Introverted and soft-spoken, Tim Fisher could have easily gotten lost in the religious and political back-and-forth at Lutherans Concerned.
But as one of the few straight men in the organization working to bring about a more welcoming church for gay and lesbian congregants and pastors, Fisher became an ally for the gay community that few could have predicted.
“As a straight white male, he could have conversations with people who were open to him but not other gay people,” said the Rev. Bradley Schmeling, senior pastor at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in St. Paul. “Not many straight allies dedicated their time to the cause like Tim did.”
Fisher died April 23 in his home after a six-year struggle with pulmonary sarcoma. He was 54.
Schmeling was defrocked by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in 2007 after he announced that he was in a committed gay relationship. Through work by St. Paul-based Lutherans Concerned/North America and Fisher, the ELCA voted to change its policy in 2009 to allow gay and lesbian clergy in committed relationships to do pastoral service. The resolution passed in a close vote. “I would not be serving in the ELCA without Tim’s work,” Schmeling said. “I can’t overestimate the work he did.”
People often wondered why Fisher became an advocate for change in the church, but he rarely talked about it, said his wife, Christine Hurney. In a rare moment in a 2008 video now on YouTube, he explained his duty to gay and lesbian friends who “had been hurt by the church, in some cases really, really humiliated in lots of ways.” “My first response was that I want to do something to help,” he said in the video. “And that was coming from a sense of justice and wanting them not to be hurt.”
From 1996 to 2007, he worked in the office at Nokomis Heights Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, encouraging its pastors and congregation to become a “Reconciling in Christ” community, one that publicly welcomes LGBT pastors and congregants. In 2007, he joined Lutherans Concerned/North America, later renamed ReconcilingWorks, and worked on its legislative team to pass the policy change in the ELCA.
The Rev. Kim Beckmann, a pastor and member of the ELCA legislative team of Reconciling Works, described Fisher as a stealth agent to the cause. “It was easy to underestimate him. He used an unwavering certainty that God does not appreciate this kind of discrimination,” she said. In 2018, Fisher received a lifetime achievement award from ReconcilingWorks.
Fisher’s gentle demeanor didn’t rankle people with whom he disagreed. “He never alienated people who didn’t see things the same way he did,” said Russell Kleckley, associate professor of religion at Augsburg University in Minneapolis. “He respected people who opposed his beliefs.”
He changed lives with respectful, inspired persistence, not stirring public speeches. The Rev. Glen Wheeler, a retired pastor at Bethel Lutheran in Minneapolis, recalled a seminary function where an interim pastor who had resisted Fisher’s attempts to make Nokomis Lutheran more welcoming to LGBT people said to Wheeler, “Tim totally changed my mind about gays and lesbians. He made a difference in the way I saw the world.”
Emily Eastwood, former executive director of Lutherans Concerned/ReconcilingWorks, described Fisher as someone with quiet power to sway hearts and minds. “The average LGBT Joe on the street probably never heard of Tim, but they should,” she said. “He helped change the church.”
Survivors include his wife, parents Peter and Ann Fisher of North Carolina, and brother Donald in California.
Services will be held at 1 p.m. May 11 at Nokomis Heights Lutheran Church in Minneapolis.