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Openly Gay Pastor Called to Lead Large Lutheran Congregation
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 03/29/12
Last updated on: 03/29/12
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Bradley Schmeling (right) and his partner discuss their reinstatement.

The Rev. Bradley Schmeling, who in 2007 was removed from the official clergy roster of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) because he was in violation of the denomination's ban on clergy in homosexual relationships, has been overwhelmingly approved to serve as Senior Pastor of St. Paul, Minnesota's largest Lutheran congregation. On March 25, 2012, 92% of the voting members of the Gloria Dei Lutheran Church voted to affirm Schmeling's selection.

Schmeling was removed from the ELCA's official clergy roster in 2007 after a church trial following his revelation that he was in a committed same-sex relationship with Rev. Darin Easler. Easler, a former minister at United Redeemer Lutheran Church in Zumbrota, Minnesota, was also removed from the ELCA roster.

Despite Schmeling's conviction in the church trial, his congregation, St. John's Lutheran Church in Atlanta, which describes itself as a congregation that "invites freely, loves unconditionally, and serves with joy," refused to dismiss him, thus defying the orders of Bishop Ronald Warren, who brought charges against Schmeling.

After the appeals process was exhausted, John Ballew, president of St. John's congregation, said, "St. John's is going to stay St. John's. . . . We are going to go to Churchwide Assembly in August, to witness to our ELCA the costs of this decision, based on an absurd policy. This is not just about us and our wonderful pastor; this is about all those called to minister to God's people, who lead exemplary lives, who provide a model for faithful, loving companionship with each other and with Christ."

Documents in the church trial of Schmeling may be found on the St. John's Lutheran Church website.

Schmeling and Easler were both reinstated to ELCA's official clergy roster in 2009 after the denomination's National Assembly voted to permit gay and lesbian ministers in monogamous relationships.

With almost 5,000,000 members and almost 11,000 congregations, ELCA is the largest North American Lutheran denomination. It is the fifth largest American Christian denomination, and the largest to permit the ordination of sexually active gay men and lesbians.

Although ELCA is among the most socially progressive of American mainstream Christian denominations, often taking public stands on behalf of liberal causes, including civil rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Americans, the decision to permit the ordination of sexually active gay and lesbian clergy was the culmination of more than three decades of sometimes bitter controversy.

In August 2009, the ELCA National Assembly finally approved a new social statement, "Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust," and also approved resolutions authorizing the denomination to find ways "to allow congregations that choose to do so to recognize, support, and hold publicly accountable lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships" and to permit the ordination of clergymen in "lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships."

Schmeling, who has served St. John's Lutheran Church in Atlanta since 2000, will take up his new position at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in St. Paul in June 2012.

Schmeling is also an adjunct professor of liturgical practice at Emory University's Candler School of Theology. From 1989 to 1995, he served as pastor at Calvary Lutheran Church in Columbus, Ohio, and from 1999 to 2000 he was chapel director at Emory University's Office of the Chapel and Religious Life.

"The church ought to be a place that welcomes and includes everyone," Schmeling told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Gloria Dei "has a big heart for its staff, members, for the community. I was attracted to its . . . willingness to be a voice of justice and inclusion in the neighborhood and St. Paul. They were just amazingly warm, welcoming, affectionate people."

The Rev. Peter Rogness, Bishop of the St. Paul Area Synod of the ELCA, said Schmeling's high-profile case led the ELCA to reconsider its clergy policy.

"His ministry, both personally and in the congregation, became a catalyst for the ELCA re-examining and ultimately changing its policy," said Rogness, who supported Schmeling's move to Gloria Dei.

According to Lutherans Concerned, a group that advocates for the full inclusion of glbtq people in the ecclesial life of the church, Gloria Dei, with some 2300 members, is the largest Lutheran church in the nation with a senior pastor who is openly gay and in a committed relationship.

Claire Hoyum, congregation president at Gloria Dei, said that the gay issue did not play a large role in the decision to call Rev. Schmeling. "We have a history of rich, strong liturgical worship and music, and that's a commitment that Pastor Schmeling also has," Hoyum said. "He believes our worship service is reflective of our mission in the world, and that really resonated with us."

She added: "He's an amazing preacher. He has the strategic and visionary skills we seek in the next leader for our congregation. His commitment to make the church a force in the broader community and to act for social justice, particularly among the poor, resonates with the mission of Gloria Dei."

Schmeling succeeds the Rev. M. Susan Peterson, who retired in August 2010 after 25 years at Gloria Dei. Peterson's appointment as the church's senior pastor in 1990 marked the first time a woman was called to lead an ELCA congregation with more than 1,000 members.

In the video below Schmeling and Easler react to their being reinstated to the clergy roster of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America in 2009.

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