Despite a combined 60 years of ministering, they had been denied recognition until the rules changed.
In a ceremony that started with a public mea culpa and ended with a prolonged standing ovation, three lesbian ministers were officially embraced Saturday by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).
The three were the Rev. Anita Hill, pastor of St. Paul-Reformation Lutheran Church in St. Paul, and two Minneapolis chaplains: the Rev. Phyllis Zillhart at Fairview Home Care and Hospice and the Rev. Ruth Frost at the Hospice of the Twin Cities.
Although they never had been officially recognized by the ELCA, the three of them have a combined 60 years of service as Lutheran pastors.
"This is both a historic and an insignificant day," the Rev. Peter Rogness, bishop of the ELCA's St. Paul synod, said shortly before he and the Rev. Craig Johnson, the Minneapolis bishop, jointly oversaw the ceremony.
It was historic because it "opens doors to new possibilities," Rogness said. But it was insignificant in that "next week, next month and next year, they will be doing the same thing they did last week, last month and last year: pastoring to people."
Officially called a Rite of Reception, the ceremony began with an unusual litany of confession in which it was the church rather than the congregation admitting to wrongful behavior.
"We have fallen short in honoring all people of God and being an instrument for that grace," the statement said. "We have disciplined, censured and expelled when we should have listened, learned and included."
When St. Paul-Reformation installed Hill as a pastor in 2001, it was stripped of its synod vote. A church in San Francisco that Zillhart and Frost co-pastored before moving to Minnesota in 2005 received a harsher penalty: It was kicked out of the ELCA.
The official recognition of the three was set in motion a year ago when the denomination's general assembly voted to drop its ban on gay and lesbian preachers who are involved in committed relaionships.
Other than the applause that greeted the official blessing of the pastors, the biggest reaction came at the start of the sermon. The Rev. Barbara Lundblad, who teaches preaching at Union Theological Seminary in New York, began by saying that she was going to ignore the guidelines that she insists her students follow.
Then she added with a wry smile: "I think there are people here today who realize that sometimes rules have to be broken."
The ceremony was held at Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in St. Paul, the same sanctuary where Hill was ordained.
"We have come a long way in 9 1/2 years," said the host pastor, the Rev. James Erlandson, as he greeted the crowd.
Even though Hill's church was put under sanctions when it appointed her as pastor -- they were lifted 16 months later by Rogness shortly after he was named bishop -- now the congregation is touted as one of the ELCA's bright spots. Its average Sunday attendance has grown from 100 to 200 under Hill's leadership, defying the nationwide trend toward the atrophy of inner-city churches.
She could have applied for official designation earlier but decided to wait in deference to associates who were ordained before her. She also wanted to go through the process with Zillhart and Frost, who were among the founders of Lutheran Lesbian and Gay Ministries (now known as Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries) in California in the 1990s.
"I stood on their shoulders," she said in an interview before the service. Likewise, she now expects to be one of those providing shoulders for others. Despite her change in official status, she doesn't think that she's heard the last of the controversy over gay and lesbian clergy.
"The Lutherans have been ordaining women since 1970, but there are still congregations that don't feel comfortable with a female pastor," she said. "I think we're doing this for future generations of GLBT preachers."
Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392