Gay clergy received by Lutheran church includes Alameda pastors
On July 25, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America accepted seven gay and bisexual Bay Area pastors into their ministry after an exile that some had endured for two decades. Among them were Alameda resident Sharon Stalkfleet and the Rev. Craig Minich, who serves as youth pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church on Central Avenue.
“it’s been a blur,” said Minich, who was at a youth camp when The Island caught up with him Tuesday. “It sounds kind of cliché to say, but I didn’t think the day would come.”
Minich said he’s been getting more calls about the ministry he’s doing the week and a half since the ceremony, but other than that, his ministry is the same.
“This was not so much a change for me but a change for the church,” he said.
Minich was baptized in 1993 while in college, after growing up in a semi-rural Florida town where fundamentalism was strong. He came out as gay to himself while at seminary, he said, which only deepened his faith. Minich said he was drawn to the openness of the Lutheran religion, and to its acceptance of people despite their differences or flaws.
In practice, though, the church as a whole was much slower to accept him. The ELCA accepted gays as pastors but required them to be celibate, a rule that was not extended to their heterosexual peers. In 1990, two San Francisco churches, St. Francis and First United, defied the policy by ordaining a gay man and a lesbian couple, earning them an expulsion from the ELCA. Since then, 18 pastors have been ordained in defiance of the church’s policy, and three were removed by trial.
Minich lives in San Carlos with his partner of seven years while Stalkfleet, who identifies as bisexual, lives here on the Island with her partner.
Minich said his home synod, the Florida-Bahamas Synod, denied his ministerial candidacy even as they praised his qualifications. They told him to pray for celibacy, which Minich said he found offensive and a betrayal of Lutheran theology.
So just as Martin Luther had nearly 500 years before him, Minich set out to reform the church.
Stalkfleet’s journey to the church began in 1988 when she joined a Lutheran congregation in Iowa. “It was a marvelous experience hearing of God’s love week after week and that God’s love for me was not dependent on what I have done, do or will do,” she said.
The onetime registered nurse went, in 1995, to study at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. While there she focused on urban ministry, attending ACTs Urban Clinical Pastoral Education program. Here in the Bay Area, Stalkfleet completed an internship as a jail pastor in Richmond and served as a vicar at St. Paul’s Lutheran church in Oakland.
In 2001 she joined the roster of Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries, a group that worked toward the church’s inclusion of gay, bisexual and transgender pastors, and a year later she was ordained to serve as chaplain for East Bay Nursing Home, a joint ministry from St. Paul’s, Resurrection Lutheran and Trinity Lutheran in Oakland and Trinity Lutheran Church in Alameda. She left the ministry for personal reasons in 2008 but is still active in the church.
Minich established the Oakland-Berkeley Youth Ministry in 1999, the same year he graduated from the Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, and was ordained in 2001. He worked with a group of churches that banded together to share resources – and because they believed it would be harder for the ELCA to kick the entire group out, he said.
Alameda’s Trinity Lutheran joined the group later and in 2005, Minich joined the church as its youth pastor. He said the church has been supportive of him “in a gentle, quiet way.”
Trinity Lutheran’s pastor, the Rev. David Bringman, said Minich and Stalkfleet have a passion for the ministry. And he praised Minich for continuing to bring a high level of energy to a job that often leads quickly to burnout. Bringman, who said his church has long officially accepted gays, said he’s grateful the ELCA decided to change its policy.
Minich, too, said he is overwhelmed with gratitude for the change and for his congregation’s support.
“I’m being acknowledged it a different way, in a way that I’m even surprised (about),” he said,