Just after the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America voted last summer to allow actively gay clergy into their ranks, I saw Bradley Schmeling giving a press conference. He was arm in arm with his partner, Darin Easler, who had been an ELCA pastor before leaving in 2003 because of previous church poiicy now allowing openly gay clergy. Mr. Easler then joined the ranks of United Church of Christ clergy.
“It’s been a long journey getting to this place,” Mr. Schmeling told me. “But there is still work to be done to keep engaging on this issue.”
The other shoe dropped on Tuesday when it was announced both men would be restored to the denomination’s official clergy roster. Mr. Schmeling was removed in 2007 but last summer, at its meeting in Minneapolis, the ELCA voted that pastors in committed homosexual relationships could remain within their ranks.
“For the first time, I can imagine a career in the church with Darin,” Mr. Schmeling said after the vote.
Expect more gay ELCA clergy couples to surface now that the vote is being implemented at local church levels. Below is the press release from Lutherans Concerned, a pro-gay group.
ELCA Reinstates Openly Gay Minister Couple in a Committed Relationship
A visible sign of the wondrous changes in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) is the reinstatement of Pastor Bradley Schmeling and Pastor Darin Easler to the roster of ministers of the ELCA. Both had been removed from that roster for being in a committed, same-gender relationship.
As a committed, same-gender clergy couple they will serve openly on the roster of ELCA ministers under the now-revised policy. The new policy is the result of the decisions of the August 2009 Churchwide Assembly directing the removal of the barriers to service in the church by ministers in committed, lifelong, same-gender relationships. That new policy was implemented by the actions of the ELCA Church Council in early April 2010.
Schmeling was on the roster of the Southeastern Synod of the ELCA at St. John”s Lutheran Church in Atlanta. In 2006, he told his previous bishop that he had found his partner for life. That bishop filed ecclesiastical charges for violation of the-then policy that required celibacy of gay ministers. Famously, at the end of the 2007 trial, the Discipline Hearing Committee”s ruling said that they found nothing wrong with his ministry or commitment to the work of the church, that they would hold him up as exemplary, and that they thought the policy was wrong and ought to be changed. But, they said that, obedient to the law, he was to be removed from the roster.
Schmeling”s congregation, which had thrown a celebratory party when first told about his commitment to Darin Easler, informed the bishop they were keeping him as their pastor, as they have done for the last three years. No formal charges were filed against the congregation. However, from that time, the ELCA officially considered the pulpit at St. John”s to be vacant. But, no more. Pastor Schmeling”s ministry will be officially recognized by his reinstatement to the roster.
Darin Easler was on the roster of the Southeastern Minnesota Synod of the ELCA, successfully came out to the congregation he had served for five years in Zumbrota, Minnesota, but because of the previous policy, chose to leave his call in 2003. He was later dropped from the clergy roster solely because of his committed relationship with Schmeling. Subsequently, he received ministerial standing in the United Church of Christ, who welcomes gay ministers in committed relationships. His ministry in Atlanta is as a chaplain and grief counselor to patients and families in hospice care.
Pastor Bradley Schmeling says, “One of the stones of injustice has been rolled away from the door, and Christ now lives more fully in the life of the church. The old policy, a dead end for so many for so long, has fallen in the face of Easter’s gracious power. It’s been striking how deliberately and how clearly the church has moved forward to make the assembly’s witness a reality. These are exciting days to be part of the church, and I’m looking forward to years ahead in ministry both with the church I love and with the partner that God has given me. To be on the roster together makes Isaiah’s vision of an everlasting place within God’s house a wonderful, living reality in our lives.”
Easler said of the reinstatement, “Today is a day of hope, not only for those of us in the LGBT community who can return to our church family and to the ELCA clergy roster, but for all those, young and old alike, who can now imagine a future in the church, and truly experience the church as a place of full welcome and unconditional love.”
Laura Crawley, Congregational President of St. John”s Lutheran Church, said, “St. John’s has seen history turn many corners in its 140-plus years as a Lutheran congregation in Atlanta. With the change in ELCA policy that enables Bradley and Darin to return to the ELCA roster of ordained ministry, we rejoice that we’ve been a part of righting one of the wrongs of history.”
“The larger church continues to struggle with this issue. Many people are saddened by the policy change and worry for the future of the Lutheran church. I hope they’ll come to St. John’s to worship with us one Sunday, so we can welcome them and make them feel at home again in their church.
“The St. John’s congregation never doubted Bradley’s and Darin’s calls to ministry. We’re honored by their ministry gifts and by the example of their loving, committed relationship. We’re so glad the ELCA is welcoming them home!”
Ross Murray, Interim Executive Director, Lutherans Concerned/North America, said, “We celebrate that Bradley is the first pastor to be reinstated to the ELCA roster and that Darin is being restored to the ELCA roster, both under the new policy. And, we celebrate that they are able to serve openly in the ELCA as a same-gender clergy couple. Our continued prayer is that they will be the first of many people who are able to come out and serve the church with honesty and integrity. Such a day calls for celebration, not only in Atlanta, but by all who value full participation and the continued spread of Christ”s message.
Murray continued, “We look forward to celebrating with every pastor and lay leader who is being received or reinstated onto the ELCA clergy roster, every person who is able to be more honest about his or her personal life because of this policy change, and every congregation who is freed to call the leader with the gifts that will suit them best. There is still much work to be done to achieve full inclusion of LGBT people in the life of the church.”
Pastors Bradley Schmeling, Darin Easler and the congregation of St. John”s Lutheran Church will jointly celebrate the reinstatements at a congregational event to be scheduled for mid-June.
- Julia Duin, religion editor