On a Saturday in early August, around 250 people packed into the sanctuary of Salem Lutheran Church in Sycamore to celebrate the installation of a new pastor. The congregation led their new leader through the church, stopping along the way to call him to service.
It’s an empowering ritual in the Lutheran tradition, and one that is especially meaningful since Salem’s new pastor, Preston Fields, is the first openly gay pastor in the Northern Illinois Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA).
The ELCA is the nation’s largest Lutheran body. In 2009, the church voted to allow the ordination of openly gay men and women who were active in relationships. The vote was far from unanimous, and whole churches left in opposition.
Pastor Fields understands that sentiment well, growing up Roman Catholic in the South. “I was very much raised by the Catholic church and diocese of Knoxville, Tennessee,” said Fields. “They are great people and really formed me in a lot of ways.”
But Fields left the Catholic church at 25 after he met his now-husband. He was mostly out by then, but he realized they couldn’t be open as a couple in the church.
“Towards the end of my time in the Catholic church, I was very active in National Catholic youth ministry,” said Fields. “My friend Tom and I were traveling around the country doing mostly youth retreats. I certainly wasn’t out during those times, only because I couldn’t be.”
After bouncing around several different denominations, he found a home at a Lutheran church. Along with the youth ministry, he was doing social work and campus ministry.
“Looking back on it, I was basically trying to be a pastor every way I could without actually being a pastor,” he said.” And he says it wasn’t long until his church had confronted him about it:
“Within two to three months, the pastors kind of sat me down and said, ‘All right, when are you going to seminary?’”
As a seminary freshman in 2014, his senior class was abnormally large. The reason? This was the first class that had started seminary after the 2009 decision.
But even now, almost a decade after the decision, it’s still something Fields thinks about, mostly because even though he could be ordained, potential churches still withheld the right not to accept his candidacy.
“It was a fear, in a way, that I was going to go through seminary and spend all of this time, and hope, feeling like I was called and then not find a church to call me,” he said. “So that’s where Salem took a risk to call me and be the first to do that.”
Even now in his own congregation, there are still those grappling with their thoughts on the issue. But he said he is confident that if there is anywhere to have those tough conversations it is the church; especially in the Lutheran church, which he feels like is part of a continuing movement in Christianity.
“The spirit still moves and opens our eyes to an ever-expanding circle of who God’s family is. And we find that any time you draw a line between yourself and the other, you look up and Jesus is standing on the other side with the other,” said Fields. “So we might as well keep expanding the tent there.”
And now that the candidacy process is finished and he has his installation and first few weeks at Salem in the books, he’s glad that he was called to Sycamore.
“I don’t know, I’m really pleased to be here,” said Fields. “We’ve really started to feel like we’re setting down roots here. We’ve bought a house here; and we think this is probably a good place to raise our kids one day. So, we’re excited about it.”