Engaging the Process

[1] Anticipation and anxiety continue to mount as the ELCA Churchwide Assembly draws near. The Report and Recommendation on Ministry Policies stands in the forefront of many minds bringing with it a flood of commentaries, petitions, and conversations. All corners of the ELCA including theologians, congregations, seminarians, and clergy have voiced nuanced perspectives on the document. These perspectives represent a sampling of the diverse opinions in the ELCA spanning from outright rejection of the recommendation to calling for its approval along with further steps of action.

[2] This myriad of opinions broadcast in blogs, news releases, and coffee hours showcases the lack of consensus existing within the ELCA—a fact the Task Force points out from the outset of its documents. The grim but realistic outlook of the Task Force states that it does not “expect a new consensus to emerge in the near future” (75). Thus in the face of diversified positions on the recommendation, what do we rely upon to reach a decision in August?

[3] Interpretation of biblical texts, the nature of sin, lifestyles, and scientific research stand at the forefront of topics commonly presented as decisive decision makers. I choose not to explore these topics due to the number of resources that currently exist addressing these matters. Instead I will explore resources that provide broader lenses through which to view the decision making process. These lenses lift up the need to continually engage in discussion and discernment in the midst of fortifying and promoting personal opinions of the recommendation.

[4] For at the core of this decision making process is the need to engage individuals from a variety of viewpoints in dialogue. Such dialogue requires honest, open discussions where those involved are willing to participate at such a level that they may leave the conversation transformed. To engage in such dialogue I propose three lenses through which to frame our decision making process: the community of faith, the nature of call, and the living Word of God.

The Community of Faith
[5] The recommendation calls us both to respond as a community of faith and to define how the community is envisioned. By responding as a community of faith we recognize the communal, not individual, nature of the decision making process. This requires us to understand the variety of beliefs present within the community and to allow them to inform our own perspective. Congregations across the ELCA provide a prime example of engaging in such processes of discernment. Through discussions of how the recommendation would impact their community members of the community are able to share their own stories and experiences. Without these stories of individuals, families and communities, making a decision becomes black and white, right and wrong. This ignores the complexities of creation and the interactions of humanity which shape the process.

[6] Alongside the current community of faith, our rich Lutheran heritage accompanied by the community of saints provides a foundation to shape the decision making process. We are called to remember our beginnings as people of resurrection and reformation. By exploring our past, we revisit decisions to change policy such as the ordination of women which provide points of reference for us today. Through this history we are able to see how expanding and redefining parts of the tradition has shaped our current community. In doing so we are reminded of the impact of our decision and the implications it will have on the life and growth of the future community of faith.

[7] Drawing upon the community of faith which spans the ages, we are called to define our current community of faith in all its complexities. The report does a commendable job of seeking to include and acknowledge the breadth of the community of faith. The first resolution of the recommendation provides the opportunity to define more clearly the community as one which acknowledges and supports persons in lifelong, monogamous, same-gendered relationships and therefore holds them publicy accountable within the community. This is balanced with the third resolution’s appeal to uphold the bound conscience of individuals, protecting the diversity of opinions held within the community. Together these two resolutions provide opportunities to define the community and shape its future growth.

The Nature of Call
[8] The concept of “call” is familiar in the context of church mission, candidacy processes, and narratives of God’s people. Yet the nature of a calling receives minimal attention in the report. The mutual discernment process involved in candidacy and rostering is addressed as important responsibility of the community. But the actual nature of being called by God to rostered ministry requires more consideration as we engage the task force documents.

[9] When discussing a call we hold that the Holy Spirit “calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth and preserves it in union with Jesus Christ in the one true faith” (Small Catechism, Article III). Thus within the priesthood of all believers we must seek to recognize and hear call narratives. We have a strong scriptural tradition of call in which God uses fire, voice, and even the belly of a big fish to communicate direction for people’s lives. These powerful call narratives continue to exist within our church today. They are manifested in a variety of shapes and forms. It is our duty to discern how to best recognize and hear these call narratives.

[10] The calls to rostered ministry experienced by individuals in lifelong, monogamous, same-gendered relationships must factor into this broader discernment process. Being called by God involves investing one’s whole self in a vocation. Current policy prevents this kind of investment for people oriented to the same gender. This causes some individuals to leave the ELCA for another denomination or to try to find other ways to live out their call that affirms their whole being. Others remain within the ELCA serving congregations in various capacities. Yet in all these options the call is not fully recognized. In these practices gifts of the Holy Spirit are lost due to the inability to publicly affirm and support the call in conjunction with full life of the person.

[11] While the recommendations do not specifically address the importance of call and recognizing the call of God, the fourth resolution for structured flexibility opens the door for fully affirming an individual’s call. This provides the first step for recognizing God’s call of gay and lesbian persons into committed relationships and rostered ministry.

The Living Word of God
[12] In any discussion about the recommendations we must use the Word of God to root our conversation, exploration, and prayer. While biblical interpretation stands at the crux of many points of debate on this issue, we must begin by remembering the nature of the texts which we engage. As Lutherans we believe the Word actively works on the heart every time it is read, heard and preached. The texts are conduits through which God speaks to us sharing both Law and Gospel. Thus before we enter into discussions about particular verses and interpretations we must grasp the broader message that God is lifting up for us today. It calls us to engage texts in both their historical and current contexts, allowing God to speak to us now just as God has spoken from the beginning of time.

[13] With regards to the task force documents, the presence of the living Word of God is made known in the process the Task Force followed for reaching the recommendation stated. Sincere concern for the Word of God is noted by all who engage in the dialogue on this topic. Though the Scripture itself is not engaged on a level which it could have been in the final documents, it is nonetheless active and speaking in the document. The attention given to the needs of all in the community of faith from the call for changes in rostering policy to the protection of bound consciences displays the living Word of God present and being heard.

[14] As we draw nearer to the vote on the Report and Recommendation in August, a multitude of resources will guide us to a final decision. Fear remains the only resource we must refrain from using in the process. The fear of a denominational split and loss of relationships with other ecclesial bodies are concerns for members of the community which should not be ignored. But in the end fear cannot drive our decision. Instead we must rely on resources that are engendered by the Spirit and provide guidance based in love and concern for our neighbor.

[15] Community, call, and the living Word provide such resources that beckon us beyond ourselves to engage in a communal process of understanding and decision making. They provide a framework for reaching a decision that acknowledges the diversity of opinions within the ELCA and works to find ways to further the mission of the church in the midst of such diversity. God is active in this process of decision making. May we remain open to hear God’s guidance in the stories, experiences, and faith of our community.