Thursday, March 11, 2010

Reflections on the Panel Discussion at LSTC

"This'll be interesting." That's how I concluded my post with the announcement of the panel discussion I was part of today at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, "ELCA Congregations and the Sexuality Statement." The private discussion among many of my friends was considerably less irenic.

So I really need to begin this reflection by noting the gracious hospitality I received from those of the LSTC community -- students, faculty, and staff -- that I encountered today. And also the many expressions of thankfulness for my participation in the panel, both in taking the time to drive up to Chicago from Peoria (it was 175 miles each way from Zion to LSTC) and for presenting my perspective as I did.

The flier described the discussion, "Hear experienced Church Leaders give real-life examples of congregational responses to the ELCA Sexuality statement." I'd say that, at best, we barely scratched the surface of that description -- though my experience has been that is often the case of panel discussions. The format probably didn't help: the first half-hour was spent eating lunch, though it helped the panelists to get to know each other a bit and discover some other connections we had.

Then came the formal introductions of the topic and the panelists, followed by our "5 minute" responses to the question and Prof. Perry's response to our comments. I put "5 minutes" in quotes because, while one seminarian was the official timekeeper, each of us had really only gotten started at that point.

Bishop Freiheit started, and he was followed by the Pastor Miller. I was third and began my comments much as they did -- describing how the general topic of the ELCA's journeys on human sexuality had affected our own ministries. As I often do, I began with a little farewell dinner put on by a friend as I was leaving for PLTS in June of 1988. This is to elicit recollections of the "PLTS Three," who had been approved for ordination in the closing days of the LCA and ALC, then with the beginning of the ELCA in January 1988 announced that they were gay men who either were, or desired to be, in a same-sex relationship. The reaction in much of the "new church" was fierce.

And my dinner companions, one of whom had been confirmed with one of the Three, asked me how this controversy would affect me. "Not at all," I replied. Yet nearly 22 years later, it's been THE one constant topic either at the forefront, or just under the surface, in everything the ELCA has done.

Well, it wasn't a topic in my interviews before being called to Zion. That was something that would be very different for those about to be available for a first call: they would be asked what the thought, believed, and intended to teach about sexuality -- and other theological matters. And they may be asked in a context of suspicion. I didn't have to deal with that in 1992, as much I yearned that theology might be a part of the interview process. I didn't have to deal with human sexuality, until I was finally able to organize my first adult study class as their pastor -- on the controversial First Draft of a proposed sexuality statement (released in Fall 1993).

Now I'm not sure what the organizers, panelists, or audience was expecting from me, but the members of the LSTC Diversity Committee knew -- partly because one of its members had interned in Central/Southern Illinois, heard me speak at the Synod Assembly, and knew of my association with Lutheran CORE -- that I have a Traditionalist perspective, as did the panelists and a couple of seminarians who've seen some of my writing via ALPB's Forum Letter or its online forum.

Whatever the rest of community was expecting, they definitely noticed when I then stated not only my opposition to the CWA's actions, but that I was in "profound" disagreement with my own Bishop -- sitting maybe 4 feet to my right -- and that we had been living in that disagreement for several years.

At that point I tried to describe some of the conflicts and divisions that ELCA congregations and pastor were facing since last summer -- noting that those opposed to the CWA's actions often were responding having participated in the ELCA's sexuality studies, even to the point of being sick of the topic, and were responding not out of ignorance and fear, but theological conviction -- and pointing to the negative effects when a congregation and pastor were of different minds on either the new statement, or (even when in agreement there) on remaining associated with the ELCA.

You'd guess rightly that I'd used up my 5 minutes by then. By the time Pastor Christensen and Prof. Perry concluded, it was past 12:30. Time for audience questions.

Each person had been given a 3x5 card to submit (anonymously) a question, and the cards had been placed in a basket. Another student member of the Diversity Committee had then grouped the questions into similar subjects.

The first set of questions were along the lines of: Is sexuality really the big issue we should be talking about? Isn't this distracting us from real ministry? Or is the controversy over gays in the ministry only one source of tension in the church, with hemeneutical questions about the Bible actually being more important? And how can we deal with people who say "I have no real problem with gay people," but follow that with homophobic actions (or inactions).

My response was that today's controversy was a reflection of sexualization of so much of our culture, not just church discussion, and our unwillingness as the church to deal with issues of marriage and family theologically. And, perhaps more significant, we don't get to choose what the latest big question is going to be. Regardless of what we want to talk about, right now sexuality is a big issue for both church and culture.

It was about 10 'til 1 by the time the panel finished that set of questions, and time for students to get on to class. But while we didn't get to any of the other questions, the Diversity Committee asked for the panelists' e-mail addresses in the hope that perhaps we could continue the discussion in some sort of on-line forum. I hope they can do that.

And a few folks were able to stick around and engage in some one-on-one conversation with a panelist -- so it was getting close to 3 o'clock by the time I started walking to my car.

One final reflection. In her 5 minute opening, Michelle Miller was discussing the several different ministries she'd served since being ordained, raising up to the seminarians that some of them were to places that, had it been just up to her, she never would have selected -- but each of them had turned out to be a call or an interim that had been, for her, a place of important and good ministry. The "lesson" that she was illustrating is an important one to raise: God may call us to go where we least expect or desire to go. Be open to that.

But two of her examples saddened me -- though I hasten to add that my disappointment was not so much in her, as it was yet another confirmation of the state of too much of the ELCA's leadership over many years. The first was an interim pastorate that the then-Bishop of the Metro Chicago Synod wanted her to serve, a parish in a town well-known nationally for being a home to conservative evangelicalism -- where he specifically wanted her, a (then-closeted) lesbian in a committed relationship, to lead the congregation through its discernment in becoming a "Reconciling in Christ" congregation. The second was her current call, where the parish told the Bishop that they were interested only in calling a gay or lesbian pastor. A request he granted by offering them several choices to consider. Long before Vision and Expectations was to be amended.

And yet to listen to him in person or at the recent ELCA Town Hall forums, Presiding Bishop Hanson seems genuinely baffled that traditionalists don't seem to trust the word of our church's leaders.


Donna Smith said...

God bless you Steve, for doing something that (I think) took great courage and conviction. I am glad to hear that civility reigned (even at LSTC) -- I hope you and the panelists inflicted a little "reality" on the students theer!

TeeJay said...

After reading your description of the meeting, as a member of CORE, I am greatly consoled that God created and creates miracles out of chaos. May the Spirit do so out of this, our latest broken and messy pot.

Marshall Hahn said...

You have taken on quite a bit for your Lenten discipline - this panel discussion and the Illinois CORE meeting next week! Thank you for your faithful witness and the work you are doing in Illinois. And remember - Easter's a-comin'!


Jeff said...


Thanks once again for keeping the faith, and lifting up the Word in the midst of chaos!

Catherine said...

Well done, good and faithful colleague. If there's a continued on-line forum for the unaddressed, unanswered questions remaining at the expiration of time, please post that link. This LSTC alum would like to follow along.