Laying hands on a controversial topic

elca 01Lura Groen is a graduate of one of the seminaries that trains pastors for service in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. But because she refuses to adhere to a chastity requirement, she is not on the approved roster of the ELCA. But a Houston congregation called Groen, a lesbian who is bisexual, to be their pastor anyway.

Now if something similar to this were happening in the Episcopal Church, we’d probably have wall-to-wall coverage. In this case, we have very few mentions — even in the Houston press.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has ordained gay clergy for years. Since it formed out of a merger of three Lutheran church bodies in 1988, it has defrocked three clergy for violating the church body’s requirement that gay clergy abstain from sexual relationships. At the group’s national assembly last year in Chicago, a vote to permit homosexual clergy to engage in sexual relationships failed but another vote requesting that the church body avoid disciplining gay clergy who violate the sexuality policy was passed.

I’ve complained before that many reporters fail to distinguish between the ELCA and the other Lutheran bodies that don’t share the same doctrinal perspective. For instance, my Lutheran church body doesn’t even ordain women. I cringed while watching KHCW’s broadcasts about the ordination service. The anchor kept referring to “the Lutheran Church’s” teachings on gay clergy. The reporter also referred to the “guidelines of the Lutheran Church.” Thankfully one of the parishioners interviewed in one report mentioned that the church was affiliated with the ELCA. (Interestingly, a write-up of the broadcast misquoted what he actually said.) And This report from KTRK did specify the denomination in question. All three of these television reports were incredibly one-sided, of course. They kept referring to a vow of celibacy — even though the ELCA requirements don’t mention that word. Single people are required to abstain from sexual relationships and married people are required to be faithful. People who identify as homosexual are required to abstain from “homosexual sexual relationships.”

But the best coverage was definitely found in OutSmart, “Houston’s gay, lesbian, bi and trans magazine.” While the perspective of the publication is apparent, the piece is packed with information about Groen, the congregation she has been called to serve and the ELCA. The article begins with a very lively lede and has some great quotes, but I was impressed with how concisely and readable the sections on the normally snooze-inducing church politics were:

Grace Lutheran Church is a congregation of the ELCA and has a long history in Houston’s Montrose neighborhood. Since its organization in 1922, Grace has seen many changes, the most significant to current events being the 1995 decision to become a “Reconciling” congregation, which means they made an official statement of welcome to GLBT folk. Grace has been without a pastor since 2003, and when they felt ready to start interviewing candidates, they informed the bishop’s office that they would be considering not only approved candidates from the ELCA, but also from the roster of Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries (ELM).

ELM officially came into being in 2007, but traces its history back to 1990. That was the year when two San Francisco Lutheran congregations called to service three openly gay pastors–Ruth Frost, Jeff Johnson, and Phyllis Zillhart. The eventual result of the extra ordinem ordination of these three was that the ELCA expelled the congregations who called them. In the ensuing years, ELM took form from the various networks of Lutheran pastors and churches who wished to fully include GLBT folk in all aspects of the church’s life. Today, they evaluate candidates for ministry and maintain a roster, separate from the ELCA’s, of people they have judged suitable for ordained ministry. Grace is the first congregation in Texas to call an ELM candidate.

All of these histories confront one another with Groen’s ordination. In calling her to be their pastor, Grace risks being removed from the ELCA, depending upon actions taken by the Churchwide Assembly in 2009. Bishop Michael Rinehart of the Texas-Lousiana Gulf Coast Synod says he will take advantage of the 2007 call for restraint until then, but has been in touch with Grace and Groen, outlining what he can and cannot do for them at this time. For one, Grace will continue to be officially listed as being without a pastor, so Groen will not be able to attend larger church gatherings as a pastor (although she will be eligible to attend as a voting lay member so long as Grace remains in the ELCA). Groen is not eligible for the ELCA insurance or retirement plans.

Author Neil Ellis Orts clearly researched the story and it shows. It’s really interesting and informative to see the tension between many of the people in the national pews and the decisions of the local bishop. It’s not the first time that the best and most in-depth coverage on gay clergy in the ELCA has been out of the gay press.

Other noteworthy coverage included a brief item in the alternative Houston Press:

Asked why she didn’t join a denominations that allows opening [sic] gay clergy, Groen says, “I thought about it, but the core of my theology is the very Lutheran idea of grace, the idea that it’s God’s saving action through Jesus is far more important than anything that we do. I’m a Lutheran. This is the church that I grew up in and the church that I love. This the church that I want to be a part of.”

For a very brief item, it’s not a bad question to ask and have answered.

It is interesting that this story didn’t get more coverage. Other than the local television news shows noted above, the only mainstream mention was a Dallas Morning News religion blog link to the OutSmart piece. Incidentally, the deliciously gossipy and delightfully named reported that Houston Controller Annise Parker and City Council member Sue Lovell hosted a post-ordination gala at Houston’s Briar Club. And Houston mayor Bill White proclaimed July 26, 2008 to be Pastor Lura Groen Day in Houston. Where was the Houston Chronicle on this story?

Print Friendly

  • Jeffrey Weiss

    Ditto your comment that the OutSmart piece did a good job. When I went out looking for something more than news releases to link to for my blog item, that was the best account I could find.

  • Hucbald

    If you were cringing, imagine a Wisconsin Synod communicant watching the same program (Do they even watch TV?). ;^)

  • GhaleonQ

    Since you brought it up, which do you think contributed more to the lack of coverage: the denomination in question or the rareness of the denomination in Texas?

  • Daniel

    I think think that GhaleonQ’s question has been brought up a good number of times on this blog, but you’ll have to accept my apologies for not digging up the links.

    The ELCA is considerably larger than the Episcopal Church, both in terms of communicants and baptized members. I’m not sure anybody really knows why the Episcopal Church gets the coverage, but a few ideas I’ve heard have to do with geography (the ELCA is located mostly in the upper Midwest, the Pacific Northwest, PA, MD, and a few other places) while the EC is very popular in the major coastal population areas.

    The EC is closer to power than the ELCA in terms of the relative number of Episcopalians and Lutherans (writ broadly) in elected office. The EC tends to rock the boat on a number of social issues, while the ELCA has been sticking pretty closely to immigration and homosexuality without getting into abortion, economic redistribution, etc.

    I also think it is a self-reinforcing trend among reporters. The more the EC gets covered and the ELCA doesn’t, the more reporters forget that there are other major denominations outside of the EC.

    And then there’s the international component. The EC is associated with a much larger international church community, second in size in the West only to the Roman Catholic Church. There might be more Lutherans globally (especially given their strong presence in northern Europe and the presence of successful evangelical (note: not Evangelical) Lutherans in Africa. But they’re certainly not as institutionally affiliated as the Anglicans are.

    As an ELCA Lutheran, I’m at once happy to see the ELCA fly under the radar (it’s easier to avoid schism that way, I think), and I’m sad to note that nobody in the press seems to know we exist.

  • Michael

    I’m curious about Mollie’s view on why it wasn’t covered.

    As a member of the ELCA who has followed this issue closely, one of the clear messages has been that churches shouldn’t flaunt the fact they are violating the ELCA’s rules on celibacy for non-married pastors. In fact, the idea of not holding press conferences or seeking press attention was specifically mentioned. It’s part of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach that led to the Churchwide Assembly calling for “restraint” in disciplining churches or ministers who violated ELCA rules. It’s ultimately up to the local Bishop to determine what action is to be taken.

    In this case, you had a freelance writer who, according to his blog, has a M.Div from a Lutheran Seminary, so he had a great understanding of church process. The ordination took place at what is apparently a prominent church in Houston’s gay neighborhood (Montrose).

    Despite what is often the perception from some here, there is fairly broad criticism that the mainstream press does a poor job of covering gay issues. The WP and NYT are often criticized by the gay press for how gay issues are covered; the WP ombudsman recently wrote at length about how the death of a gay soldier in Iraq was reported in the WP.

    This could be an example that the church didn’t seek out attention. It could also be that the press just doesn’t pay much attention to everyday stories taking place in the gay community and only focuses on giant controversy or pride events. The complaints from many in the gay community are no different from complaints by religious conservatives that they are largely ignored or stereotyped in how they are covered by the mainstream press.

    That’s why a story like this ends up in the gay press.

  • Mollie


    I hadn’t really thought about the aspect you bring up. I think this had to have played a part in the coverage — although it wasn’t completely low-profile — with the big names celebrating the event, etc.

  • Mattk

    I was very impressed with outsmarts coverage, especially in allowing the pastor answer the question in theological terms and then printing the answer.

  • tmatt


    Precisely right. When in doubt, let people tell their views in their own language. you can then press for longer answers and more details. But don’t label. Quote.

    Then you have people on the other side engage the language and debate. Again, don’t settle for labels. Quote people.

  • Michael

    (I’m not the Michael who commented previously on this post, but I am an ELCA pastor) Just a technicality, but one worth noting: it is a little misleading to talk about the ELCA’s “requirement that gay clergy abstain from sexual relationships.” In fact, the document to which you link, “Visions & Expectations for Ordained Ministers,” calls upon all ELCA pastors to abstain from sexual relations outside of marriage.

    But only slightly misleading, and here’s why. Discipline cases against pastors whose extramarital sex was also adulterous, or in which they were having sex with members of their own congregations, are not uncommon. But I am not aware of any cases at all brought against single pastors for having sex with single people of the opposite sex toward whom they had no pastoral responsibility.

    In other words, the policy precluding extramarital sex is not applied evenhandedly, and so (even leaving aside the question of who should be allowed to marry) it does become a policy which primarily affects gay pastors — but de facto somewhat more than de jure.