Ultimatum to Ames Pastor: No Gay Sex

by Thomas O'Donnell

An Ames pastor has two weeks to vow not to engage in homosexual relationships or be removed from the ranks of the ministry, a church committee ruled Monday.

The decision by an appeals committee of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America came as no surprise to the Rev. Steven Sabin, pastor at Lord of Life Lutheran Church since 1985.

"Obviously, it's a personal blow, but I'm disappointed with the decision itself," Sabin said. The 10-to-1 vote takes a "rules-are-rules approach," Sabin said, instead of addressing deeper theological issues.

Since Sabin said he does not plan to comply with the decision, the ruling means he will no longer be on the roster of ELCA ministers as of Sept. 28. The congregation must decide whether to seek a new pastor or to keep Sabin on – and face possible disciplinary action from the Rev. Philip Hougen, bishop of the Southeast Iowa Synod.

Hougen said his only option in that case would be to recommend to the Synod Council that Lord of Life be removed from the ELCA. Hougen said he's thought about the issue but hasn't decided what he would do.

If Sabin stays on, Hougen could also merely list the church as having no pastor, as a California synod did in a similar case. "That's an option I'm not entirely comfortable with, and I don't know if anyone is comfortable with whether that's being faithful" to church policy, Hougen said.

The ELCA says gays may serve as ministers only if they abstain from homosexual relationships. Hougen learned Sabin was living with another man, Karl von Uhl, and asked Sabin to resign. When Sabin refused, Hougen filed formal charges.

In February, a disciplinary committee said Sabin should be removed, but he was allowed to stay on pending a final appeal. On Monday, the committee upheld the decision, saying the rules are clear and Sabin has violated them.

"The Committee on Appeals is not a legislative body.... Accordingly, (the committee) is subject to this policy and obligated to uphold it," the ruling said.

Frank Imhoff, a spokesman for the ELCA, said the disciplinary committee last February "acknowledged that Pastor Sabin is a very excellent pastor and a fine person. It's just that the expectations of the church are one thing, and he's not living up to them."

Hougen will meet with Sabin today, and the congregation council will consider a course of action at its regular meeting tonight.

President Thomas Chacko said the council has no clear direction from church members. "There are all kinds of ramifications to the congregation, the pastor and the bigger church," Chacko said. "I don't think people have considered all of these."

In a written statement, Hougen appears certain that Sabin will be removed. "I will be meeting with the congregation council ... to work with them to provide pastoral services," he wrote. "I am willing to work with Pastor Sabin in defining ways for him to continue to be involved in ... the ELCA."

Sabin said he'll meet with his lawyer next week to discuss whether to sue to block the church's action.

Monday, he noted, was Holy Cross Day on many Lutheran calendars. The timing is appropriate, he said.

"It's one of the crosses I have to bear," Sabin said. "but ultimately, it's one of the crosses the church has to bear."

The following letters appeared in the Des Moines Register, Sunday, September 27, 1998, under a photograph of the Rev. Steve Sabin and the following headline:


when a church is hostile to gays


In the midst of the current national furor over infidelity in the intimate relationships of our elected officials, it is ironic and sad to watch the continued assault on the fidelity of lesbian and gay relationships by many of the churches.

A decade ago, the scene was San Francisco, where Ruth Frost and Phyllis Zilhart were called to ordained ministry of a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Only one condition: they must divorce each other and terminate their monogamous, committed relationship of more than 10 years.

Ten years later and the scene has shifted to Iowa. Now it is Pastor Steve Sabin of Lord of Life Lutheran Church in Ames who is being forced by the ELCA to choose between fidelity to his call to ordained ministry and fidelity to his life partner, Karl von Uhl.

When 1 in 2 heterosexual marriages today ends in divorce, how tragic that our churches continue to invest their energy and resources into breaking up committed homosexual relationships. It is difficult to maintain any committed relationship amid the economic and cultural stresses of today's world, but it may be doubly difficult for lesbian and gay couples who must look for support and nurture outside most of our social and religious institutions.

At a time when we most need positive public role models of committed relationships, it is sad and ironic indeed that churches continue to target and actively oppose the fidelity of gay and lesbian couples.

David T. Spencer
assistant professor, religion and ethics
Drake University, Des Moines

Pastor Steve Sabin has been given a deadline to decide whether he will vow to abstain from homosexual activity or remain in a faithful, committed relationship with his partner, Karl. If he chooses his loving relationship with Karl, he will no longer be on the clergy roster of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

It is a sad day when bishops and church leaders are more committed to church policy than to the Gospel.

It is a sad day when gay and lesbian members of the church learn once again that their faithful, committed relationships are considered sexual sins and not a gift from God.

It is a sad day when two men and a congregation are punished for the sin of loving one another!

It is a sad day when, contrary to the example of Jesus, the rules of the church are enforced and the lives of people are denied.

It is a sad day when the church thumbs its nose at God and tells God, "You made a mistake when you called a gay man to be a minister of the Gospel."

It is a sad day when gay and lesbian people learn once again that they must deny their God-given gift of sexuality if they wish to be full participants in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

It is a sad day when, contrary to the Lutheran confessions, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America demands celibacy of some of its members.

It is a sad day when the actions of the church contribute to and encourage the discrimination and prejudice of our society against gay and lesbian people.

It is a sad day when the large number of gay and lesbian people who have left the church because they didn't feel welcome get to see that they were right – they are not welcome!

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is my church and today I am sad and disappointed in my church!

Paul Johnson
West Des Moines

I am certainly disappointed with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America ruling that Pastor Steve Sabin of Lord of Life Lutheran Church in Ames must choose between his call to the ministry and his monogamous relationship. The ELCA, of which I am a member, is putting its forces in place to try to destroy a loving, monogamous, gay relationship. Instead, the ELCA ought to have used the occasion to announce that ignorance and prejudice against gays would have no place in our church.

The ELCA is playing into the hands of the hatemongers like Cal Thomas who said in a November 1997 column in your paper that homosexual sex causes physical, emotional and spiritual damage such as divorce and sexually transmitted diseases to ourselves and to our wider culture.

In the not-too-distance future, the homophobic actions of the ELCA will be likened to those of the White Citizens Councils and segregationist churches of the 1950s and '60s.

Jon Torgerson
professor of philosophy, chair
Department of Philosophy and Religion
Drake University, Des Moines
(There were no letters commending the ELCA on its actions.)