An Un-pastoral Message: Response to “Trustworthy Servants of the People of God”

On 6 March 2019 the Conference of Bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America released a pastoral message addressed to the church concerning Vision and Expectations, a document first passed as policy in 1990 that has been under increasing scrutiny because of its misuse.

Vision and Expectations (version for pastors, version for deacons), it is a document with an embarrassing history. For a full rundown of its origin and implementation, I refer you to this excellent article written by Amalia Vagts of Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries. In summary: V&E is the end result of the early ELCA’s attempt to explicitly condemn non-heterosexual people and to bar them from rostered ministry. Though the published version included many other expectations, at its heart was this prohibition against non-heterosexuality. And though V&E claims that it “should not be understood as a juridical standard”, that has been its primary use. Until 2009, when the ELCA Churchwide Assembly adopted its tenth social statement Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust and amended its policies on rostered ministry to allow openly and partnered non-heterosexual and non-cisgender people to be rostered ministers, V&E was used almost exclusively for its original purpose: to discriminate against non-heterosexual and non-cisgender people in the church. Heterosexual cisgender rostered leaders could still be discplined for violating expectations related to the section on sexuality and dismissed from the roster–but rarely were they or anyone else disciplined for violating other sections of the document. The purpose of V&E was made known through its use.

The Pastoral Message Fails to Communicate

For this reason I am disappointed but not surprised by the pastoral message sent by the Conference of Bishops. The message displays a profound denial of the purpose of Vision and Expectations and a disturbing neglect of the damage it has, and continues, to cause. The CoB acknowledges that the application of V&E has been “uneven and inequitable” but fails to acknowledge that it is the bishops themselves who are applying it this way. It expresses “profound grief and deep regret” (but not apology) for the ways in which V&E was used as a weapon against certain populations. It accuses victims of “feeling targeted”, which is a polite way of denying that those people were deliberately targeted–as if the way V&E has been used was an accident. It wasn’t. V&E was written specifically to target a certain segment of the population, and that’s how it was used. Finally, the CoB claims that it will “listen and take seriously the concerns of all our leaders–particularly those who historically have been marginalized”, a claim that the following day proved false.

On 7 March 2019, the draft document Trustworthy Servants of the People of God was released. Following (I assume) the correct procedure of the ELCA Churchwide Organization this document, meant to replace V&E, was written by a small team called together by the Domestic Mission Unit of the ELCA. It was then submitted to the CoB for their review, and the ELCA Church Council will have the final say. The team had been working on the draft for a year, and at least one draft was rejected by the ELCA Church Council. And while the team that wrote TSPG was under no legal or constitutional requirement to pull in other interested and affected parties to help draft the new policy, as ELM has repeatedly asked, considering the pledge by the CoB just one day prior to listen and take seriously the concerns of those who have been marginalized by the previous policy, this lack of engagement with the marginalized is all the more striking.

The pastoral message from the CoB was released on Ash Wednesday, one of the busiest and most important days of the Church Year–one of its Principal Festivals. When the draft document TSPG was released, it was done without fanfare and no notifications were sent out to rostered ministers. Instead, it was shared on Facebook, and synodical bishops had to scramble to find ways to inform their synods and rostered ministers about it. This is necessary because there is an open window for comments to be submitted; but it is only a ten day window. Comments were requested to be submitted to synodical bishops, who would then decide whether or not to pass on those comments to the ELCA Church Council. As I will explain, I do not find these provisions acceptable.

An Un-pastoral Message

I decided to call my comments an Un-pastoral Message because too often pastoral messages like the one sent out by the Conference of Bishops end up using many words to say very little and are written to appease without actually addressing the concerns they name. If to be “pastoral” is to be non-confrontational and “nice” without taking a firm stand, then it’s time to be a little un-pastoral.

Unlike the crafters of Vision and Expectation, I do believe the writers of Trustworthy Servants of the People of God were trying to take an outdated document with a bad history and make it somewhat better. While we in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America still have a long way to go, we have improved. I believe that the writers of TSPG were trying to address the failings of V&E and better communicate the standards expected of rostered ministers in the ELCA. Unfortunately, I do not believe that they succeeded.

Where TSPG Succeeds

There are many statements made in TSPG that should be commended. Taken at face value the document pledges to avoid making the culture of any subgroup become the norm for all (lines 17-18) which, in the whitest and second-least diverse church in the United States, is a pledge that must be taken seriously. It lists the responsibilities entrusted to rostered ministers in by the church (lines 24-62). It stresses repeatedly the importance of trust and how broken trust breaks communities.

On the whole, the expectations laid out are noncontroversial in their content. Rostered ministers are and should be expected to be trustworthy in our dealings with others, to make regular use of spiritual disciplines, to make sure we are healthy in mind body and spirit, to lead appropriate family lives (for those of us with families), to not steal other people’s intellectual property, and to be models of healthy sexual expression. None of this is surprising. I would be pleased if all of us rostered ministers were better examples of all of these! But if I agree with most of the content, why do I believe that TSPG is a failed revision of V&E?

Where TSPG Fails

It is in the details, the implications, and the implementation that I have serious concerns about TSPG. This of course is also true of its predecessor. While there is objectionable content in V&E, most of the content is commendable. It is its use and implementation that has been so damaging, and I have no reason to believe that TSPG will be treated any differently.

Method and Delivery

It is clear that, though this draft has taken a year to write, its completion has been troubled. Because of the nature of V&E and its profound impact on the LGBTQ+ community in the church, Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries repeatedly asked that voices who have been deeply affected by the misuse of this policy be included in its drafting. This was not done. Normally I wouldn’t suggest that every policy decision be open to a larger audience (though I find it paradoxical that we engage in such a deep conversation around Social Statements, which are not policy, but shy away from it when determining actual policy), but in this case, knowing how important this policy is and its far-reaching effects on rostered ministers and candidates for rostered ministry, the process should not have been restricted to a few voices that, by and large, are not affected by it. The overwhelming majority of those involved in the writing and review of TSPG are older white cisgender married heterosexual men and the document suffers from that lack of other perspectives, focusing on a culture that caters to its writers.

The delivery of this new document to the rest of the church is also disturbing. We’ve been told that comments are welcome on this draft, but the actions of the drafters and the CoB say otherwise. A woefully insufficient pastoral message was released during one of the busiest Principal Festivals. The draft itself was released the day after, right at the beginning of the season of Lent. The window for comments is only ten days long–a very short time–and instead of being received by either the writers of the draft or the ELCA Church Council that will vote on it, comments are instead supposed to be directed to our synodical bishops, who have already given their approval to the current draft and who are in no way obligated to actually pass on those comments. All this suggests that, rather than inviting other voices to the table, the intention is to make it difficult to submit comments and have our voices heard. These are not the actions of trustworthy servants of the people of God. These are the actions of people who want to give mere lip service to the pledge of openness and transparency, hoping that no one will really notice or act.

Whether intentionally or not, those involved in the process of writing this draft document have greatly underestimated how much damage its predecessor has caused and how important it is that its successor be a document that treats marginalized rostered ministers with dignity and respect.

For Whom Is This Document?

The front page of TSPG states that is is a document addressed to Pastors and Deacons of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and throughout the document pastors and deacons are frequently mentioned. Rarely however are bishops included, except as the gatekeepers and dispensers of order and discipline. Yes, in the ELCA bishops are technically pastors who have been elected to a separate (and temporary) role, and thus could be included in “pastors” for the sake of the document. But I find it curious that in a document so focused on building trust the leaders most important to maintaining that trust are absent. If the document is for Ministers of Word and Sacrament and Ministers of Word and Service, it should say that, as bishops (like pastors) are a subset of Ministers of Word and Sacrament. The absence of any references to the responsibility of bishops to also be trustworthy servants of the people of God is a glaring omission and needs to be rectified. Bishops hold the most power over rostered ministers and candidates for ministry, so it is imperative that they be explicitly held to the highest standards of trustworthiness.

TSPG also makes the assumption that pastors and deacons will be serving in congregational settings. It makes a passing reference to rostered ministers serving in other capacities, but the entire document is written and read through the lens of congregational ministry. This narrow focuses weakens it.

Confusion of Terms

While reading through TSPG I encountered three categories of imperatives: “shalls/ares”, “expects”, and “shoulds/encourages”. I am unsure how to interpret each of these terms in the context of the larger document. The “shalls/ares” seem pretty straightforward. They seem to indicate actions that rostered ministers are required to take. Pastors shall preach the Word. Deacons shall advocate a prophetic diakonia. Pastors and deacons are to avoid conduct that is dishonest, and so on.

I am less clear on the “expects” and “shoulds/encourages”. Pastors and deacons are expected “to be people of prayer and personal devotion” (lines 124-125). Deacons and pastors are expected “to take advantage of continuing education” (lines 149-150). Pastors and deacons are expected “to make their own health a priority” (line 160). What is the difference between those things that rostered ministers shall do, and those things we are expected to do? The document doesn’t explain the difference in terminology.

Then there are those things that rostered ministers “should” do and are “encouraged” to do. These feel more like suggestions. Pastors and deacons “should also be lifelong learners” (line 146), are “encouraged to take advantage of sabbatical” (line 153), and so on.

This may seem like mere semantics. But the semantics are important because of the next glaring problem with TSPG.

Confusion of Purpose

In its introduction TSPG claims to be a document that is different than the constitutions of the ELCA and another document, Definitions and Guidelines for Discipline. It claims to be a “guide” (line 8) that “presents aspirations” (line 12). This is less clear than the V&E claim: “This document should not be understood as a juridical standard.” Yet despite this claim, that is exactly what V&E became.

V&E was a document written for a specific purpose: prohibiting non-cisgender and non-heterosexual candidates from serving as rostered ministers in the ELCA. It was explicitly cited when candidates were dismissed from the candidacy process and ministers were removed from the rosters. Candidates and rostered ministers have rightly concluded that, contrary to its claim, V&E is indeed a juridical document to be used against them.

There is no evidence that TSPG, which draws much of its language directly from V&E, will be treated any different. The language around its purpose is less clear in TSPG than it is in V&E. The CoB has not admitted its complicity in its abuse of candidates and rostered ministers through V&E by using it as a juridical document against its stated purpose. This gives me little hope that it will act any differently with TSPG. It has broken the trust it claims to cherish and has yet to face that reality with any seriousness.

Because I have to assume that TSPG will be used and treated the same way as V&E, I have to conclude that it too is a juridical document. The semantics of what we as rostered ministers shall, are expected to, and should do, are therefore much more important than they otherwise would be.

Inability and Unwilling Enforcement

V&E has the same problem. With one exception, V&E makes claims that bishops were reluctant to enforce. If it had been the guiding document it claimed to be this would not have been a problem. Aspirations, as TSPG names them are naturally high ideals that we continually reach for, even if we don’t achieve them. But because V&E became a juridical document used to punish noncompliance the unwillingness to enforce its various provisions on a consistent basis was made all the more glaring. TSPG inherits this flaw. It is full of provisions that either cannot or have not been enforced.

For example, some of the expectations listed include:

  • Congregations are expected to provide rostered ministers with the time and resources necessary to pursue fifty contact hours of continuing education a year (lines 154-156). Congregations frequently fail to meet this expectation.
  • Rostered ministers are expected to prioritize self-care, and congregations are expected to respect that need (lines 160-162). Our system makes this almost impossible, glorifies the overworked rostered minister, and casts suspicions of laziness on rostered ministers who attempt to meet this expectation.
  • Rostered ministers are expected not to be burdened by personal debt (lines 213-215). Given the high cost of seminary education and the inability of synods to adequately provide for the financial needs of students (especially when compared to previous generations of pastors who had their entire education paid for by the church and cannot understand why the current and next generations of pastors have so much debt), this is a slap in the face. This provision was clearly written by someone who never faced crippling seminary debt and chronically underpaid calls.
  • Rostered ministers are encouraged to maintain dual Facebook presences: a personal profile and a public page (lines 228-229). While not an entirely unfounded suggestion, the way in which this specific provision is included indicates a lack of understanding of social media and its rapid evolution. In just a few years’ time this provision will be out of date.

So far, the CoB has shown an unwillingness to place any importance on these and other provisions. Should we expect to be disciplined when we do not practice adequate self-care? Should we expect congregations to be disciplined when they do not provide for proper continuing education? If TSPG is not a juridical document and merely a guide, then the answer should be no. But indications are that TSPG, like its predecessor, will be used as a juridical document. This discrepancy causes confusion. It also demonstrates to rostered ministers that while the same document lays out expectations for rostered ministers and “the whole church, corporately” (line 14), there is no expectation that the whole church will commit to pursuing these aspirations or that church leadership will hold the church accountable to them. Only rostered ministers will be held accountable.

Sex

Finally, we come to the most severe failing and sin of Trustworthy Servants of the People of God. Its predecessor, Vision and Expectations, was originally conceived as a way to prevent openly non-heterosexual and non-cisgender people from serving as rostered ministers in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. For twenty years it was used almost exclusively for this purpose. When it was used against heterosexual cisgender people, it almost always had to do with their sex lives.

The church needs to face an uncomfortable truth: it has an unhealthy obsession with sex. If you had asked me to list the expectations of V&E from memory when I was ordained, I wouldn’t have been able to recall many. But I knew the section on sex. I knew it because I was taught that the sex section of V&E was the only one that mattered, and the history of its use proved that to be true.

Compare the number of lines in each of the sections of TSPG:

  • Introductory material: 117
  • Leadership Rooted in Faith: 37
  • Faithfulness in Health and Self-Care: 13
  • Trustworthiness in All Dimensions of Life: 5
  • Trustworthiness in Relationships and Friendships: 11
  • Trustworthiness in Family Life: 7
  • Trustworthiness in Finances and Intellectual Property: 15
  • Communications: 7
  • Human Sexuality, Sexual Conduct, Marriage: 49

Only one section of the document is given more space than issues related to sex, the introductory material. The next closest topic is Leadership Rooted in Faith. TSPG‘s origin as a document written about sex.

At once both the church’s obsession with and reluctance to talk about sex are on display in TSPG. In the 49 lines devoted to sexuality, not once is the word “sex” used. Sexuality is used, and other words are paired with the adjective “sexual”, but the document writers appear hesitant to call a thing what it is and to openly talk about sex. This coincides with the church’s view of sex as something shameful, a view of sexuality that has led to and continues to perpetuate abuse and assault, and is a symptom of the church’s unhealthy obsession with it.

TSPG refers to the the social statement Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust when it claims that “human sexuality is understood as a gift and trust from God” (lines 232-233). This is not true. The church does not understand human sexuality as a gift and trust from God. It still understands and treats sexuality as a source of shame and something that must be controlled. TSPG refers to the goodness of sexual desire and procreation (line 244) but any mention of sexual pleasure is conspicuously absent–sex is only for procreation. It embraces a sexual ethic that promotes purity culture, a highly damaging and abusive philosophy. While it doesn’t name it, it tacitly endorses abstinence-only sex education, a proven ineffective approach to sex. TSPG brazenly calls on rostered ministers to embrace a view of sexuality that “counters a rigid or shame-filled attitude about the human body” (line 241) while the rest of the church (including its leadership) has no such intention.

In this, I admit that my own comments, while not radical, might be controversial. Through my own experiences and listening to others more qualified and wiser than me, my understanding of sexuality has been enhanced, broadened, and made more holistic. This runs counter to the specific purity sexual ethic of the church.

Dating: It is my observation that the church has always been uncomfortable with anyone who is not married. TSPG devotes significant space, an entire section, to outlining expectations in marriage (which, based on context, are centered on sex), but devotes much less space to the expectations of single people. Worse, it treats all dating relationships as relationships that must be oriented toward marriage and ignores the dangers of such a philosophy. According to TSPG, dating is just an unfortunate step between the single life and the ideal of married life that the church would rather not talk about.

This was my own experience. I did not become sexually active until college. Doing my best to follow church teaching I had decided that I was not going to have sex with someone I didn’t intend to marry, someone I didn’t love. I extended this belief to include dating: I was not going to date anyone if I didn’t think it was going to lead to marriage, a position that TSPG wholeheartedly endorses. I didn’t date in high school, and in college I put off dating until I believed I had found a “suitable” partner.

My first relationship was not a comfortable one. The purpose of dating is to explore one’s own sense of self and get accustomed to being in relationships. I had none of that practice in my first relationship, as no one does. But church teaching had convinced me that if I was going to date this person, I needed to be prepared to marry them anyway. When I decided that I loved this person, and that exploring sex with them was appropriate because of my own personal committment, it went about as well as one might expect any activity that one hadn’t practiced would go. But I was committed. This was the person I was going to marry.

It turns out that I was in a co-dependent relationship. Some would call it abusive. When the relationship ended, I was faced with a dilemma. Though the relationship was not a healthy one, the church would have expected me to continue in it because of the sexual and romantic commitment I had made. I didn’t have the maturity, sexual or otherwise, for marriage, but as far as the church was concerned, that should have been my only choice.

In time I learned to explore issues of sexuality and grow into a person better able to navigate personal relationships. I am now married. Yet I know that I still suffer from a lack of sexual maturity because I never had the chance to both develop that maturity and toe the line of the church’s sexual ethic. I wish I had taken the opportunity to date more and further explore what it means to be in a relationship because I believe I would be a better partner to my spouse. I can only imagine how much worse it would be if I hadn’t been able to explore sexuality at all or had been fully consumed by the shame the church said I should have felt.

I realize that there are no easy answers here. On the one hand, I know that a healthy sexual ethic requires experience, education, and self-discovery. The church has traditionally been opposed to all of these. On the other hand, I know that promiscuity and total and complete sexual freedom is not healthy either. Trying to hold these two ideals in tension is not an easy task, for individuals or the church.

My story is not unique, and is rather tame compared to other stories. I hope that it helps to illustrate that issues of sexuality, sex, gender identity, and dating are complex, nuanced, and exist in shades of grey. The movement from single to dating to married is not a simple straight line, but is an ever-evolving process of self-discovery. TSPG acknowledges none of this complexity in its approach to and avoidance of sex.

If TSPG were only a guiding document, my objection would be less. But as argued above, I do not believe TSPG will be only a guiding document. The section on human sexuality will be used in a juridical manner, unlike the other sections of the document. If it does not promote a realistic and healthy ethic around sex, it will not only promote the shame-based culture of the church but endanger rostered ministers and candidates.

Other issues: There are other problems with the sections on human sexuality. The definitions of sexual intimacy and expression are nonexistent, and when this document is used to punish rostered ministers and candidates, it will hinge on the individual bishop’s interpretations of those terms. I find it odd that the church claims that an understanding of appropriate sexual expression and activity cannot change or evolve while it ignores the fact that pastors used to be encouraged to find wives in the congregations they served, a practice the church now (rightly) considers to be a violation of boundaries (lines 248-250).

It is hypocritical for the church to demand that all relationships should lead to marriage and that the marriage must be a legal civil marriage (lines 274-275) while it endorses the “blessing” of the relationship between two elderly people who don’t want to get married because of financial concerns. It also assumes that marriage is automatically available to all rostered ministers when this is not the case.

Finally, TSPG so thoroughly equates sex and marriage that it ignores the existence of asexual rostered ministers or rostered ministers who are unable to have sex. This is one of the ways in which the writers and reviewers failed to consider contexts other than their own. More than any other section, the section on sex reflects an ethic and character that is centered on the experience of older white cisgender married heterosexual men.

Cohabitation

Though this is listed in TSPG under the section on human sexuality, it needs its own explanation.

It is clear that the writers of TSPG grew up in a different era. For the writers, two or more people living under the same roof means that they are having sex together. There are two assumptions at work. The first is that people cannot have sex if they are living in different places. The second is that people live together so that they can have sex.

I’m not sure where these assumptions come from. I for example have been sexually active since college, but I didn’t live with a partner until I was married. Clearly, cohabitation was not a requisite for sexual activity, and living in separate places was not a deterrent. The concern seems to be the appearance of sexual activity. But congregations know that there is no relationship between sex and cohabitation because their experience is the same as mine. It is a false concern with the appearance of propriety that motivates the specific injunction against cohabitation.

This is important because cohabitation–what we commonly call “having a roommate”–is increasingly becoming a necessity in our country. Two people, whether they are in a relationship or not, often must share living space in order to be faithful stewards of their finances. The writers of TSPG must have grown up in the time when an entire family could comfortably live on one unskilled full-time income and assume that is still the case today. It is not.

Candidates for ministry attending seminary and rostered ministers serving in calls face overwhelming financial burdens. As mentioned above, previous generations of rostered ministers had their educations paid for by the church and received fairly-compensating calls. Seminarians today who are not lucky enough to receive substantial grants or financial assistance must pay for their educations out of their own pockets by taking out loans in order to answer God’s call. Rostered ministers are called to ministries that chronically underpay them, a trend that appears to be growing, further exacerbating the financial burden leaders in the church are forced to bear.

Inside and outside of the church people are moving in together because they simply cannot afford to live on their own. People can and do have sex anywhere they choose. Their living arrangements are not decided by access to sex, but by financial necessity.

A flat prohibition on cohabitation for rostered ministers that is not part of marriage worsens an already heavy financial burden. This is not hypothetical. The church’s misguided obsession with sex has far-reaching consequences that rostered ministers and candidates are already suffering today. If the church does not want unmarried candidates and rostered ministers to have roommates in order to pay the bills then it must stop dragging its feet on seminary education and compensation reform and, for once, actually do something about it. The church cannot complain about a situation that is its own making.

Conclusion

Trustworthy Servants of the People of God is a flawed, insufficient document for setting expectations for rostered ministers in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Most of its content is reasonable and a good goal for which to strive. But its process, delivery, implementation, and obsession with sex leave too much to be desired for it to be allowed to become policy.

The process by which TSPG was written is a breaking of the trust between the church and its rostered leaders. It demonstrates a serious lack of trust in the church’s rostered leaders. The way it expects comments to be submitted indicates that comments are not really welcome and won’t be taken seriously. It advertises itself to be a different document than Vision & Expectations while displaying in every way that it will be treated and used no differently than its predecessor; that is, as a weapon and not a guide. Its composition is sloppy and confused. The way it treats sex inspires neither confidence nor hope and further condemns the church to a cycle of abuse and shame.

Because the document is flawed from its conception, the ELCA Church Council should not approve it. Instead, a new writing team should be formed that, in keeping with the promise made by the Conference of Bishops, includes voices of those marginalized by V&E: members of the LGBTQ+ community (especially members of Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries), people of color, single people, women, retired people, candidates for ministry, survivors of sexual assault, people who live with disabilities, seminarians, and experts in the fields of interpersonal relationships, power dynamics, systems, and sex.

In peace,
The Reverend Ken Ranos
Pastor, Faith Lutheran Church, Three Lakes, WI


Submitted to:
The Reverend Katherine Finegan
Bishop, Northern Great Lakes Synod

The Reverend Elizabeth Eaton
Presiding Bishop, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

The Reverend Bill Gafkjen
Chair, Conference of Bishops

Mr. Bill Horne, II
Vice President, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

Mrs. Lori Fedyk
Treasurer, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

The Reverend Wm Chris Boerger
Secretary, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America



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