I have started and re-started this post so many times. I wish there was an easy way to say this. I used to love the ELCA. But I don't anymore.
This is my story of how I broke up with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
I have literally been a lifelong Lutheran. I was baptized at just over one month old at Hope Lutheran Church, in Bozeman, MT. As a child, church was a place of comfort and belonging. I played my trombone in the church. I was an active member of youth group. I went to Lutheran bible camp. "Lutheran" to me always had connotations of warmth and home.
I went to a Lutheran liberal arts college. I spent six summers working at two different Lutheran bible camps. I participated in a Lutheran volunteer program for a year. I used to be proud to be a Lutheran.
Just before I turned 30 I followed the call to seminary. I attended a Methodist seminary, because it was in Denver and so was I. I entered into candidacy, the process that prepares seminarians to become pastors. I had a wonderfully supportive candidacy committee. They nurtured me and helped me to grow. Seminary was a great experience. I loved Clinical Pastoral Education. I loved my internship. I got clarity on what God was calling me to do, which is the hope of any vocation, and I learned that I was called to be a hospital chaplain.
This is not acceptable in the eyes of the ELCA.
Chaplaincy is considered a "specialized ministry" in the ELCA. Other ministries in this category are military chaplaincy, campus ministry, and outdoor ministry. Before you can receive a call to specialized ministry (a piece of fancy paper that allows you to receive ELCA benefits, pension, and so on), you are required to serve as a parish pastor for three years. This is referred to as the "3 year rule."
I have heard from several bishops, who shall remain nameless, the following with regards to this rule:
"It is the only way that you will learn how to be a Lutheran leader."
"The parish is the location of the ministry of word and sacrament."
"We have a clergy shortage in parishes."
"We need first call pastors to be in congregations that could not otherwise afford them." (ie: cheap labor)
"The truest calling to the ministry of word and sacrament is to be a parish pastor."
"Every one else has had to do it, and so do you."
But somehow, something magical happens after three years in a parish that allows you to do specialized ministry.
I will admit that I have known about this rule since I entered seminary. I also knew that it would be extraordinarily difficult to bypass. I will own that. However, if your bishop is willing to bring an exception regarding this 3 year rule to the other bishops, the Council of Bishops, it is likely that your exception will be granted. This is particularly frustrating because different bishops are more rigid gatekeepers than other bishops. In other words, if your bishop likes you, they will bring an exception on your behalf. If your bishop doesn't like you, you are out of luck.
This year I found myself with a full-time chaplain job and only 6 months of parish ministry experience. (Because the yearlong parish internship doesn't count as experience.) I also found myself in trouble with my bishop.
When I asked if an exception to the three years rule could be made, I was denied. I was also advised to "leave this denomination if you can't follow the rules." Shortly thereafter I was thanked for my "caring and compassionate ministry in this city." Which feels like a kick in the stomach, given that this same ministry is not recognized as Word and Sacrament until three years have passed while working in a parish.
This denomination needs to evolve or it will die. The ministry of word and sacrament isn't confined to a church. The role of parish pastor is just one expression of word and sacrament ministry. It is not possible to make every candidate fit a parish-shaped hole. Just because you have open congregations that cannot afford to pay a pastor with more experience doesn't mean that you should force people into serving parishes who have another calling.
I am a chaplain in my soul. I love my work. It gets me out of bed every day and I fall asleep satisfied every night. I can point to tangible things that I do to alleviate suffering in this broken world every single day. I am happily doing ministry, perhaps some of the best evangelism there is, at the bedside of my patients. I hear from many people that having a chaplain at the bedside of their dying loved one is such a comfort, and might inspire them to return to a church.
I am doing God's work. I am doing sacred, beautiful, painful, and holy work. It is not in a parish. It does not directly support a congregation. I am doing the thing that I simply must do.
And so, because the denomination of my baptism, confirmation, first communion, and ordination will not recognize this work, I am breaking up with the ELCA.