Monday, May 27, 2013

Same-Sex Marriage: Implications for Pastors and Congregations

The Legalization of Same-Sex Marriage by the Minnesota Legislature

Some Implications for Pastors and Congregations of the Northwestern Minnesota Synod

A working document by Bishop Lawrence R. Wohlrabe, NW MN Synod ELCA


On May 14, 2013 Governor Mark Dayton signed into law a bill[1] that had been passed by the Minnesota House and Senate to legalize same-sex marriage in the State of Minnesota.   The law goes into effect in August, 2013.


Congregations, church councils and pastors in our synod are now wondering, “What does this mean for us?   How will we respond to requests for same-sex marriage ceremonies in our church buildings or, if off site, to be presided over by our pastors?”   In this document I hope to offer some guidance for important local conversations that will be happening in congregations of our synod. 


Some Considerations to Keep in Mind:


1.       Lutherans understand marriage to be one of God’s gifts bestowed on the whole creation.   For Lutherans marriage has never been a sacrament of the church as it is in, for example, the Roman Catholic Church.   An ordained pastor who conducts a religious wedding ceremony for two persons who have obtained a valid wedding license and are legally eligible to marry, simultaneously functions under Minnesota state law to solemnize the civil marriage between these two parties.


2.       Pastors minister with couples seeking marriage as part of their calls to serve congregations.   Most pastors, wisely, do not see themselves as “Marrying Sams” who have “hung out a shingle” to marry anyone who shows up at a church.   At the same time, some pastors view their work with couples approaching marriage as one of the ways they can open the door to invite persons into the Christian life.   As we approach this issue it will be important for pastors to be in conversation with the congregations that call them, regarding how congregations may or may not change their marriage policies in response to the legalization of same-sex marriage.  


3.      The same-sex marriage legislation provides exemptions to religious organizations and/or ministers whose beliefs prevent them from being able to officiate at same-sex marriages (see the text of the legislation under footnote 1)


4.       The ELCA Social Statement, Human Sexuality:  Gift and Trust (2009), declares

“Marriage is a covenant of mutual promises, commitment, and hope authorized legally by the state and blessed by God. The historic Christian tradition and the Lutheran Confessions have recognized marriage as a covenant between a man and a woman, reflecting Mark 10: 6–9: ‘But from the beginning of creation, God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one put asunder.” (Jesus here recalls Genesis 1:27; 2:23–24.) p. 15


5.       Concerning same-sex marriage, the social statement goes on to say:

“Recognizing that this conclusion differs from the historic Christian tradition and the Lutheran Confessions, some people, though not all, in this church and within the larger Christian community, conclude that marriage is also the appropriate term to use in describing similar benefits, protection, and support for same-gender couples entering into lifelong, monogamous

relationships. They believe that such accountable relationships also provide the necessary foundation that supports trust and familial and community thriving. Other contractual agreements, such as civil unions, also seek to provide some of these protections and to hold those involved in such relationships accountable to one another and to society.”  P. 18


The social statement seems to be open-ended regarding the question of same-sex marriage. Such open-endedness is further reflected in the ministry policy recommendations that were passed at the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly.   The first two of these recommendations committed our church body to “bear one another burdens, love the neighbor, and respect the bound consciences of all,” and to find “ways to allow congregations that choose to do so to recognize, support, and hold publicly accountable lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships.”


6.      Members of our congregations will want to seek ways of discussing these questions with love, respect and regard for issues of conscience that persons on all sides of the question may bring to the table.    The pastor and his/her conscience-bound reflection regarding same-sex marriage needs to be taken seriously in such conversations.


7.      As you discuss this issue, one way to frame the question might be:  “How might our congregation and pastor(s) recognize, support and hold publicly accountable same-sex couples, with valid Minnesota marriage licenses, who request to be married in our church building or on our church grounds, or who request our pastor to preside at an off-site marriage ceremony?”    This is essentially a local, congregational question—as has always been the case with non-sacramental rites of the church such as marriages, funerals and confirmations.   We who serve you on the synod staff will be available to consult with pastors and congregational leaders, but we will not be proposing synodical policies regarding what has always been a matter of congregational discernment.


8.      If your congregation is led toward being open to same-sex marriage ceremonies, please note that the ELCA does not have an “official” rite or liturgy for marriage, blessing, or union of same-gender persons.   Some ELCA congregations and other church bodies have produced liturgical resources that may be helpful to us.

9.      It goes without saying that pastors will continue to bless marriages involving opposite-sex partners.  This is important for us to remember as we hear strong opinions expressed that suggest the Minnesota Legislature has “demolished” or “abolished” traditional male-female marriage.    That has not happened, and the church needs to be a thoughtful voice in such discussions.




Having Good Conversations About this Topic


The kinds of conversations that need to happen will play out differently in each congregation.   Here are a few ideas to guide you as you approach the conversation that your congregation needs to have:


·        Take ample time for prayerful, careful conversations in your congregation.     Because congregations and pastors may soon face requests for same-sex marriage ceremonies, your council might want to consider adopting an interim (short-term) policy that can be reviewed and refined following fuller discussion within the congregation.

·        Ponder the question of which leadership group in the congregation might most appropriately address this question.   For example, if the church council normally adopts marriage policies and procedures, it might be best for the council to take the first steps in addressing the question of same-sex marriages (and the council will probably be the appropriate body to draft an interim policy in this regard).

·        Two resources that have been developed in our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America might be helpful:

Talking Together as Christians About Tough Social Issues available for downloading at;

Report of the Communal Discernment Task Force is available at

Such resources can help shape congregation council discussions and open forums among church members.  They can also help you move into small-group discussions that intentionally bring together folks with differing viewpoints.

·        As members of the Body of Christ, let us not lead with threats or ultimatums:  “If our congregation permits (or does not permit) same-sex marriage ceremonies, I will leave.”  As we discuss possible courses of action in our congregations, let us also avoid hasty approaches that  immediately create winners and losers, e.g. demanding a congregational meeting to “take a vote” on a proposed policy.  

·        Try to think about this issue not in the abstract, but with real live people in mind.    Chances are the persons who will request a same-sex marriage in your congregation are persons you will know and love--or the sons or daughters of persons you know and love.


Jesus makes a wonderful promise in Matthew 18:20:  For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”   What makes this promise even more comforting for us right now is that Jesus’ promise focuses on times when we’re dealing with conflict and tough issues (Matthew 18:15-19).


God be with you!  


Lawrence R. Wohlrabe

Bishop, Northwestern Minnesota Synod

Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

God’s work.  Our hands.


Date of draft:   May 22, 2013


[1] Unofficial text of the bill is available at  The final form of the bill will be posted on this website during the summer of 2013.