An Atlanta pastor once ousted from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America for being in an openly gay relationship will now lead the biggest Lutheran church in St. Paul.

Gloria Dei Lutheran Church's congregation of 2,300 members voted overwhelmingly Sunday to appoint the Rev. Bradley Schmeling as its new senior pastor, according to a statement from the church on Tuesday.

"The church ought to be a place that welcomes and includes everyone," Schmeling said in an interview. Gloria Dei "has a big heart for its staff, members, for the community. I was attracted to its ... willingness to be a voice of justice and inclusion in the neighborhood and St. Paul. They were just amazingly warm, welcoming, affectionate people."

Schmeling, 49, has been pastor at St. John's Lutheran Church in Atlanta since 2000 and will start at Gloria Dei in June.

Schmeling faced a church trial and was removed from the ELCA's official clergy roster in 2007 after he announced he was in a committed same-sex relationship with Pastor Darin Easler. Easler, a former minister at United Redeemer Lutheran Church in Zumbrota, Minn., was also removed from the ELCA roster.

The St. John's congregation chose to ignore Schmeling's removal from the church roster, however, and kept him on as pastor.

In its August 2009 assembly in Minneapolis, the ELCA voted to permit gay and lesbian ministers in monogamous relationships to be on the roster. Schmeling and Easler were later reinstated.

The Rev. Peter Rogness, who serves as bishop of the St. Paul Area Synod of the ELCA, said Schmeling's high-profile case led the ELCA to reconsider its gay clergy policy.

"His ministry, both personally and in the congregation, became a catalyst for the ELCA re-examining and ultimately changing its policy," said Rogness, who lauded Schmeling's move to Gloria Dei.

Gloria Dei is now considered the largest Lutheran church in the nation with a senior pastor who is openly gay and in a committed relationship, according to gay advocacy group Lutherans Concerned/North America.

Claire Hoyum, congregation council president for Gloria Dei, said Schmeling's role in the gay clergy debate within the ELCA did not play a significant part in the church's decision to call him as pastor.

'An amazing preacher'

"We have a history of rich, strong liturgical worship and music, and that's a commitment that Pastor Schmeling also has," Hoyum said. "He believes our worship service is reflective of our mission in the world, and that really resonated with us."

"He's an amazing preacher," she added. "He has the strategic and visionary skills we seek in the next leader for our congregation. His commitment to make the church a force in the broader community and to act for social justice, particularly among the poor, resonates with the mission of Gloria Dei."

Schmeling succeeds the Rev. M. Susan Peterson, who retired in August 2010 after 25 years at Gloria Dei. According to the church, Peterson was also a trailblazer. Her appointment as the church's senior pastor in 1990 marked the first time a woman had led an ELCA congregation with more than 1,000 members.

Rose French • 612-673-4352