Journey Together Faithfully at First Lutheran Church, Duluth, Minnesota

[1] Journey Together Faithfully: The Church and Homosexuality is the study series offered by the Task Force for ELCA Studies on Sexuality. The primary text provided is a study guide with instructions for six study sessions, plus appendices of pertinent ELCA documents, a list of resources, and frequently asked questions. The study is intended as an invitation “to look at biblical teaching, church doctrine, and present-day experience and knowledge concerning homosexuality.” It was offered in advance of the 2005 General Assembly, at some people anticipate that changes to current ELCA policy regarding the blessing of same-sex unions and ordination of non-celibate homosexuals will be considered.

[2] We decided to offer the studies at First Lutheran because we thought it was a good idea to begin discussion of the issue well in advance of the 2005 Assembly. First Lutheran is a congregation of about 2,400 members, with an average Sunday worship attendance of 500. It is the largest of the 18 Lutheran churches in Duluth, which has a population of about 88,000. First Lutheran is located on the shore of Lake Superior at the edge of the downtown area, but most members are from more than a mile from the church. The congregation has a middle/upper-middle class socioeconomic profile. It is unclear what the actions of the assembly might mean for an individual congregation such as ours. If a decisive change is made, there may not be much time for careful consideration in the aftermath. Prior to the studies, it was already clear that we have fairly large groups of members on both sides of the issues. We hoped that conducting the studies well in advance of the assemblies might help members contribute to the discussion. I hoped that the studies would expose participants to the best arguments, rather than the ubiquitous worst arguments, on either side.

[3] I recruited leaders by assembling a list of members who met two criteria: 1) they had demonstrated ability to lead a meeting or small group, and 2) they were not publicly identified with a position on this issue. I asked several congregational leaders to look over the list, and I ended up with a list of 30 people. I wrote to them, explaining both the study procedure and the criteria, and then I started calling. Six people disqualified themselves because, even though they had not revealed their position in a public way, they held their position so strongly that they believed it would be difficult for them to respectfully lead a group in which some participants disagreed with them. Others said they were simply too busy. Eight individuals from the list agreed to be leaders.

[4] In lieu of extensive training, leaders read the study guides, and we had one meeting to discuss procedures and questions. Leading such a study group is not a simple task, and more extensive training may have been a good idea, but these eight leaders were so experienced with small groups that it seemed redundant to offer more.

[5] We did not ask people to pre-register, in the hope that the option of coming anonymously might induce more members to participate. For the same reason, we did not take attendance. Study guides were available at various locations in the church. We distributed 250 study guides, and I estimate that 85 people were regular participants and another 50 came once or twice. Extrapolating from these numbers, I would speculate that at least 500 adults had discussions about the issue related to the studies.

[6] Before the studies began, I had no clear idea how many people would participate. These issues are obviously on the minds of many, but many others have expressed that they would prefer that the whole thing go away, so, even though the studies were attended by a relatively small percentage of the church’s adult membership, I was pleased with the attendance, because it would not have surprised me to have low participation, due to the reticence of many to discuss these issues in such a public setting.

[7] My underestimation of the likely participation led me to lower the barriers to participation by not closing the groups, etc. In retrospect, I think this was a mistake. It made planning more difficult, and it created unfortunate group dynamics. Imagine having two or three intense discussions with a small group of people and then the next week, having someone new show up and jump in without benefit of all the prior discussion. Closing the groups would have discouraged some, but it could have improved the experience. It is easier to value this now that I know that people were willing to attend.

[8] On the Sunday prior to the beginning of the studies, we offered an adult forum on “Compassionate Listening,” that was attended by 150 people. The forum, led by Gary Gordon of the College of St. Scholastica here in Duluth, involved learning a method of careful listening, especially in situations of conflict and disagreement. Members of diverse viewpoints on these issues expressed appreciation for this forum.

[9] Most leaders and participants did feel that the writers of the guide made an honest attempt to present the issues in a balanced way. However, several noticed that there is something inherent in the structure of the issues themselves that makes a “balanced” presentation lead the conversation toward a positive view of change. New ideas, presented against the status quo, gather weight that they may not have had in another context. In addition to novelty, a change position stated without qualification may grow in stature if the participants have not been exposed to the position in a non-polemic situation before. It seems that in the consideration of a change, a balanced approach can lend weight to the change side and take weight from the status quo.

[10] From the beginning, we tried to emphasize that our purpose in offering the studies was not to make a group decision, either for any of the groups or for our congregation. However, the study guides invite individuals to respond to the ELCA Task Force, and I know that many from our church did respond. In spite of our clarity about the indeterminate nature of these discussions, I heard from several participants who wondered when we would be voting. That may yet come, of course, but not as a part of these studies.

[11] I did not conduct a formal evaluation, but I had conversations with many of the participants and of course, the study leaders. As might be expected for an issue that has been volatile for as long as this one has, few (if any) participants completely changed their positions on these issues. However, many expressed a more complex understanding of the issues involved. The studies may have been most valuable for people with strong opinions on either side, who, though they retained their strong opinions, came away realizing why others held the contrary opinions. This may not lend itself to decision-making, but as one participant said, “I guess, at least, when we walk away from each other, we’ll do it as friends.”

[12] That comment points to the weakness of this process-if conflict is intractable to begin with, a process such as this is unlikely to move a group closer to a decision. At the same time, the process is an excellent prelude to decision-making. It allowed participants to explore the issues, to have a forum in which to voice and test their opinions, and to hear the opposing viewpoints expressed by living members of the same community. The participants were able to map out areas, large and small, of agreement. In a congregation such as ours, which does not have a preponderant viewpoint on an issue, this was a good way to begin. I believe that we are better prepared for any eventuality by having done these studies.

[13] What that eventuality might be at First Lutheran really is a guess. The 2005 Assembly is viewed with both hopefulness and trepidation, with some members feeling precisely the same emotions for opposite reasons. Much depends on what actually transpires at that meeting. If there is a decisive vote to change or a decisive vote not to change, some here will rejoice, and I believe some others will leave. I think that participating in this study has moved us through the underbrush of the issues-the participants understand why those opposed to them hold their positions. Our members now have more experience intentionally discussing a difficult issue. I think that process has made it less likely that our particular congregation will experience a large split. It would be harder for us to walk away from each other now.