The Church Council of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) has established a working group to explore ministry and pastoral care for same-gender couples and their families. “Ministry to and with Same-Gender Couples and their Families” was established in response to action taken by the 2013 ELCA Churchwide Assembly, approving a memorial regarding conversations about ministering to same-gender couples and families. Memorials are proposals for action presented to the churchwide assembly by the 65 ELCA synods considered during their individual assemblies.
The working group is tasked with exploring the ministry and “bringing a recommendation to the Church Council regarding appropriate next steps in carrying out these commitments to pastoral care for same-gender couples and their families,” said George Watson, chair of the working group. Watson is a member of St. Martin Lutheran in Port Huron, Mich., and an associate member of St. James Lutheran in Grosse Pointe Farms, Mich.
In its recommendation to the 2013 Churchwide Assembly, the memorials committee noted the commitments made by the 2009 Churchwide Assembly in adopting the social statement on human sexuality. The social statement says, “This church acknowledges that consensus does not exist concerning how to regard same-gender committed relationships, even after many years of thoughtful, respectful, and faithful study and conversation.” The statement continues, “We
further believe that this church, on the basis of ‘the bound conscience,’ will include these different understandings and practices within its life as it seeks to live out its mission and ministry in the world.” The social statement contains four convictions about human sexuality based on the conscience-bound beliefs of members of the ELCA.
Watson said the working group will be intentional in obtaining information from members in all four convictions in order to “discover what conversation(s) are already happening, how they started and how they are going. We will also learn what resources are already out there, whether they need adjustments, and what is missing that people would find helpful.”
“One thought that seemed to resonate with the group is that the decisions made in 2009 are not the end of the conversation, but the beginning of an ongoing dialogue on how all members of the ELCA, regardless of which of the four convictions they fall into, can live into those decisions,” he said.
Watson, who is in a same-sex relationship, noted that “unless intentional ministry is done, there is a good chance that same-gender couples will feel, at best, second-class and, at worst, tokens and excluded. Many LBGT people come to the ELCA, or come back to the ELCA, with a great deal of hurt over having been treated in very harmful ways. They need special care to feel that they are indeed accepted and welcomed as they are. The alternative is that they may fall away from the church.”
The Rev. Erma Wolf, pastor of American Lutheran Church in Hawarden, Iowa, and also a member of the working group, said the first meeting “was the start of really listening to one another, of speaking with lowered defenses, and of beginning to find common ground with one another while also respecting our different convictions and perspectives.”
“As someone who finds herself closest to conviction two, I need to advocate for both conviction four and conviction one, that both are doing pastoral care for same-gender couples and their families and both need resources that are supportive of their convictions,” said Wolf.
In the social statement, conviction two reads in part, “On the basis of conscience-bound belief, some are convinced that homosexuality and even lifelong, monogamous, homosexual relationships reflect a broken world in which some relationships do not pattern themselves after the creation God intended.”
Wolf said an “important first step” for the working group “was talking about the existence of, and continuing situation of, there being a lack of consensus regarding same-gender committed relationships across the ELCA.”
Watson said ultimately the recommendations from the working group will “propose how to get conversations going throughout the church on ministry to and with same-gender couples and their families. We recognize that the conversations may be very different depending on where congregations and individuals fall within the four convictions described in the social statement. We recognize that it is not the purpose of these conversations to changes anyone’s position, but rather to discuss how and what kind of ministry can be done in varying contexts.”
Smith Heavner, a member of Christ the King Lutheran in Greenville, S.C., described the initial group meeting as the members realized “we’re all on the same page.” Heavner, who is gay, said that after sharing experiences with the group, he discovered, “this is the same pain, this is the same distress, of not feeling like I am important, of not feeling like I am valued. It was a very enlightening moment to realize we are all sharing the same pain,” he said.
“But I think the greater ELCA is the same,” he continued. “If we look at Martin Luther’s teachings, we are a people who come out of questioning the people around us. And this culture, we’re kind of abandoning that if we don’t allow ourselves to live together when we don’t agree.”
“For all four convictions to be included as the social statement declares means that each conviction has a place at the tables of the ELCA, but no one conviction has a privileged place in the ELCA. This is so counter-cultural that it takes my breath away,” said Wolf, who emphasized that “to do serious public work to ensure that all four convictions found in (the social statement) are included, listened to, respected, consulted, and supported appropriately, can be an important step, perhaps a crucial step, to rebuilding a culture of trust and mutual care within this portion of the body of Christ.”
Watson says he hopes through the process of the working group, “the ELCA may discover that there is a need for continuing conversations about how to live together in the midst of our diverse convictions and that these conversations may prove to be life-giving for the church.”
Wolf acknowledged that there is “a lot of work ahead of us, in this working group and beyond. I ask the prayers of others in the ELCA for this group as we try to make this work, for the sake of the continued ministry of the ELCA.”