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St. Paul's largest ELCA congregation chooses gay pastor

ST. PAUL A gay pastor who made national headlines after being removed from the official clergy roster of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America for being in a same-sex relationship has been overwhelmingly approved as the new senior pastor of ...


A gay pastor who made national headlines after being removed from the official clergy roster of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America for being in a same-sex relationship has been overwhelmingly approved as the new senior pastor of the denomination's largest St. Paul church.

On Sunday, 92 percent of the attending members of Gloria Dei Lutheran Church's 2,300-member congregation approved Bradley Schmeling, 49, to become their new pastor in June.

Schmeling has been senior pastor at St. John's Lutheran Church in Atlanta since 2000.

Schmeling was suspended from the ELCA's clergy roster in 2007 but was reinstated three years later after the denomination moved to allow gay and lesbian pastors in relationships to be members of the clergy.


Schmeling met his partner, the Rev. Darin Easler, in 2004 at a worship service at Augsburg College in Minneapolis. Their relationship became permanent in 2005, and Easler -- a former ELCA pastor in Zumbrota, Minn. -- moved to Atlanta in 2006.

That year, Schmeling told his bishop and the St. John's congregation about his relationship with Easler.

"The congregation's response was to schedule a celebration. They didn't know, but I never had any fear of telling them," Schmeling said.

But after a disciplinary hearing, both Schmeling and Easler were removed from the ELCA's clergy roster. St. John's decided to keep Schmeling on anyway.

In 2009 in Minneapolis, delegates to the ELCA's national assembly voted

559-451 to approve a resolution allowing men and women in "publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous same-gender relationships" to serve as official ministers. Before that, gay men and lesbians had to be celibate to serve as rostered ELCA clergy.

The contentious vote created a schism, with a small fraction of member churches leaving the denomination to create a new one, the North American Lutheran Church.

The Rev. Peter Rogness, bishop of the St. Paul Area Synod, said none of his congregations defected for that group, though four congregations joined another breakaway denomination called the Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ.


Schmeling and Easler were reinstated in 2010. That year, the Rev. Anita Hill, the openly gay and partnered lead pastor at St. Paul-Reformation in St. Paul, and two other lesbian ELCA ministers were added to St. Paul's clergy roster.

Born in Fort Wayne, Ind., Schmeling was ordained in 1989 and called as pastor of Calvary Lutheran Church in Columbus, Ohio. That year, the ELCA prohibited partnered gay and lesbian pastors from rostered ministry. Schmeling came out to his congregation, personally visiting each member.

After six years, Schmeling left the ministry to work on a doctorate at Emory University in Atlanta, where he also oversaw the chapel.

"I couldn't imagine there would be a place in the church for me," he told St. Paul's Gloria Dei congregation Saturday.

In 2000, he was approached to serve at nearby St. John's.

Claire Hoyum, the president of Gloria Dei's congregation, said the Snelling Avenue church's call committee traveled to Atlanta to observe Schmeling at St. John's after first hearing his sermons online.

"He has commitment to very rich liturgical worship and fine preaching," Hoyum said, adding that Schmeling was also picked above five other candidates because of "strong strategic and visionary skills" and "the way his congregation reached out to the impoverished neighborhood across the street -- very aligned with Gloria Dei.

"He was (the call committee's) unanimous choice."


Said Rogness: "It's a strong, healthy congregation that I think is calling a very strong and healthy and gifted pastor. We're delighted that he's coming to ministry here."

Rogness noted that though Gloria Dei decided not to preclude gay pastoral candidates, other congregations in the St. Paul synod have.

"Some recognize that there would be a division of feeling within the congregation about that," Rogness said.

On Saturday, Schmeling told the Gloria Dei congregation: "Your welcome is clear; in fact, you've made the connection between hospitality and justice. You know that you cannot open the doors of the church, invite the world in, and then not be willing to change the world outside the church."

In an interview Tuesday, Schmeling added, "What impressed me so much about Gloria Dei is that they were really interested in finding a pastor that matched their mission, and sexual orientation was never an issue in the call process. And I think that's an astounding thing....Certainly it came up, but only as they were interested in who I am as a person."

Said Hoyum: "We did not preclude his history, nor was it a factor in the selection process. Our focus was on his skills and gift for ministry." She added that when it came to concerns about Schmeling's sexual orientation, "I think I've had just one person talk to me, but the overwhelming majority are just delighted."

Schmeling's first sermon at Gloria Dei is planned for June 17. He succeeds the Rev. John Mann, an interim minister who took over in August 2010 after the church's longtime senior pastor, the Rev. Susan Peterson, retired.

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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