As I have visited at our conference meetings during the past couple months there have been questions and conversation about same-gender marriage and what this means for pastors and congregations in our synod. I wish I could offer unambiguous guidance, but our 2009 Social Statement, Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust, and its implementing resolutions, leaves much to the pastoral care and discretion of each pastor and congregation. So, what follows is my best interpretation and guidance.
Conversation is important:
When the Social Statement was adopted, we called upon “members of this church…to commit themselves to finding ways to live together faithfully in the midst of disagreements.” Therefore, it is important for pastors to be in conversation with one another, and with their congregational leaders before publicly recognizing same-gender unions (which the State of Minnesota now calls marriage), whether in the church building or outside of it. Hopefully you are able to arrive at some degree of consensus (rather than taking a vote); at the same time realizing that not everyone is going to agree. Keep in mind that it is not helpful for council leaders or congregation members to find out what their pastor is doing when they’re reading the newspaper or seeing a picture on Facebook. If there has been no discussion, they are likely to feel blindsided should someone ask them about it.
Pastors cannot disregard the fact that they are the public face of the congregation and that their actions impact the whole church as well as their colleagues in ministry. Pastors have the authority to marry based on state laws. However, pastors are not “free agents” who can do whatever they want. Pastors carry out their ministry on behalf of the congregations that have called them. If, after conversation, a congregation and pastor are open to publicly recognizing same-gender unions (marriages), then go ahead. If, after conversation, a congregation is not open to publicly recognizing same-gender unions (marriages), it would be wise for the pastor not to proceed on his or her own. Being open (or not open) to recognizing same-gender unions (marriages) should always be a matter that is prayerfully considered for the sake of the couple and the community, and not for the sake of publicity or making a political statement.
Some talking points regarding the 2009 Social Statement:
It is important to be clear about what our 2009 Social Statement says and what it does not say. Here are a few key points:
- The ELCA defines marriage as being between a man and a woman.
- It is clear that there is significant disagreement in our church around same-gender unions and marriages, and we are continuing to do our best to create space for ongoing conversation and dialogue.
- Nowhere does the Social Statement authorize ELCA pastors to perform same-gender marriages, but it does say that there can be recognition of same-gender unions (which the State of Minnesota now calls marriage). It was agreed that this is a matter of pastoral care in the local congregation.
- There is nothing in the implementing resolutions to suggest that the ELCA is planning to put together or authorize a rite for recognizing same-gender unions. However, we already have a rite for marriage, and establishing a separate rite for same-gender marriage would seem to establish a discriminatory system.
Some further thoughts and talking points:
- I take local pastoral authority seriously and therefore encourage pastors and congregations to act on the basis of their convictions (or bound consciences). Pastors and congregations have the same rights and responsibilities in regard to same-gender unions (marriages) as they would with any heterosexual marriage. They can say yes or no. I am not planning to discipline any pastor who chooses to preside or any congregation that chooses to host when recognizing a same-gender union (marriage). I will likewise not discipline any pastor or congregation who refuses to consider it.
- We live in a time of tremendous change in our society’s conversation and welcome of people in same gender unions, and there continues to be disagreement. I would hope that we can be in dialogue and that we will be both tolerant and forgiving of one another.
Thank you for all you do in faithfully serving the Gospel of Jesus Christ,
Rev. Steven H. Delzer