Unbinding Trustworthy Servants

So, the ELCA dropped a draft document for the personal behavior of the rostered leaders – pastors and deacons – within the church. Just when we were riding high on our self-righteousness around the dis-unity of the United Methodist Church, we were reminded that our own denomination can sometimes suck, too. So, in addition to a private email to my bishop and stirring up some shit on social media (see lines 222-229 of TS), I’m adding this think piece on Trustworthy Servants.

There’s a bunch of problems with this document and some of my really smart peers have written about this. Like this, and this, and even this.

But especially this one, which has really shaped my thinking around this document.

Here’s the thing – my bishop was one of the four who wrote this document. I spoke with him in a semi-public setting. As the only self-identifying member of the LGBTQIA+ community that wrote TS, I appreciated what he shared in that meeting. I appreciate the pressure he put on other bishops to do some of the work (he refused to write an apology for Vision and Expectations since he was impacted by it). I also deeply appreciate the fact that he felt something was going to be written and he’d rather be in the room doing the work than having someone else write it.

This acknowledgement doesn’t mean I approve of the tactics or the outcome, simply that I recognize his intention was to move away from a punitive document like V&E. He hoped TS would be different.

My bishop shared with me and other pastors in my conference a key fact that I don’t think has been lifted up enough in the discussion around TS: any document is bound by Gift and Trust, the ELCA’s human sexuality statement.

This social statement is the authoritative word of our institution. Like the Book of Concord as a faithful interpretation of scripture (so says my ordination vows), our social statements are a faithful interpretation of church policy and practice. If it isn’t allowed in Gift and Trust, it can’t be allowed elsewhere.

So, we shouldn’t be surprised that Trustworthy Stewards lacks a progressive sexual ethic. I think about how the social conversations have shifted since 2009. At the 2018 youth gathering we saw then-11 year old Rebecca speak; meanwhile violent attacks on the trans community are rising. Victories and setbacks, but 10 years has brought deep change.

A friend who is considering rostered leadership in the ELCA said we should work to change Gift and Trust and bring up a more progressive understanding of both sexuality and humanity. I shared that I don’t think the ELCA will ever modify Gift and Trust. The division from some and disappointment from others means the church wants to close that book and move forward.

Instead, I believe there will come a time when bound consciousness will no longer be acceptable. I think the practice of the national church – which is rightfully full inclusion – will drive away churches that desire exclusion. Actually, I’m guessing it will be far more trivial things that will break up the ELCA, but the liberal wing of the church will secure as many assets as it can and re-form (rather than reform) under a new denominational identity. This new expression will be willing to be bold in declaring God’s unwavering love for the queer community.

So, until then, we are living under the guide of Gift and Trust. Which begs the question: why do we need Trustworthy Servants as a document? We don’t. We’ve got a social statement on sexual ethics. We’ve got a constitution that outlines the job descriptions of pastors and deacons. And, surprise, we’ve also got Definitions and Guidelines for DisciplineBTW, I had no idea this document existed.

There is enough at play without creating a new document that was non-collaborative, lacks specific accountability from the institution of the church, and ignores the power dynamics in the relationship between bishop and rostered leader.

Hey ELCA church council: just scrap it. We don’t need it.


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