Title: ELCA Discipline Hearing Committee Rules in Atlanta Case ELCA NEWS SERVICE
February 8, 2007
ELCA Discipline Hearing Committee Rules in Atlanta Case 07-020-JB
CHICAGO (ELCA) -- A discipline hearing committee of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) ruled Feb. 7 that the Rev. Bradley E. Schmeling be removed from the ELCA clergy roster effective Aug. 15, 2007. Schmeling, who reported to his bishop that he is in a committed relationship with another man, is pastor of St. John Lutheran Church, Atlanta.
The committee met Jan. 18-24 in closed session in Atlanta to hear the case. Seven of the 12 members of the discipline hearing committee voted to remove Schmeling from the roster.
In addition, the committee's written opinion made some specific suggestions for changes in ELCA clergy standards, and it suggested those changes be brought for consideration to the ELCA Churchwide Assembly, the church's highest legislative authority. The next assembly is here at Navy Pier, Aug. 6-11.
The Rev. Ronald B. Warren, bishop of the ELCA Southeastern Synod, Atlanta, filed charges against Schmeling on Aug. 8, 2006. Warren explained in "A Pastoral Letter of Disclosure" that Schmeling admitted to him that he was in violation of the ELCA's "Definitions and Guidelines for Discipline" for ordained ministers.
"Specifically, Pastor Schmeling disclosed to me that he is in a sexual relationship with an adult male. He has declined my requests for his resignations from his call to St. John Lutheran Church and the ELCA clergy roster," Warren's letter said.
Warren explained in his letter that he submitted the matter to the ELCA disciplinary process because an ELCA bishop does not have authority to "unilaterally remove any ELCA pastor from the ELCA (clergy) roster."
Normally the churchwide organization does not release the contents of decisions of discipline hearing committees, but in this case the parties themselves released the complete written decision.
The text of the decision indicated that the committee was nearly unanimous in its concern that "Definitions and Guidelines for Discipline" and "Vision and Expectations: Ordained Ministers in the ELCA" "are at least bad policy, and may very well violate the constitution and bylaws of this church." The committee said it was specifically concerned with a sentence in "Definitions and Guidelines" that states: "Practicing homosexual persons are precluded from the ordained ministry of this church."
The committee said that if it was relieved of that requirement, it would find "almost unanimously that Pastor Schmeling is not engaged in conduct that is incompatible with the ministerial office, and would find with near unanimity that no discipline of any sort should be imposed against him."
The committee "respectfully" suggested that, through normal legislative processes, the ELCA Churchwide Assembly initiate a process to: + reconsider and revise "Definitions and Guidelines," removing language that specifically precludes practicing homosexuals from the ordained ministry + reconsider and revise "Vision and Expectations," removing specific prohibitions against homosexual sexual relationships + reconsider and revise the policy on reinstatement to the ELCA clergy and professional lay rosters to permit immediate reinstatement of persons who have resigned or have been removed from the rosters of the ELCA solely because they entered into a loving, lifelong partnership with another person of the same sex that is mutual, chaste and faithful. Normally people who seek reinstatement to the official rosters must wait at least five years.
Responses to the committee's decision
In response to the discipline hearing committee's decision, Warren said: "The decision to seek Pastor Schmeling's removal from the ministry of this church was difficult because of my deep respect for the pastor and the congregation at St. John."
"But the policy of this church is clear, and it was my responsibility as bishop of this synod to enforce the established standards of this church, particularly when the 2005 Churchwide Assembly decided that the church would not create a process for possible exceptions to existing behavior expectations for pastors," Warren said in a written statement.
"As this church continues prayerfully to consider the issue of clergy who are gay or lesbian and in committed relationships, both the synod and I will continue to work on finding ways to live together faithfully in the midst of our disagreements," the bishop said.
In a telephone interview with the ELCA News Service, Schmeling said he is "grateful that the committee heard my story. They listened, took seriously the ministry of St. John, and I was delighted they affirmed my ministry," he said. Schmeling said he is encouraged that the committee asked the churchwide assembly to change policy.
Between now and Aug. 15, Schmeling emphasized that his first responsibility is to be "the best pastor I can be at St. John." The process leading up to the churchwide assembly will give him a chance to talk about what it's like to be gay and be called to the ministry, and to explain how difficult that is under current ELCA policy, he said.
Schmeling noted that Aug. 15 is the 7th anniversary of the day he began his call at St. John. "I'm looking forward to celebrating that anniversary," he said.
"My prayer is that we can find a way to be faithful together," he said, referencing a resolution of the 2005 Churchwide Assembly which urged the ELCA to concentrate on finding ways to live together faithfully in the midst of disagreements. Schmeling said he had not yet discussed a possible appeal of the decision with his legal team.
"We're very grateful that the committee heard the words of members of St. John and Pastor Brad," said Laura Crawley, St. John congregation president. "We are glad they recommended the conversation continue."
"We've been a family of faith. I think that's where the congregation is now," she said.
Crawley said she does not know what, if any, role the 140- year-old congregation might take with regard to seeking change in ELCA policy. "We're just happy that Pastor Brad is still with us, and we're looking forward to what comes next," she said, adding that "we pray every week for the unity of the whole church."
The Rev. Lowell G. Almen, ELCA secretary, manages the official clergy and professional lay rosters for the ELCA, and oversees the discipline process on behalf of the churchwide organization. He said both parties have 30 days in which to appeal the committee's decision. Any appeal would be considered by the 12-member Churchwide Committee on Appeals, whose membership is split evenly among lay members and clergy. The decision of the appeals committee is final.
The discipline hearing committee's decision is at http://www.ELCA-ses.org/Hearing.htm on the ELCA Southeastern Synod Web site.
For information contact:
John Brooks, Director (773) 380-2958 or firstname.lastname@example.org http://www.elca.org/news ELCA News Blog: http://www.elca.org/news/blog