A Modern Reformation: The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Inclusion
Christopher L. S. Whitaker
Recent studies show that the opinions of society are changing in regard to LGBT inclusionary rights. Correspondingly, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) has become inclusive towards sexual minorities. While looking at the history of the ELCA and the research conducted inside the church, this paper clearly demonstrates the changing views of the denomination and their members.
Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust, an ELCA social statement, was the beginning of a new era in the church. This 2009 decision has led to a more complete inclusion of LGBT minorities, support for same-sex marriages, and has allowed gays and lesbians to complete their call of ordination. These changing views can be contributed to a variety of social, religious, and political factors; however, the leading force of LGBT inclusion and changing views are simply personal contact with this minority in both religious and non-religious settings.
Gays, lesbians, and the church, oh my; this once taboo topic is now one of the most relevant issues in the church. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) issues are at the forefront of the 21st century. A modern reformation is at hand and many denominations are taking a stance on the LGBT matters that have been controversial. One church in particular, The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), has been a church on the forefront of LGBT inclusion. From the welcoming of sexual minorities to the rostering of LGBT leadership, the ELCA has come a long way since its formation in 1988.
As the largest Lutheran church in North America, the ELCA has played a vital role in the advocacy of LGBT rights in the religious life of its adherents. The changing policies in the ELCA were preceded by changing views in society. Since 2001, individual perceptions of sexual minorities have seen great strides in acceptance. In fact, according to the Pew Research Center, our societies’ attitude towards homosexuality have shown significantly more acceptance in nearly every social group (i.e. men and women, blacks and whites, Catholics and Protestants, etc.). While experts have tracked the changing attitudes towards the acceptance of sexual minorities, they have not always explained the attributing reasons why this change is occurring.
When looking at the brief history of the ELCA, we can track these changing attitudes. I conducted research inside the ELCA in search of the reasons why these changes are occurring. I found that these changing attitudes can be attributed to a variety of social, religious, and political influences; however, in the ELCA, the leading factor why these attitudes change to become more accepting of sexual minorities can be undoubtedly attributed to personal interaction and experiences with this group in both religious and non-religious settings.
Before exploring the research and the implications of why these changes are occurring, let us first look at the history of LGBT issues within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in American.
Review of ELCA History: Human Sexuality
The American Lutheran Church (ALC), the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches (ELC), and the Lutheran Church in America (LCA) merged in 1987 to form what is known today as the ELCA. As these three Lutheran churches molded into one, policies and social statements from the predecessor bodies carried over into the ELCA. One such social statement, held by the ALC and LCA, stated that marriage was between one man and one woman. This statement also indicated that the church would refrain from the blessing of same-sex unions, would not ordain practicing homosexuals, yet it would allow the ordination of celibate homosexuals. Consequently, these issues were reflected in the writing of the ELCA’s Visions and Expectations (1990), which states: “Ordained ministers who are homosexual in self-understanding are expected to abstain from homosexual relationships.”
In 1993, the ELCA’s Conference of Bishops took a stance on the issue of homosexual relationships:
“We, as the Conference of Bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, recognize that there is a basis neither in scripture nor tradition for the establishment of an official ceremony by this church for the blessing of a homosexual relationship. We, therefore, do not approve such a ceremony as an official action of the church’s ministry.”
However, this firm stance by the Conference of Bishops about homosexual relationships was followed up with a stance affirming gay and lesbians in ministry:
“Nevertheless, we express trust in and will continue dialogue with those pastors and congregations who are in ministry with gay and lesbian persons, and affirm their desire to explore the best ways to provide pastoral care for all to whom they minister.”
As the early ELCA was establishing policies and developing its denominational beliefs, it was evident that there was unrest surrounding the issue of homosexuality. At the 1995 biannual Churchwide Assembly the delegates asked for ‘words of prayer and pastoral concern and encouragement’ for gay and lesbian persons within this church. As a response to the assembly’s request, the Conference of Bishops issued a letter to the church entitled: A Word of Welcome to Gay and Lesbian Persons. One brief excerpt reads:
“To gay and lesbian members, we write to you in hope and out of faith. We all live with the pain of a church that experiences sharp disagreements on some issues. Yet we walk beside you and we value your gifts and commitment to the Church.”
This letter from the Conference of Bishops was preceded by Churchwide Assembly actions which identified ‘gay and lesbian people as individuals created by God, who are welcome to participate fully in the life of the congregations of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (1991).’ Delegates to the assembly also professed a ‘strong opposition to all forms of verbal or physical harassment or assault of persons because of their sexual orientation,’ while simultaneously supporting the civil rights of all persons, regardless of their sexual orientation (1993). These actions were mentioned in the early 90’s, but it took nearly twenty years for the ELCA’s social and ministry policies to sufficiently reflect these edicts of those Churchwide Assemblies. However, the primary purpose of the Conference of Bishops’ letter was not to make policy changes, but simply to extend a welcoming hand to LGBT members of the ELCA. This was just the beginning of the tension forming within the Church; a tension wanting social acceptance but not welcoming full inclusion.
In 2001, the ELCA was facing much criticism from LGBT advocacy groups demanding ‘full participation’ in the Church. Consequently, at the Churchwide Assembly in Indianapolis, the assembly voted in favor “to initiate a process in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to develop a social statement on human sexuality.” The development of a social statement on human sexuality was an idea that had been on the backburner since the Churchwide Assembly in 1991. Therefore, voting to initiate a process to develop this social statement was a big move for the ELCA. A Task Force on Sexuality was formed shortly after the assembly and they conducted various scriptural studies with Biblical scholars, as well as other forums and conversations with congregations.
Action on the sexuality issue was set to take place at the Churchwide Assembly in 2005. Recognizing the complexity of this issue at hand, the Task Force brought three recommendations to the assembly floor:
Recommendation 1: “concentrate on finding ways to live together faithfully in the midst of disagreements, recognizing the God-given mission and communion we share as members of the body of Christ”
Recommendation 2: “continue to respect the guidance of the 1993 statement of the Conference of Bishops, which found no basis for establishing an official ceremony for the blessing of a homosexual relationship.” (Passed 670-323)
Recommendation 3: “… a process… which may permit exceptions to the expectations regarding sexual conduct for gay or lesbian candidates and rostered leaders in life-long, committed and faithful same-sex relationships.” (Defeated 490-503)
Even after the assembly, the issue of LGBT “full participation” in the ELCA remained a hot topic; yet, in the 2005 report of the ELCA Task Force on Human Sexuality, only 22 percent of ELCA members who responded to the study favored change in the church in regard to same-sex relationships. With these conflicting views pulling the ELCA from both sides of the spectrum, members of the Task Force went back to work, conducting more studies within the scripture and with congregations. Inside the ELCA, the Task Force was widely praised for their comprehensive study materials that helped form better understanding of homosexuality. As studies came to an end in 2008, the ELCA was faced with a social statement that could potentially divide an entire denomination.
After the Task Force’s study and deliberation concluded, a draft of the ELCA’s social statement, known as Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust, which was released in February 2008. This draft was amended at the Churchwide Assembly in August 2009 before the vote was taken. The social statement addresses, among other topics, marriage, same-gender relationships, families, protecting children, friendships, commitment, social responsibility and moral discernment.
Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust was the social statement that began a new age in the life and policies of the ELCA. The ELCA is a confessional church; meaning, they articulate their beliefs in writing. These beliefs include everything from the Book of Concord (1580) to current ELCA social statements and Confession of Faith. According to the ELCA, social statements are “teaching documents that assist members in their thinking about social issues. They are meant to aid in communal and individual moral formation and deliberation. Social statements also set policy for this church and guide its advocacy and work in the public arena."
As Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust attempts to address a spectrum of concerns relevant to human sexuality, we see a ‘distinctly Lutheran approach’ to the issues addressed. A theological concept that surrounded the decision of the ELCA became known as ‘bound conscience.’ This ‘bound conscience’ was a concept that goes back to Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms: “it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.” In essence, because ‘it is neither safe nor right’ to go against individual conscience, an individual must recognize and adhere to their own moral convictions. However, Lutherans are bound by conscience towards one another and the understanding that there are different ideas surrounding the legitimacy and desirability of LGBT inclusion.
The Task Force correctly recognized the split consciences of the ELCA’s diverse attitudes and found ‘common ground.’ The statement identifies that 'the historic Christian tradition and the Lutheran Confessions have recognized marriage as a covenant between a man and a woman.' Conversely, the ELCA recognizes the benefits of same-gender, lifelong, monogamous relationships:
"Recognizing that this conclusion differs from the historic Christian tradition and the Lutheran Confessions, some people, though not all, in this church and within the larger Christian community, conclude that marriage is also the appropriate term to use in describing similar benefits, protection, and support for same-gender couples entering into lifelong, monogamous relationships. They believe that such accountable relationships also provide the necessary foundation that supports trust and familial and community thriving"
Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust made great strides towards the equality of same-gender relationships in the church. The social statement articulates that the ELCA is opposed to all forms of violence or discrimination against homosexuals and is committed to welcoming all people, regardless of sexual orientation, and their families into ELCA congregations. However, many in the ELCA’s major LGBT advocacy group, Goodsoil, did not think the church took a firm enough stance on the issue.
After much discussion, consideration, and prayer the assembly called the question and “The Vote” was taken. As a voting member of the 2009 Churchwide Assembly, I witnessed firsthand the angst of an entire denomination. When the results flashed on the screen, a unified gasp filled the air. Social statements require a two-thirds majority for adoption. The social statement on human sexuality was adopted by a vote of 676-338, exactly the two-thirds required. This split among the assembly delegates is a direct reflection of the split in the ‘bound conscience’ of the ELCA.
With the adoption of the social statement, four resolutions proposed by the Church Council regarding the ELCA’s ministry policies remained on the floor. These resolutions were recommended for adoption by the Recommendations Committee of the 2009 Churchwide Assembly (in the order addressed):
Resolution 3: “Resolved, that in the implementation of any resolutions on ministry policies, the ELCA commit itself to bear one another's burdens, love the neighbor, and respect the bound consciences of all." (Passed 771-230)
Resolution 1: “Resolved, that the ELCA commit itself to finding ways to allow congregations that choose to do so to recognize, support and hold publicly accountable lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships.” (Passed 619-402)
Resolution 2: “Resolved, that the ELCA commit itself to finding a way for people in such publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships to serve as rostered leaders of this church.” (Passed 559-451)
Resolution 4: “This resolution called upon members to respect the bound consciences of those with whom they disagree; declared the intent to allow structured flexibility in decision-making about candidacy and the call process; eliminated the prohibition of rostered service by members in publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous same-gender relationships; recognized and committed to respect the conviction of members who believe that the ELCA should not call or roster people in committed same-gender relationships; called for development of accountability guidelines; directed that appropriate amendments to ministry policy documents be drafted and approved by the Church Council; and urged that this church continue to trust congregations, bishops, synods and others responsible for determining who should be called into public ministry.” (Passed 667-307)
Each resolution adopted by the assembly changed the ELCA and its identity as a denomination. The ELCA’s Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust and the resolutions passed regarding the ELCA’s ministry policies began a new era in the church. An era seeking to answer the question: “how do we understand human sexuality within the context of Jesus’ invitation to love God and love our neighbor?” How the ELCA answers this question is still unknown; but, the hope is to live out God’s commandment as a united body in Christ.
The ELCA’s history regarding sexual minorities and the church has come a long way in their twenty-five years. A progressive shift in acceptance and inclusion for sexual minorities is reflected in the teaching, confessions, and practices of ELCA. From an expectation that self-identified homosexual clergy would abstain from homosexual relationships to the welcoming and ordination of monogamous, practicing homosexuals into the ministry, this Church has seen a shift in policies.
After “The Vote”
As the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America moves into the future, it remains a serious question whether or not this denomination can live united through this disagreement. Abraham Lincoln said, “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” Only time will tell if this holds true within the ELCA.
From a report by the ELCA’s Office of the Secretary at 2011 Churchwide Assembly, it was noted that over 600 ELCA congregations voted to leave the denomination. Twenty-nine of these congregations were from the state of Illinois and six from Missouri. Many of the congregations who left the ELCA joined other Lutheran church bodies, such as, the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (LCMS) and the newly formed North American Lutheran Church (NALC).
Leadership inside the ELCA is proactively combatting the ‘divided house.’ After the 2009 assembly, the Church Council enacted a new Task Force to help the ELCA move into the future. This task force became known as LIFT (Living Into the Future Together). The LIFT Task Force “is concerned with the future identity of this church as it faces the challenges posed by the major changes that have occurred in both our culture and the ELCA since this church’s founding in 1988.”
At the 2011 Churchwide Assembly, the LIFT Task Force brought a variety of resolutions to the floor to unite the ELCA and help it to grow into the future. Delegates to the assembly voted to:
Make support for the work of congregations one of the highest priorities of this church and requested congregations, in collaboration with synods, to begin, develop, review or redefine their unique mission plans by the end of 2012;
Build and strengthen relationships with this church’s global companions and ecumenical partners, focusing on accompaniment, mutual growth, capacity-building and sustainability of relationships;
Authorize the Church Council, in consultation with the Conference of Bishops and Communal Discernment Task Force, to establish a review process of current procedures for the development and adoption of social statements.
Uniting a ‘divided house’ is no easy job and it is going to take time. As a voting delegate of the 2011 Churchwide Assembly, it was very evident that there were still a lot of bitter feelings around the decisions made at the 2009 assembly. Resolutions around LIFT were a brief glimpse of light in the divided ELCA. Nearly four years after the vote, it is still a mystery where the ELCA is heading; however, it is evident that the ELCA must live into the future together despite the division.
When looking back on the history of the ELCA, from its formation to the present time, we see a very dramatic shift in thinking about homosexuality in the church. From the statement adopted by the Conference of Bishops in 1993 to the 2009 social statement on human sexuality, an evident change has occurred in the ELCA’s views and perceptions of sexual minorities. Many of the arguments against the ELCA’s social statement on human sexuality were based around the idea that homosexuality did not have a clear scriptural basis, nor was there a compelling basis for Biblical reinterpretation. On the contrary, many were arguing in favor of the statement because it was a road towards justice, hospitality, and unity within the ELCA. With these and many other arguments (for and against the social statement) consistently flowing at the Churchwide Assembly I began to wonder: what are the ‘factors’ that form the foundation of individual attitude towards sexual minorities in the ELCA? How do these factors change, evolve, or stay the same?
As a way to gain insight into these provoking questions, I designed a qualitative research project seeking answers to the following questions: what are the establishing factors that create an individual’s attitude towards sexual minorities, and, ultimately, what are the reasons (if applicable) behind the changing attitudes of individuals. As a means to conduct this research, I worked with McKendree University’s humanities department, as well as the ELCA’s Central States and Central/ Southern Illinois Synods. With the help and cooperation of these entities, I was able to conduct my qualitative research in the chosen region.
I began my research by surveying and interviewing clergy and lay members at a sampling of ELCA congregations in the metro-St. Louis area and the more rural areas of the synod. This area on the border of Missouri and Illinois provided a unique sampling of rural, suburban, and urban ELCA congregations to study.
I conducted seven personal interviews with clergy and lay participants. The interviews began by acquiring information about their church background (previous denominations, average attendance, etc.). These questions lead into their positions on certain LGBT issues facing the church (civil unions, gay adoption, etc.). From this point, I asked questions attempting to find out how and why these attitudes were formed and if they have changed over time. Finally, I asked if the ELCA should do more to promote the inclusion of sexual minorities in the church and what should children in the ELCA be taught in regard to LGBT persons.
The surveys consisted of questions about age, gender, number of years in the ELCA, whether or not they have been a part of any other denomination, location of their congregation, average attendance, and whether or not LGBT issues play a significant (or any) role in their congregation. Next, I asked about their stance on social issues inside the ELCA (ministry policies, gay marriage, gay adoption, etc.). Finally, to receive more qualitative information I asked open ended questions about the factors that have influenced their attitudes toward sexual minorities, how they justify these attitudes, whether these attitudes evolved or changed over time, and whether the ELCA should do more to promote LGBT inclusion.
While interviewing and surveying members of various congregations, I found that individuals with accepting attitudes toward sexual minorities in the church have these attitudes primarily due to social factors outside the church doctrine. Specifically, individuals who have personal relationships with sexual minorities are, generally speaking, much more accepting across the board. Therefore, it can be inferred that personal interactions with LGBT persons are the primary factors of change in individual attitudes toward this minority, and consequently, these attitudes carry over into the full acceptance of sexual minorities in the ELCA.
My research shows that 96 percent of individuals in favor of the full acceptance of sexual minorities into the life of the church indicated a personal relationship with a person identifying as LGBT (i.e. family, friends, co-workers, etc.). Of this 96 percent, nearly 30 percent mentioned having a gay or lesbian member in their family. When asked the question, ‘Explain how you justify your attitude towards sexual minorities’, one participant wrote:
“[I justify my attitude by] Getting to know LGBT persons as individuals, recognizing commitment in their relationships, [and the] Study of Scripture and related educational material. All of these pointed me toward the realization that God’s love is all-inclusive and so also should be our love and acceptance of one another.”
This response was a reoccurring theme for participants that showed accepting and welcoming attitudes towards sexual minorities in the church.
When asked the question: ‘have your attitudes towards LGBT persons changed, evolved, or stayed the same over time?’ nearly a third of individuals mentioned a change from non-supportive to supportive or from indifferent to ‘actively supportive.’ Personal relationships and the evolving understanding that sexuality is not just a ‘choice’ were the primary factors that contributed to these changing attitudes in the individual.
At the other end of the spectrum, no individual surveyed mentioned reverting from supportive of sexual minorities to non-supportive. The mere fact that no individuals surveyed mentioned reverting from supportive to non-supportive stands, by itself, as verification to a one-sided shift in the acceptance of sexual minorities.
Every individual surveyed who opposed social equality for sexual minorities mentioned homosexuality as a sin or the overall scripture as a justification of their attitude. Many mentioned Biblical morality, sacredness of the scripture, and ‘it was not God’s plan.’ One respondent wrote:
“Many people look at Leviticus as an ‘outdated’ Biblical source because of many of the un-followed laws. But the morality of humanity found in scripture should not be disbanded. ‘A man should not lay with another man’ was not written to be looked over or reinterpreted. It was written as a moral law to be observed. It was written as a part of God’s plan.”
Another respondent wrote, simply:
“It is NOT biblical to allow gay and lesbian relationships, clergy, or saying homosexuality is ‘okay.’”
Homosexual, gay, queer, lesbian, fag, and other terms bring negative social stigmas to ‘being gay,’ nevertheless, the negative stigma of ‘being gay’ is changing. My research shows that for the millennial generation, being gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered no longer needs to be a hidden lifestyle. There is still much intolerance around the idea of LGBT rights, but a generational acceptance is forming. It is no longer a social damnation if you are gay. In fact, ‘gayness’ is often glorified in the form of parades and a striving for social equality. This generational divide was evident throughout my research. With the fewer negative stereotypes associated with ‘being gay’ there is more acceptances.
While the sampling size was small, of individuals over the age of 65, 78 percent were against the full inclusion of sexual minorities in the ELCA. Very few of the individuals in this demographic mentioned any sort of interaction with that minority. However, on the other end of the age spectrum, 85 percent of surveyed individuals between the ages of 18 to 29 were in favor of full inclusion in the church. This generational divide in the acceptance of sexual minorities in the church is astounding; however, this too can be attributed to open and cooperative interaction with LGBT persons.
Every participant that was in favor of the inclusion of sexual minorities between the ages of 18-29 mentioned social interaction with LGBT persons. However, of the 22 percent of participants over the age of 65 in favor of LGBT inclusion in the church, only 33 percent mentioned interaction with sexual minorities as a justification of their attitude. One factor contributing to the generational divide of attitudes towards homosexuality is the openness and acceptance of homosexuality. One young participant wrote:
“[I] did not even know what homosexuality was until Junior High. As I child I had the simple mindset that people should be with whom they feel most happy. As I have grown older this has stayed the same and only become stronger... LGBT is like race or color. It is not chosen, and does not in itself define the person’s morals. Being against gay marriage is like being against interracial marriage. Being against gays is like being against Blacks or Hispanics or Whites.”
On the contrary, an older participant wrote:
“My tolerance to a lifestyle I do not approve of applies to many situations. I am not to judge. I am uncomfortable approving the lifestyle of gays and lesbians same as adulterers, those with addictions, pedophiles and others. I am not to judge, just tolerate.”
With these two responses, we see a radically different generational outlook. While these views are not held by everybody in the specific age bracket, the generational divide was overwhelming.
When asked the question: In general, do you feel free to express your opinion about lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender issue in the church, only 21 percent of respondents from rural congregations answered ‘yes.’ This is dramatically lower than the 53 percent who said ‘yes’ in the suburban and urban congregations. The information that can be inferred from this statistical analysis is relevant to an interview I conducted with a pastor from a rural congregation in Illinois.
This interview with ‘pastor K’ was very eye-opening for me. In 2009, the ELCA changed its ministry policies to allow individuals who are in ‘publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships to serve as rostered leaders of this church.’ However, implementing resolutions on the issue allowed for the ‘calling’ of these individuals up to the congregation; meaning, a congregation would only have a pastor that identifies as LGBT if they ‘called’ that pastor. While having that power, the congregation also has the final say on whether or not their current pastor can bless same-gender relationships, conduct civil unions, or conduct same-gender marriages.
As the interview began, pastor K explained his proactive views about the inclusivity of sexual minorities. He justified his attitude by saying simply:
“Christ died for all. Love is universal. Love is for all. Christ’s love has no boundaries, no sexual orientation, no race, no preference, and no inequality; neither should Christ’s church.”
His congregation, however, had a different understanding about the issue. Just a few weeks before the interview, his congregation voted (almost unanimously) against allowing him to conduct a civil union ceremony for a member of their small community. Pastor K described his congregation as ‘set in their ways’ and ‘fearful of negative social stigmas.’ While exploring this more, he explains:
“I have been the pastor of this congregation for 17 years; the only thing that has changed is the hymnal. This is a ‘fading’ congregation that is set in their ways… Many of the members of my congregation fear that taking a stance on the issue [LGBT inclusion/rights] will result in a loss of members and, ultimately, a loss of money for the church… but the biggest issue faced by my congregation is the social embarrassment of taking an affirmative stance on gay and lesbian issues. We are one of only three congregations in the community… our members do not want to be known as the ‘gay friendly’ church. That is just a product of their past.”
With hard financial times faced by many congregations, it is difficult to take a stance on any discordant issue. The churchwide expression of the ELCA saw a 3 million dollar decrease in benevolence funding between 2009 and 2011. This is directly linked to the 2009 decision and churches leaving the ELCA. For a small, financially unsound congregation to take a stance on this issue could be a deadly blow. What I found the most difficult to comprehend while interviewing pastor K was the association an ‘inclusive attitude’ had with negative social stigmas of his community. The fear of being known as ‘gay friendly’ was greater than the courage it takes to stand for social equality.
As I became informed about pastor K’s congregation, it became clear to me that many other congregations are undoubtedly dealing with similar financial and social uncertainties. 38 participants in my research identified their congregation as being in a rural setting. In this demographic, 47 percent were against the full inclusion of sexual minorities in the church. In the suburban setting, 74 percent were in favor of full inclusion; and, in the urban setting, 83 percent were in favor of full inclusion.
These dramatic differences in acceptance seen between these geographical locations can be attributed to additional openness to LGBT individuals in urban and suburban areas. In these settings, interaction with sexual minorities is a common occurrence, and, often times, homosexual individuals are not even given a second glance because of their differences. With this personal interaction much more relevant, it is contingently going to affect an individual’s attitude towards this minority. In essence, your level of social interaction with sexual minorities is going to shape your views of this minority; and, ultimately, with increased social interaction, the better perception, understanding, and acceptance you have of LGBT persons.
Just a few decades ago, homosexuality was a ‘closeted’ phenomenon. Today, the inclusion and rights of sexual minorities are at the forefront of relevance in both the religious and political arena. The ELCA has begun to make great strides towards the full acceptance of LGBT minorities; but, as a united body in Christ, the ELCA still has years before the full acceptance of sexual minorities is a complete reality throughout the church. And, many more years before sexual minorities are seen as equals in the church.
Implications and Conclusions
As one of the largest Lutheran church bodies in the world, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has a crucial role to play in the full inclusion of sexual minorities in the religious arena. Changing views in society are being accompanied by changing, more inclusive policies in the ELCA. My research has shown that social interaction and personal relationships with sexual minorities in religious and non-religious settings are the leading factors that shape positive attitudes toward the full inclusion of this minority in the ELCA. With this vital and relevant information at hand, it is now important for the ELCA to develop programs around the inclusion and integration of sexual minorities in the church.
If my research holds true outside of the metro-St. Louis area and across all 65 synods of the ELCA, it is essential for the ELCA to act. If social interaction with sexual minorities is the prominent factor of accepting attitudes then the ELCA should become more intentional with integration and educational resources about the issue.
First and foremost, the ELCA should do more to promote LGBT leadership in the congregational, synodical, and churchwide expressions of the church. Sexual minorities have been discriminated against throughout much of history; this includes becoming rostered clergy in the ELCA. If the church can do more to encourage and nurture young LGBT students who are discerning a call to the ministry, we could see dramatic, positive shifts in the future rostering of ELCA leadership. These shifts in the rostering of ELCA clergy could be equated to those shifts seen in the 1970’s after women received their call to ministry. In a 2012 report by the ELCA, it was noted that more than half of the students enrolled in affiliated ELCA seminaries are women and 23 percent of ordained ELCA clergy are female.While the enrollment of LGBT persons in seminaries will likely never impact rostering ratios as dramatically as women have, their discernment into the ministry should be one of encouragement and support.
Synods are the entities responsible for deciding a candidate’s call to ministry. Every candidate goes through a synod evaluation process before being admitted as a seminarian. It is important for synod leadership to recognize and encourage LGBT persons in their time of discernment. Every synod conducts an annual assembly in their geographical region. The ELCA could send churchwide leadership to these assemblies in order to educate delegates about current LGBT research and how they can promote interaction and acceptance. Many may be opposed and reluctant to hear about this idea, but this is a vital social justice ministry of the ELCA. These learning modules could teach clergy and lay members of ELCA congregations the necessary skills needed to help nurture an LGBT individual on their faith journey, as well as helping an individual ‘come-out’ in a spiritual, faith-based setting.
The ELCA was praised for the caliber of educational materials about sexual orientation that were distributed to congregations before “The Vote” in 2009. With this said, the ELCA should continue the distribution of educational materials to congregations and homes because education is an on-going process. After the adoption of the ELCA’s 2009 social statement, there was evident misunderstanding on what these policy changes truly meant. Sometimes the only knowledge congregations receive about the churchwide expression of the ELCA comes through their clergy. Many congregations were led astray by conservative pastors. One example of misconstrued information comes from a New Jersey synod congregation. This congregation was falsely educated by their pastor, voted to leave the ELCA, and then voted to be reinstated into the ELCA after their pastor left the congregation and they learned more about the issue of human sexuality.
There is a gap between simple education about sexual minorities and the reality of personal relationships with LGBT persons. Many sexual minorities discover their sexual orientation in the negative, hate-filled ridicule of peers. If it were possible to show love and acceptance in an individual’s deepest time of need, why would the church neglect that? If the ELCA became known as a church of full acceptance, reconciling in Christ, individuals would turn to the church for guidance instead of a secular society full of rash decisions and ridicule. One form of support coming from the ELCA for young LGBT youth comes from the presiding bishop, Mark Hanson. Bishop Hanson has taken an active role in the It Gets Better Project. This project is designed to bring hope and support to LGBT teens and young adults discovering their sexuality. With the highest official in the ELCA setting the example, it is hopeful the rest of the ELCA will follow this leadership.
Moving on to youth ministry, teaching about the equality of individuals versus the differences between individuals is the first step in counteracting young biases. The ELCA’s publishing organization, Augsburg Fortress, supplies congregations and ELCA institutions with Sunday school, Vacation Bible School, youth ministry, and congregation materials. These materials could be used to teach about more inclusivity in the church and in society. So much of ‘the church’ is focusing on the differences when it should be looking at the ways to work together.
When it comes down to the acceptance of sexual minorities into the life and ministry of the ELCA, personal interaction with LGBT persons is the dynamic that creates a desire for hospitality and inclusion. You can learn as much about the biology, the chemistry, the psychology, or the philosophy of a homosexual individual; however, until that education boils down into a personal relationship and understanding of someone who identifies as LGBT, you cannot fully articulate a personal attitude. With this said, we see the reason why personal relationships with sexual minorities are the leading cause of changing policies and attitudes in the ELCA.
As the ELCA becomes more inclusive of sexual minorities, there are many avenues in which the church can teach and promote this full inclusion. With the implementation of Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust and the adoption of the ELCA’s new ministry policies, this Church is a driving force behind LGBT inclusion and is leading the way for other denominations to follow. Who knows, maybe this is the beginning of a modern reformation.
Individuals in Favor: 74 (69%)
Male: 40 Female: 34
Individuals Against: 34 (31%)
Male: 20 Female: 14
Rural Congregations: 38 participants
Male: 21 (10 in favor of LGBT inclusion – 48%)
Female: 17 (10 in favor of LGBT inclusion – 59%)
Overall: 53% in favor of LGBT inclusion
47% opposed to full LGBT inclusion
Suburban Congregations: 47 participants
Male: 30 (22 in favor of LGBT inclusion – 73%)
Female: 17 (12 in favor of LGBT inclusion – 71%)
Overall: 72% in favor of LGBT inclusion
28% opposed to full LGBT inclusion
Urban Congregations: 23 participants
Male: 9 (8 in favor of LGBT inclusion – 88%)
Female: 14 (12 in favor of LGBT inclusion – 86%)
Overall: 87% in favor of LGBT inclusion
13% opposed to full LGBT inclusion
18-29: 27 participants (23 in favor of LGBT inclusion – 85%)
30-49: 39 participants (30 in favor of LGBT inclusion – 77%)
50-64: 28 participants (18 in favor of LGBT inclusion – 64%)
65 or older: 14 participants (3 in favor of LGBT inclusion -22%)
ELCA Survey used for research
Identity – Check ALL that apply:
[ ] Male [ ] Female [ ] Transgendered [ ] Other
[ ] 18-29 [ ] 30-49 [ ] 50-65 [ ] 65 or older
[ ] Gay or lesbian [ ] Heterosexual/ straight [ ] Bisexual [ ] Question your sexuality
How long have you been a member of the ELCA?
[ ] 0-1 year [ ] 2-5 years [ ] 6-10 years [ ] 11-15 years [ ] 16 years or more
Have you been a part of any other denomination?
[ ] Yes [ ] No
If yes, which one(s): _____________________________________
Which congregation would you identify as your home congregation? (Name, City, State)
[ ] Urban [ ] Suburban [ ] Rural [ ] Other: ______________________
Average weekly attendance at your home congregation:
[ ] Less than 100 [ ] 101-300 [ ] 301-500 [ ] 501+
In general, do you feel free to express your opinion about lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) issues in the church?
[ ] Yes [ ] No [ ] Sometimes [ ] Unsure
In general, has the issue of LGBT inclusion played a significant role in your congregation? (Ordination, marriage, etc.)
Much Significance Some Significance No Significance
      
Has your congregation or synod supplied you with any educational information about LGBT issues in the ELCA? (Flyers, pamphlets, etc.)
[ ] Yes [ ] No [ ] Unsure
If yes, what kind of information: __________________________________________________________
Did you find this information helpful in forming your attitude towards LGBT inclusion: _______________
Would you support having openly gay and lesbian members as a part of your congregation?
[ ] Yes [ ] No [ ] Unsure
Do you support the ordination of LGBT clergy in accordance with the ELCA’s ministry policies?
[ ] Yes [ ] No [ ] Unsure
Would you be comfortable allowing an openly gay or lesbian clergy member lead your congregation? (If clergy, would you be comfortable leading with an openly gay or lesbian clergy member?)
[ ] Yes [ ] No [ ] Unsure
Do you support civil unions?
[ ] Yes [ ] No [ ] Unsure
Do you support gay marriage?
[ ] Yes [ ] No [ ] Unsure
Would you support your pastor conducting an LGBT marriage/ civil union? (If clergy, would you conduct an LGBT marriage or civil union?)
[ ] Yes [ ] No [ ] Unsure
Rank the factors that have influenced your attitude towards LGBT persons – Rank ALL that apply (“1” being the leading influence, “2” being the second most important, etc.)
_____ Clergy _____ Education
_____ Scripture _____ Human equality/ social justice
_____ Societal factors _____ 2009 ELCA social statement
_____ Friends that identify as LGBT _____ Social interaction with sexual minorities
_____ Friends _____ Family
_____ Other: _________________ _____ Other: _________________
Explain how you justify your attitude towards LGBT persons: (if needed, use the back page of the survey to continue your answer)
Have your attitudes towards LGBT persons changed, evolved, or stayed the same over time? How?
Should the ELCA do more to promote/ demote LGBT equality in the church? In what ways would you recommend this action occur?
What should be taught to youth in the ELCA about LGBT persons?
 Jane and Larry Von Thun, Inquiry into the ELCA’s Actions and Rationale (May 2010), p.4, http://holytrinity.net/download/nalc-transition/004-Resolution-1-Von-Thun-Study.pdf
 Vision and Expectations (1990) - A guide for the ordained ministry of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
 The 65 synodical bishops join the Presiding Bishop and ELCA Secretary to form the Conference of Bishops [CoB]. This 67-member group gathers at least twice each year for worship and study, mutual sharing and to conduct business. While primarily advisory [with the Church Council being the ELCA's board of directors], the role of the Conference of Bishops is significant within the life of this church. The conference elects its own officers, has seven standing committees and a representative to each churchwide board or steering committee. The conference has a particular role in matters related to rostered leaders, reviewing proposals from Vocation and Education before they are passed along to the Church Council for adoption. The conference advises the Presiding Bishop in matters related to churchwide planning and ecumenical relations. (elca.org)
 ELCA Study of Ministry: Together for Ministry, 1993. A document adopted by the 1993 Conference of Bishops. Found at: http://archive.elca.org/synods/bishopsblessings.html
 The Churchwide Assembly is the chief legislative body of the ELCA.
 Conference of Bishops, 1996; A Word of Welcome to Gay and Lesbian Persons. A letter from the 1996 CoB, Found at: http://archive.elca.org/synods/bishopswelcome.html
 Jane and Larry Von Thun, Inquiry into the ELCA’s Actions and Rationale (May 2010), p. 4-5
 Jane and Larry Von Thun, Inquiry into the ELCA’s Actions and Rationale (May 2010), p. 5
 Dart, John. Study process aided ELCA gay breakthrough. News Release: Century News. 22 September 2009. p. 14
 The Confession of Faith, 1988; http://www.elca.org/What-We-Believe/Statements-of-Belief/ELCA-Confession-of-Faith.aspx
 Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust: A social statement of the ELCA, 2009
 Social Statements in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America: Principles and Procedures; Adopted at first Churchwide assembly (August 28th, 1989). Revised by the ELCA Church Council (April 2011); Found at: http://www.elca.org/What-We-Believe/Social-Issues/Policies-and-Procedures.aspx
 Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust: A social statement of the ELCA, 2009