LA CRESCENT, Minn. — For members of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church and their church council, the decision was easy. As debate swirled in the court of public opinion, as elected officials took hard-line stances on either side, and even as other churches stood firmly against, the La Crescent congregation searched its soul, read Scripture and then decided what it needed to do.
It will welcome same-sex couples to wed in its sanctuary.
In October, the church council of Prince of Peace, a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, in a nearly unanimous vote made the decision that it would perform marriages for all couples seeking to make the commitment in its church. That came on the heels of a yearlong discernment process where the council held meetings, listened to stories, studied relevant Bible passages and considered an element of justice couldn’t help but lead them in that direction.
Erica Storandt, the council’s 24-year-old president, said the council that made the decision is a unique group, and the discussion was enjoyable and easy.
“I honestly didn’t see this being a huge process just because everyone is so understanding and loving of each other,” she said. “I was a little surprised that everyone was on board with it, and that kind of opened our eyes.”
The table was set by the church-wide assembly when, in 2009, it voted to allow its churches discretion to bless same-sex, monogamous relationships because, at that time, same-sex marriage in Minnesota was still illegal. It wasn’t an easy decision to come to.
“The super majority of our church leaders at that assembly voted to say, ‘Our bound conscious is to affirm these relationships, but we realize we are a church divided on this issue,’” said the Rev. Mike Woods, lead pastor at Prince of Peace. “But more of us believe in affirming same-gender relationships.”
Then on Aug. 1, 2013, marriage for everyone became legal in Minnesota, which opened the door to further possibilities.
“That was a major decision and part of the journey for our church,” said the Rev. Kent Johnson, Prince of Peace’s associate pastor.
That landmark ruling set off a series of discussions at Prince of Peace, as it now had the latitude to decide for itself whether it would marry same-sex couples. In doing so, it was the church council — and not the pastors — that ultimately had that choice to make.
At the time of the state ruling, Prince of Peace was going through a call process that brought Johnson aboard, and it was also looking ahead to council elections, knowing there would be turnover. So as a church body, they decided not to rush the marriage decision but take a slow-paced approach through conversation.
“We had these listening sessions and a place to come together and try to hear many of the questions, concerns and perspectives of this congregation,” Johnson said. “We recognize the diversity of this congregation, and there’s a gift in that. How can we listen and learn and better understand before moving forward?”
During those meetings, the church practiced what Woods called “communal discernment,” where members were invited to meet with the council in a respectful, safe environment. In those times, the group prayed and studied the Bible, asking how God was speaking through relevant verses. Then, people told stories about how they came to feel like they do on the issue.
“Everyone listened. It was a very respectful conversation, and we learned much about each other,” Woods said. “This was a biblical way to listen, tell stories and to listen for discernment. Our goal was to bring our church closer together.”
These conversations, the pastors said, were deep and got to the heart of people’s beliefs. Many were forced to consider how they read the Bible and interpret its many parts.
“There are probably seven verses that kind of speak directly to same-gender issues in the Bible,” Woods said. “Then we laid them aside (to focus on) the hundreds of verses that speak about justice and mercy.
“In the Bible, this largely isn’t a real big issue for people, but let’s interpret the ones we have and interpret them correctly,” he continued. “Then come to understand that it’s OK to disagree. We can come to different conclusions.”
And there was some disagreement, but what everyone at the table found common ground in was the justice aspect.
“These same-gendered couples, sometimes in the hospital, their partner can’t come and see them because they’re not, quote, family,” Woods said. “There was a justice issue that no one was opposed to.”
The goal was to hear everyone’s thoughts — those both progressive and conservative. Some, Johnson said, agreed with the justice aspect, but because of their own piety, weren’t comfortable with ceremonies in the church sanctuary.
“Then you had to ask the question, ‘Why should somebody who was baptized, confirmed and raised as a member not have the right to be married in the church of his or her upbringing?’” Johnson said. “That’s a harder question to answer.”
“So many of the Scriptures say, ‘welcome all’ and there’s lot of people looking for a church to extend a welcome to people who’ve been oppressed, who’ve been outsiders or outliers,” Woods added. “It’s a missional thing for us to say, ‘Welcome home.’”
After all the meetings, stories, study and prayer — and after all opinions had been heard — the pastors said the decision was an easy one to make because support was nearly unanimous in council conversations, and the stories were a foundation.
One council member voted against the issue to represent those parishioners who were having a difficult time accepting the change, though none have left in the wake of the decision. The pastors acknowledge that struggle, though, and know there are those outside their church who won’t agree with the decision. Church leaders have provided resources to those who wish to remain faithful members but disagree with the decision.
“We do so much for the community, and this is just one way for us to show how welcoming and loving we are as a congregation,” she said.
Neither pastor has been asked to perform a same-sex wedding yet, but they know eventually it will happen, and they’ll share in that celebration like they would any other.
“Weddings are fun. There’s joy, there’s love, there’s hope,” Johnson said. “There’s hope for a lifetime of love, blessings and growing, and we can have that and offer that to all people through our congregation.”
Woods said the news is good for gay parishioners who’ve received the sacraments, taught Sunday school, led Vacation Bible School and have led worship services. They can now look forward to someday having their wedding there.
“We say we’re a church without walls, and for some of the folks in our congregation who are gay, they said, ‘This is a wall,’” Woods said. “And now, the wall is gone.”
“Everyone listened. It was a very respectful conversation, and we learned much about each other. This was a biblical way to listen, tell stories and to listen for discernment. Our goal was to bring our church closer together.” The Rev. Mike Woods, lead pastor at Prince of Peace