Oelschig’s change of heart, which was chronicled in an Anniston Star story earlier this month, had placed him at odds with his congregation and church council.
Two weeks ago, Oelschig had been suspended by the council for speaking out repeatedly in support of homosexuality. On Thursday night, he addressed the congregation and attempted to explain his position, and then he resigned.
“I feel relieved and have a sense of peace about my decision,” Oelschig said only hours after his resignation. “I think it’s best for everybody if I just step away.”
Oelschig has been a member of Trinity since 1995 and has served as its minister since 2008. Oelschig has also withdrawn his candidacy for ordination through the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), which is the church’s governing body.
“Without a congregation,” Oelschig said, “there was really no need for me to be ordained.”
Mike Anderson, president of the church council, counted 26 people in attendance to hear Oelschig’s comments. “He told us pretty much the same thing he’s been saying all along, and it still didn’t make much sense,” Anderson said. “We still don’t really understand what exactly caused this change of heart.”
Anderson was not “all that surprised” by Oelschig’s resignation.
Two years ago, the ELCA amended its bylaws to allow openly gay pastors living in “committed, lifelong and monogamous relationships” to serve as members of the clergy. At the time, Trinity Lutheran Church — led by Oelschig — disagreed so strongly with that decision that the congregation considered breaking with the national denomination.
In June, Oelschig was invited to speak at an ELCA convention, where he was to call for the new bylaws to be overturned.
But seemingly overnight, Oelschig experienced a change of heart. He spoke instead in support of the new bylaws.
When he returned to Trinity and attempted to explain this revelation, the council and the 80-member congregation were shocked. Members left the church in protest. Official letters were mailed, both by Oelschig and by the council. Oelschig was told by the council that he was not to preach from the pulpit on the subject of homosexuality.
On the first Sunday in October, Oelschig was set to deliver a sermon, “Your Pastor’s Struggle with Homosexuality,” in an effort to explain his change of heart. The council forbade it and suspended him.
“We didn’t know what he was going to say,” Anderson said. “He’s torn up this church enough. He’d already lambasted the congregation once and got everybody all up in arms. We didn’t want him toying with us anymore.”
On Thursday, Oelschig delivered his message at the congregational meeting, in what ultimately became his farewell sermon.
“Before there was any creation, God was love,” Oelschig said, citing imagery from his original sermon. “After creation, gender came along, but God’s essence was still love. It’s my belief that the love between people is not a function of gender. (Homosexual couples) can express love, faith and affection just as we all can … it’s blessed by God.
“Love trumps chromosomes.”
As part of his argument for the acceptance of openly practicing homosexuals, Oeslchig used the analogy of African-Americans during the Civil Rights Movement and how, at the time, certain segments of society deemed segregation to be acceptable. He also noted that the Bible condoned slavery. But times changed, attitudes changed and society learned from its mistakes, he continued. The same should hold true for homosexuals, Oelschig argued. Society is becoming more accepting, and the church should follow suit.
Anderson said that correlation was lost on him and those in attendance.
“We don’t hate anybody,” Anderson said. “It’s the advocating of a lifestyle we see as sinful that we don’t agree with. Bert just doesn’t get that … and I guess he never will. Just because society is changing doesn’t mean we have to change with it.”
Oelschig described his resignation as essentially a preemptive strike, assuming he was going to be fired soon. Earlier this week, a questionnaire was sent out to roughly 50 church members, asking whether or not Oelschig should remain as pastor. Anderson has received letters in response, but hasn’t opened them.
Oelschig said he feels no animosity toward the church or the council, nor does he regret being outspoken regarding homosexuality.
Anderson said the issue has been divisive not only for Trinity, but across the nation. “The whole issue is designed to tear people apart,” he said. “It tears a chasm between homosexuals and between people who aren’t, and we didn’t want to have that in our church.”
Without a full-time minister, Trinity will have a lay minister on Sundays to deliver the sermon, but there will be no communion. The immediate plan is to locate an interim minister and to have communion at least twice a month.
As for Oelschig, he doesn’t want to become a lightning rod over the issue of homosexuality. His change of heart wasn’t a revelation that God shared with him alone, he said. “We have to be willing to be the receiver of God’s will and way,” he said.
“He only asks us to listen, and that’s all I’m doing. That’s all I ask others to do … listen.”
Contact Brett Buckner at email@example.com