by Nancy Wichmann
This is a testimonial adapted from notes of a talk given by Nancy Wichmann at Trinity Lutheran Church in Warrenville, IL.
Have you heard the one about the scared little girl who walked into a Lutheran church?
I had joined a UCC church in Charlotte that was supposed to be Open & Affirming, but, even though half the congregation was gay or lesbian, we three transgender members weren’t allowed do anything – not even standing at the door and handing out bulletins.
The Open & Affirming designation is one of the “Welcoming and Affirming” programs that many denominations have, including the Lutheran church’s Reconciling in Christ program. I’ve had people ask, “We understand ‘welcoming,’ but what exactly does ‘affirming’ mean?” So I’d like to answer that with part of my story.
When I came to the Boston area, I contacted Lutheran Church of the Newtons (LCN). The pastor promised that I would be welcome, but I still worried. When you’re “Other” people can be sneaky in finding ways to hurt you, and I have experienced many of them.
Not long after I joined the church, the pastor asked if I would do an Adult Forum on how my faith and gender journeys were intertwined. During my talk, I showed a few of the skeletons in my closet, and people still talked to me!
I think a part of me was still a bit apprehensive and wanted to see if there was a limit to their welcome. So I volunteered to read the scriptures. No one objected. There was a retired school teacher who praised me for my diction and volume (but she only gave me a B that day).
Well, that wasn’t the limit, so I volunteered to be a communion assistant. People actually wanted me to serve them!
I was asked to do more Adult Forums on a variety of mostly biblical subjects.
And then the congregation really surprised me by electing me to be the Learning Minister, part of which meant that I oversaw the Sunday school programs. Down South anyone who is part of the LGBTQ+ community is immediately assumed to be a child molester, but no one at LCN worried about me with their kids. I was even asked to teach the high school class. (I think I learned more from them than they learned from me.)
Then the congregation punished me by sending me to the Synod Assembly. There I saw a table for the School of Lay Ministry. There was a small paragraph on their brochure that said, “This course does not, in itself, qualify one for rostered lay leadership.” Like the blonde that I am, I had to ask what that meant. The next thing I knew, I was registered with the Candidacy Committee to pursue an Associate in Ministry standing.
Soon after that I whispered to a friend that I was thinking about pursuing ministry. She immediately responded, “It’s about time.” Why am I the last one to know?
I was also invited to join the synod’s LGBT Inclusion Team. At one of the retreats a pastor told me, “In the ELCA a lay person can do all of the service except administer the sacraments.” While I don’t think I actually saw anything, I had a palpable feeling that the Holy Spirit was standing right behind his shoulder, shaking her head and saying, “That’s not enough, Nancy.” One month, to the day, later I was sitting in my first seminary class.
Through the LGBT Inclusion Team, I was invited to join the preaching rotation at Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) of Boston. I was so shaken that I took the rest of the day off from work. In what I think might have been a subconscious wish for a way out, I called my pastor, knowing that he would say I wasn’t ready. This is the only mistake I’ve ever made. He said it would be good experience.
So a month later I nervously stepped to the MCC pulpit for the first time. It must not have been too bad because they asked me to preach again.
There was a text in the Lectionary that I was interested in, so I asked the pastor if I could do it at LCN. I had never seen a lay person preach at LCN, but he agreed that I could. A week later, the pastor called and said he had a minor procedure to be done in the hospital and the pastor he had found to preside was uncomfortable preaching in English, so he asked me if I would do it. At that point in time I had always had a month to prepare a sermon, but this was only six days. I thought, “Well God created the world in six days, what’s one little sermon?”
To shorten this rather long story, a few weeks ago, I was invited to preach at LCN because my pastor had retired and the interim pastor got called away a month early and finding pulpit supply in the summer is hard. But then the council president called the bishop and obtained permission for me to also preside at communion. I actually cried when she told me. There seems to indeed be no limit to my welcome at LCN.
This experience showed me what “Affirming” means: It is looking for the gifts God has given a person and encouraging them to develop those gifts without limits. Note that this does not apply only to LGBTQ+ people, but to all who feel called to serve. I would like to see all churches be affirming.