The Rev. Robert Kriesat, 68, never hid his relationship with his male partner from his congregants, even though his denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, mandates celibacy for gay ministers.
His bishops have never punished him; in fact, he said, they have been supportive. Still, he said he has lived with the anxiety that someone would mount a case to remove him from the ministry.
"You kind of live with this like a cloud that's over you, and you don't know whether it's going to rain or not," said Kriesat, of Convent Station, N.J. "I've had some concerns with people in the congregation, but most of the time we talk about it and it tends either to go away or it doesn't become hostile. So I've been really blessed."
Kriesat is one of 82 gay, bisexual or transgender Lutheran clergy across the country who Tuesday (Aug. 7) publicly opposed the celibacy requirement, in a move meant to spur the denomination to change the rule. For many of them, it was the first time they publicly acknowledged their same-sex relationships. Learn more at goodsoil.org.
The celibacy rule is expected to be voted on by the end of the week at the 4.9 million-member denomination's Churchwide Assembly in Chicago. The ELCA is in full communion with the UCC through a four-way denominational relationship known as the Lutheran-Reformed Formula of Agreement, which also includes the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Reformed Church in America.
The Lutherans also will vote on whether to authorize blessings for same-sex unions.
The Word Alone Network, a conservative Lutheran group, opposes the proposals on the belief that gay sex, and all sex outside marriage, is sinful, according to a spokesman.
Debate over the status of gay people has roiled other mainline Protestant denominations in recent years. In 2003, the Episcopal Church's decision to ordain a noncelibate gay man as bishop nearly caused a split in that church and has led to division within its worldwide body, the Anglican Communion.
The Rev. Gary LeCroy, 46, the pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Teaneck, N.J., also came forward but said he has not been in a committed same-sex relationship since he became a pastor in 1991. "I'm technically in accordance (with the celibacy rule)," he said. "But I have no intention of staying that way."
He said he opposes a compromise measure up for vote that would maintain the ban on sexually active gay clergy but allow Lutheran leaders to make exceptions.
"The compromise basically is the reality of what's going on now anyway," LeCroy said. "So it doesn't really move us anywhere. It's not acceptable to me, and it's certainly not going to make those who are opposed to (same-sex) relationships with pastors happy."
In 2005, at its last gathering, the ELCA rejected efforts to allow gay clergy to be in same-sex relationships and to let clergy bless same-sex marriage.
The issue was not expected to arise again until 2009, upon completion of a denominational study on sexuality, but a recent case in Georgia led gay-rights supporters to press for changes now. The Rev.
Bradley Schmeling, of St. John's Lutheran Church in Atlanta, was defrocked in July after telling his bishop he is in a relationship with another man.
Kriesat has been public about his relationship before. Last year, before New Jersey legislators approved a law providing for civil unions, he testified that they should go further and allow gay marriage.
Ordained in 1965, he worked for 35 years at two New Jersey churches.
He retired in 2005 and has been filling in at other churches and working part time at Good Shepherd Church in Somerville.
At one church, Christ Lutheran in Ridgefield Park, N.J., he lived with his partner in the parsonage.
"We would have the congregation over every year for an open house," he said. "... Congregations aren't dumb, they put two and two together. But I never felt a need to broadcast stuff."
Jeff Diamant, author, writes for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J.