In June 1993, when Bay Area pastor Ross Merkel came out to his Lutheran congregation on the fifteenth anniversary of his ordination, no one blinked. They already knew, but just to make it official, the council immediately convened to reconfirm their call to their pastor. Coming on the heels of the suspension of two congregations who extraordinarily ordained Jeff Johnson, Ruth Frost, and Phyllis Zillhart—in the same ELCA synod—the congregation mirrored the courage of their pastor.
When word filtered to the synod office, a representative of the synod made an impromptu visit to Pastor Merkel.
“You know, if you would just say it’s not true, this’ll go away,” the official said. “Just say that they misunderstood or something.”
“I’m not doing that,” replied Pastor Merkel.
“Well, if you resign, we’ll do everything we can for the congregation.”
“I’m not resigning.”
Later, the Synod office again encouraged him to resign so the congregation wouldn’t have to endure any trauma.
“It’s no trauma for us. This is your trauma, not ours,” Pastor Merkel said. “I’m not resigning. I’ve done nothing wrong. I refuse to resign and just disappear.”
Ecclesiastical charges were brought against Pastor Merkel, and he was defrocked in March, 1994. Just a month later, the Sierra Pacific Synod convened in annual assembly, and a resolution came to the floor to express support for Pastor Merkel and his congregation, St Paul Lutheran of Oakland. It passed, and the newly elected bishop, Robert Mattheis, respected the sentiment of his synod, and he treated the St. Paul pulpit as between calls and open, even though everyone knew Pastor Merkel continued in ministry there, and Bishop Mattheis resisted those who would have placed the congregation on trial. The congregation would not be punished by the ELCA even when they persisted in their continuing call to their now non-rostered pastor, precisely the offense committed by the two San Francisco congregations in 1990. St. Paul Lutheran would remain an ELCA congregation, and Pastor Merkel would remain their minister. His local conference (a synod sub-grouping of ELCA congregations) soon elected him dean. Similarly, Pastor Jeff Johnson of the earlier trial would serve two terms as dean of his conference.
Pastor Diane Bowers attended Pastor Merkel’s congregation while she was pursuing graduate studies, and she wrote the following around the turn of the century:
“The ELCA does not recognize Ross Merkel as a pastor,” Bowers wrote. “He was removed from the roster in 1994. Yet he leads the largest, growing urban ELCA congregation in the East Bay. When new members are asked why they joined the congregation, Ross’ preaching and the inclusive community are the number one reasons given.”
Pastor Merkel was also mentor to a heavily-tattoed straight young woman who bore scars inflicted by the church of her youth, a recovering alcoholic, and one who wanted nothing to do with anything Christian. But she learned Lutheranism from Ross Merkel, and she later attended seminary. Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber is currently an ELCA rock star pastor in high demand for speaking engagements as a “cranky, post-modern gal of the emerging church a la Luther.”
Pastor Nadia offered the sermon during the 2010 Rite of Reception in which Pastor Merkel and seven other California LGBT clergy were welcomed onto the ELCA roster, including (From left to right): Rev. Dawn Roginski, Rev. Sharon Stalkfleet, Rev. Ross Merkel, Rev. Steve Sabin, Rev. Paul Brenner, Rev. Jeff Johnson. Not pictured: Rev. Craig Minich, Rev. Megan Rohrer. Pastor Nadia concluded her sermon with these words:
“The Kingdom of God is also like right here right now. The kingdom of God is like this very moment in which sinners are reconciled to God and to one another. The kingdom of God is like this very moment where God is making all things new…even this off brand denomination of the ELCA. Because in the end, your calling, and your value in the Kingdom of God comes not from the approval of the other workers but in your having been come-and-gotten by God. It is the pure and unfathomable mercy of God which defines this thing. And nothing, nothing else gets to tell you who you are.”
The book is now available!
Well, sort of. It is in and out of availability on Amazon, but it is available directly from 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 and other epub format devices.
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”)