Reverend Judy Peterson said that she knew she could get in trouble if she presided over the marriage of a gay couple. Now she could lose her job.
Peterson is the campus pastor at North Park University in Chicago, a small school affiliated with the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC).
Last year, she presided over the marriage between a former student and another man, breaking an ECC rule that says that pastors “are not permitted to officiate at same-sex unions, blessings or marriages.”
In a widely circulated email, Peterson said that, when asked to officiate the marriage, “I immediately said, ‘yes’ as I know his love for the Lord and his love for his partner.”
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.
Late last year, ECC leadership put into motion a process to remove her from the clergy. She was repeatedly asked to resign her ECC credentials, which she refused to do, both because she knows she’s a good pastor and also because she refuses to participate in silencing an internal debate about LGBTQ people.
After the fall semester ended, she was suspended from her position. Yesterday, she faced a disciplinary hearing in front of the ECC, which could remove her credentials and her job at North Park University, since the campus pastor has to hold an ordination credential for their job.
Students, though, have rallied behind her. Last night, around 100 students and faculty members marched on campus in solidarity with Peterson.
“She is so loved here on campus by everyone,” student Lydia Vander Stelt told WGN 9. “She is a walking, talking example of Jesus.”
The former student whose marriage Peterson presided over told the Chicago Tribune, “Knowing someone so beloved by thousands of people had something taken away from her because of who I married and who I love and who loves me — we’re deeply saddened.”
The ECC is a Protestant denomination with around 178,000 followers in the U.S. and Canada. Founded by Swedish immigrants, it is an evangelical denomination built on a substrate of Lutheran theology.
The ECC’s decision could take several months, but in the meantime Peterson says that terminating her credentials is not required. The church, she argues, has a long history of debating theology internally and “does not have a punitive tradition when it comes to dissent.” Also, the church has other options for disciplining members of its clergy.
Most importantly, though, she believes that the ECC needs to have a “long overdue” conversation about LGBTQ people, acknowledging that it’s uncomfortable because it “highlights the existing cultural and generational divides” within the church.
Church leadership disagrees. “Freedom for laity is a gracious posture, welcoming all wherever they are in their faith journey,” ECC spokesperson Ed Gilbreath said in a statement. “Freedom for clergy has boundaries.”
But, even if she does end up losing her credentials, her community, and her job, she says she would do it again. “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.”