CHICAGO, IL (January 12, 2018) — In the wake of media coverage around the Evangelical Covenant Church and North Park University regarding the prohibition of Covenant clergy officiating at same-sex weddings, denominational leaders have sought to honor the confidentiality of individuals and the integrity of organizational processes. But according to ECC executive director of communication Ed Gilbreath, “Incomplete news reports can create confusion for many ECC churches and members.”
Gilbreath says some media reports have left the impression that the ECC “values rules and policies above human beings—that’s just not true.” Still, he acknowledges that the denomination’s seeming silence has contributed to that perception. “I want the church to know that our decision not to comment is because we value all the parties involved, and it would be wrong to violate anyone’s confidentiality as processes unfold.” At the same time, he says he understands the desire to see the Covenant address matters.
Over the last few years, the ECC’s position on human sexuality (centered in “celibacy in singleness and faithfulness in heterosexual marriage”) has been brought to the forefront by ECC members who advocate for an “open and affirming” stance. A recent petition circulated by the group Mission Friends for Inclusion calls on the ECC Board of Ordered Ministry to suspend existing pastoral and congregational guidelines regarding human sexuality, seeking more review and discussion.
According to Dick Lucco, executive director of ministry development and the interim executive minister the Board of Ordered Ministry, the board is aware of the petition.
“These are complex days and this is a complicated subject,” says Lucco. “We understand that faithful people in our congregations hold varying views, but collectively we believe that the Scriptures call us to live within the boundaries a loving God has set for us.” He adds, “Our commitment is to love all people with God’s love, for all people are made in his image and are loved by him.”
The ECC is not alone in its struggles to navigate the current cultural waves. Other Christian denominations and ministries have faced their own organizational challenges. Earlier this month, the Mennonite Church saw its largest regional conference leave the denomination over the sexuality debate.
“We do truly desire to be people who pastorally care for all, including the LGBTQ community,” says ECC president Gary Walter. “And we are saddened when LGBTQ members are pained by the actions of Christians, including experiences they’ve had within the Covenant. We desire to do better and be better.”
Walter notes that the Covenant and regional conferences have provided an array of workshops in that regard over the past two years. But he is quick to add that the denomination is committed to doing a better job at providing resources that can help Covenant pastors and churches minister well. One way that’s happening, he says, is through the work of the Make and Deepen Disciples mission priority.
In early December 2017, weeks before current events, Make and Deepen Disciples convened a consultation in Chicago on the subject of discipleship and human sexuality. The purpose of the consultation was to engage in deep conversation about the kinds of human sexuality discipleship resources and approaches that would be most helpful today within the context of the ECC position.
According to Michelle Sanchez, executive minister of Make and Deepen Disciples, “Human sexuality is one of the most critical discipleship concerns facing the church today. This consultation was a wonderful opportunity for us to reflect on how we can disciple well—in ways that are simultaneously biblical, in harmony with ECC guidelines, and radically soaked in love.”
The nineteen consultation participants included a diversity of gender, race, age, region, and sexual orientation. In addition to pastors engaged in LGBTQ ministry, leaders present included Dwight Perry (dean of faculty at North Park Theological Seminary), Preston Sprinkle (president of the Center for Faith, Sexuality & Gender and the author of People to Be Loved: Why Homosexuality Is Not Just an Issue), Greg Coles (author of Single, Gay, Christian: A Personal Journey of Faith and Sexual Identity), Nate Collins (author of All But Invisible: Exploring Identity Questions at the Intersection of Faith, Gender, and Sexuality), as well as Midwest Conference superintendent Tammy Swanson-Draheim, and Great Lakes Conference superintendent Garth McGrath.
“There were representatives present from local churches, the Council of Superintendents, North Park Theological Seminary, and the denomination, as well as external experts and advisors,” says Sanchez. “Further diversity was engaged through interviews and surveys with a sampling of Covenant pastors.”
Especially important to the meetings was hearing the stories of members of the LGBTQ community, she adds. “We cannot effectively love and minister to people whose stories we have not heard. Listening is essential to doing meaningful ministry with real people who have real stories.”
Hearing those stories and creating intentional pathways for discipleship will be central to future efforts, says Sanchez.
“We still have much to do,” says President Walter, “but I am encouraged at how Make and Deepen Disciples will move us forward in our development of practical resources in 2018.
Walter, who completes his service as ECC president on August 31, admits that the latest controversies around human sexuality have weighed heavily on him and many in the Covenant. “We are not here to fight a culture war. Our purpose is to love God and to love people, because we’re all made in God’s image. The Covenant is at its best when we embrace that common focus.”