Contra Costa County (Calif.) Times, 19 Feb. 2001

Lutheran parishes ordain gay man

Despite church rules, Craig Minich is now director of youth ministries for three parishes in Berkeley and Oakland 

BY TOM LOCHNER
TIMES STAFF WRITER 
 
 

Evoking the image of Lazarus rising from the tomb, three East Bay Lutheran congregations symbolically rose from the closet Sunday, defying church rules by ordaining an openly gay man who lives in a relationship with another man.

Craig Minich, 29, became director of youth ministries for St. Paul and United Lutheran churches, both in Oakland, and University Lutheran Chapel of Berkeley. 

The three parishes are affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America which had denied Minich ordination because of his lifestyle, according to a statement by the East Bay Lutheran Youth Ministry.

The national Lutheran Church group demands that openly gay candidates for the ministry vow lifelong celibacy, based on its belief that sexual relations can legitimately exist only within a traditional marriage.

Minich, a native of Tampa, Fla. who lives in Alameda, graduated in 1999 from Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley and served for one year as an intern at St. Paul. For the past year, he has been director of Oakland-Berkeley Lutheran Youth Project which covers six churches, including the three that ordained him Sunday.

At a ceremony Sunday afternoon at St. Paul, Ross Merkel, St. Paul's pastor, placed Minich's ordination squarely into the framework of the Gospel according to John, Chapter 11, which describes Lazarus' death and resurrection.

"Today in this room, Lazarus speaks through you, Craig," Merkel said. Comparing the darkness of the tomb to the shame of life in the closet, Merkel told Minich, "You are the voice of Lazarus, telling us what it was like."

He praised the three church communities as ones "no longer shackled and held back from life."

"The tomb broke open," Merkel said. "The people walked out into the new sunlight."

After the ceremony, Minich said, "Words just can't describe the support and the joy that I felt."

He lost a lot during his odyssey, he said.

"I have lost the love and support of my father, friends, and mentors because I am gay," Minich wrote in a statement, "but what I gained after I finally came out of the closet ... far outweighs what I have lost."

During a ceremony punctuated by applause and tears, in a church festooned with broad red bunting and banners, there were moments of levity. Merkel, referring to Jesus' command to Lazarus to rise from his tomb, said, to much guffawing, "If Jesus said 'come out,' then how can you not?"

Moments of great solemnity came when some 30 pastors laid hands on Minich while the choir chanted "Veni Sancte Spiritus," Latin for "Come, Holy Spirit;" and later, when Ron Carter, Minich's partner, draped the pastor's stole over Minich's shoulders.

There was jubilation when the three churches' pastors installed Minich and members of the three churches' councils affirmed the ordination. 

There were also expressions of disappointment that officials of the church's Sierra Pacific Synod, which covers Northern California and Northern Nevada, did not attend the ceremony and do not recognize Minich's ordination.

"Even as Lazarus speaks, the religious authorities will try to figure out how to put Lazarus back into the tomb," Merkel said.

Minich's ordination is part of an accelerating national trend, said Margaret Moreland, a member of the Berkeley chapel. Moreland is president of the Extraordinary Candidacy Project, formed by church members nationwide to promote the ordination of candidates who meet all of the church's requirements except for lifestyle. Another organization, Lutheran Lesbian & Gay Ministries, works toward a similar goal. Both groups sponsored Minich. 

The Berkeley chapel has confronted the issue of gay, non-celibate pastors before. Johnson, whom it hired three years ago, was pastor of San Francisco's First United Lutheran Church in the 1990s when the national Lutheran group threw it out because he is openly gay and refused to take a vow of celibacy.

Under a new bishop, the Sierra Pacific synod has been leaving individual parishes alone even when it does not recognize its pastors, Moreland said.