A new wave of gay seminarians prepares to take the pulpit
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.
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.
"It can be tough for gays and lesbians," says David Fredrickson, professor of the New Testament at Luther. "They hear a religious call and then they come to Luther and hear some say they're an abomination to God."
• • • • •
''YOU'RE GAY. GET OVER IT."The words jolted Wendt. She opened her eyes and sat down before the band finished their song. For the remainder of the service, she sat and prayed to herself. "I said, 'God, please don't make this be true. I don't want this. This is too hard.'"
Three weeks later, on a visit back to Minneapolis, she came out to a friend from college. It happened after several glasses of white wine. And when she finally sputtered out the words, she spilled her entire glass on the carpet. "Thankfully," she adds, "it was beige-colored carpet."
When she returned to Baltimore, Wendt tried to change her heart. She went for a guy she met through work, but it was forced, and the guy could tell. "I wasn't really attracted to him, either," she says. "I just liked hanging out with him."
Although she could never bring herself to admit it, Wendt had known she was gay from the time she was 12. Her first girl crush happened when she was in seventh grade and was chosen for a role in a school play. "It was this horrible middle-school coming-of-age play," she says. "But I was able to act next to this eighth-grader girl. I just thought she was the greatest thing on the planet."
The eighth-grader had long, curly, brunette hair and wore baggy, stonewashed jeans, Doc Martens, and flannel shirts over tight T-shirts. "She was total grunge and here I was, totally average. Just a T-shirt and jeans."
Wendt wanted to be around her all the time. While the rest of her friends pined over two twin boys, she dreamed of the next time she would get together with the girl after school or between class periods to rehearse their lines.
But she never acted on her attraction. "I really didn't know what the feeling was at the time," she says.
The next crush hit Wendt in high school. The girl was a senior and on her debate team. All year long they studied the arguments for and against renewable wind energy. And with each retort, Wendt grew more attracted to the girl. "I would get so nervous and excited to just talk with her," Wendt recalls. "She was so confident. And really, confidence is the sexiest trait you can have."
But Wendt hid the crush and the senior graduated.
After graduation, Wendt went off to college at St. Olaf in Northfield, a small Lutheran college, where she remained single. "It was actually pretty easy," she says. "It's so small that if you date someone it better be serious. Because if something goes wrong, you have to see the person every day for the rest of school."
While Wendt kept her sexuality on hold, she started to explore religion, a requirement at St. Olaf. She'd always been intrigued by the idea, but had no idea how much she would enjoy the messages and stories about Christ. After a secular childhood, she converted to Christianity at St. Olaf and deepened her involvement in the church by joining the volunteer program in Baltimore.
After the call from God, Wendt began talking with her friends about the experience. She approached it slowly over the course of eight months, always prefacing the conversations with the question, "What if I were gay?"
Eventually, in December 2005, she broached the topic with Pastor Kelly Chatman, the leader of the Redeemer Lutheran Church in north Minneapolis, where she worked as an intern during a summer break in college.
"Wendt approached me with her dilemma," recalls Chatman. "She wanted to know if she should still go to seminary. I told her, 'Of course!' Of course she should."
The conversation stayed with Chatman. He eventually gave a sermon in which he revealed that "a member of our church" was full of the lord but thinking of not joining the seminary because she was gay. "And this girl connected the dots," says Chatman.
Her name was Michelle Morse and she was stunned. Her first thoughts were, "Oh my god. Lauren Wendt is gay!" Michelle was gay, too, and desperately wanted to talk to Wendt about the possibility of going to seminary herself. Chatman told Morse that he'd give Wendt her email.
By then, Wendt had moved to New York and was trying to come to terms with her sexuality. One night, after she had gotten off work at a nonprofit in Manhattan, she rented The L Word, the Showtime series about a close-knit group of lesbians living in Los Angeles. She recognized herself in the characters. "You need to see yourself projected on the screen," says Wendt. "I didn't know any lesbians at the time and needed to see women I could relate to."
Wendt was standing in downtown Manhattan, on her way to the Empire State Building, when she got the call from Pastor Chatman. He told her there was a member of the church who "had things in common" with her. At first, Wendt was annoyed that Chatman had semi-outed her in a sermon, but she nonetheless agreed to email the girl.
Wendt sent the girl a book-length treatise in which she talked about her struggles reconciling her sexuality with her faith. She thought that would be the end of it, but the next day, Wendt found a book-length reply.
"I was in such a weird place at the time," recalls Morse. "But she gave me everything. Every thought. So I responded in the same way. We really talked about how different things, like seminary, affect us because of our sexuality. It was a connection both supportive and challenging."
In February of 2006, Wendt came to Minneapolis to tour Luther and met Morse for lunch at Panera in Uptown. Over French onion soup and chicken sandwiches, they talked for four hours straight.
When Wendt returned to New York she called Morse to say, "I really like you." They started to talk regularly, and Morse went out to visit her during Easter break.
"I remember she left me red and pink Starburst candies by my bed," Morse says. "It was from a previous conversation we had about things we like. It was cute."
Wendt came out to Minneapolis to visit again in June and July before moving here in August 2007 to start seminary. She'd won a full academic scholarship to attend Luther.
Being closer to Morse helped their relationship blossom. They've been together for two and a half years and are still going strong.
"How many people meet the love of their lives through a sermon?" Wendt marvels, shaking her head.
• • • • •
DISCUSSIONS ABOUT LOVE occur in Luther seminaryclasses, but talk of sexual-ity doesn't come up much atall. This was the reason why Wendt re-started a group on campus called Agape, a Greek word roughly translated as "love," or "God's love."
Margaret Kelly co-leads the group with Wendt, and is much more overt about her lifestyle. She has a nose ring, spikes her hair with gel, and has several tattoos. Her first year on campus, she was known among her classmates as "The Girl with Pink Hair."
Kelly's father, Bob, is a pastor at the People's Church in Bemidji. She grew up in the Lutheran church but left it soon after high school.
Unlike Wendt, there was no big coming out for Kelly. While her dad was a pastor, he was a hippie in his heart. She remembers that he wrote an op-ed for the Star Tribune that argued in support of the gay pastors in San Francisco. For her, it meant that being a lesbian wasn't that big a deal.
Before coming to Luther, Kelly was living in Uptown and working at the Wedge co-op, where she was just another punk rocker. "No one would bat an eye if you wore bright colors," she says. "It's not strange to be around and work alongside people with shaved heads, dreadlocks, or mohawks. I didn't stand out."
This wasn't the case at Luther. When a pastor came to interview her for an internship, he asked how he would recognize her. The office staff responded by saying, "Oh, you'll recognize her...."
Kelly originally thought she wanted a master's in neuropsychology, but the idea of seminary kept circling around in her head. And while she tried to refuse the pull of the family business, she eventually entered Luther, though only because it offered a degree in social work along with the master's in divinity.
"There is this tradition in the church and it relates to the bishop St. Augustine," Kelly explains. "It says that if you don't know what else to do, then be a pastor. It's okay."
Kelly still remembers how nervous she was when she went before the candidacy committee, the first step in an arduous process toward becoming ordained. Lit by fluorescent lights, she sat facing a table of seven people in sweaters and dress shirts. One of the men asked her what sort of relationships she'd had.
Kelly knew just what he was alluding to. "Do you want to know if I'm gay?"
There was hemming and hawing, so Kelly gave them her answer.
Later, a pastor asked what she would do if called to an anti-gay congregation.
Kelly answered politely, but inside she'd had enough. "It was insane. There is no way an anti-gay congregation would ever call me. Why ask the question?"
The meeting ended after more than an hour of grilling. Kelly hurriedly slipped out of the conference room. When she saw her parents standing in the lobby, she broke down in tears.
Despite the traumatic interview, Kelly still decided to attend Luther. During her first semester, she quickly realized that most of her fellow students just assumed everyone there was straight. "It's a pretty sheltered place," she says. "But I figured somebody had to be the out one."
By the end of her sophomore year, Kelly felt comfortable enough to come out in her classes. The Agape meetings created a dialogue at Luther, although Kelly says she became the token queer kid on campus.
In May, students were invited to the Chapel of Incarnation to receive a blessing before their internships. At the entrance, a volunteer handed out pamphlets listing where each student had been assigned. Kelly followed the list down to find her name—it was the only one that didn't have a church next to it. She took a seat.
In front of 100 seminarians, the pastor called the interns down to receive the blessing. Kelly remained seated. A fellow student noticed her and told her to go down anyway. "I felt like I was getting a blessing I shouldn't be taking."
Even though it took two months, the blessing had an effect. Lutheran Church of the Reformation in Washington, D.C., a few blocks away from the Capitol building, called her for an internship. Kelly says the hardest part about the placement is the dress code of suits and sport jackets. "Every one here is so formal," she says with a sigh.
• • • • •
ONE PLACE WHERE GAY seminarians feel welcome is Mt. Olive church in south Minneapolis. The stately brick structure has stood at the corner of Chicago Avenue and 31st Street for 99 years. Inside, flying buttresses curve across the ceiling, a giant pipe organ fills the balcony, and the air is stale with incense.
Beneath the century-old spire, a tall, rail-thin man with a puffy, silk, flowered shirt passes out church programs. In the pews sit gay male couples with form-fitting shirts that accent their sculpted physiques. During the service, a man with gold, showy earrings walks to the front and reads from the gospel.
Among those crossing themselves on this particular Sunday morning is Dustin Nelson, a slender, 24-year-old Luther Seminarian. Nelson wears a pair of dress jeans, a neatly tucked-in button-down shirt, and tan leather Aldo slip-ons. His face is soft enough that he could pass for a teenager.
Nelson loves the strict liturgical method of the service. "It's full of rituals that date back centuries," he says. "And the service is not broken up by anything that distracts from the worship of Christ, like church announcements. Other Lutherans consider it 'high church.'"
A place like Mt. Olive, with gay men worshiping openly in church, would have raised eyebrows in Nelson's hometown of Belmond, Iowa, population 2,560. During high school, Nelson was into choir, band, and theater. While he snuck looks at other guys in the hallway, he always had a girlfriend.
Nelson was involved with the Lutheran church from the day of his baptism. He participated in youth group and by his senior year was looking forward to the day he could attend seminary. He went to Waldorf College, a tiny Lutheran school in Forest City, Iowa, where he majored in church music and learned how to play the pipe organ.
Deciding which seminary to attend was easy for Nelson. His childhood pastor had gone to Luther, as had all of his favorite professors at Waldorf. "I didn't think about it much," he says. "Luther was perfect—close to home, but far enough away."
It was at Luther that Nelson finally found the strength to say out loud what he had long felt in his heart.
"I was finally able to live into my sexuality. And when I came out to myself, it was very freeing. The highest of highs," he says. "I know it seems counterintuitive, but seminary allows people to find who they are, a sort of grounding. I know that sounds contrived, but it's true."
For his thesis, Nelson set about exploring the Christian understanding of marriage and how it relates to homosexuality. He mentions that Jesus never brought up the subject. Not once. "But," he adds, "I'm trying to understand what the text is trying to say without manipulating it. We all come to the Bible with preconceived notions. The challenge is to go in and see what we see."
While his original intention with seminary was ordination, he's since left that career track. He only knows of one gay man at Luther who is going for full ordination.
Gay men at Luther are stuck between two worlds, Nelson says. They are too gay for the campus, but too religious for the gay clubs in downtown Minneapolis.
"I never lead by telling a guy I'm in seminary," he says. "Guys might start confessing they don't go to church. And people assume you're going to be a pastor, or worse."
He relates a story of how one person thought he spent his days walking around in prayer, hands folded, while making sure not to make eye contact. "They were picturing monks," he says with a laugh. "But that's not the norm, thankfully, as Minneapolis is a little different in that there are so many gay Christians."
• • • • •
AT BETHEL EVANGELICALLutheran Church in southMinneapolis, Brenda Frois-land prepares for the ba-ptism of an infant. The 42-year-old from Iowa meets several times with the family to discuss the process. She goes over the prayers and reminds the parents that they'll be making a promise to grow their faith in front of 125 congegration members.
Froisland has a small but potent voice. When she stands in front of the congregation saying prayers with the family and baby, people listen.
Most every Sunday, Froisland wears a white robe and assists the pastor however she can. But on baptism days, she plays her most prominent role. She directs the entire congregation right up to the critical point.
Then she stops.
Pastor Mark Warpmaeker steps in, takes hold of the baby, and dips its head in holy water.
"I'm right there through the whole process," Froisland says. "Yet the policy says that the person I fell in love with prevents me from doing the actual baptism."
Froisland had been single for six years, and worked as a residential life director at several state colleges, including Mankato, before deciding to attend Luther Seminary. She was also a closeted lesbian.
She knew the policies of the church, but didn't expect to fall in love her first year. Mary, a friend she knew from graduate school in the '80s, had flown into town. She was moving to Minneapolis to study library science at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul. After meeting with her to watch a volleyball game at the University of Minnesota, Froisland began to get nervous. She felt herself drawn to the woman. Eventually, she started to create space.
"We'd purposely not see each other," she says. "But I continued to fall for her. And as I started to get closer with her, I flat-out told her why I couldn't have this relationship, saying how it could ruin my call to ministry. But nothing worked. In the end, love was stronger than walls."
Froisland kept the relationship with Mary a secret to her synod. She passed through the first two candidacy meetings. Then one day during her third year, she got an email from Anita Hill, a lesbian and pastor at St. Paul Reformation Church. Hill was encouraging others to write letters to a church-wide task force that was coming up with a social statement on human sexuality.
"The task force was only getting letters against gay and lesbian ordination," Froisland recalls. "And so I took up Anita's message and wrote a personal letter of my own."
She composed an email that she planned to send out to her friends. It included a disclaimer that read, "But whatever you do, don't mention my name. I am not out."
When Froisland went to her address book and started adding in names, it finally dawned on her the amount of support that was in her and Mary's corner. "I thought about it and realized there was nothing to be scared about," she says. She immediately went back to the message and took out the disclaimer. With that one action, she says, she reclaimed her integrity. Now she just had to explain it to her synod.
During the final approval stage of her candidacy, her synod required her to answer eight questions. She added a three-page addendum in which she wrote about her life with Mary.
The same day she sent off the essays to the synod, she received good news: Bethel had decided to offer her the position of youth and family minister.
A few weeks later, she went before the committee. In an interview that lasted an hour and 15 minutes, the committee decided to uphold the policy against ordaining practicing lesbians. They couldn't bring themselves to deny her candidacy, so it was postponed indefinitely.
"All were personally supportive," she says, and then looks out the window of the Firefly coffee bistro in Minneapolis at cars passing by on Cedar Avenue. "But all feel caught by the system."
Froisland attended the church-wide assembly in Chicago and participated in the failed vote to overturn the rules barring gays and lesbians in relationships from serving. While she doesn't believe anything will change when the church meets next year in Minneapolis, she says that a small part of her remains hopeful.
"I think that whether we are willing to admit it or not, the church as a whole better understands the grace of God," she says. "Gays and lesbians in committed relationships who are called to ministry are everywhere."
She takes a sip of her coffee, and adds that even her 76-year-old mother, who came from a conservative Lutheran congregation, is able to accept her.
"We've won the struggle," she says. "The holy spirit is working. Now it's just time for the church to catch up with God."
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