An Interview with Jim Siefkes

[Three questions were put to the Reverend Jim Siefkes, instigator of the process in 1974 that created ReconcilingWorks (Formally known as Lutherans Concerned for Gay People).]

“What’s your overall reaction looking backwards at the June 1974 beginning and the ministry ReconcilingWorks has turned out to be?”

I still believe in miracles.  I am ever so grateful…

  • For the faith and commitment of the LGBT community and their straight allies
  • For the polity of the former ALC which comprised one synod with boards, commissions, divisions, and offices which had considerable autonomy and budgets to do the work assigned by a common constitution and bylaws, accountable to the whole church for planning and execution.
  • For the Division of Social Service (DSS) and its director, the late Paul Boe, and the succeeding Division for Service and Mission in America (DSMA) and its director, the late John Houck — the foresight within these divisions to establish aims and guidelines such as “to find those areas of society not being ministered to,” and “we will continue to encourage and assist others, as well, in efforts to serve the very poor, those preferring unconventional life styles, the uncomfortable and oppressed, those variously handicapped and avowedly non religious.”
  • For having been called in 1969 to initiate and actuate such goals and aims within the ALC
  • For the partnership with the University of Minnesota medical school’s Program in Human Sexuality, also now forty years old. It was started by an original and several succeeding donations from the ALC.  This partnership made possible a training ground for ALC social service agency personnel, seminary students, and mutual support between two important institutions that had some societal permission-granting authority for discussing sexual concerns.
  • That what was happening in the world at that time changed the church and was cause for the church to take a chance, to engage in a venture with considerable risk that it could result in significant change.  Ecumenically speaking the ALC could hardly be described as a leader in these matters, but it found a way to participate at that time, be engaged, and follow along.  A plumb line had dropped that sharply divided opinions. Nonetheless, the ALC found ways to stay in control.

I have a deep sense of personal satisfaction in how the June 1974 event has evolved over these 40 years.  I am proud to have played a role in the beginnings, and still have the ability to continue to stand alongside the reconciling process and its continuing evolution.

It was for me simply doing what seemed a logical, good, and right thing to do, not without a good measure of naiveté.  It was an entrée into an arena involving human sexuality.  It should be said that there had been worthy attempts, such as position statements, studies, reactions, et cetera, to open discussions about the body between the neck and the ankles. Such were an acknowledgement of the “most needy at the gate,” and a desire to do something about them — those victimized by the church’s centuries-old anxiety about our physical bodies, women, those faced by the choices of abortion, those involved in sex education, and those with various sexual identities.

As I look back after 60+ years in the ministry and having been involved in about 40 justice-related ministries, the initiating event in June 1974 stands out as one of the most significant among them.

“Did what resulted from that June meeting please those in the ALC who had caused you to initiate this dialogue, was it what they had in mind?”

Who or what caused me to initiate that discussion?  Simply put, it was circumstance, coupled with the hope and the desire of the board of the ALC Division of Social Service to reach out beyond the then current original services of social service agencies, adoption, and services to the aging through care agencies.  Well and good!!  This was taking place in the context of the roiling issues of the 1960s and 1970s, when there were resources apparently available in what at that time were about 5000 ALC congregations.  I was called and assigned to be housed in the DSS, with an advisory group made up of several related central church office executives, the American missions, the youth department, Lutheran Church Men, and the Commission on Research and Social Action.  It was risky to call a person to the task they wanted done, and it was risky to accept the challenge.  The first advisory group meeting was disappointing for some.  It was clear to me that the expectation was to meet the multiplicity of social concerns by me writing a social concerns manual.  I was quick to say, “I am not the person capable to do this job, and I don’t know anyone who is.” A burden of responsibility had been placed on my shoulders.  Now what?

I had been conducting community action events called “Matrix” in the nine western states that I served as a regional stewardship director (Matrix from “mater,” Latin for “mother,” connoting a birthing place, a womb, a place where new life could be conceived where there had been none).  These were aimed at immersions into primary experiences in the issues of the day for pastors, their spouses, and selected laity.

First conducted in San Francisco, Portland, Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Denver, some lasted for as much as five days. Each Matrix was a seeding process that would initiate another venue – eventually reaching places like rural Strawberry Point, Iowa; Miami; Washington, DC; Milwaukee; Minneapolis; and other venues. A portion of each Matrix event included members of the LGBT community.  Up front at these events was the question about a definition of and strategy for carrying out the mission of the church.

More simply put, it was trust coupled with risk and circumstance that caused me to initiate the June 1974 dialogue.  Those who supported the risk were pleased, maybe even surprised, as things began to unfold.  As mentioned above, that did not necessarily mean smooth sailing, there being a variety of ways the church used to “hedge its bet,” to stay in control.  Regardless, the task at hand was to make a switch from the church’s usual REACTION, a plethora of very fine studies, books, analyses, reports,  and talk that enabled issues to be labeled, boxed, put on the shelf and considered dealt with.  The switch was from REACTION to ACTION. The ALC was not ready for action in the lives of those victimized by the past anxieties of the church.

The “needy at the gate” were still there as before, but now their voices were being raised. The war in Viet Nam heated up; there were no helps or counsel available regarding conscientious objection.  There were no guidelines or ways to minister to conscience-ridden young men (and their families) who were in exile in Canada as deserters and dodgers of the military.  And, what about Lutheran LGBT folks and their families?  What about the variously handicapped?  What about the increased flow of persons into prisons?  What about kids who left home for communes?  Ways to combat the uses of drugs et cetera?

However, there were a significant number of people within the ALC on national staff, district staffs, in campus ministry, in inner city and rural congregations, certain pastors, and members of minority groups who were living with these issues. For this growing number of people, the ALC was no longer experienced as “a mighty fortress.”  For these folks, being in the ALC was more like wading into the tide of the day, the liminal space between sea and shore.  There they were experiencing the tug and the pull, the tides and currents of life and its needs, and shifting sands. There was dawning a sense of the right and legitimacy of being there.  For a growing number, this was a location between two very different environments that were being stretched to connect. Loyalty, for some in this context, meant defending the status quo.  For others, to work just to keep the ship afloat.  And for yet others, to work for change.

“What’s your reaction to the huge shift in public opinion concerning LGBT people and the acceptance of their relationships, particularly within the context of the church?”

I have increasingly come to be a proponent of such things as: serendipity – synchronicity – providence — transcendence- and kairos.  All these mean to me that I have a sense and a trust that “something is going on,” and no one person or institution is in charge of it.  If I had to name it, I would ascribe it to the activity of God through the Spirit.  There is a time for all things, and there was and it still is a very special KAIROS time, a time when the order of reality shifts, things come together, and the impossible happens as naturally as the changing of seasons. Into the milieu of the 1960s and 70s came the voices of the oppressed. In the midst of that there was a disquieting sense that the “normal attitudes” were wrong.  To speak truth to power was and still is risky business.

This called forth psychologist Rollo Mays’ list of courages: physical courage, the moral courage to right wrongs, the social courage to risk relationship and intimacy and, through that process, to change, and the creative courage to critique oppressive institutions in anticipation of creating something new.

My reaction is that it is not sufficient only to get out of the way of a just change – better it is find a way to be a participant in the action.  So it began, that the power of the transcendent, that something bigger than we are, opened the hearts, minds, and words of leaders in society, from the president and the famous to citizens everywhere.  As far as the Lutheran church and LGBT issue is concerned it was by one vote in more than a thousand people at a national meeting in 2009 (Lutherans seem to like permissions from authority) that gave permission to fully accept and welcome LGBT people in every aspect of its life. Subsequent votes at that ELCA national meeting removed barriers to that welcome. The struggle is not over, but I celebrate that the cause is on a roll and it’s important to keep on keeping on.