Taking one of the harshest disciplinary acts possible against a member church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) stripped an urban ministry center in Los Angeles of its congregational status because it broke church laws by hiring an openly lesbian associate pastor.
Central City Lutheran Mission (CCLM), according to the Los Angeles Times, said it knew it broke church laws while installing the Rev. Jennifer Mason a pastor who is not on the official ELCA clergy roster because of her sexually active lesbian lifestyle. In fact, according to the ELCA news, the members of the CCLM board met with Pacifica synod leaders before Mason was installed to discuss the situation.
Pacifica Synods Bishop Finck explained that during the meeting, the synod leaders urged CCLM not to install Mason.
"We asked them to reconsider," said Finck, to the ELCA news, Dec. 9. "We asked them not to install her. We asked that they let us converse with them and then work to resolve this."
However, the board declined to change its position, despite the councils request to reconsider three times.
Therefore, after failed talks and measures, the synod decided on Oct. 29 to remove the CCLM ministry from the denominations congregational roster, and ended its call to Rev. David Kalke as CCLMs pastor. The CCLMs board subsequently adopted two resolutions urging the council to rescind its Oct. 29 decision.
At a meeting Dec. 4, the council declined CCLM's requests to place the ministry back on the roster, but did approve Kalkes request to remain on the clergy roster and be placed on leave from call.
In a statement to the LA Times, Kalke criticized the decision as a case of conservatism raising its ugly head.
"This is the first time in 14 years that any congregation or any pastor has been dealt with this harshly. We thought those days were over," said Kalke. "It appears conservatism has raised its ugly head here in Southern California, much to our surprise."
However Finck explained that the synods decision was not about conservatism or an attack on Masons sexual orientation.
"The issue as we see it had nothing to do with this person's orientation," Finck said to the Times. "That wasn't our issue in this synod. Our issue was that we are obligated to abide by our governing documents that say only people who are on the roster of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America are to be called into the pastoral world and sacrament ministry."
"What we have said to the [CCLM] board is that [Mason's orientation] may be the central issue for you, but it is not the central issue for us," Finck said to the ELCA news.
Finck added that he finds no victory in the ultimate decision, which was made out of compliance with the constitutions, provisions and policies" of the church.
"There's a lot of sadness in our synod, but there's been a lot of support," Finck said, Dec. 9. "Many congregations, pastors and people in our synod have indicated they stand behind the council's difficult decision."
Meanwhile, the CCLM wrote in a release that it believed the synod council action was completely out of line with what other ELCA synods have done in similar situations. Since 1990, there were no incidences where congregations were stripped of recognition for installing gay clergy. Bishops often sent letters of reprimand and urged the congregations to change its decision.
However, according to ELCA secretary Rev Lowell G Almen, the decision is in line with what had long been the action of synod councils across the nation.
"By action of synod councils, certain congregations in various synods have been removed from the roster of the ELCA for calling persons as pastors who are not on the roster of ordained ministers, or who have resigned or been removed from the [clergy] roster," said the Rev. Lowell G. Almen, ELCA secretary.
"While local circumstances may differ, the Central City Lutheran Mission decision of the Pacifica Synod Council is not unique," he said.
The CCLM was formed in 1996 by five congregations in the San Bernardino area. Dubbed a forming congregation, the ministry was meant to serve people living in poverty. The social service ministry offers education, health and housing benefits to those in need, and tends to the homeless and people living with AIDS.
When asked by the ELCA News why the CCLM would choose to consciously defy church order by hiring someone off the clergy roster, Kalke said it was because the ministry needed someone who was culturally competent.
We called her because we needed an associate pastor. We needed a person who was culturally competent, Kalke said.
Kalke also said the synod did not provide any pastors to fill the slot; Finck said the synod offered the CCLM two candidates, but both were turned down by the CCLM
In lieu of the misunderstandings and confusion, Finck said the Pacifica Synod Council and the bishop will pray for and seek ways to rebuild the relationship between CCLM and the synod, and extend invitations for further dialogue and understanding, healing and reconciliation."
Finck also explained that the CCLM can continue its ministry as a social service just not a spiritual service.
However, Kalke said to the LA Times that he plans to lead CCLM as an independent Lutheran congregation anyways.
"I'm going to continue to celebrate Mass," he said. "These people have a right not only for a place to sleep and a bowl of soup but also a right to worship."
In a larger context, the CCLM/Pacifica Synod conflict came amid the development of a ELCA-wide study on sexuality issues. The study, which is due for review early next year, will make recommendations to keep or amend the churchs policy on blessing same-gender relationships same-sex unions may not be celebrated nor encouraged within ELCA church walls. The report will also make recommendations on gay clergy; while the church has no set policy on ordaining gay clergy, the ELCA bishops advised the church refrain from ordaining both heterosexual and homosexual people who are sexually active outside of marriage. The ELCA defines "marriage as a lifelong covenant of faithfulness between a man and a woman" in its message "Sexuality: Some Common Convictions," adopted in 1996 by the ELCA Church