By now many of you have heard the news that Rev. Judy Howard Peterson, North Park University’s campus pastor, has been removed from her position for officiating at a same-sex wedding last spring.
Numerous people forwarded the following email to MF4i. Pastor Judy is not able to make a public statement at this time, nor has she given MF4i permission to publish this letter, but we believe it is important for everyone in The Evangelical Covenant Church to read her story.
We unequivocally stand with Pastor Judy, and we ask you to please join us in praying for her and all those impacted by this decision.
First of all let me say, I never imagined that I would be crafting this letter to you, my beloved co-laborers in the gospel, but pastorally I believe it is important that you hear this first from me. Four days before Christmas I received a letter from North Park University stating that I was being relieved of all pastoral duties as of January 2nd, 2018 and being placed on a sabbatical. I am sure this is coming as a complete shock to you and for that I am sorry. It was my heart’s desire to pastor you through this conversation, however, both the leadership of North Park University and the leadership of the Evangelical Covenant Church had asked me to hold confidence while they considered the best pathway forward. Now because of the limited nature of what North Park University plans to share with the larger community and knowing the tendency for all of us to fill in the blanks with imaginings, I feel it necessary to keep your thoughts from wandering into wonderings by offering you some of my reflections on the circumstances that have led to my abrupt departure from the North Park Community.
In the fall of 2016 a former student and colleague from North Park University (NPU) asked for me to officiate his wedding. I immediately said, ‘yes’ as I know his love for the Lord and his love for his partner. After saying, ‘yes’ I then wrestled for months with the reality of what officiating a same-sex wedding would cost me in regards to my reputation and standing in my own denomination as well as the broader evangelical community.
I am not unaware of the biblical arguments against same-sex marriage, the fever pitch of these arguments in the church and the potential for division around the conversation of LGBTQ inclusion. Nor am I unaware of the damage that has been caused to so many people by the use of biblical texts against the LGBTQ community. Over my tenure at NPU I have sat with countless LBGTQ young people who wrestle with whether or not they are worthy of love, who feel crushed under the weight of the shame they feel because of their inability to “overcome” their attractions and who fear they will never be able to truly be themselves in the churches in which they were raised. And I have done my best to be their pastor and yours, to point everyone to the unconditional love of God for the whole world, to preach Jesus’ amazing grace over all of our guilt and shame and to love in a way that casts out all of our fear of rejection.
While I have always held tightly to the conviction that the gospel is good news of great joy for all people without exception and while I am utterly convinced that my pastoral calling is always to stand fully with those who are marginalized either by the world or by the church, now with the Spirit’s help I was able to say without reservation that I would be willing to lay down my life for my brothers. This was not a flippant decision done with disregard for religious rules, but rather a discerned decision to stand with my brothers in the same way Jesus has stood with me; in everything and at all times, no matter what. Or to say it in a different way, I made my decision with the conviction that, “If I’m going to die on a hill, I’m not going to die on the hill of exclusion, but on the hill inclusion, because this is the hill Jesus died on for us.”
Knowing the sensitivity of this pastoral decision and because of my desire to live in the light, prior to officiating the wedding I sought out the counsel of the Executive Minister of the Board of Ordered Ministry (BOM) for the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC), which is a long title for the person responsible for the care and discipline of Covenant pastors. During that meeting I made clear my pastoral process and my intent to pastor these two brothers in Christ through their wedding. He told me that there could be consequences for my credentials after which we spent time in prayer for one another.
At the end of April 2017, knowing I was breaking one of the ethical guidelines for clergy, that states, “Clergy credentialed by the ECC are not permitted to officiate at same-sex unions,” I officiated the wedding of my beloved brother’s in Christ. Other than a quick text to say he was praying for me and another regarding his early resignation I did not hear from the Executive Minister of the BOM again and at no time did I receive follow up care, discipline or guidance. As I had received no counsel or specific restrictions I continued the work I love at North Park University this past fall semester.
On Sunday September 17th at 8pm I was called by the now Interim Executive Minister of the BOM and told I needed to come to the denominational offices the following day. At the meeting, I was told that someone had brought to their attention, through a photo found on the internet, that I had officiated a same-sex wedding. I explained to them what you already know, not only did I officiate the wedding, but prior to doing so I had also spoken to the Executive Minister of the BOM to seek counsel. I will tell you, that while getting “called into the principal’s office” is never an enjoyable experience I was grateful for the opportunity to share my convictions and I left that meeting feeling as though everyone in the room was seeking a path forward together.
My confidence came in part because the Evangelical Covenant Church has always held interpretive tensions around the biblical text and does not have a punitive tradition when it comes to dissent. Within our own affirmations we state, “United in Christ, we offer freedom to one another to differ on issues of belief or practice where the biblical and historical record seems to allow for a variety of interpretations of the will and purposes of God. We in the Covenant Church seek to focus on what unites us as followers of Christ, rather than on what divides us.” From the beginning Covenanters have been convinced that the unity of the church is a powerful witness to the truth of Jesus’ work in our lives, and we even took the name Mission Friends as a testimony of our commitment to stay together for the sake of our common mission (John 17:20-21).
The ECC has even gone as far as to allow dissent over the practice of the sacrament of baptism while recognizing, “this choice as a great challenge for the unity of the church in that these positions as classically stated become mutually exclusive at crucial points of theology and practice.” For this reason while I recognized that my decision would cause great tension with those who deeply disagree with LGBTQ marriage I had good reason to believe that my colleagues in the ECC would navigate a dissenting interpretation/practice within our historic conviction that we are “better together” and that we would remain partners in ministry for the sake of the mission of Christ’s Kingdom even while we continued to navigate this difficult conversation with dissenting convictions.
Over the following weeks I had multiple meetings with the Executive Minister of the BOM, the President of the ECC, the Director of Ministry Services and the Interim President of North Park University. While I have been aware for some time that the ECC has struggled to engage candidly and corporately in conversations surrounding human sexuality, with each meeting it became increasingly clear to me the incredible obstacles in our path to having open and honest conversation. The reasons are many; it’s long overdue, it’s a conversation that highlights the existing cultural and generational divides, we don’t know or trust one another enough to navigate our differences, we hate conflict even when it’s healthy to engage in it, and there are preexisting tensions between the church and the school and this conversation shines a spotlight on some of our differences. On top of all of that both the church and the school are in the process of electing new presidents and would like not to have this conversation this year.
While I made my decision to officiate the wedding long before either of those transitions were made public, I understand that the decisions about the path forward are now greatly influenced by the fear that any decision will influence those outcomes in one way or another. But for practical purposes, the ECC always has within its own policies for care and discipline three options when a credentialed pastor is “charged with indiscretion, immorality, doctrinal error, unethical behavior, or disloyalty to the ECC.” They can 1. Require counseling, training, or other action designed to address the specific areas that are causing difficulty, while allowing a pastor to continue to function as a minister, 2. They can temporarily suspend a minister’s credentials and remove them from ministerial functions, while charges are being investigated and while appropriate care is provided; or 3. They can recommend a pastor for dismissal from the ministry of the ECC.
The Covenant Church asked for me to immediately resign my credentials. As the ECC has been my denominational family since childhood and as I believe the most severe consequence is not a proportional response to theological dissent, I urged the interim Executive Minister of the BOM to consider that we are “better together” and made clear that because I hold that conviction I would not simply resign my credentials. Seeking to deescalate the situation and in the hopes of forging a way forward together I made a proposal that recognized that I broke policy and should have disciplinary consequences but submitted that I believed that perhaps the best way forward, not only for my congregation but in view of avoiding any increased tension between NPU and the ECC was option one. I proposed this because I had sought care prior to officiating the wedding and had not received it and because the ECC has not previously used punitive discipline as a means of navigating theological dissent. I argued that it was best for me to stay in my role as Campus Pastor because I simply could not understand how removing me from my position in the middle of the academic year, leaving students without a pastor, would be the best option for our campus.
The Evangelical Covenant Church chose option two and on November 7th my credentials in the ECC were suspended. In the case of the suspension of credentials it is the general practice of the Ordered Ministry to remove the pastor from all ministerial functions immediately, however as no person under my care was in any danger it was agreed by both the ECC and NPU that I would remain in my ministry at North Park University. The ECC’s conditions were that I would not be allowed to pursue ministry outside the boundaries of my job description, that I submit to care and that I would report for a hearing before the entire Board of Ordered Ministry on January 19th. Since that time I have continued to remain faithful to my ministry with you, have pastored within the parameters of my suspension and have met with the Director of Pastoral Care & Advocacy for the ECC.
Over the five weeks following my suspension I have had several follow up meetings with the Interim President of NPU. During these meetings he has offered a variety of proposals concerning the conditions of my continued employment. All of the proposals that were presented to me required that I conclude my ministry at NPU at the close of the 2017/2018 academic year, as the Interim President of NPU indicated that the ECC would not consider any other option. And all of the proposals presented to me contained restrictions about what, how and when communication about my circumstances could unfold. If I would be willing to leave NPU at the close of the year and if I would agree to the conditions concerning the communication of my departure I could continue to receive my housing and salary package through June 30th 2018.
On December 14th I reached out to the Director of Pastoral Care & Advocacy to ask why the ECC was pressuring a “terminal” decision about my ministry at North Park University when the goal of discipline and care within the Ordered Ministry of the ECC is to always move toward restoration. Why was the ECC asking for me to be terminated before I had the opportunity to have my case heard before the Board of Ordered Ministry? She assured me that “The Board makes no decisions or recommendations regarding the pastor’s current or future employment situation…The pastor’s employer (church, educational institution, hospital, the military, etc.) discerns separately from the Board whether to retain the pastor and what that looks like. Even if a pastor’s credential is suspended and eventually removed, the employer has the right to continue to employ the pastor in any capacity. This is part of our church polity. Denominational leaders may recommend a particular action, but the employing ministry setting has no obligation to follow that recommendation.”
With this clarification on December 15th I met with the Chair of the Board of Trustees of NPU and the Interim President of NPU in the hopes that the school would continue my employment without the condition that this would be my final year at North Park University. I shared with them the information I had received from the Director of Pastoral Care & Advocacy and they shared with me that this had not previously been made clear to them by the ECC and that they would like to follow up. I asked them to consider again if there wasn’t a better story to tell the world by staying together and I urged them to find a pathway that would allow for North Park University to teach and model a way to stay together through theological difference. That evening I sat on the stage for graduation and offered what would be my last official blessing and benediction for North Park students. I had no idea.
On December 20th the Interim President and I spoke by phone at which time he made clear that in consultation with Chair of the Board of Trustees that because my credentials are currently suspended and because a requirement of my employment is to be credentialed and in good standing, I am being placed on a terminal sabbatical and that I will be relieved of all of my pastoral duties as of January 2nd, 2018. I will not be allowed to return to my ministerial role on campus unless the Board of Ordered ministry of the ECC fully reinstates my credentials and I am not allowed to attend any institutional events during my sabbatical. On December 21st I received a letter confirming these details.
Throughout this process the Evangelical Covenant Church has asked for me to resign my credentials and North Park University has invited me to offer my resignation. While I understand that either of these decisions would have lessened the tension around the issues at hand, on both occasions, I have declined to do so. I have declined because I do not believe the ECC or any church is better without dissenting convictions and I do not believe that dissenting from the denominational position in order to offer full pastoral care to a member of the North Park Community is a satisfactory reason to seek the discontinuation of my faithful pastoral ministry at the University.
And throughout this process I have consistently declined to be partners in any proposal that would silence the truth about the reasons for my departure from NPU. I have refused for several reasons. First of all I do not believe it would be healthy for you, the congregation that I have served faithfully for 11 years, which I have exhorted to live in the light of Christ, to now be left in the dark. Nor do I believe that being silent in order to avoid difficult conversations that might threaten the dominant culture is a faithful witness to those whose voices are consistently marginalized. And finally I have continued to stand fast in the belief that living in darkness really does keep us in bondage and the truth really does set us free.
I am now awaiting a hearing before the Board of Ordered Ministry on January 19th.
As I am sure you can imagine I am deeply grieving at many levels. I am grieving that I will not be allowed to pastor my congregation through this transition. I am grieving that many of you may feel abandoned and other students marginalized by this decision. I am missing already the profound ministry we have done together towards a Kingdom vision. I am grieving that as we celebrate a Savior, who came into this world to reveal God’s unfailing love and who calls us to love one another in a similar fashion, that we still love so partially and that on every side of every conversation we still judge so harshly.
This is of course difficult and painful not just for me, but for many who are and will be impacted by this news. What I want you to know is that the Story of God remains good news, Jesus remains the Savior of the whole world and the “Now Body of Christ” remains the best means to deliver this good news of God’s grace to the whole world. And while it is difficult to receive this news at Christmas, the Christmas story also reminds us that there is also no better time. The Christmas story proclaims that a woman had to risk her reputation to join God in delivering good news of great joy into the world, that the good news came first to the outcast shepherds who overrode their fear because of the call to come and see this new work of God, that there were wise men who were willing to travel beyond their previous paths to honor a king born to the marginalized, and two old prophets that remained worshipful while they waited a long time for the Messiah to come and deliver them. And so I commission you to risk your reputations for Jesus, override your fears, stand with the marginalized and never stop worshipping the God who delivers his people.
My dear friends, I know there are many questions that still need to be answered. While I will not be allowed to return to you in the same capacity, please know that I will continue to make myself available to you, my phone number and email remain the same. And know that the rest of the University Ministries’ Staff is grieving with you and is ready to walk with you as we all struggle through the implications of these decisions. There remains Better News for all of us. May we seek after it together.
Pastor Judy Peterson
I know this is way too much for you to try to communicate to others. And so I have also crafted a Twitter version for those of you who find this kind of communication easier to digest.
“I officiated a same sex wedding of two beloved brothers in Christ. This broke a religious rule. The church believes the rule is so important that breaking it requires discipline. This discipline will most likely cost me my job, my housing, my credentials and my reputation. And I would put all of this on the line again in order to love like Jesus loves and I would do it without pause because I believe love fulfills the law. (Romans 13:10)
This is a developing story. To stay informed about this and other news regarding inclusion in the ECC, please subscribe to our mailing list.
Encouraging notes and inquiries for Pastor Judy can be sent to bettertogethercov at gmail dot com.