The formation of the largest Lutheran church in the United States, the 5.5 million member ELCA took place on January 1, 1988, resulting from the merger of three predecessor church bodies; the American Lutheran Church (ALC), the Lutheran Church in America (LCA) and the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches (AELC). The Rev. Herbert W. Chilstrom served as its first presiding Bishop until his retirement in 1996. He was succeeded by the Rev. H. George Anderson who retires this year.
The headquarters of the church are in Chicago.
The Churchwide Assembly is the biennial assembly of the denomination consisting of over 1100 Voting Members elected at Synodical Assemblies throughout the US. This body is the church’s highest legislative authority. We are in Indianapolis for the Churchwide Assembly at which the most pressing issues will be: the election of a new Presiding Bishop; the controversy over our ecumenical agreement with the Episcopal Church, Called to Common Mission (CCM); and the continuing discrimination involving the ordination of lgbt people.
Between Assemblies, the Church Council directs the ELCA. The Council is a national body of elected representatives (30+ people), and is chaired by the lay Vice President, Dr. Addie Butler.
The ELCA is a national church divided into 65 Synods; each with a Bishop. The Bishops belong to the Conference of Bishops, a powerful group that advises the church on matters like ordination policy.
Ordination policy is determined by a single national standard instituted by the Division for Ministry. The Executive Director of the Division for Ministry is the Rev. Joseph Wagner. In order to be ordained in the ELCA, a candidate must be qualified academically and be approved for ministry by Synodical candidacy committees that use the Division for Ministry standards to screen applicants. Once approved, a candidate’s name appears on a list of those "approved for call." A "first-call" must be secured before candidates fresh from seminary can be ordained. The names of ordained persons appear on an official ELCA Clergy Roster.
ELCA congregations agree constitutionally to call (hire) pastors from this official ELCA Clergy Roster. The Division for Ministry is responsible for maintaining this roster (adding & eliminating names). Bishops suggest names of available candidates from this roster to congregations with pastoral vacancies. Congregations interview candidates from the Bishop’s recommendations, vote and choose their own pastor. Once called by a congregation, a "letter of call" is attested to and signed by the Synodical Bishop. Pastors may be removed from the Clergy Roster by a process of discipline for a variety of offenses spelled out in the document: Guidelines for Discipline. According to this document, "practicing homosexuals are precluded from the ordained ministry."
The current policy of discrimination against lgbt people emerged out of a dialogue between the Conference of Bishops and the Division for Ministry and was approved as policy by the Church Council. Changing the policy requires action of the Council and/or the Churchwide Assembly. There are resolutions before this Assembly that, if passed, could eliminate this policy.
The ELCA’s Policy of Discrimination
In January 1988, directly following the formation of the ELCA, three seminarians at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, Berkeley, Calif., made a public announcement that they were "openly gay" and that they had been fully certified for ordination by committees of predecessor church bodies. Immediately the ELCA Conference of Bishops promulgated "interim guidelines" adopted by the board of the Division for Ministry. These "guidelines" made it clear that ordination and pastoral calls would not be an option for gay men and lesbians — unless they committed themselves to celibacy. All three candidates were examined as to their intentions regarding sexual behavior and by June 1988 had been removed from the active list of candidates available for call.
The "guidelines" soon became the official policy of discrimination in the ELCA, developing into several forms.
Vision & Expectations — This document, begun in the spring of 1988 and finally released in the fall of 1990, proscribes the "normative sexual ethics" for clergy and rostered church workers: "Sexual conduct. The expectations of this church regarding the sexual conduct of its ordained ministers are grounded in the understanding that human sexuality is a gift of God and that ordained ministers are to live in such a way as to honor this gift…Single ordained ministers are expected to live a chaste life. Married ordained ministers are expected to live in fidelity to their spouses, giving expression to sexual intimacy within a marriage relationship that is mutual, chaste and faithful. Ordained ministers who are homosexual in their self-understanding are expected to abstain from homosexual sexual relationships." Officially, all candidates for ordination for rostered service are asked explicitly about their intention to live in accordance with this vision.
Guidelines for Discipline — The ELCA also developed an official disciplinary document, Definitions and Guidelines for Discipline, which in its section for the discipline of ordained ministers stipulates: "The biblical understanding which this church affirms is that the normative setting for sexual intercourse is marriage. In keeping with this understanding, chastity before marriage and fidelity within marriage are the norm…Practicing homosexual persons are precluded from the ordained ministry of this church."
Prior to the formation of the ELCA in 1988, there was no official policy precluding the ordination of practicing lgbt people in any of the three predecessor church bodies, although many studies have been undertaken among Lutherans over the past fifty years and some "social statements" issued. Most often cited in the current controversy over ELCA policy are the assertions published in social statements of the LCA (1970) and ALC (1980).
LCA’s social statement (an official teaching of the church), Sex, Marriage and the Family: A Contemporary Christian Perspective (1970)
- "Scientific research has not been able to provide conclusive evidence regarding the causes of homosexuality. Nevertheless, homosexuality is viewed biblically as a departure from the heterosexual structure of creation."
- "A life-long covenanted union of one man and one woman, based on fidelity, is indicative of the creator’s intention for a cradle of community."
- "…the homosexual should not be judged a ‘sinner’ because of his (sic) homosexuality, but because he (sic) is a ‘sinner’ in the same way that everyone else is viz., because he is alienated from God, self, neighbor and the world."
- The statement concludes by urging repeal of laws that make homosexuality a crime and urging greater understanding and acceptance of homosexuals in the church and society at large.
- ALC’s statement, Human Sexuality and Sexual Behavior (1980). This statement was not policy, but simply "advice and counsel."
- The practice of homosexual erotic behavior is "contrary to God’s intent for his (sic) children."
- "…persons who do not practice their homosexual erotic preference do not violate our understanding of Christian sexual behavior."
- "Truth, mercy, and justice should impel members of the congregations of the American Lutheran Church to review their attitudes,space words, and actions regarding homosexuality."
- In his book, Married in the Sight of God, Christian Batalden Scharen effectively demonstrates that these social statements of the predecessor church bodies were contextually progressive. About the LCA’s statement, Sex, Marriage and the Family, he writes: "Even the LCA social statement which uses the phrase ‘heterosexual structure of creation,’ departs from earlier rhetoric of homosexuality as a denial of God’s intention in creation and counter to the fundamental structure of creation. Rather, the LCA statement acknowledges that science has not conclusively found the causes of homosexuality (science was not even mentioned in previous statements); nevertheless, the statement continues, homosexuality is viewed biblically as a departure from the heterosexual structure of creation. While these claims by no means approve of homosexuality, when read in the context of the larger study out of which they came, they reflect the growing influence of a more open-minded, contemporary position. Such a trajectory from clear condemnation of homosexuality to question openness characterizes the history of the ALC statements, as well." (p. 78.)
The first significant challenge to the ELCA’s new official policy of discrimination occurred in 1989 two San Francisco congregations called openly gay/lesbian seminary graduates who were not on the ELCA’s clergy roster as assistant pastors. Jeff Johnson, (a PLTS graduate) and Ruth Frost and Phyllis Zillhart (Luther Seminary graduates) were ordained "extra ordinem" (irregularly, outside the order) on January 20, 1990, at St. Paulus Lutheran Church in San Francisco. Presiding Bishop Chilstrom called the rule-breaking by the two churches "unacceptable and regrettable;" the ordinations were not recognized by the ELCA; and the congregations were officially charged with having violated ELCA policy; an ecclesiastical trial was convened in the summer of 1990; the congregations were convicted and suspended from the ELCA for five years and were subsequently expelled from membership in the ELCA. The two congregations have been independent, thriving Lutheran churches since January 1, 1996.
In 1989, in response to the promulgation of Vision and Expectations and Guidelines for Discipline, and in support of the ordinations of Jeff, Phyllis and Ruth, The Network of Inclusive Vision was formed. Initially a simple public roster of ELCA leaders who opposed the policies of the ELCA, the Network has become active in monitoring and supporting synodical and churchwide actions with regard to glbt people.
In the first decade of the ELCA, the policy-initiated oppression mounted. Seminarians were targeted by the Division for Ministry and removed from the candidacy process (i.e. Bill Kunisch, Jody Belknap). Clergy were subject to discipline hearings and removed from the roster.
- In 1994, Pr. Ross Merkel (St. Paul Lutheran Church, Oakland) was disciplined and defrocked because his partnership was in violation of ELCA policy. While he was removed from the roster, his congregation has refused to let him go as their pastor.
- In 1997, Pr. Steve Sabin (Lord of Life Lutheran, Ames Iowa) was tried and defrocked because of his partnership. His congregation refused to let him leave.
- In 1998 Pr. Jane Ralph was forced to resign he her call as pastor.
- In 1999, Pr. Jim Bishoff was forced to resign his parish in San Marcos, California. Many of his members resigned with him and formed the independent, growing Lutheran Church of All Saints, across town.
In addition to the oppression caused by the promulgation and enforcement of the policy of discrimination, we have witnessed a growing resistance to the discrimination. This has been manifest most clearly by 1) pastors and candidates who have refused to state their "compliance" with the policy and have been targeted by the Division for Ministry; and 2) congregations that have refused to implement the constitutionally proscribed mandate that they discrimination against lgbt people.
- In 1994, in response to the growing number of gay and lesbian pastors who were being expelled by the ELCA, Lutheran Lesbian & Gay Ministries (LLGM) decided to transform its mission from a local, San Francisco/Bay Area ministry to a national "mission society," modeled after the 19th century mission societies in Europe that sent hundreds of pastors to serve the immigrants on the American frontier, often in defiance of state church policies. Lutheran Lesbian and Gay Ministries empowers openly identified sexual minority people called to God’s mission of ministry and witness by offering financial, pastoral, legal and professional/mobility.
- The Extraordinary Candidacy Project (ECP) was created to provide a credentialing committee for lgbt persons who were in resistance and therefore ineligible for the regular ELCA credentialing procedure.
Over the past couple of years, this courageous movement of resistance to the policy of discrimination has gained momentum:
- In November 1999, University Lutheran Chapel in Berkeley, California violated ELCA policy and called the Rev. Jeff Johnson as pastor (irregularly ordained in ’90; ECP pastor serving First United, SF). The Chapel has been "censured" (the minimal standard of discipline ) by the Synodical Bishop.
- In the fall of 2000, Abiding Peace Lutheran Church in Kansas City, Missouri called Donna Simon (PLTS graduate; ECP candidate) to be their pastor. Pr. Simon was ordained "extra ordinem" in October 2000. The congregation has been censured by the synodical Bishop.
- In December 2000, three congregations in Oakland/Berkeley (St. Paul, United and University Chapel) called Craig Minich (PLTS graduate; ECP candidate) to be the pastor of a new jointly sponsored outreach to urban youth. Pr. Minich was ordained "extra ordinem" in February 2001. The congregations anticipate censure from the synodical Bishop.
- In March, 2001, Pr. Robyn Hartwig (Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Sacramento, California) came out to the Bishop, informing him of her life-long partnership. Pr. Hartwig (currently an ELCA pastor; on the ECP roster) awaits a decision from the Bishop as to potential discipline.
- In 2001, Pr. Steve Sabin accepted an illegal and " irregular"call to Christ Church, Lutheran in San Francisco. The congregation awaits a decision by the synodical Bishop.
- In the winter of 2000/01, St. Paul Reformation Lutheran Church voted to ordain "extra ordinem" their pastoral minister, Anita Hill (United Seminary graduate; ECP candidate) and call her as pastor. Pr. Hill was ordained "extra ordinem" in April 2001. The congregation has been censured by the synodical Bishop, and will take effect following the Churchwide Assembly in Indianapolis in the event that the Voting Members do not lift the policy of discrimination. Pr. Hill is the Dean of her conference of local ELCA congregations and enjoys the widespread support of Lutherans throughout the US. One sitting and three retired Bishops participated. Following Pr. Hill’s ordination, Bishop Paul Egertson (Southern California Synod) resigned because he is no longer able to uphold the ELCA’s policy of discrimination.