With Pastor Judy Peterson’s permission, we are re-posting this letter here.
I am Covenant. I have been a part of the Evangelical Covenant Church my entire life. Although I was baptized in a Lutheran church as an infant, as soon as my family returned to a community with an Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC), I attended one. I grew up in ECC youth programs, was confirmed in the ECC in the 9th grade, went to ECC summer camps, attended ECC’s university, served on the ECC mission field, and returned to attend the ECC’s seminary. I have only served in ECC churches and I have been the campus pastor at North Park University, the only ECC University for the past eleven and a half years.
I am deeply Covenant. Covenant institutions, leaders and mentors have trained me and Covenanters have surrounded me for the length of my ministry. The Covenant church is my faith home and the family in which I have done ministry. I deeply want to continue my ministry in the ECC.
My mother has been a member of Faith Covenant Church in Burnsville MN for 42 years,
- She has seen many pastors come and go, some amazing others transitional and still others who did not pastor well at all.
- She has watched the church grow from 150 to 1300 and back down to around 300.
- She went through the “worship wars” when many of her friends left the church rather than learn to sing “words on a wall” instead of notes from a hymnal. My mom learned to find her harmony even without the printed notes.
- She has willingly learned under pastors who were both older and much younger than her.
- She survived under the church restrictions placed upon her as a divorced woman and went on to thrive in leadership as the church grew past its previous restrictions.
Through it all, my mother stayed and she taught me to be a stayer. When others left their previous places of worship to join her church she welcomed them without judgment for why they had left their churches and without gloating that they had joined hers. And when people left her church, for whatever reason, she grieved the loss of friendships and traditions and shared pain and the part they sang in harmony with her all without judgment and always saying, “This is my church”.
My mom taught me to be a stayer and to say, “This is my church”, which is why it has been so painful for me to be asked to consider if the ECC is still a good fit for me; to be asked to leave, to be told I was hurting the family, to be accused of betrayal and to be chastised for staying by those who have been leavers of other denominations. That being said, if the Evangelical Covenant Church is no longer going to continue to live into its heritage of theological freedom and its trust of both lay people and pastors to hold dissenting opinions particularly around pastoral care for all people then although I am not leaving the ECC, perhaps you are leaving me.
What I did in officiating the wedding of Marcus and Roel Mason-Vivit was discern the best care for those under my care, to join their lives together in marriage. I did this for two men who deeply love our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. I joined together two brothers in Christ who deeply love one another and desire to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ, two men who do not possess the gift of celibacy. I discerned this care not because I was caving to cultural norms, but because I was seeking to follow the Jesus I know, who healed on the Sabbath, thus breaking a long held religious rule, one in fact written in stone, in order to heal a man’s image of himself and his image of God.
I discerned this position not because I am caving to cultural norms, but because I am seeking to follow the guidance of the apostolic church that went from Jerusalem, to Judea, to Samaria and then to the ends of the earth. The early church followed a trajectory of inclusion; from Jewish fisherman, to Jewish tax collectors, to Jewish women, to Samaritans, to God-fearing Romans, to Gentiles who worshipped at altars of other gods and then even to an Ethiopian eunuch who had gone to Jerusalem to worship, and who resonated with being despised and rejected and who was found alone on a desert road. But he did not remain alone because the Spirit of God spoke to minister of the gospel, who was then willing to leave a successful ministry for the sake of the one alone on the journey.
Currently this care is most often being framed as a culture war. And to be clear, the only culture war that I am fighting is the temptation to divide and demonize those with whom we disagree. Caring for people under my care in a way that Jesus cared for those under his care, by overriding a religious rule so a man could be healed, is not a culture war, it is an invitation to consider where our priorities lie (Mark 3:1-6). I, and many others within the ECC would like to remain Covenant. We would like for us as a church to remain true to our affirmation of Freedom in Christ and our commitment to congregational polity so that we are empowered to discern what is best for our individual congregants even the one’s we meet on the desert road.
It is important for you to understand that I am not seeking to change the discerned position of the church, I am however believing in the Covenant Church that I was nurtured in, the one that allows for pastors to discern when the Spirit is leading and for us to dissent from a position for the sake of those placed under our care. And while I have no interest in leaving the ECC I am concerned that perhaps the ECC is leaving me.
Some of you likely know that my husband and I do not have children. And many of you know that our story contains a decade of pregnancy losses, which included three pre-term stillbirths and eight miscarriages. As you can imagine, for many years this struggle to bring new life into this world, to be fertile in a way that is supposed to be natural for women was more than painful. And to not have the opportunity to raise children was a deep grief for my husband and me for many years. But the Spirit of God has been generous with me, more than generous with me, and has allowed for me to become incredibly New Testament fertile. It is because of this gift from God that I have had the opportunity to lead 1000s of people to be born-again and I have raised up 100s in deliberate discipleship.
Several years ago at a Midwinter Conference in Denver, I was invited to come and offer a prayer for one of the students I had discipled and who was going to offer his testimony at an event hosted by newly formed Mission Friends for Inclusion (MF4I). After attending the event I ran into a member of the Executive Team for the ECC and I asked him if he thought that our church was going to ever move in a direction where it would embrace all of the “kids” that I’ve discipled. He told me “I don’t think the tree can bend as far as you’d like.” To which I responded, “I married into a family of foresters and I am not unaware that a many-ringed tree doesn’t bend. I’m simply asking you not to cut off fruit bearing branches.”
And this is the challenge that I would like to offer to us again today. Would we consider once again the possibility of living into this beautiful dream of a Covenant Church, a denomination that has claimed throughout its history that its identity is not rooted in doctrine rooted, but rather in convictions such as “Conjucti in Christo” (joined in Christ), “We are a companion to all who fear Thee.”, “We will know them by their fruits.” and “Are you living in Jesus?” And of course joined by a commitment to inquire of one another and of the text “Where is it written?”
And because of the days we are living in I feel the need to claim that even in our commitment to “Where is it written”, the ECC holds to a unique way of reading the word of God with one another. “At our best we as Covenant people read the Bible faithfully, communally, rigorously, charitably, and holistically, with commitments to grace, transformation, and mission.” All eight of these exhortations push us to consider another point of view, the possibility that there is something that we have not yet come to understand and the context in which we interpret and minister (The Evangelical Covenant Church and the Bible (2008)).
I want to make clear again that I am not seeking to change the church’s discerned position. I am however imploring us to remain true to our Covenant heritage and to find a way to stay together because I believe that being better together is a vision too beautiful to simply walk away from without a fight. I want us to become a church that stays together and does not demonize the other even though different congregations and pastors may hold varying convictions. I want us to all be one, as it is written, “this is how the world will know that Jesus really is God’s son” (John 17:20-23).
I simply do not believe this will be possible unless we decide to do it, to change course from some of the behavior that we have devolved into both in our culture and in our church. And while I do not know all of the pressures that we will encounter, I do know the hate mail and threats that I receive and so I am aware of some of it and I know this commitment to stay together will not come without a cost. This unique Covenant path is only possible if we rise above all of the fear, all of the silencing, all the bullying and all of the demonizing and together model what it looks like to actually live “In Christ” with one another.
It is my experience that we all find what we’re looking for. If we are looking for a reason to exclude people or to limit the type of people who can participate in our common mission I believe we can find it in the biblical text. However, if we are looking for a reason to include people I believe we can find it there too. My heartfelt Covenant hope is that we are all looking for a way to be better together. And if we need some encouragement, our scriptures say that what can be known about God can be seen through what God has made and just last week mathematicians discovered a prime number, a number that cannot be divided, that is 23 million digits long. So it is with this hope that I am believing that the Covenant Church can continue to grow without the division so many forecast for our future.
In Covenant with you,
Pastor Judy Peterson