An openly gay Atlanta pastor previously removed from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and later reinstated has now been voted in by an overwhelming majority to the role of senior pastor at the biggest Lutheran church in Saint Paul, Minn.
The Rev. Bradley Schmeling, who in 2007 admitted he was in a committed same-sex relationship with Pastor Darin Easler, a former minister at the United Redeemer Lutheran Church in Zumbrota, Minn., was removed from ELCA's official clergy roster that year. His St. John's Lutheran Church in Atlanta, however, decided to keep him on as pastor despite the ELCA's decision, and he has served there since 2000.
Schmeling and Easler were reinstated in 2009 when the ELCA voted to permit gay and lesbian ministers in monogamous relationships to be on the roster. The 559-451 vote created a split within the Lutheran church, as a fraction of member churches left to start the North American Lutheran Church, which rejects openly gay clergy.
The Gloria Dei Lutheran Church congregation of 2,300 members, who saw the Rev. M. Susan Peterson retire from her position as senior pastor at the church in 2010, has embraced Schmeling by an overwhelming margin. In a vote on Sunday, March 25, 92 percent of attending members said "yes" to Schmeling becoming the first openly gay pastor to lead the church. The Rev. Peterson, on the other hand, who served for almost 25 years, was the first woman to lead an ELCA congregation larger than 1,000 members.
"I was drawn to Gloria Dei's vibrant congregation and its genuine sense of welcoming, hospitality and desire for outreach to the world," Schmeling, who is an Ohio native, said in a press release. "I feel a deep kinship with the congregation's desire to retain a strong liturgical tradition while strengthening its reach into the community – especially to those who live on the margins of society."
"The church ought to be a place that welcomes and includes everyone," Schmeling told the Star Tribune. "Gloria Dei has a big heart for its staff, members, for the community. I was attracted to its ... willingness to be a voice of justice and inclusion in the neighborhood and St. Paul. They were just amazingly warm, welcoming, affectionate people." The pastor will begin his service in June.
Besides serving for more than a decade at St. John's Lutheran Church, Schmeling also teaches as an adjunct professor of liturgical practice at Emory University's Candler School of Theology. Previously, from 1989-1995, he was pastor at Calvary Lutheran Church in Columbus, Ohio, and from 1999-2000 he was chapel director at Emory University's Office of the Chapel and Religious Life.
The Rev. Peter Rogness, who serves as bishop of the St. Paul Area Synod of the ELCA, explained that it was Schmeling's high-profile case that led the ELCA to reconsider its gay clergy policy, which previously was not accepting of openly gay pastors.
"His ministry, both personally and in the congregation, became a catalyst for the ELCA re-examining and ultimately changing its policy," said Rogness, who was fully supportive of Schmeling's move to Gloria Dei.
Claire Hoyum, congregation council president for Gloria Dei, insisted that it was not Schmeling's gay status that led to the decision to push him for the senior pastor role.
"We have a history of rich, strong liturgical worship and music, and that's a commitment that Pastor Schmeling also has," Hoyum said. "He believes our worship service is reflective of our mission in the world, and that really resonated with us."
"He's an amazing preacher," she added. "He has the strategic and visionary skills we seek in the next leader for our congregation. His commitment to make the church a force in the broader community and to act for social justice, particularly among the poor, resonates with the mission of Gloria Dei."
Rogness admitted that four congregations in the area joined another breakaway denomination called the Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ in protest of the acceptance of homosexual clergy.