Two ELCA pastors, a gay man and a lesbian, who made national news in the last decade, have accepted new positions. Anita Hill of St. Paul Reformation Lutheran Church in St. Paul, Minnesota will soon move to a new position as a regional director for Lutherans Concerned. Bradley Schmeling of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Atlanta has accepted a call to be the senior pastor of Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, also in St. Paul.
In some respects, Pastor’s Hill’s return to Lutherans Concerned is a homecoming. Way back in 1980, she was elected co-moderator of the organization, then a fledgling pan-Lutheran gay advocacy group. Of course, that was a volunteer position, and her current assignment as regional director for Minnesota and the Dakotas will be a paid position.
Her departure from St. Paul Reformation will seem strange; arriving in 1987 to serve as lay director of Wingspan Ministries—a gay outreach ministry—Pastor Hill and St. Paul “Ref” will forever be tied together as icons of the Lutheran journey to full inclusion for the LGBT community. In 1999, St. Paul Ref asked St. Paul Area Synod Bishop Mark Hanson whether an exception could be made to the ELCA policy excluding gay clergy. Bishop Hanson forwarded the inquiry to churchwide, which quickly rejected the request. Two years later, St. Paul Ref made national news by calling and and ordaining her anyway, one of the more prominent extra ordinem ordinations of Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries (ELM). St. Paul Ref was censured, a relative slap on the wrist compared to the expulsions of two San Francisco congregations following extra ordinem ordinations a decade earlier. Anita Hill actually played a role in those earlier ordinations also—she had recommended that her St. Paul friends, Ruth Frost and Phyllis Zillhart, apply for a pastoral position in San Francisco. They did, and the church would never be the same.
After her ordination, Pastor Hill remained a highly-visible spokesperson for the cause of full inclusion, and when the ELCA reversed policies in 2009, Pastors Hill, Frost, and Zillhart were received onto the roster of ELCA clergy in a celebratory Rite of Reception, which I attended and blogged about here.
Pastor Schmeling made history of his own in 2006. He was ordained as an out but celibate gay man, and he promised his bishop that he would advise him if his relationship status would ever change. When he met fellow ELCA pastor Darin Easler at a conference at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, his life and status changed. True to his promise, he notified the bishop. St. Johns, his Atlanta congregation, responded with support and publicly stood in solidarity with Pastor Schmeling as the synod bishop brought disciplinary charges against him. Eventually, he was removed from the clergy roster, but he remained pastor at St. Johns. Click here to go to the St. John’s webpages about the trial history.
Pastors Schmeling and Easler were the first to be returned to the ELCA clergy roster after the decisions in 2009.
Pastor Schmeling’s new call to Gloria Dei carries its own significance as a marker of how far the ELCA has come. Gloria Dei is a “high steeple” church, a cornerstone congregation with a membership of 2,300.
Gloria Dei is now the largest Lutheran church with a senior pastor who is openly-gay and in a committed same-gender relationship. This 2300-member congregation is heavily involved in social justice work and was also in the past the first large congregation to have a female senior pastor.
Godspeed, Pastors Hill and Schmeling as you step out on the next legs of your journeys.
NOTE: The details of Pastor’s Schmeling’s Atlanta call and trial have been revised above. The original post contained several factual errors, which have now been corrected.