An ‘extraordinary’ affirmation

Salem English Lutheran Church Rev. Jen Nagel becomes Southwest’s first gay ordained Lutheran minister

CARAG — Jen Nagel was already well on her way to becoming a pastor when she first fell in love with another woman about 10 years ago.

A devout Lutheran who decided in her early teens to be a minister, Nagel had always been supportive of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) clergy, but she didn’t fully realize her own sexual orientation until meeting Jane McBride, now her life partner.

“I’d always been a strong advocate and an ally [of LGBT ministers],” said Nagel, now 35. “That was kind of just part of who I was. And yet, I had not understood it in such a personal way until I fell in love with Jane and then it was much more clear and all of life became much more clear.”

Life also became a bit scary, Nagel said. She worried about whether her goal of becoming a pastor could be realized.

“All of those questions were really right there for me,” she said. “‘Do I deny this love and do I deny the person that I love and do I not be who God created me to be?’”

Nagel decided to be honest about her new identity and to continue working toward the job she felt called to do. In November of last year, the congregation of Salem English Lutheran Church affirmed that calling when it voted to appoint her pastor. The church made it official Jan. 19 with an “extraordinary ordination,” an ordination performed outside traditional Lutheran guidelines.

Nagel is the first gay Lutheran minister to be ordained in Southwest and the third in the Twin Cities. Rev. Anita Hill was ordained at St. Paul-Reformation Lutheran Church in 2001 and Rev. Jay Wiesner was ordained at Bethany Lutheran Church in Minneapolis’ Seward neighborhood in 2004.

Nagel’s ordination was the second of a lesbian minister performed after the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) decided last August to relax a rule requiring gay clergy to take a vow of celibacy. The rule is technically still in place, but the ELCA decided not to punish clergy members who don’t follow it.

Nagel did not take the vow, nor did Rev. Jen Rude of Resurrection Lutheran Church in Chicago, who was the first lesbian minister to be ordained since the decision.

“It does feel like in some ways you’re on this cusp of making history and being part of helping the church to grow,” Nagel said of her ordination’s significance. “And the other way, all these people before me have been my inspiration.”

Nagel preached at Salem for several years prior to her ordination. Whether to call her as the church’s full-time pastor was a topic of discussion among congregation members and church staff during much of that time.

The 118-year-old Salem congregation — now a diverse group of about 60 people — is in a time of transition. When its longtime home at 28th Street and Lyndale Avenue became too large and costly in recent years, the church moved out and started making plans for a new mixed-use facility on the site. In the meantime, it’s sharing Lyndale United Church of Christ’s building at 31st Street and Aldrich Avenue.

Lifelong Salem member Jim
Anderson, 37, who was on the call committee that selected Nagel for ordination, said the church’s numbers dropped significantly during the 1990s. A new church led by Nagel gives Anderson hope for the congregation’s future. “I think this move with Jen is what we needed to move us forward again,” he said.

Salem member Sarah Kunze, 26, who was also on the call committee, said the congregation was overwhelmingly supportive of
Nagel’s ordination, but the decision didn’t come easy for everyone.

“Because it involved going against church policy, that was harder for some to get used to than others,” she said.

Kunze described Nagel as “very warm, welcoming to whoever you are, wherever you are in your life.”

Paul Wharton, Vice President of the Salem congregation, said Nagel is a “listening, sensitive, nurturing soul” and a leader who speaks strongly about her beliefs.

Nagel is a core driver in renewing Salem, Wharton said, and the congregation wasn’t afraid to go against the grain to keep her.

“It’s probably one of the bravest little churches I’ve ever seen,” Wharton said. “Whenever it’s faced with a big decision, it thinks about it, prays about it, makes a choice and moves forward.”

Emily Eastwood, executive director of Minneapolis-based Lutherans Concerned/North America, a network supportive of LGBT clergy, said Nagel’s ordination is another step in the right direction for the ELCA.

“This particular instance is just further demonstration that the church is entering into a new reality,” Eastwood said.

She said several other openly gay pastors serve at churches in the metro area. Each extraordinary ordination brings more hope for those individuals waiting for their own ceremonies, Eastwood said.

An ELCA task force will release a statement on sexuality at a Minneapolis meeting in 2009 that Eastwood hopes will cause the assembly to further revise its policy on LGBT ordinations.

More than 500 people including roughly 90 vestment-wearing clergy members attended Nagel’s ordination. Nagel’s partner, a pastor at United Church of Christ in Falcon Heights, Minn., was among them.

Nagel said she has stuck to her commitment of being open about her relationship.

“I don’t talk about my spouse or my family or any of that excessively,” Nagel said. “And yet, I want to be able to say, you know, ‘at home we talked about such and such’ and for the (congregation) to know who is at home.

“That’s really important and you bring a certain integrity to your ministry when you can talk about that and not have to hide. I learned a long time ago that if I’m going to do good ministry, I have to be able to be authentic and be myself.”

Nagel is a core driver in renewing Salem, Wharton said, and the congregation wasn’t afraid to go against the grain to keep her.

“It’s probably one of the bravest little churches I’ve ever seen,” Wharton said. “Whenever it’s faced with a big decision, it thinks about it, prays about it, makes a choice and moves forward.”

Emily Eastwood, executive director of Minneapolis-based Lutherans Concerned/North America, a network supportive of LGBT clergy, said Nagel’s ordination is another step in the right direction for the ELCA.

“This particular instance is just further demonstration that the church is entering into a new reality,” Eastwood said.

She said several other openly gay pastors serve at churches in the metro area. Each extraordinary ordination brings more hope for those individuals waiting for their own ceremonies, Eastwood said.

An ELCA task force will release a statement on sexuality at a Minneapolis meeting in 2009 that Eastwood hopes will cause the assembly to further revise its policy on LGBT ordinations.

More than 500 people including roughly 90 vestment-wearing clergy members attended Nagel’s ordination. Nagel’s partner, a pastor at United Church of Christ in Falcon Heights, Minn., was among them.

Nagel said she has stuck to her commitment of being open about her relationship.

“I don’t talk about my spouse or my family or any of that excessively,” Nagel said. “And yet, I want to be able to say, you know, ‘at home we talked about such and such’ and for the (congregation) to know who is at home.

“That’s really important and you bring a certain integrity to your ministry when you can talk about that and not have to hide. I learned a long time ago that if I’m going to do good ministry, I have to be able to be authentic and be myself.”

Jake Weyer can be reached at 436-4367 or jweyer@mnpubs.com