Last month, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church authorized its pastors to provide same-sex marriages for the first time in its 62-year history.
That’s a result of a process the church began in March 2017 called “Reconciling in Christ,” aimed at better defining how it can serve its LGBT members. Other changes include a new welcome statement, installation of a gender-neutral bathroom and use of more gender-neutral language during worship services.
“We now say ‘siblings in Christ’ instead of ‘brothers and sisters in Christ,’ Enstad said.
When the Reconciling process started, members of Good Shepherd, which has campuses in both southwest Madison and Verona, had been asking church leadership for a couple of years about who specifically was welcome into the church, adult faith formation pastor Dara Schuller-Hanson told the Press.
Some congregants, Schuller-Hanson explained, had family members who are a part of the LGBT community.
“They wanted to know, when we say we welcome all, do we really mean every one and all?” she said. “What does it mean to be welcoming in a world that people don’t always feel is welcoming?”
Now, with the adoption Sept. 29 of its welcome statement, that’s clear. The words “without exception” are prominent, and it makes explicit references to gender identity and sexual orientation.
“We invite you to a community where we all belong,” it says in part. “You belong here with your whole self.”
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the national denomination to which Good Shepherd belongs, does not have an official policy on same-sex marriage.
The unspoken status quo, Enstad explained, is that churches will only perform marriages for opposite sex couples, but it has been left to local congregations to decide whether they will offer same-sex marriages, as well. It has been assumed pastors will not begin performing same-sex marriages without first having a dialogue with members of their congregation.
Parishioner Syrenne McNulty has been involved in the process from its start back in March of 2017 and became chair of the task force in late 2018.
A transgender woman, she’s a lifelong member of Good Shepherd, having been baptized at the Madison campus. Her visibility in the church helped keep the conversation going, especially on gender identity.
“Being an out lesbian trans woman shepherding this conversation, visible during the whole conversation, it would have been very difficult for someone to engage in this topic and not talk about gender identity,” McNulty said.
McNulty said gender issues were less of a sticking point for parishioners who were uncomfortable than same-sex marriage was.
Enstad acknowledged that some people have stepped away from the church as a result of the emotions involved.
“Folks have come and gone throughout this process – my prayer is that as they discover what will and not change to DNA of this congregation they will come back,” Pastor Chris said, “People on both sides of the conversation needed breaks, regardless of where they ended up landing.”
Even so, leaders involved in the process – McNulty, Schuller-Hanson and Enstad – felt the entire process never got too heated.
“It always felt really honest and really holy. People were thanking each other for sharing their stories. Even if there was disagreement, there was respect,” Enstad said. “Both sides were represented. Even those who were struggling with being welcoming trusted in the process.”
McNulty said she felt the process ended up being the “right pace” for the conversation with the congregation, as everyone in the church grew up with different beliefs about marriage and sexuality.
Schuller-Hanson said feelings varied about how quickly and how far to change the church’s policies.
“We had people who really struggled with this process, people who thought we should move faster, or move slower, saying ‘all means all, we don’t need to dive deeper,’” Schuller-Hanson said. “Or people who thought we shouldn’t move at all.”
One of the most visible outcomes of the Reconciling in Christ process was the adoption of the new welcome statement.
The welcome statement is displayed on televisions throughout the church lobby and on the church website and is included in the monthly bulletin.
Reception of the new welcome statement was overwhelmingly positive, with 93 percent of parishioners voting to affirm adoption of the statement. Over 400 members of the church took part in a final survey in August.
While the Reconciling in Christ task force was disbanded after 30 months of work, implementation of the welcome statement has only just begun, McNulty said.
“Our congregation overwhelmingly agreed this is who we are, but just because we passed statement doesn’t mean we are done,” she said. “This was everyone agreeing to walk in a direction, and now we have to live it.”
Church members will reconvene in January and really start implementing the statement through the lens of hospitality. Enstad said making people feel welcome is something the church is still learning to do.
“People of all races and different abilities and socioeconomic classes are knocking at our doors,” he said. “We have to open our doors wide enough – and not just with our food shelf or clothes closet – that they will come to worship with us, and we will listen to them and hear their experiences of God.”