Last summer, when the ELCA national assembly passed resolutions in support of people in committed same-sex relationships and opened a path for them to take a place on the roster of ordained clergy, I was at my 40-year high school reunion.
My high school was Augustana Academy, a private Lutheran school that chose to embrace inclusivity decades ahead of its time. We had no TVs at our reunion, but were eagerly checking our BlackBerrys in anticipation of the vote.
I was not anticipating the reaction my own congregation of 28 years would have to the vote.
The next month, my church held a forum for members of the congregation to discuss their personal beliefs about the resolutions that passed. I spoke up about my positive experiences with GLBT clergy, my feeling that it is time to offer support and understanding to all GLBT members and their families, and the need to welcome diversity in the church. I was saddened by comments made at that forum that did not reflect any understanding or compassion for GLBT issues.
Two weeks later, at the beginning of a worship service, the president of our Church Council announced that our congregation was withholding funds from the ELCA while this issue was studied. The pastor then preached a sermon about our new mission to reach out to the world. I was so upset about the contrast between these two messages that, in the front row of the choir, I started crying and could not stop. I walked out during the sermon and did not return to my church for two months.
During those two months, I attended a different Lutheran church and tried to learn all I could to support what I felt in my heart. I read several books on sexual orientation and the church, attended an interfaith dialogue presenting differing viewpoints, and talked with many who shared or disagreed with my thinking. I also received a card asking me to return to my church and stand with those who remained. Some people said that they were scared to speak up in that church environment.
Eventually, I realized I needed to return. I began worshiping at my church again and attended the Church Council meetings for the next six months.
In November, my church decided to resume financial support of the ELCA, but to allow individuals to indicate that they did not want any of their money to go to the national church. The letter sent to the congregation said that the leadership team did not support the resolution that allowed GLBT people in long term monogamous relationships to be added to the clergy roster for our body of faith. I was disheartened by this. No formal survey or vote had been taken. I did not feel that our congregation was ready to call gay or lesbian clergy, but I was saddened that the majority of the leadership staff thought other congregations should not be allowed to do so. I never felt that my beliefs were acknowledged or supported in any positive way at the Church Council meetings.
Some members told me they'd like to see some educational events organized around the issue, so I pulled together some materials already developed by Lutherans Concerned. Initially the program was approved for a small group, but then I was denied the right to hold meetings on site because I was not presenting "both sides of the story." I argued that one could review the commonly associated Bible verses and discuss the different ways they are interpreted, but it did not seem very Christian to be anything but supportive of GLBT individuals.
In the end, I was told in an e-mail from one of the pastors: "We request that you would please respect the position and the process that has been put into place by Pastoral Leadership and Church Council" -- meaning that I was to end any thoughts I had of providing education in support of the changes in the ELCA. All I really wanted in that process was for the Church Council and the pastors to allow room in our congregation to say that the ELCA respected a wide range of beliefs, and to create an environment that fostered respect for diversity of beliefs with opportunity for understanding and discussion.
During this time, I felt a responsibility to continue to advocate for these changes at my church, but I recognized changes in my own spiritual life that meant it was time to find a new church home. I found myself checking the website to see who was preaching on a given Sunday. I became frustrated with divisiveness, and wanted community. I also started to realize that I could no longer respect a diversity of beliefs on this issue, so my desire to see support for a diversity of beliefs would no longer work for me either.
I needed to move forward, in an environment that supported my Christian beliefs. I wanted a spiritual home where the leadership staff openly supported the changes in the ELCA, and I found not one, but two. I am joining one of them as a full member, and the other as an associate member.
It was hard to leave behind a Christian community that had been so important to me, but in the process I have made many new Christian friends. I also connected with some who had also transferred from other churches for the same reason, and understood. Finally, I felt understood.
Next month I will attend the ELCA Rite of Reception for three women who have been wonderful mentors to me at different chapters of my life. One was a resident assistant in a dorm, one a work colleague, and one a pastor. I will celebrate this milestone in the life of the church, knowing that it will bring closure to a difficult year, and be the beginning of new opportunities for my Christian growth and understanding.
I wish this transition had been easier for the ELCA, but the difficulties of my journey, which pale in comparison to the journeys of those more personally affected, have enriched my life.
Alice Reuter, Woodbury, is a hospice nurse and the married mother of two adult daughters. She is a source in MPR's Public Insight Network.