued conversations about how they could ordain him without the approval of the ELCA, which they did last January in collaboration with Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries, which credentials LGBT ministers for ordination using the same procedure as the ELCA.
The Rev. Jay Wiesner faced similar issues in his career as a clergymember. Wiesner came out while attending seminary in the mid-’90s.
“I had to do a yearlong internship and learn about what it’s like to be on the ground as a pastor. I went closeted because I wasn’t sure what I was going to do; I thought I could be celibate and see if I could try to figure that out,” he said. “But when I finished, I realized I couldn’t be celibate. It’s unfair and it just wasn’t God’s calling for me.”
Wiesner said he knew he also would be unable to carry on a same-sex relationship under cover.
“I couldn’t do the whole ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ thing. If I was questioned about it, I couldn’t not be honest,” he said.
For those reasons, Wiesner left the seminary in 1998, on the day that gay college student Matthew Shepard was killed. A few weeks later, however, Wiesner received a job offer at a Minneapolis church and, after taking on the position, decided he had to stay true to his calling; he returned to the seminary and graduated in 2002.
Like Keiser, Wiesner was ordained against the wishes of the ELCA bishops, with his ordination taking place in Minneapolis in 2004. Wiesner arrived at the University Lutheran Church of the Incarnation in University City last year.
“The churches that have been willing to call me have received this statement from the bishop basically saying, ‘You’ve done a bad thing,’” he said. “Because of this policy, when I’m the pastor of a congregation, the greater ELCA doesn’t recognize me as such and lists that parish as having no pastor.”
Wiesner was present at the August vote of the General Assembly of the ELCA, when the policy change received the exact two-thirds majority of support it needed to pass.
“It was the most liberating, amazing day of my life,” he said. “The idea that I could finally be recognized as a pastor by the ELCA — after I’ve already been a pastor for so many years — was really exciting.”
Keiser echoed Wiesner’s sentiments, adding he felt “justice had finally been served.”
“It was a very important statement on the part of the Lutheran Church about what we believe to be true about our relationship with God,” said Keiser. “It was a big burden taken off the shoulders of the church that’s occupied a huge amount of time and energy for the past 20 years. We can finally go forward and work on other important aspects of ministry.”
He noted, however, that the policy change does not represent a complete victory for LGBT clergy. The policy now allows individual synods to decide for themselves whether or not they will permit pastors who are in same-sex relationships to serve in their parishes.
“The action was pretty much a compromise, so there could still be places in our country where gay and lesbian people will be excluded. That’s fortunately not the case here in Southeastern Pennsylvania, but it could be elsewhere. My joy at this change is qualified by the fact that there is still a lack of justice and full acceptance on the broader level.”
For Wiesner, as gratifying as the Assembly vote was to witness, he said it also reinforced the idea that the ELCA still has a way to go to ensure the full inclusion of LGBT clergy members and congregants.
“As amazing as that day was, it was also very scary because I realized that we’ve only just begun,” he said. “In a sense, not too much has changed because there is still homophobia in the church. That’s going to take many, many years to break that down. But for now, the church has taken a seismic step in making this call.”