A new wave of gay seminarians prepares to take the pulpit

The Lutheran church struggles with its policy on homosexuality and the meaning of "all God's children"

It was late November in 2004 and Lauren Wendt was on her way to a Wednesday-evening church service. As she walked up the concrete steps and entered through the white doors of the brick-faced Ascension Lutheran Church, she was ready to pray. She enjoyed her work volunteering for a church-based immigration and refugee service in Maryland, but moving to a new city had made her lonely. Although she thought about dating, she was used to being single—she'd been that way all throughout college.

The walls inside the church were soft blue, the carpet red, and the pews a brilliant shade of colonial white. Gathered inside were about 30 churchgoers in their mid-twenties. A group of skinny boys and girls at the front tuned guitars and set up drums as they prepared to play Christian rock to accompany the service.

After taking the pulpit, the pastor encouraged the parishioners to stand and introduce themselves to each other. Wendt enjoyed this part. She has a firm handshake, a pleasant grip that squeezes without hurting. Her green eyes smiled as she basked in the fellowship.

Lauren Wendt asked her pastor if she should still go to seminary. He told her, "Of course!"
Nick Vlcek
Lauren Wendt asked her pastor if she should still go to seminary. He told her, "Of course!"
Dustin Nelson came out as a result of seminary. "It was very freeing," he says.
Nick Vlcek
Dustin Nelson came out as a result of seminary. "It was very freeing," he says.

The service went along at a brisk pace—communion, songs, and sermon. As the band began to play its final song, Wendt rose to her feet. She reached her arms out from her sides, closed her eyes, and began to pray.

She went deep within herself. The music faded. And she heard a voice.

"Go to seminary," it said.

Wendt felt a calming presence descend on her body. The voice seemed to embrace her from head to toe. She was sure it was God.

Then he added: "And you're gay. Get over it."

• • • • •

SINCE ITS FORMATION IN 1988,the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has had a complex relationship with gays and lesbians seeking to lead congregations. In 1990, two San Francisco Lutheran churches made national headlines when they ordained a gay man and two lesbians as their pastors. Although the pastors resembled the communities they served, the congregations were punished, first with a five-year suspension and then with complete expulsion.

The two churches were guilty of violating a compromise of sorts: Gays and lesbians are allowed to become pastors, but only if they remained single and celibate, a burden not imposed on heterosexuals. In the 18 years since, there have been several motions to overturn the ban, but the voting body has rejected them each time. Last year, during a national church-wide assembly in Chicago, the body approved a slight moderation allowing bishops some protection and urging them to use restraint if a congregation in their synod ordains a gay or lesbian minister, but the issue remains divisive, and a dominant cultural topic among the 4.8 million-member church, the largest Lutheran organization in North America. The issue of gays and lesbians in the pulpit will likely be a major item of discussion when the organization meets in Minneapolis next August.

"Two things are going to happen," says Phil Soucy, spokesman for Lutherans Concerned/North America, an organization advocating for full inclusion. "The church will present a social statement on human sexuality before the voting body. That will be important no matter what it says. Secondly, we hope to change the policy that says practicing homosexuals are precluded from service in the ministry of the church—the 12 words that create a separate but not equal division among those called to God for ministry."

Rev. Mark Chavez, a 1987 graduate of Luther Seminary and director of Word Alone, a national organization that opposes the ordination of gays and lesbians, says it will be disastrous to the church if it approves of sex outside of marriage. "We all welcome people with same-sex inclinations," says Chavez. "But we need to handle this the same way we would handle a serial pedophile or a pornography addict. In the eyes of God, they are no different than an adulterer. It's not like one sexual sin is greater than another."

The most recent local example of a congregation ordaining a lesbian was the January 19, 2008, appointment of Jen Nagle to lead Salem Lutheran Church in Uptown Minneapolis. "Before that, I was known as a 'pastoral leader,'" she says. "But it felt wonderful and I didn't have to fight for it. My congregation did it on their own." Yet Nagel remains blacklisted from the official roster of national Lutheran pastors.

Violations of the policy can result in a variety of punishments, from a slap on the wrist to excommunication. Rev. Vicki Petersen, an Evangelical Lutheran clergywoman from Des Moines, Iowa, recently conducted a study called "The Missing Project" in which she sought to quantify how many lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered Lutherans had left or been removed from the ministry because of gender issues. She found 57 examples, as well as an additional 50 who were never placed on the nationwide roster. All told, "1,102 years of pastoral service were lost," she concluded.

All of this makes it an interesting time to be a gay or lesbian at Luther Seminary in St. Paul. It's the largest of the eight Evangelical Lutheran seminaries and produces one-third of all the pastors who serve at the church's 10,500 congregations. It's also considered the most conservative. Professors give detailed recommendations to synod bishops, and if they know a student is gay, they must note that in their report.

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