Historic Lutheran vote allows gays to preach God's word

Lauren Wendt celebrates her full inclusion in the ELCA
Bradley Campbell

Wearing a robin's-egg blue prayer shawl, a pastel skirt, and plum-colored glasses, Lauren Wendt stands before a group of 53 people. A 27-year-old graduate of Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Wendt has known she was gay since the age of 12, and known she was destined to be a minister since the November 2004 day when God called her to his service.

Wendt is a volunteer coordinator for Goodsoil, a Lutheran group working for the full inclusion of gays and lesbians (people of all sexual orientations and gender identities) in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. That's why she's in front of the group. She wants them to understand the gravity of their challenge. And she wants nothing but positive dialogue coming from her volunteers, she tells them: Avoid debating scripture with scripture, be aware that many here have never met an openly gay or lesbian person in their lives, and tell your personal stories.

"It builds relationships," she says. "And it's difficult for people to argue with a personal story. So I'll start by telling you mine."

Wendt informs the group that two years ago she attended the church-wide assembly in Chicago as a visitor. As she sat through the voting process that year, watching members vote to continue the ELCA's ban on practicing gays and lesbians in the pulpit, she became well acquainted with the pain of exclusion.

"I don't want anyone to ever experience that feeling," she says to the group. "That's why I'm here. And that's why I think changing church policy is important."

Several hours later, she's inside one of the giant meeting halls at the Minneapolis Convention Center. What makes Wendt nervous tonight is a motion to amend the rules and require a two-thirds majority for any policy change. Historically, it's taken a simple majority to pass any policy. But church members in opposition of full inclusion want it upped to a supermajority because, as they say, they want the church to speak with one voice.

Before the vote, Bishop Hanson calls the group to prayer. Wendt buries her head in her lap. She starts to quiver. When the bishop calls for the vote, she looks back up. Voting members take hold of small remotes and punch in their choice. A scroll bar fills at the bottom of the giant projection screens. As if hosting a game show, the bishop calls for the results to appear on screen.

The amendment fails.

Wendt exhales with relief. Each breath smoothes her shaking body. The first hurdle of full inclusion for gays and lesbians in the ELCA is over. But ahead are two steeper challenges.

On Wednesday, a tornado plows through downtown Minneapolis, a freak storm that topples trees and damages the convention center and Central Lutheran Church. Some inside the hall make joking references to the storm being a warning from God. They are about to begin debate on a social statement on human sexuality, including sections that validate the lives of people like Wendt.

Wendt sits at the back of the enormous conference room, brown hair with light curls dancing about her neck, a diamond eternity band around her ring finger. She's getting "married," she says, quotations included, to her longtime girlfriend. The ceremony will be held at Edina Community Lutheran Church, the place where she works and is beloved by her members.

"She's really a wonderful gift, a wonderful example of how you live your daily life," says Wendt's boss, Pastor Erik Strand of Edina Community. "People really appreciate her and look to her for a lot of insight."

Unlike ministry policy, passing a social statement takes a supermajority. Before the vote, the bishop once again calls for silent prayer, and Wendt again lowers her head. The room gets deathly still, save for the whir of the fans above. As the bishop reads the outcome, he takes a long pause before allowing the church to see the vote totals. When he does, an audible gasp fills the room.

The group voted 676 in favor, 338 against. Exactly two-thirds.

Wendt can't believe it. As she exits the convention center, she's in a state of mild shock. One vote. One single vote passed the social statement. One conversation did it.

"It was divine intervention," she says. "You want to see the Holy Spirit at work? There you go."

That night, Wendt gathers with hundreds of worshipers at Central Lutheran Church for a service of solidarity. While parts of the building experienced significant damage from the tornado, including a bent steeple atop its arches, the worship hall remains untouched. In one of the middle pews sits Wendt, her fiancée's arm around her, the love of hundreds surrounding her, all singing with joy.

Give me Jesus. You can have the rest. But give me Jesus.

BY FRIDAY MORNING, Wendt looks exhausted. She's been taking sleeping pills at night because otherwise she's too nervous to fall asleep. A coral-colored prayer shawl drapes her shoulders, providing warmth in the air-conditioned room.

The first in a series of parliamentary moves begins immediately when former governor and ELCA voting member Albert Quie puts forth a substitute motion. He asks the church to strike all four of their proposed ministry policy changes for one that reads: "Rostered leadership of this church who are homosexual in their self understanding are expected to abstain from homosexual sexual relations, and practicing homosexual persons are precluded from rostered leadership in the church."

He reads the words with a slow, authoritative cadence, punctuating the noun "homosexual" in a disapproving tone. Despite his former title, he has little impact on the group.

The motion fails.

The following hours show a steady procession of voting members coming to the microphones to exhale their final pleas. The once large majority of Lutherans who were against the full inclusion of gays and lesbians in their church have been overwhelmed—they are now the minority.

One woman comes forward in tears, begging the church not to pass the policy change. Another man informs the group his church will look at ways to leave the ELCA if it accepts gays and lesbians in the pulpit.

It takes three motions before the church finally decides to end debate on the policy change.

For a final time Wendt bows her head into her lap for prayer. She starts to quiver again, greater this time, her nerves about to burst. Silence fills the space around her.

The bishop once again calls for a vote. Thousands of Lutherans press a button on their remotes. The results appear for all to see. Wendt looks up. She smiles. Then she sobs. One by one, friends and church members lay their arms on her.

She's their minister. It's official. 

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