Congregations in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) are allowed — but not required — to seek pastors who are in committed same-sex relationships, an ELCA bishop said Monday.
Bishop David Zellmer of the South Dakota Synod held a conversation with about 100 persons at Trinity Lutheran Church in Vermillion. The gathering drew both pastors and laymen from southeastern South Dakota.
Much of the discussion focused on the Churchwide Assembly's adoption last August of the ELCA's 10th Social Statement on human sexuality. The statement included the ability for people in publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships to serve as pastors or other rostered leaders such as associate pastors and deacons.
"Congregations will be allowed to continue calling who they want," Zellmer said. "If they don't want a gay man or woman in a public relationship to serve the church, they don't have to do it. We won't force you to take a pastor you don't want."
ELCA churches retain the right to choose their pastors, unlike some denominations where a bishop assigns clergy to parishes, Zellmer said.
"(Our) congregations always have the ability to decide who serves them," he said. "Some want to put a fence around the synod. In my opinion, we cannot do that. It would take the authority away from congregations to get who they want (as a pastor)."
Zellmer said he is not aware of a South Dakota congregation that wants to call a gay or lesbian as pastor. However, some parishes nationwide may choose or seek gay clergy, he said.
"We are asked to be accepting (of gay clergy) but not asked to be embracing," he said. "We have made room in the church for the 100 to 150 congregations (nationwide) to call the (gay) person they want to serve them."
Allowing gay pastors in same-sex relationships will impact all ELCA clergy, Zellmer said. Congregations can ask pastors and other rostered leaders about their sexual orientation and relationships, he said.
"I told the pastors, you need to get comfortable with getting asked about your sexuality," the bishop said.
The ELCA conducts background checks to ensure no sexual misconduct, Zellmer said.
An audience member asked if churches will be protected from federal prosecution for not seeking a gay pastor.
"How will there be transparency (in the pastoral process) if the federal laws say we can't discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation?" the man asked.
The law makes an exception for the calling of rostered pastoral leaders, Zellmer said. The First Amendment protection for freedom of religion supersedes the anti-discrimination laws, he said.
"We have the constitutional right as a church to ask if you are a gay person," he said. "Or if you're dating, who you are dating. And if you're married, how is your marriage? You have a right to ask that as part of the call process. We have a right to ask the hard questions of someone seeking to be an associate minister, deacon or one of our pastors."
Zellmer said he was leaving today (Tuesday) for a meeting in Chicago, the next step in setting up the rules for the new social statement.
Audience members asked about ways to reverse the churchwide assembly's decision. Zellmer advised parishes against withholding funds from the synod, instead advising them to take steps such as resolutions, moratoriums and referring votes.
The decision on gay clergy has created divisions within the ELCA membership, Zellmer said. He acknowledged hurt feelings and angry letters on both sides of the issue, and he urged forgiveness by all parties.
Some congregations are taking steps toward leaving the ELCA, Zellmer said.
"I'm not making that argument for anybody, but I hear two main things," he said. "People didn't like the vote in August, or (they don't like) what they see as a misunderstanding of Scriptural interpretation.
Six ELCA congregations in the South Dakota Synod have voted on leaving the denomination, Zellmer said. The largest parish has decided to remain with the ELCA, while the other five churches – two medium and three small – are in various stages of voting.
Zellmer said he believes that two very small congregations – one with 22 members and the other with 18 – will leave the ELCA.
"If you leave, you have to follow the rules," he said. "I can't come in and take your property. But I can make your congregation follow the rules."
Zellmer outlined the procedure that congregations must follow in deciding whether their church will remain with the ELCA.
Parishes have to vote twice on the resolution, with at least 90 days between the two votes. The votes must be taken at special meetings, not during the annual congregation meeting.
A parish can hold a consultation with the bishop any time during the minimum 90 days between meetings. The bishop or an associate must attend the second vote on leaving the ELCA.
Both of the votes to withdraw from the ELCA need to receive at least two-thirds of those present for passage.
Zellmer advised against repeatedly voting to reach the two-thirds level. Instead, the members should spend the next six months or a year in conversation, without a vote, "to get a temperature of the congregation."
One woman asked if the Coalition for Renewal – also known as CORE – provides an alternative for dissatisfied ELCA congregations.
CORE must be seen not merely as a Lutheran movement but as forming a new denomination, Zellmer said.
The two main groups forming CORE have held widely differing views on church structure, Zellmer said. He noted the difficulties that came with forming the ELCA, which consists of 5 million members who hold strong agreement on many matters.
Disagreements within the church date back to Biblical times, Zellmer said. He noted past Lutheran controversies surrounding the ordination of women and the merger of synods into the current ELCA.
"We are not a denomination surrounded by this vote (on gay clergy). We are bound together by Jesus Christ," he said.
"We have all sorts of disagreements, but I know of no disagreement on salvation or Jesus Christ."