Outside the rules of its denomination, Grace Lutheran Church in Montrose calls an openly bisexual minister.
By Neil Ellis Orts
Photo by George Small
Lura Groen—professed Christian, lifetime Lutheran, graduate of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, out bisexual—has been tapped for pastoral duties by Houston’s Grace Lutheran Church. American Lutherans embraced women clergy nearly 40 years ago, but Lutheran governing bodies have yet to include in that embrace men and women who openly live in same-sex relationships.
“I was raised in the Lutheran Church, and always was taught in Sunday School that God loves me and God loves everyone. I searched in various ways for what sort of career I could have to present that to other people,” says Groen. She first explored lay ministry opportunities, working as a camp counselor and with the Lutheran Volunteer Corps as a case manager to homeless people in Baltimore and Washington, DC. As she sensed a call to ordained ministry, Groen enrolled in seminary, where her active community life continued. She served as student body president, participated in numerous social justice activities, received a number of academic and leadership awards, and was on the dean’s list. Despite her obvious success as a student, attending seminary represented a giant leap of faith for Groen. At the time, she knew her sexuality was not acceptable to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the national church body that would be responsible for finding (or not finding) a church post for her upon graduation.
The ELCA was formed in 1988. Since its inception, its guidelines have maintained that clergy who self-identify as gay or lesbian must remain celibate. This policy has been challenged over the years and is currently being reevaluated at the instruction of the 2007 ELCA Churchwide Assembly. At this assembly, bishops were also encouraged to exercise restraint in disciplining both clergy who are discovered to be in monogamous, homosexual relationships and congregations who call such clergy to be their pastors.
Grace Lutheran Church is a congregation of the ELCA and has a long history in Houston’s Montrose neighborhood. Since its organization in 1922, Grace has seen many changes, the most significant to current events being the 1995 decision to become a “Reconciling” congregation, which means they made an official statement of welcome to GLBT folk. Grace has been without a pastor since 2003, and when they felt ready to start interviewing candidates, they informed the bishop’s office that they would be considering not only approved candidates from the ELCA, but also from the roster of Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries (ELM).
ELM officially came into being in 2007, but traces its history back to 1990. That was the year when two San Francisco Lutheran congregations called to service three openly gay pastors—Ruth Frost, Jeff Johnson, and Phyllis Zillhart. The eventual result of the extra ordinem ordination of these three was that the ELCA expelled the congregations who called them. In the ensuing years, ELM took form from the various networks of Lutheran pastors and churches who wished to fully include GLBT folk in all aspects of the church’s life. Today, they evaluate candidates for ministry and maintain a roster, separate from the ELCA’s, of people they have judged suitable for ordained ministry. Grace is the first congregation in Texas to call an ELM candidate.
All of these histories confront one another with Groen’s ordination. In calling her to be their pastor, Grace risks being removed from the ELCA, depending upon actions taken by the Churchwide Assembly in 2009. Bishop Michael Rinehart of the Texas-Lousiana Gulf Coast Synod says he will take advantage of the 2007 call for restraint until then, but has been in touch with Grace and Groen, outlining what he can and cannot do for them at this time. For one, Grace will continue to be officially listed as being without a pastor, so Groen will not be able to attend larger church gatherings as a pastor (although she will be eligible to attend as a voting lay member so long as Grace remains in the ELCA). Groen is not eligible for the ELCA insurance or retirement plans.
Still, there seems to be little overt controversy in this instance, certainly nothing akin to what happened in 1990 in San Francisco. As stated by Grace representative Rene Garcia and confirmed by bishop’s representative Reverend Don Carlson, Grace Lutheran Church has “gone the extra mile to keep the Synod office updated” as the congregation traveled down this path. Everyone seems well aware of the stakes while remaining cordial in their interactions.
“I have been very pleased to receive the welcome of the bishop,” Groen says. “I understand that the bishop is under many pressures and needs to do his job to be the bishop, so I have been very pleased that he has been personally welcoming to me.”
The bishop’s job includes answering concerns about Groen’s ordination. In an email to area church leaders, Rinehart stated he could not participate in the ordination and reiterated current church policy. His one overtly negative comment came at the end of the email that, “ . . . availability for press interviews . . . and preferred seating for the press left me and others with the feeling of a publicity stunt.”
When asked about being in the media spotlight, Groen says: “We are celebrating the opportunity to tell people what God is doing and how God is changing the church. We are celebrating the forum to say publicly that God loves everyone.”
Lura Groen’s ordination takes place at 2 p.m. on July 26 at Grace Lutheran Church (2515 Waugh Drive). It is a convergence of many histories and many players, and despite the actions that may eventually be taken against Grace, the mutual respect among the main players of the current drama speaks of hope for progress in the ELCA.
Neil Ellis Orts interviewed Tony Kushner for OutSmart’s May issue.