The Church Council of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) reached near unanimity in removing the five-year waiting period for reinstatement of ministers who have been removed or resigned from the rosters of the church solely because they were in committed, same-gender relationships.
At its semi-annual meeting at the Chicago headquarters of the 4.6 million member church body, the Church Council by voice vote overwhelmingly approved the waiver of the prohibition forbidding application for reinstatement until 5 years had passed since the removal or resignation. The five-year waiting period is a general policy applying to anyone who had been removed for any disciplinary cause or who resigned voluntarily. The waiver granted by Sunday's action only applies to those removed and those who resigned solely for the reason of their being in a same-gender, committed relationship. Applications to begin the reinstatement process can now be submitted immediately. The process is individual and can vary in the length of time for completion.
This action by the Church Council is the first official enactment of the church council pursuant to actions at the August 2009 Churchwide Assembly in Minneapolis that ordered the elimination of the policy that precluded service in the church by ministers in committed, same-gender relationships. Also today, the church council soundly defeated a proposed amendment to policy that would have required an additional step of approval for candidates in same-gender relationships by 2/3 of the synod council's executive committee in order to be reinstated.
In August 2009 the churchwide assembly, the highest legislative body of the ELCA, said that the church would find ways to continue to respect as faithful a range of views regarding the inclusion of people of all sexual orientations and gender identities, to find ways to support and recognize committed same-gender relationships, and to find ways to allow ministers in such relationships to serve. Finally, the assembly eliminated the policy barriers to such service that had been in place for 20 years.
The task of making those decisions real in the life of the church now falls on the various functions of the staff and committees of the church, in consultation with the Conference of Bishops, bringing the documentation required to the Church Council for approval. The bulk of the remaining changes are expected to go before the Church Council at its April 2010 meeting.
Emily Eastwood, Executive Director of Lutherans Concerned/North America, said of the decisions, "Today's actions of the church council were decisive and appropriate. The reinstatement process can take up to a year, but the good news is that ministers may begin that process now, rather than waiting five years from the point of removal or resignation. The sound defeat of the amendment which would have placed pastors in same-gender relationships in the same category with those removed because of adultery or embezzlement has signaled the desire of the church to treat ministers in same-gender relationships with respect and hospitality, a first step toward righting the wrongs of the past."
The action by the Church Council directly affects Pastor Bradley Schmeling of St. John's Lutheran church in Atlanta, Georgia. He was removed from the roster of ELCA pastors in 2007 following an ecclesiastical trial. The sole reason he was removed was his lifelong, committed, same-gender relationship. The ELCA has listed St. John's pulpit as "vacant" since then, despite the fact that the congregation resolutely retained Bradley as its pastor and holds services every Sunday.
Pr. Bradley Schmeling said of the Church Council action today: "I'm grateful to see the church move forward in implementing this summer's decision to create a church that fully welcomes the gifts of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Lutherans. By eliminating the five-year wait rule, it will allow me to begin the process of returning to the roster of the church. I'm already looking forward to my reinstatement, and I'm ready to bring to a close my three year sojourn off the roster of the church. The vote today allows so many of us to begin to imagine that a future in the church is genuinely possible. Of course, we have to work to do to continue the process of making the ELCA a truly just and inclusive church, but today's vote marks an important milestone."
Director Communications LC/NA