Before graduating from divinity school in 1983, Dan Spencer wanted to be a pastor. But as a gay man, he decided to choose a different path.
"The only option would have been to go back in the closet and lie," says Spencer, who now works as an assistant professor in the University of Montana's environmental studies program.
During his time at Union Theological Seminary in New York, Spencer says he encountered a large number of gay classmates. But despite he and his colleague's devotion to their faith, Christianity's long-held stance against same-sex couples kept them alienated as "second-hand citizens" who were "sick."
"Our straight friends could go on and serve the church, whereas gay folks couldn't" says Spencer, who now attends Our Savior's Lutheran Church in Bonner. "The churches have lagged behind."
But those old views are changing.
In late August, the 4.7-million member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) voted to allow gays and lesbians in committed relationships to serve as clergy. The ECLA—the nation's seventh largest Christian church—reached the decision after seven years of study and deliberations. Despite the lengthy debate, local Lutherans say the switch is causing some consternation among congregations.
"The emotions are running really high," says Rev. Jessica Crist, bishop of Montana's ELCA synod.
The Montana synod comprises 149 congregations (including four in Wyoming) and 181 pastors. Following the ELCA's vote, individual congregations will decide if they want gay or lesbian pastors. Crist is currently meeting at churches across the state to air out concerns and says, so far, many pastors are on board with the new policy. Conservative Lutherans are a different story.
"They are disregarding God's word," says Pastor David Hasselbrook from Missoula's 120-member Messiah Lutheran Church. "For us, it is clear in the scriptures that homosexuality is a sin."
Hasselbrook's church is part of the 2.4-million member Missouri synod, which is not a part of the ELCA. The Lutheran Church's second largest body, the Missouri synod sticks to a literal interpretation of the Bible.
"Basically, we believe the Bible is the word of God," Hasselbrook said. "It doesn't contain any errors."
Pastor Justin Cloute from Missoula's Mt. Zion Church, part of the Wisconsin evangelical synod, also sticks to a literal interpretation of the Bible. While he expresses worry about his views being labeled as hateful, he says the "true church" has often stood against prevailing social forces and defended its beliefs.
"I think that I can say something is not right but still love the person," Cloute says. "I think that is a way of actually loving the person."
The literal interpretation of the Bible doesn't hold water for Lutherans who agree with the ELCA decision. Pastor Chris Flohr from Missoula's St. Paul Lutheran Church points out that the Old Testament says adulterers should be stoned by mobs.
"Well, who does that anymore?" he asks.
And Crist reminds conservative Lutherans that women used to be prohibited from speaking in church. Now, women have assumed leadership roles.
"Low and behold, there's one that's a bishop," Crist says. She's the first female to assume the role in the state.
John Lund from the Emmaus Campus Ministry in Missoula says the debate among Lutherans will only make the church stronger. The important thing is that congregations don't fracture and continue to work together.
"We continue to listen to each other and to share a pew next to each other," Lund says. "I see that as a strength of ours."
The struggles within the Lutheran church are not uncommon. The Episcopal Church ruled a few weeks prior to the ELCA to allow gays in committed relationships to serve as clergy, a move that angered more conservative Anglicans. The Presbyterian Church has also discussed a similar policy. The United Methodist Church, meanwhile, has moved in the opposite direction, reinforcing its opposition to gay clergy.
"This seems to be an interesting border crossing," says Casey Charles, a UM English professor who teaches courses in gay and lesbian studies. "The church is one of the last great bastions of homophobia."
Charles believes that as more churches continue to recalibrate their moral compass, and more gay leaders emerge within congregations, those borders will fall.
"That kind of contact and exposure becomes a way to break down prejudice," he says.
Spencer couldn't agree more. Although he didn't pursue a career within the ELCA, he was eventually ordained by the United Church of Christ, a socially liberal institution welcoming gay and lesbian clergy. As Spencer sees more mainline religions accept non-traditional unions, he believes society will have fewer excuses to bar equality.
"I'm delighted," he says. "I think it will really help."