Point man in ELCA debate over gay clergy has thick skin

  • Article by: JEFF STRICKLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 21, 2009 - 5:44 AM

The Rev. Peter Strommen has gotten an earful from his counterparts.

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Rev. Peter Strommen

Photo: Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

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As thick skins go, the Rev. Peter Strommen's must be like cinder block. He has spent the past four days hearing his work decried as everything from an abomination of God's will to a cop-out.

Strommen is chairman of the task force recommending that the 4.8 million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) open its pulpits to gay and lesbian ministers.

As such, the pastor of Shepherd of the Lake Lutheran Church in Prior Lake gets to sit in front of the churchwide assembly in the Minneapolis Convention Center as it critiques his work.

His torment likely will end today. The proposal is scheduled for a vote in the assembly's afternoon plenary session.

But first will come another day of arguing, in which he's likely to hear comments like the one Tuesday from the Rev. M.L. Jacobson, a retired pastor from Lakeville, Wis. "What makes us think that we can contradict everything that has been said in the last 2,000 years?" he asked. "I think that's a case of gross arrogance."

Strommen gives speakers his full attention, making eye contact if they're close enough, nodding to show that he understands the points they are making, even smiling now and then.

"I've heard it all," he said Thursday. "Sometimes I think that if I put myself in their place, I'd say that, too."

Strommen has been expecting this since the task force was launched after a mandate by the 2001 assembly. Its assignment was to review the ELCA's current policy banning gay and lesbian ministers from leading churches unless they promise to be celibate.

They came back with a compromise idea: The ELCA would allow the appointment of gay and lesbian pastors, but leave it to individual parishes and synods to call a gay pastor.

"There was simply no way that we could think of that got by the fact that there is disagreement on this," he said. "I came into the assembly with a sense of acceptance [of public criticism]. I went into this realizing that in a situation like this, you can't take what is said personally."

He didn't ask for the job as chairman. He was serving as bishop of the Northeastern Minnesota Synod based in Duluth when the assignment was dropped in his lap. Nor does he seem to be able to get rid of the job. The task force disbanded in February when it finished its proposal, but as the chairman, it fell to him to present the work to the assembly.

"I'm not here to advocate for it," said Strommen, who cannot vote on the matter either. "I'm just here to present it in a way that it is understandable and to explain the thinking behind it."

Strommen, 62, grew up in Richfield, got a bachelor's degree from Augsburg College before attending Luther Seminary and Yale Divinity School. After serving at churches in South Dakota and Duluth, he was appointed bishop in 1996, a rotating assignment that ended last year when he accepted the call to the Prior Lake church.

The one frustration he will admit to this week concerns the task force's other controversial proposal, a social statement on sexuality that passed Wednesday by a single vote. Almost all of the attention focused on the section on homosexuality, which amounted to only two of the statement's 50 pages. Ignored was the fact that the broad, far-ranging document touched on everything from sexual exploitation to sex education, from cohabitation to the global sex trade.

"I hope someday people will realize what else is in there," he said. "That will be our enduring contribution."

Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392

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