When Bradley Schmeling and Darin Easler met in 2004 at a church conference, they had no idea the chemistry between them would trigger a fierce battle in the Lutheran Church. That battle would eventually contribute to changing the church’s policies on how it perceives gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender pastors in committed relationships.
“As Brad says, it’s every mother’s, every parent’s, dream for their child to meet their soulmate at a church event,” Easler said with a grin, seated next to Schmeling at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Atlanta where Schmeling is pastor.
Easler and Schmeling met in Minnesota, where Easler lived and was a Lutheran pastor. In 2005, the gay men made a commitment to each other and Easler moved to Atlanta, where he was welcomed by St. John’s as Schmeling’s partner. When the two decided to make their relationship public not only to their friends and families, they also told the bishops of their synods.
Timeline to justice
2004: Lutheran pastors Bradley Schmeling and Darin Easler meet
2005: Easler moves to Atlanta from Minnesota to be with Schmeling as his partner; the couple is welcomed by Schmeling’s congregation
2006: Easler and Schmeling tell their bishops they are in a committed relationship with each other. This goes against church policy that prohibits gay clergy from being in same-sex relationships. Easler is quietly removed from the clergy roster in Minnesota.
2007: Schmeling is put on trial within ELCA and is also removed from the clergy roster.
2009: The Churchwide Assembly of ELCA approves a resolution to open the ministry of the church to gay and lesbian pastors living in committed relationships.
2010: Schmeling and Easler are reinstated as Lutheran pastors
That’s when the trouble began. The policy of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America at the time allowed gay and lesbian people into the ordained ministry but only if they remained celibate. There are some 10,500 ELCA congregations across the U.S., Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, and nearly 5 million members in the church.
“We met in 2004 and then Darin moved here [to Atlanta] in 2005. In 2006 we told our bishops about our relationship and that summer Darin was dropped from the clergy roster of ELCA and the bishop of this synod [the Southeastern Synod] filed formal charges against me,” Schmeling said.
Schmeling was put on a church trial in January 2007, which was held in Midtown Atlanta at the old Colony Square hotel; that summer he was removed from the clergy roster. The trial made national headlines and was another example of the ongoing debates taking place within numerous churches and denominations about how LGBT people, including pastors, fit into a church’s overall mission.
Going through a trial and having his relationship questioned was trying, Schmeling admitted.
“It was a time that was difficult but it was also a time filled with great blessing because there was so much support and affirmation that we received,” Schmeling said.
“We didn’t know it at that time but in the end we are playing an important role in moving the whole Lutheran Church forward. I think policy change would have come in the ELCA … but I feel like the trial and public witness [St. John’s] congregation gave at that time helped move the church faster and farther along,” Schmeling added.
‘A concrete example’
Easler’s removal from the clergy roster in Minnesota was much different than Schmeling’s high profile exclusion.
“It was sort of done quietly, behind the scenes. I also realized this is a much more common story,” Easler said.
“Under the former policy, people quietly disappear, they go to another church or leave the church. There are silent stories alongside the very public realities of a church trial.”
Easler decided to leave the Lutheran Church and became a minister with the LGBT affirming United Church of Christ.
The two decided despite the hardships, they would continue the public fight as a way to bring awareness to a policy they found unjust.
“We were also trusting our story did make a difference in helping the church move forward,” Easler said. “It provided a concrete example and context for people to engage conversations about change and full welcome. I think anyone who hears personal stories and sees vibrant ministry take place like it does at St. John’s, it really makes a difference to everyone else in conversation and in the church.”
Schmeling said the trial made the “injustice of the old policy very clear.”
Although he was removed from the clergy roster, Schmeling remained pastor at St. John’s because his congregation wanted him there and supported his and Easler’s struggle.
“Throughout the trial and after, our ministry was the same. The church remains open to everyone, serves the neighborhood, takes care of the poor,” Schmeling said.
“We continued to grow and in a sense thrive during that time and afterwards. And we were grateful in 2009 when the church changed its policy which opened the door to our reinstatement,” he said.
In August 2009, the Churchwide Assembly of ELCA approved a resolution to open the ministry of the church to gay and lesbian pastors living in committed relationships.
But the resolution did not automatically reinstate gay pastors who had been kicked out under the old rule. Schmeling was finally reinstated April 24 and Easler on April 30.
While the decision has caused happiness for many in the church, others are not so happy. According to the Chicago website chicagoist.com — ELCA’s Churchwide Office is located in Chicago — the new policy on gay clergy has resulted in more than 300 churches leaving ELCA .
‘Sunday was always a reminder’
With Easler a UCC minister and Schmeling still serving the congregation of St. John’s despite not being officially recognized by ELCA, the two had to rely on faith and supporters to get them through tough times in their personal relationship.
“Our faith is the foundation of our relationship; faith has sustained us,” Easler said. “The feeling of love and support from family and friends …. really lifted us up. People shared with us stories of hope of how they’re encouraged by the changes. To know we’ve been a part of that has been an amazing blessing and humbling.”
But that doesn’t mean a toll wasn’t taxed on their relationship, Schmeling said.
“It was hard. It was difficult for both of us to see the other persecuted by the church. We both felt anger, sadness and pain. Even though UCC has been so gracious to receive Darin, it meant the two of us serving different churches,” Schmeling said.
“And so we couldn’t be together on a Sunday morning. Sunday was always a reminder that the policy was in effect. The policy change means we can share the same church again.”
Easler formally joined St. John’s this Easter and now the two can realize their hopes for being together in the same church.
“It feels like a dream come true for us to be members of the same church and imagine a career in the same denomination,” Schmeling said.
The decision to reinstate the two was not a controversial one, Schmeling added, and both reinstatements were approved easily and overwhelmingly by church officials.
“This was an amazing, powerful experience itself given the history of the church with GLBT people,” Schmeling said.
“They did it with so much ease it gives me hope for what the church can be. There is life, hope, a peace flowing into the church that’s never been there before.”
Both men said the support of Atlanta’s LGBT community also sustained them through the difficult times.
“I’m so grateful for the overwhelming support of the GLBT community here in Atlanta. Living in Atlanta, having the trial here, was a very powerful. This is a place where justice can happen,” Schmeling said.
Being put back on the clergy roster has also been nostalgic for Easler and Schmeling, they said, as they remember the times they shared together during their fight for equality.
“We will always treasure being grand marshals of the Atlanta Pride parade [in 2007] and receiving love from the gay community,” Schmeling said.
“The irony of this is that while it was very hard, in the end it was a great blessing.”
Top photo: Rev. Bradley Schmeling (right) and his partner Rev. Darin Easler were reinstated as Lutheran pastors late last month after being defrocked in 2006 for being in a relationship with each other. (By Dyana Bagby)