The nation's largest Lutheran denomination took openly gay clergy more fully into its fold Friday, as leaders of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America voted to lift a ban that prohibited sexually active gay and lesbian people from serving as ministers.
Under the new policy, individual ELCA congregations will be allowed to hire homosexuals as clergy as long as they are in a committed relationships. Until now, gays and lesbians had to remain celibate to serve as clergy.
In a prepared statement, Nebraska Synod Bishop David deFreese said difficult deliberations are part of being the church.
"Good people of earnest Christian faith arrived at very different understandings on this subject," deFreese said. "It is important for the church to heal from its discussion of these issues. It is vital that we be about proclaiming Christ and responding to God's call to help the poor and the hungry. This is God's work through our hands."
The bishop said the ELCA constitution grants local congregations the power to make decisions about whom they call to leadership. That prerogative was not changed by the adoption of the task force's recommendations, he said.
The ELCA has more than 124,000 members in 261 congregations and mission sites in Nebraska.
Other Nebraska ELCA pastors echoed the bishop's call for unity.
"As the church, unity comes to us as a precious gift given to us by Jesus Christ. That's what Jesus was praying for right before he went to the cross," said Pastor Cathi Braasch of Hope Lutheran Church in Smithfield.
"The commitment and passionate faith of all who spoke was clear," said Pastor Brian Maas of First Lutheran Church in Lincoln.
"These things aren't unimportant, but they're not the most important, either. I'm hoping we'll get back to ministering and serving and transforming. And I'm hoping that focusing on those things will help us deal with our differences on other issues," Maas said.
The statements of deFreese, Braasch and Maas were all included in a news release from the Nebraska Synod ELCA.
The change passed with the support of 68 percent of about 1,000 delegates at the ELCA's national assembly in Minneapolis. It makes the ELCA, with about 4.7 million members in the U.S., one of the largest U.S. Christian denominations yet to take a more gay-friendly stance.
Conservative congregations will not be forced to hire gay clergy. Nevertheless, opponents of the shift decried what they saw as straying from clear Scriptural direction, and warned that it could lead some congregations and individual churchgoers to split off from the ELCA.
"This will cause an ever greater loss in members and finances. I can't believe the church I loved and served for 40 years can condone what God condemns," said the Rev. Richard Mahan, pastor at St. Timothy Lutheran Church in Charleston, W.Va. "Nowhere in Scripture does it say homosexuality and same-sex marriage is acceptable to God. Instead, it says it is immoral and perverted."