SAN FRANCISCO – Seven pastors who work in the San Francisco Bay area and were barred from serving in the nation's largest Lutheran group because of a policy that required gay clergy to be celibate are being welcomed into the denomination.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America will add six of the pastors to its clergy roster at a service at St. Mark's Lutheran Church in San Francisco on Sunday. Another pastor who was expelled from the church, but was later reinstated, will participate in the service.
The group is among the first gay, bisexual or transgender Lutheran pastors to be reinstated or added to the rolls of the ELCA since the organization voted last year to lift the policy requiring celibacy.
Churches can now hire noncelibate gay clergy who are in committed relationships.
"It's going to be an extremely glorious and festive ceremony because it's the culmination of decades of work to welcome LGBT people into the ELCA," said Amalia Vagts, executive director of the Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries, a nonprofit that credentials openly gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people for ministry.
Megan Rohrer, one of the pastors who will participate in Sunday's rite of reception service, grew up in South Dakota and attended a Lutheran college where she said students tried to exorcise her "gay demons" by throwing holy water on her. Some of those people are now Lutheran pastors in South Dakota, she said.
Rohrer, who is transgender and a lesbian, was ordained by four congregations in San Francisco in 2006, but could not join the ELCA roster until the denomination's national assembly approved the new policy in August.
"I didn't really believe the policy was going to change as quickly as it did," she said.
Rohrer said she is hopeful Sunday's service will be a "symbol" to young people that the Lutheran church is working toward becoming more welcoming of people of all different backgrounds.
Jeff Johnson, another one of the pastors who will be added to the roster, said the ELCA's position for years of not accepting the choice of some congregations to ordain gay clergy was painful and disappointing.
"The actions the church is taking on Sunday affirms the decisions of those congregations," Johnson, pastor of the University Lutheran Chapel in Berkeley, said. "The church is respecting our family, our partners, the choices we're making."
A small number of congregations have voted to leave the ELCA in response to the August vote. Johnson and Rohrer want Sunday's service to heal some of the rifts.
Johnson said the goal, in part, is to show people the church has space for many different opinions.
"There's room for them," he said. "It's a tolerant church."
The special rite of reception that will be used for the first time on Sunday was developed specifically to welcome gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender pastors, said Melissa Ramirez Cooper, a spokeswoman for the ELCA.
Two more rite of reception services are scheduled for September in the St. Paul-Minneapolis area and another will follow in Chicago, Cooper said.