Ordained a Lutheran pastor in 1989, Rev. Bradley Schmeling stayed home in Ohio for his first call to parish ministry, but then he migrated to Atlanta where he served in a collegiate setting in the Chapel of Emory University. By the time he sought a parish ministry call to St. John’s Lutheran of Atlanta in 2000, both the congregation and his bishop knew of his sexual orientation. The bishop allowed the call process to proceed forward since Rev. Schmeling was celibate, which was in conformity with ELCA ministry policies then in place. Furthermore, Rev. Schmeling promised to advise the bishop if that status ever changed.
It did. In 2005, Pastor Schmeling fell in love with another ELCA clergyman, Rev. Darin Easler, the pastor of a Zumbrota, Minnesota parish. In 2006, Easler joined Schmeling in Atlanta. Later, when Rev. Easler requested an extension of his “on leave from call” status, he was summarily removed from the clergy roster according to a form letter he received from the ELCA. Meanwhile, Pastor Schmeling fulfilled his earlier promise to his bishop and advised of his relationship change, and his bishop felt obligated to bring charges against him.
Following a six-day trial in January, 2007, a fourteen page decision was issued in February. By a 7 to 5 vote, disciplinary committee members (jurors) held that Pastor Schmeling was precluded from the ordained ministry of the church by virtue of ELCA ministry policies, and the majority stated that they felt compelled to so find. But, the committee was nearly unanimous in declaring that the ministry policy and related disciplinary rules were “at least bad policy, and may very well violate the constitution and bylaws of this church.” “The law is a ass, an idiot,” implied the committee, joining Dickens’ Mr. Bumble, and their written opinion called on synods to memorialize the next church wide assembly in 2007 seeking policy change. Though Pastor Schmeling was removed from the ELCA clergy roster, he continued to serve at St. Johns; the congregation stood in solidarity with their pastor, and the bishop refused to pursue any action against the congregation.
Though the policies weren’t changed in 2007, the race was nearly won. Like a hurdler carefully pacing his steps leading to the last hurdle, the church prepared itself for the dash to the finish line at the church wide assembly in 2009. A moratorium on further ecclesiastical trials based on sexual orientation was put in place, and the task force working on a long-in-process social statement on human sexuality was also tasked with formulating a recommendation for ministry policy change.
Here is a snippet from my book, Queer Clergy, that recounts the scene during the climactic vote at the 2009 assembly, and the picture is of pastors Schmeling and Easler in attendance at the assembly:
The motion to end debate and call the question succeeded on the third try, and the hall hushed as Bishop Hanson invited a prearranged member to lead in prayer. And then came the electronic vote; “push one for yes, two for no,” intoned the bishop. Seen only by him, the tally appeared on the Bishop’s monitor; he hesitated for a moment, and then said, “when the results appear on the big screen, please do not respond with clapping or cheering but with prayer.”
559 yes, 451 no.
No one was surprised, but the moment had arrived. Gays and lesbians would soon be allowed into the pulpits and altars of their church to serve as ordained, rostered, ministers of word and sacrament. To be host as well as guest. Openly and honestly. Recognized and supported. The reaction among a thousand voting members and another thousand observers was muted. The plenary hall was suddenly sacred space, and the quiet interrupted only by weeping and the murmur of prayer. By twos and threes and fours and fives, the children of God huddled together in tears and prayer.
Rev. Schmeling and Rev. Easler were the first clergy to benefit from the revised ministry policies, and with a stroke of the pen, they were added back onto the ELCA clergy roster on May 4, 2010. In June, 2012, Pastor Schmeling was called to be senior pastor to a “high steeple” church, Gloria Dei, the largest congregation in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Pastor Easler serves as chaplain to a large Methodist retirement community in Minneapolis.
The book is now available!
Print copies are available from Amazon, the publisher, Barnes and Noble, Cokesbury, or an autographed copy straight from me. Amazon offers it in digital, eBook format for Kindle, and Barnes and Noble offers it for Nook. For iPad or other Apple users, you may order through the iTunes bookstore. Search on RW Holmen.
This is the latest installment in the series Cast of characters countdown, which are biographical snippets and summaries of the stories of the iconic pilgrims and prophets on the road to full inclusion who are featured prominently in Queer Clergy. As with all these posts, this is merely a summary of the full story, which is woven into an overarching narrative in the book. Here’s the list of prior posts:
1968 Troy Perry (founder of the MCC)
1970 Robert Mary Clement (gay priest who marched in the first Gay Pride parade)
1972 William Johnson (first out gay man to be ordained by a traditional denomination)
1974 James Siefkes (Lutheran pastor behind the formation of Lutherans Concerned)
1974 David Bailey Sindt (founder of More Light Presbyterians)
1975 Steve Webster (organized the first gathering of gay Methodists)
1975 Dr. Louie Clay (founder of Episcopal Integrity)
1976 Chris Glaser (longtime Presbyterian activist)
1977 Ellen Marie Barrett (first out lesbian ordained to the Episcopal priesthood)
1978 Loey Powell (early UCC lesbian pastor and activist)
1980 Mark Bowman (founder and leader of RMN and editor of Open Hands Magazine)
1982 Melvin Wheatley (Methodist bishop and straight ally)
1987 Ann B. Day (Led the UCC ONA for twenty years)
1990 Jeff Johnson, Ruth Frost, Phyllis Zillhart (Extraordinarily ordained Lutherans)
1990 John Shelby Spong (leading straight ally in the Episcopal House of Bishops)
1992 Janie Spahr (Presbyterian leader of “That All May Freely Serve”)
1994 Ross Merkel (defrocked Lutheran allowed to remain on call with a “wink-and-a-nod” from his bishop)
1996 Walter Righter (Episcopal Bishop whose heresy trial opened the door for queer clergy)
2000 Jimmy Creech, Greg Dell, Joseph Sprague, and Jack Tuell (Methodist trials to punish clergy who performed covenant services for same-gender couples)
2001 Anita Hill (extraordinarily ordained Lutheran)
2003 Gene Robinson (gay bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire)
2004 Karen Dammann and Beth Stroud (Methodist clergy put on trial for being lesbians)