Monday, August 24, 2009

Celebrating the ELCA - But What About the Single Minister?

Friday, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America voted by a substantial margin to affirm the ministries of gay and lesbian clergy in "committed, lifelong, same-gender relationships." In the words of my colleagues at the ELCA, this vote means "ending the discriminatory two‐tier system of the past and holding all ministers to the same high standard in their relationships."

We're celebrating with this step forward by the ELCA, which echoes the decisions made at the Episcopal General Convention earlier this summer. These votes are major steps toward recognizing the humanity of gay and lesbian persons in the life of the Protestant churches.

But, the emphasis on "committed, lifelong relationships" leaves out the single minister, the divorced minister, the widowed minister -- whether gay, straight, or bisexual -- who are held to a standard of celibacy unless their partner status changes.

I've long felt that the real problem denominations face is that they are unable to acknowledge that celibacy until marriage doesn't work for the vast majority of single adults. The last time I checked, there are more than 75 million American adults who are single -- more than at any time in the past. We're marrying later, divorcing at high levels, and living longer, so more of us will be widowed. And as a whole, we're having sexual relationships when we aren't in marriages.

The ELCA has confirmed it wants its clergy coupled for life -- or sexless. But, just as the prohibition on gay clergy in relationships didn't work (but merely drove people in relationships underground), I'm guessing that all those single clergy aren't going to give up sex, either.

We need a new sexual ethic that replaces "celibacy until marriage, chastity after." It's an ethic without double standards based on sexual orientation, sex, gender, or marital status -- and it calls for relationships to be consensual, non-exploitative, honest, pleasurable, and protected, and based on shared values. It applies to all adults, even those of us who are called to ministry.


Pastor Joelle said...

Shhhh....we don't talk about that! ;-)

Bill Baar said...

doesn't work?

What kind of criteria is that for setting ethics?

Sobriety doesn't work for the alcoholic so pour 'em another?

Anonymous said...

"" We need a new sexual ethic, that replaces "celibacy until marriage, chastity after." ""

Damn, why the heck can't you just accept the baby steps forward?

These institutions have been around for a very long happy that they are moving forward!

Also, how much different is the churches stance towards single hetero ministers?

I'm going to guess it's similar.

Many churches hold their clergy to a higher level of chastity than they would their lay members.

But honestly, that is THEIR business.


jasonbradyut said...

This is just appalling. If Luther, the late German Christian protester, would still be here…where the denomination “Lutherans” derived from, he would be stunned and completely disappointed in this horrible abomination to the Word of God and the Gospel. I totally am against this election. When God created “man” he created Adam and Eve, NOT Adam and STEVE!!! Hello people. This is a direct form of disobedience to God. And this is happening in a Church, a denomination that professes to know the Word of God???? Please, God will have to deal with you guys…and it won’t be pretty.

Anonymous said...

Bill, if all sexual behavior were an addiction (as alcoholism is), you would have a point. I agree with Rev. Haffner that consenting adults can be sexually active AND true to their faith either inside or outside a marriage covenant.

Bill Baar said...

I agree with Rev. Haffner that consenting adults can be sexually active AND true to their faith either inside or outside a marriage covenant.

Whether those adults true to their faith depends a good deal on what their faith says about marriage.

If a faith preaches marriage only between one man, and one women; and if one should remain chaste until married, and then restrict relations to one's marriage partner, then the ELCA has really created a mess for itself.

I don't see how one looking from the outside into this muddle can reach any other conclusion.

Bill Baar said...

Bishop Robinson being the classic case of consfusion. His Sexuality a Preference, and his Alcholism a disease to be treated.

Wouldn't most people understand both drives as urges we control, govern, and manage? Hopefully with Guidance from our Clergy and with advice more to the point than what works?

It that too much of a UU to ask?

Joy in the crack up of the ELCA while offering darn little guidance or teaching can drive a UU rightfully to drink in despair here.

Diggitt said...

Debra, I really like your posting today. Yesterday was my final Sunday at FUSW, and I made the service about UU, gender, and sexuality. Perhaps it's an indication of what a suburban NY congregation is like, but in the sharing there was a lot of sympathy and a desire to know about people in "different" situations such as transgendered.

I rejoice in the ELCA's baby step but I think it will raise more questions; I am sure its leaders understand that. In my sermon I mentioned, and I believe, that the ELCA is inevitably going to find itself endorsing gay marriage. It simply cannot support the definitions that bless one form of committed relationship and not another, now that it's permitted for ministers and, presumably, members.

FWIW, I do disagree with Bill Baar's comment, Wouldn't most people understand both drives as urges we control, govern, and manage? for the simple reason that sexuality involves another person but alcohol involves only yourself (no matter how many lives yours touches).

Anonymous comments that "Many churches hold their clergy to a higher level of chastity than they would their lay members." Discussion of this point begins here; it doesn't end here. Much as I personally just despise a couple ministers whose very public affairs were devastating to wives and children, I must admit that you simply cannot pre-guess who you will be twenty years before an event happens. People do not get married intending to be divorced someday. People do not enter ministry planning to create a scandal. Where a lot of the trouble can come from in the congregation is not the affair itself, but the lying and sneaking and enlisting of help that can go along with it. It may be that there is no answer to the conflicting demands here, but it's time for people to grow up and realize that whatever the ministerial calling may do, it does not make ministers more or less human than the rest of the congregation.

Debra W. Haffner said...

thanks for the comments today. I appreciate the comment about the incorrect use of the word "work" when I was talking about ethics, and if you go to my expanded post today on Huffington Post on this, you'll see I cleaned that up. I also added more background on what happened at the general assemblies this summer.

And to anonymous, it's not my job as a religious leader to be satisfied with baby steps. I'm delighted with all the movement that happened this summer...BUT, we're still a long way from breaking the silence about sexuality in our nation's congregations. I'll happily put the Religious Institute out of business when our mission is fulfilled -- until then, it's my calling to speak out, often when few others are.

Unknown said...

Debra, I blogged about this recently at my place. In teaching my own children I've referred to having a Love Ethic where sex is concerned. I wrote, "Love yourself, love your partner, and remember that how you live is an expression of how you love God." If we all lived this way, the rest would fall into place.

Steve Caldwell said...

Bill Baar wrote:
"Bishop Robinson being the classic case of consfusion. His Sexuality a Preference, and his Alcholism a disease to be treated."


The using the word "preference" or "sexual preference" is a common choice of words for the layperson.

However, using these words betrays a lack of sensitivity towards others. I'm assuming that using the word "preference" when talking about sexual orientation was not intentional.

"Sexual preference" is more commonly used by people who believe that sexual orientation is at least partly chosen.

We don't know if sexual orientation is genetic or environmental in origins (perhaps it's both genetic and environmental).

But most evidence points to sexual orientation happening without conscious choice by the individual.

Bill Baar said...


I'm post assuredly a lay person and I haven't clue whether our destiny within the stars or ourselves.

But I do know each of us responsible for managing our desires; whether for drinks or partners.

I didn't like it when Robinson seemed to sluff off those judgements.

Unknown said...

Debra, thanks for this piece. It also reminded me of a personal frustration of mine -- one that is perhaps more apparent to me as non-clergy. To make a very broad generalization, I don't believe that congregations tend to do a good job of providing spiritual support and affirmation of single people in general. I've observed churches reaching out to young straight families, and I've even seen more enlightened churches reaching out to gay families. With our traditions so based in the transitions in one's life -- marriage, having children, etc., it is rare to find situations in which single adults are recognized or embraced. And church singles groups don't count -- they're just an effort to recruit people to what is perceived as the natural next step in life. This may be a part of the larger culture which contributes to the same issue you raise about the denominations' discomfort with single ministers and their sexuality.

Desmond Ravenstone said...

Well, let me say I'm glad you're not settling for baby steps. After all, we're not babies here! I always rejoice in your prophetic commentary.

IMHO it seems that too many so-called conservatives, in idolizing marriage as they do, are actually doing a disservice to marriage itself. Shouldn't marriage be a celebration of love and family, rather than a goal in itself? What does such a "goal-oriented" approach do to the spiritual aspects of marriage? (Come to think of it, what happens to the spiritual aspects of sex when it becomes "goal-oriented"?)

Not to mention how so many conservatives forget that, for many people across history, marriage was not formally recognized, but often consisted of the spouses deciding to live together and begin a family.

Bill Baar said...

Can you quote some of the conservatives you have in mind here Desmond? The ones idolizing marriage. Or setting marriage as a "goal".

Desmond Ravenstone said...


Just look at the language used by those who oppose marriage equality for same-sex couples, not to mention pushing ineffective "abstinence-only" programs. They tout an idealized form of marriage as "the bedrock" of civilization and society, ignoring how marriage has evolved and never really taken a single form, and tying it so closely to sex and procreation.

Read Joshua Harris, for example, author of "I Kissed Dating Goodbye" and now a megachurch pastor. While I'm aware he's been critical of how other conservative Christians have distorted his views, there is no question that he puts marriage itself as not only a goal, but a divinely commanded one as well.