ELCA Bishops Comment on Gay and Lesbian Hospitality Report

March 17, 1999

TUCSON, Ariz. (ELCA) Bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) expressed strong concerns and strong support for an ELCA Division for Outreach report on congregational ministry with gay and lesbian people.

The report, "Congregational Ministry with Gay and Lesbian People," from the division's gay and lesbian outreach study team, was previously adopted by the Division for Outreach (DO) board. It was presented to the synodical bishops for comment at the bishops' spring meeting here March 5-9.

The ELCA is on record in many forms regarding ministry with gay and lesbian people. Churchwide assemblies in 1991 and 1993 approved resolutions welcoming homosexuals to ELCA congregations and supporting the civil rights of all people, regardless of sexual orientation. The bishops themselves called on congregations to "reach out to all God's people with the Gospel of Jesus Christ" in a March 1996 open letter on the subject.

In response to a DO board resolution, the congregational ministry study team was appointed in April 1997. The team spent months researching the topic and interviewing those involved in "welcoming" gay and lesbian people in 16 ELCA congregations known for their hospitality to homosexuals. The congregations were chosen based on recommendations from synod bishops, the report said.

Findings focus on signs of ways the congregations welcome gays and lesbians, leadership in such congregations and the process of becoming a congregation that welcomes gay and lesbian people. The report was authored by Susan Thompson, executive for maturing congregations, ELCA Division for Outreach, and Kathryn Sime, evaluation analyst, ELCA Department for Research and Evaluation.

The study team recommended distribution of a resource to be developed from the report "to all Division-related congregations and ministries under development." It could also be made available to other interested ELCA congregations, the team recommended. Division training events should "include sensitization to and encouragement for" invitation and hospitality to gay and lesbian people, another recommendation said.

Regular progress reports should be made and conversations on outreach to gay and lesbian people should continue, the recommendations said.

In her presentation to the bishops' conference in Tuscon, Thompson said evaluation is a critical component of the welcoming process. The study team learned that welcoming gays and lesbians to church also involves their families, children and friends, she said. "Coming to agreement about being open doesn't at all mean agreement on all the issues on homosexuality," Thompson said.

The bishops offered a wide range of views on the DO report. "This piece we have here needs a lot of work," said the Rev. George P. Mocko, bishop of the ELCA's Delaware-Maryland Synod. The report says some things that "we don't want to say," Mocko said. For example, the report says congregations that welcome gays often display the rainbow flag.

"The rainbow flag says things that many, many don't want to say," Mocko added.

"We've gone too far in what the division has developed," said the Rev. Richard N. Jessen, bishop of the ELCA's Nebraska Synod. Jessen said the report focuses too much on recruiting one group of people, and he suggested the church could do a bette r job in helping pastor/developers "be sensitive to all."

There is a small minority of the population that is gay, said the Rev. Mark B. Herbener, bishop of the ELCA's Northern Texas-Northern Louisiana Synod. There are greater numbers of people who are poor, Herbener said, and he suggested more attention be given to them. "Holy smokes, how do we welcome the many people who are economically deprived?" he asked.

The Rev. Robert W. Mattheis, bishop of the ELCA's Sierra Pacific Synod, affirmed DO's work and reminded the bishops of a widely reported story of a man brutally murdered in Sylacauga, Ala., earlier in the week. Authorities said the man's homosexual orientation may have been a factor in the murder.

"I realize this will rattle our cage a bit," Mattheis said, adding it's better to "err on the side of hospitality and welcoming" for gay and lesbian people.

ELCA members live and die with AIDS, said the Rev. Stephen P. Bouman, bishop of the ELCA's Metropolitan New York Synod. "I hope that some congregations are places where they can walk into and hold Jesus' hand," he said.

There are many members who want to invite gay and lesbian people to their churches, said the Rev. David W. Olson, bishop of the ELCA's Minneapolis Area Synod. Olson thanked DO for the resource and said it may help people "who want to reach out to their neighbor."

"I think this has great value," said the Rev. Gary M. Wollersheim, bishop of the ELCA's Northern Illinois Synod. Wollersheim suggested the report be discussed at an upcoming conference of mission developers.

"The weight of the document" takes an approach that is not traditional, said the Rev. E. Peter Strommen, bishop of the ELCA's Northeastern Minnesota Synod, who suggested the report should include congregations with a "traditional" view.

The Rev. Richard A. Magnus, director of the ELCA Division for Outreach, said ministry to gay and lesbian people is not the only ministry with which the division is involved. There is a DO strategy that seeks to do ministry with the poor, ethnic-specific ministry, increase new congregational starts and work with congregations in transition, he said.

"This is one piece that seeks to respond to one area," Magnus said. "We feel this is going to be helpful for those doing a specific kind of outreach."

The report was shared with the ELCA Church Council at its November 1998 meeting and distributed to the congregations involved in the study, division staff and DO-related ministries.

For information contact: John Brooks, Director (773) 380-2958 or [email protected] http://www.elca.org/co/news/current.html


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