The predecessor bodies of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) did not experience the conflict and controversy over LGBT issues that colored the sister denominations in the ’70s and early ’80s. In the early years, Lutherans Concerned (The Lutheran LGBT advocacy group) maintained a collegial posture toward the church with optimism that the soon-to-be-merged, egalitarian church body would be all things to all people. However, the great expectations that accompanied the formation of the ELCA (Jan 1, 1988 as the result of merger of predecessor Lutheran bodies) evaporated within months.
In the fall of 1987 (just before the merger), three senior seminarians from California came out, and their path to ordination was not immediately blocked. In fact, all three were certified for ordination by the appropriate committees late in 1987, with the expectation that the ELCA would routinely continue the process. But, it was not to be. One of the three, Jeff Johnson, quipped in February, 1988, that public attention “turned out to be a little bigger deal than I thought it would be.” Meanwhile, the first presiding bishop of the newly-merged ELCA, Herbert Chilstrom, suggested that the pending ordinations “set off an avalanche of letters and phone calls to parish pastors, synodical bishops and our church-wide office here in Chicago.” The fledgling denomination caved under public pressure, and the ordination approvals were withdrawn.
Meanwhile, in Minnesota, a lesbian couple that had met while seminarians at Luther Seminary of St. Paul also had their path toward ordination blocked. Ruth Frost, the daughter of an esteemed professor at Luther, and Phyllis Zillhart, from Southwestern Minnesota, worked in non-ecclesiastical jobs after seminary graduation.
Then, ecclesiastical disobedience came to the ELCA, in the form of extra ordinem (extraordinary) ordinations. A pair of San Francisco congregations, part of a larger grouping of Bay area congregations (predecessor to what later become Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries–ELM), risked denominational punishment by calling and ordaining Jeff Johnson to one congregation and Ruth Frost and Phyllis Zillhart to a shared call at the second. Here is a video that recounts these events of 1990, borrowed from the ELM website.
Following a highly dramatic ecclesiastical trial, the two congregations were initially suspended and later expelled from the ELCA. The ad hoc disciplinary committee that conducted the trials felt compelled to follow church policy, but their official decision called on the ELCA to reconsider the policy. Referring to the two senior pastors of the congregations who dared to call the gay and lesbian ordinands, the disciplinary committee chair wrote:
I could not help but believe that if Christ were with us now, in body as well as spirit, we would find him seated at their table. I regard myself fortunate to be part of a church that counts them as pastors.
Pastors Johnson, Frost, and Zillhart—and their congregations–provided pastoral comfort to the San Francisco gay community at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, offering their amens to the dying and their families even as the wider church was absent.
The postscript to the story includes the festive Rites of Reception of these three, and others, to the official clergy roster of the ELCA in 2010, as well as the invitation from the ELCA to the two expelled congregations, St Francis Lutheran and First United Lutheran, to rejoin the denomination, which both congregations accepted.
This brief account fails to do justice to this poignant story; Queer Clergy: A History of Gay and Lesbian Ministry in American Protestantism offers a greatly expanded retelling.