Of pastoral petulance

Last week, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America held its biennial Churchwide Assembly. This is much like the General Convention of the Episcopal Church (full comparison post coming soon!). At the Assembly, Voting Members approved a statement on sexuality and some implementing policies. Among these, the ELCA will now make provision for the appointment (or “rostering”) of gay and lesbian clergy in same-sex relationships. I’m simplifying, but keep with me. (You can read more here, among other places.)

St. Timothy's SignOn the Sunday at the end of the week, the Charleston Daily Mail reports that parishioners at one Lutheran church in West Virginia arrived to find their church sign defaced. Who was responsible for this vandalism? None other than the pastor, who said, “I’m ashamed of what the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has done to a church I’ve loved for 40 years.”

What’s interesting to me is that there was great effort in the Assembly to make provision for those whose “bound conscience” would not permit them to accept the ministry of gay and lesbian clergy. This pastor might have gone the rest of his career without actually setting his eyes on an openly gay pastor, but still he felt the need to ratchet up the anxiety in his congregation.

Episcopalians have not been immune from this petulant behavior. Congregations have held funeral services “for the Episcopal Church” (I am not making that up, sadly). Others — including, I believe one parish in Rhode Island — have defaced their church signs to remove the offensive word “Episcopal.” One cathedral flew a black flag after General Convention 2003. Let’s be clear: this sexuality crisis — that is, the potential for schism in the church — is not being driven by aggressive behavior from progressives. No, it’s being driven by grand-standing, petulance, power grabs, and fear-mongering by some on the right.

Here I am not talking about some conservatives who do not approve of the direction their denominations have taken. I count among my friends several people who do not agree with, for example, my views on human sexuality. These people are willing to make their views known, and they may well try to rally support to roll back the changes. At times, they may vociferously protest proposed changes. But this behavior is well within well-adjusted adult norms. Most emotionally and spiritually healthy people can engage in serious disagreement, finding points in common and disagreeing on other points.

Not everyone puts their best self forward when entering disagreement. This Lutheran pastor will, I’ll bet, claim victim status — saying he’s being driven out of his church. But who is asking him to leave? Why should it bother him if a congregation in central Minnesota decides to call an openly lesbian pastor? Sure, not everyone will like these actions, but that does not mean anyone is being driven out.

For many years, progressives were unhappy by synodical votes in many denominations. And yet these progressives came back to assemblies and conventions again and again, out of a shared love for Jesus Christ dwelling in the church. Now that a few votes in the Lutheran and Episcopal churches go “the other way”, some conservatives feel the need to stomp off or to engage in anxiety-raising behavior. Really? Is that what it’s all about? You either get everything your way or you won’t stick around? Where’s the catholic sense in that?

I was not born into the Episcopal Church. At some point in my 20s, it become clear to me that I didn’t fit in the church in which I was raised. I changed some, and so did the church. Did I claim victim status? No. Did I say to others why I was leaving? Yes. No one pushed me out, but it was clear to me that I needed to move on. I said my goodbyes and wished my friends well. For their part, they offered me their blessing.

Maybe it will become clear to some conservatives (or progressives) that they need to move on. If so, I will mourn their departure. I truly will. But I won’t stand around when people throw tantrums. You can’t let that stuff stand with a four-year-old, and you certainly can’t let it stand with adults.

Pastors should know better. People come to church to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ, not to hear the pastor’s view on some denominational conference that took place hundreds of miles away. People come to church for hope, not for fear-mongering.

Do these denominational disagreements matter? Sure they do. I held a forum on the Sunday after General Convention, and I’ve offered to speak with anyone who had questions or concerns. I’ve made it clear that the Episcopal Church — on things other than core doctrine — welcomes many positions, and parishioners do not need to agree with the General Convention, the Bishop, or their priests. These things matter so much to me that I flew to Tanzania in 2007 in an effort to effect positive change in the Anglican Communion. But neither then nor now would I set aside the Good News in my sermons to make room for bile about those with whom I disagree. It’s not polite, and it’s not, frankly, Christian.

If the pastor of St. Timothy’s Lutheran Church can no longer call himself a Lutheran, let him leave. And let him leave his Lutheran congregation behind, in peace, to proclaim the saving grace of Jesus Christ.

Photo from the Charleston Daily Mail.

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24 Responses

  1. Joanna Depue says:

    Scott – Thank you for this piece. Level-headed and thoughtful.

  2. Carolanne says:

    I have read this 3x. I so appreciate your thoughtful, straightforward and loving (encompassing) approach to ‘difficult’ issues. I feel renewed hope. Thank you.

  3. Michael says:

    What a well said, loving and wise set of remarks. Thank you for a voice of peaceful reason.

  4. DcnScott says:

    Very, very, very well said.
    And it all makes me sad.

  5. John Dornheim says:

    thanks for sharing. It is hard to follow PBp Hanson’s advice in these situations.

  6. Scott Gunn says:

    John, what advice of PB Hanson is hard to follow? I’m more well versed in matters Episcopal than matters Lutheran. I thought his pastoral reflection after all the votes on Friday was brilliant.


  7. Appreciate your reasoned passion.

  8. Daniel says:


    Thanks for such insightful writing. I too am tired of the drama.

  9. Fr Alexander says:

    The thing is, Scott, when we conservative Episcopalians get petulant we can always change our signs from “Episcopal” to “Anglican.” But what can the Lutherans change their signs to?

  10. sha says:

    thank you for such a reasoned and well written response.

  11. Scott says:

    Thanks for this, Scott – it’s a great reflection on what’s happening in our denominations. In fairness, there has been some petulance and outlandish behavior on the part of progressives in both churches, but I agree with you that the overwhelming majority of such behavior comes from the ‘traditional’ fringe.

    When the ELCA CWA 1999 ratified Called to Common Mission, I was one of the seminary students voicing protest against the requirements levied within the ELCA because of the agreement. I still think the requirement of the historic episcopate is a violation of the Lutheran understanding of ‘adiaphora.’ But after a few years I began moving away from the anti-CCM crowd because I was weary of the invective and slander against ELCA and Episcopal leaders. It’s one thing, as you note, to make a vocal protest on theological grounds: it’s another thing to engage in name-calling, histrionics and petulance.

    I can’t believe some of my colleagues are stooping to this level. If this is the best they can offer, I say they and we might be better off going our separate ways.

  12. ythguy says:

    Here are my thoughts considering there hasn’t been a dissenting opinion yet. What has changed is not whether we accept, but rather what is true. I do not like the fact that we are twisting the word “welcoming” to mean affirm and agree. I have no problem holding to my understanding of scripture, and in the end, Praise God, that yours and my salvation does not depend upon that. God sees the heart. But I have a Lutheran church less than 5 miles away from me that believes differently. And our students attend the same schools. How are we supposed to help them claim the truth of who Jesus Christ is, when we have demonstrated rather publicly that truth on this particular issue can be relative. I am going to face 600 junior high students in less than a month with our “version” of the truth. If we make this truth relative, what then are we to stand on when we say Jesus is the way? “But my muslim friend says Muhammed is the one true prophet… We don’t have to believe the same because all roads lead to heaven don’t they?” Just one of the issues I am wrestling with.

  13. Earl says:

    I know this pastor. I was a voting member at this Churchwide Assembly. Here is my problem … and it is more than semantics. This is not my church, it is Christ’s and I am called to serve in it. When we get possessive of that which is Christ’s then we do even more stupid things than this.

  14. Joe MPLS says:

    I just don’t get why, as you said, pastors would be throwing tantrums. I agree with your sentiments wholeheartedly. I eats away at my hope and joy to see and hear these called and ordained ministers of Christ be such bigots (for lack of a better word).

    I am definitely in the minority in my congregation being a 20something who’s interested in theology and the Church.

    I’m not claiming myself to be anything other than what I am. I love my family and soon to be wife. I also have a great amount of compassion for the GLBT community.

    When the vote came down in favor of the Human Sexuality Statement I was glad to hear it. I am not glad however to hear about these people, especially pastors, tearing down the church that they proclaimed to love not just 3 weeks ago.

    If they agree or disagree with the statement there is room. The church body made it possible for diversity.

    I said it during the assembly I will say it again, probably more than once, Get over yourself.

    Swallow your pride before you choke on the issues.

  15. Fr Alexander says:

    One question, though, Scott. Why this finger-pointing? However accurate your observations may be, don’t they have the effect of reassuring your fellow travelers that conservative / traditionalists are just a bunch of petulant whiners whose concerns really don’t have to be taken seriously? You’re at your best when you write about the need for greater humility, openness, and willingness to make accommodations on *both* sides.

  16. Paul Larson says:

    This is a beautifully reasoned and well-thought out response to the whole thing. Very well done. I will be sharing your views with all I know.

  17. Scott Gunn says:


    First, I don’t think it’s necessary petulant to change a church sign (excising a denomination name or changing, say from Episcopal to Anglican). What IS petulant, in my opinion, is doing that with black tape the day after one vote the pastor didn’t like. Surely it might have made sense to take a deep breath and have some conversation inside the community first.

    If you and I decide we can’t speak about Anglican identity any more, because productive and enjoyable conversation is no longer possible, that would be sad but acceptable. If I decide one day I didn’t like one thing you said and I walk away in a huff, I’m being petulant.

    I do think we need to practice humility — both conservatives, liberals, right, left, tall, short, GLBT, straight, etc. All of us. But I also think we need to call out bad behavior when we see it. I’ve written posts critical of the Episcopal PB and some of her actions, even though she is a progressive of whose leadership I wholeheartedly support.

    The way through this is for all of us to be honest, and that means naming bad behavior. I’d apply the same standard to right and left. When, a couple of weeks ago, I went over the line in one of my posts, I publicly apologized, and I was grateful to have been challenged in my own bad behavior. Kyrie eleison.

    ELCA and ECUSA are not unlike a parish or a family. If you let one person or one group set up a dysfunctional system, no one wins. In my view (perhaps I am wrong), the Lutheran pastor in question is demonstrating selfish behavior of the worst kind.


  18. MediaMentions says:

    I was surprised to hear of this myself, but it seems to me like the Lutheran Church is taking a really firm stand: http://www.pressdisplay.com/pressdisplay/showlink.aspx?bookmarkid=P4MFKJ8TOHH6&preview=article&linkid=fefe4929-6822-4e71-9eed-e8e7fc1036c5&pdaffid=ZVFwBG5jk4Kvl9OaBJc5+g==


  19. John Dornheim says:

    Scott, The presiding Bishop called upon us to be respectful of those with whom we disagree as the church seeks to grow into the decisions it has made. But, for far too long, we have been nice, many have suffered–often in silence–and to watch the histrionics now… Sometimes we need bite our tongues but there are other times when we just can’t sit idly by.

  20. Fr Alexander says:

    Well, Scott, having now read the article about the pastor’s actions, I see neither petulance nor bad behavior. I see a bit of silly but basically harmless street theater (taping over the sign), and a sermon in which he honestly explained his theological and ethical convictions to his congregation, in a way that engaged pastorally with their very real concerns. Not the sort of sermon you or I might preach, but not an abuse of the pulpit either. Moreover, if you’re convinced that the denomination to which you belong is committing apostasy, then it would be irresponsible not to face squarely the question of whether to stay or leave, which he says they are going to do together as a congregation. I just can’t see the bad behavior or petulance here that you so clearly do; perhaps I have a blind spot.

    (BTW, the sign out in front of my church still says “Episcopal” and that is not going to change anytime soon.)

  21. Warren Hicks says:


    Fine post as usual. As one who has been a part of the Episcopal tradition for my whole life (dare I say cradle), I appreciate your post and recognize the maturity your describe in your journey on the part of some of my friends, dating back to the 1970’s and Prayer Book Revision and Women’s Ordination. Sadly, I don’t see much of that maturity in the actions of folks since 2000.

    There has been an air of mistrust, dishonesty wafting through the air as of late. I have to admit it might be a result of my getting older. Time will tell if relationships strained by the latest developments in TEC and ELCA stand the test of time as did many of my parents stay strong in the aftermath of Zebra Books, Green Books and Women’s Ordination.

    I pray that it’s so.

  22. Scott Gunn says:

    John, I guess we can add “apostasy” and “petulance” to the list of things that are in the eye of the beholder.


  23. Fr Alexander says:

    Well yes, Scott, my point exactly. Forgive me for belaboring this, but I am actually finding this discussion helpful in sorting some things out in my own mind. The form of your argument is, if I have read it correctly, “conservatives are entitled to hold, express, and advocate their opinions, so long as they behave as adults.” The problem is that your canon of responsible behavior is inseparable from your view of the nature of the disagreement. This Lutheran pastor’s canon of responsible behavior is likewise rooted in *his* world view and belief system. And when one sees certain changes in the church not as a matter of “Oh well, we lost one this time, we’ll try again next year,” but rather as, indeed, apostasy — with the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse veritably clambering on the tin roof overhead — then the behavior that you find childish and petulant actually becomes rational and responsible. And this tells me that, logically, your *real* objection is not as much to the behavior itself as to the belief-system that justifies it. Which contradicts your initial position that “conservatives are entitled to their beliefs …”

  24. Scott Gunn says:


    We should have coffee again, so we don’t have to have our conversation in little boxes on a blog.

    The form of my argument applies equally to conservatives or to liberals or to others. My problem is not with the Lutheran pastor’s opinion, or even his desire to dissociate his parish from ELCA. Rather it’s the rash and melodramatic way he proceeded. I suspect his sermon on that Sunday was more about ministry resolutions than about Gospel, but I’m only guessing.

    Only one time can I remember walking out of an Episcopal service because I was disturbed by the service. In 2003, the Sunday after consent was given to New Hampshire, I attended a well-known liberal church. The entire sermon was about this action of the denomination, and the preacher made the point that God clearly wanted this, because God had made the stock market climb such that it would now be painfully expensive for conservative clergy to leave their pensions behind. Never mind the logic of the argument. The theology behind it (that God uses the stock market to reward some and punish others) was problematic, but not worth leaving. No, I could not stand to be in a place that was ALL ABOUT one issue, when the scriptures of the day were ignored and no Good News (as opposed to perceived “good news” was proclaimed). I left, as quietly as possible. I thought it was wrong for the preacher to preach this, and I did not like my own reaction to it. But I also did not stand up and publicly shake the dust off my sandals as I left.

    My issue — for anyone in church disagreements — is not with disagreement itself. It’s with hijacking communities. My issue is with creating a crisis (“we must leave, LOUDLY, right now”) when none exists.

    So if the pastor in question wanted to convene a special meeting of the congregation, fine. If the congregation wants to leave ELCA, fine. But the pastor has no business creating a crisis or changing the focus away from salvation toward melodrama.

    Does that help, or make things less clear?