Some Thoughts on the ELCA

It’s a been a while, almost two years now, since the Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Metro Chicago Synod tossed me out of their candidacy and call process for ordained ministry (okay, truth — the candidacy committee actually did that) because I’d lived a life of “poor choices” and was apparently too much of a risk to be a pastor in the ELCA. That fact that I’m still writing on this subject means it still bothers me, and it still hurts. I’m no stranger to rejection, to not being wanted, but this was immense and shattering.

I’m not sure I’m really over it and I’m not sure I will ever really be over it.

Since then, I’d hoped my book would have propelled me to something else, and created other opportunities for ministry, brought me other kinds of attention, been something I could have leveraged. It hasn’t. I haven’t sold any copies online since late 2015, if Amazon can be believed. The ELCA’s decision has pushed me further into the wilderness, made me more reliant upon God and the kindness of strangers than I ever wanted, and finally forced me to look for work that I can just barely do.

I’m still not entirely sure when the wandering ends.

Am I angry? Maybe. I don’t know. If I am, it’s not the fiery anger of my younger self, an anger that wanted to set the world on fire and dance while it burned. It’s more a sadness — a sadness for myself, yes, because what on earth do I do with myself now? But it’s also a sadness for the ELCA as well, that they have denied themselves my presence in their midst, my gifts, and my witness to a love that is greater than all of us together, a love the reaches through fear, terror, and death to show us what really matters. There’s no guarantee a life as a pastor in the ELCA would have been any better, safer, and more stable. I would likely have been in trouble with someone somewhere — a church council, a bishop’s assistant, somebody. I know I have no choice but to make some kind of future for myself, and some kind of ministry. After all, Jesus did call me, met met in the marketplace while I was minding my own business, reach out his hand, and said: “Follow me.” So, I follow. I wish I knew where.

But I am in a place where I can say something with a rather assured confidence:

I am glad God called me to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. And I’m glad God called me out of it as well.

I’m glad called me into the ELCA because it was ELCA Lutherans who taught me who Jesus was — the crucified and risen Son of God, who gave his life and rose from the dead for the salvation and redemption of God’s people and the entire world. That he lives and reigns and is with us today. That we meet him most when we meet the “least of these” — the weak, the suffering, the frightened, the imprisoned, the sick, the lame, the unwanted, and especially the exploited and the poor. In the “Church of Paul and Prophesy” that I had attended for a bit in high school, I had no idea this risen, breathing, living, suffering, redeeming Jesus even existed, much less in our world. Jesus was always just over the horizon, waiting for the right cloud to ride in on. He wasn’t in our world.

I am grateful for all the Lutherans, beginning with Peace in Alexandria, who saw a calling to be a pastor in me. I am grateful for their love and acceptance, and for the patience some of them had to teach me.

I am grateful for a seminary which, more than anything, taught me the Bible. (Because yes, seminaries in liberal denominations actually do that.) Taught me the story of God’s people Israel — a called out, promised, faithless, failed people who need their God and who have not been abandoned by that God no matter what they’ve done and whatever awful circumstances their faithlessness has subjected them to. That story is my story now, and while I struggle with other, older, far less redemptive understandings of my life, I lean on this story. Because it is true.

Because it is the only real truth I know. And the ELCA taught it to me.

I am grateful to professors at seminary who cared — Kurt Hendel, David Miller, Mark & Rosanne Swanson, Linda Thomas, Cheryl Pero, Ray Pickett — and who, despite not knowing what to make of me at first, did not let go (even if they wanted to). They taught me how not to let go, something I am really learning to do in this ministry I am growing into.

And, strangely enough, I am even grateful for my two miserable candidacy experiences. And even the Metro Chicago bishop, who took me on a second time and gave me a second chance when he didn’t have to.

I am glad God brought me to these people, taught me love and steadfastness and faith and courage and even a little hope.

But … I am also glad God led me out of the ELCA.

Jennifer said recently that Lutherans are a small people, and they prize their smallness. I think that is true. And she looked at me — as an adoring wife does — and said I am too big a person, I have too large a personality, for the comfort of most Lutherans. I don’t mean this as a slight, but it would always be confining, having to meet and being judged by social and cultural expectations that I cannot conform to. Not being able to be something I am expected to be.

Because of this, I would not be free — free to be who and what God actually called me to be. I’m a large enough man that four fatherless kids (three of whom have never physically met me, and the fourth only for a few weeks two-and-a-half years ago) call me “dad.” And they mean it. It’s taken me a long time to realize that some people see a strength in me I don’t really know (or don’t really think) I have — a kind, compassionate, empathetic strength that draws some to it. It’s a strength that finds itself in being for others what I can’t have myself.

And Jennifer thinks a lot of church people especially are frightened of that strength. Of me. Because they don’t know what to make of it.

I think Lutherans are afraid of the world, of its rough edges, of dirt and grit, of strange smells, of babbling tongues they don’t understand, of crowded and uneven streets, and especially of dark alleys where life is lived in shadow. Lutheran good works generally involve cleaning and tidying and organizing and installing bright lights rather than meeting people where they are in chaotic darkness and then grabbing hold of them and not letting go. Because of this, I would, as an ELCA pastor, never be free to walk in that world and to witness to the love of God the way that I am truly called to do. The ELCA, for all its professed theological and social progressivism, is at its heart a very culturally conservative community — Lutherans believe deeply in certain social norms and expectations, in a right order to the world, and they harshly punish those who don’t adhere and do not conform. They may genuinely be a kind and gentle and tolerant people, but as a herd, they have the power to crush and destroy and marginalize just as easily as anyone. And they do. Far too easily and far too much.

ELCA Lutherans love, but almost always it’s love in box, love that is bounded, love that knows its limits, love that is well ordered and not allowed to overflow and make a mess. It is love that knows exactly who it is for, and why, and how. In the ELCA, love is only for certain people, who behave themselves, are good, and have the foresight to be born into the right, well-ordered, bourgeois circumstances. I said this in my book, and I will repeat it here — Lutherans may preach unearned grace, but their lived confession emphatically states, “If you truly need God’s grace, you clearly have not earned it.”

And I clearly have not earned God’s grace. Not enough for the ELCA.

So, here I am, still in the wilderness, still wandering, still wondering where Jennifer and I will lay our heads. Knowing that if I am called to pastor, I will have to start my own church — an independent Lutheran denomination. So independent, that it’s just me right now. (Well, and Jennifer too.) Which, on the one hand, is very unlutheran (where is the good order in that?), and on the other hand, is about as Lutheran as you can possibly get. (Here’s hoping I meet my Frederick the Wise sometime soon?)1

I am grateful … for all of it. Even the awful parts. Even when I weep and wail and bemoan my utter and complete failure as a human being. Which has been a lot, recently.

Glad I was called to the ELCA because I was taught how to love and be loved. And who really loved me, whose work was in those human hands.

And glad I have been called out. So I can really, truly, courageously love as Jesus has called me to love. As I have been taught to love.

  1. Actually, a lot of people along the way have sheltered us and cared for us and fed us and even come to love us. Someday, I will properly thank you all.  ↩︎

3 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on the ELCA

  1. Beautifully written Charles. I finally put my seminary books on permanent shelves this week for the first time since leaving Chicago. I do feel your sense of wandering and grief. My stole hangs over the balcony among my quilt samples, but is an ever present reminder that I had more to offer than the church was ready to accept. May you find peace for your journey and joy in your wandering!

  2. Jesus said that you’ll know a tree by its fruit. I believe that you’re bringing God’s loving fruit to this world. You’re going to have a lucky congregation!

  3. Pingback: The center cannot hold | Forks and Hope

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