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General Conference Responds to Bisexual Pastor Retaining Credentials

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The General Conference and division officers of the Seventh-day Adventist Church issued a statement on April 4 in response to a German pastor who has retained his ministerial credentials after coming out publicly as bisexual. The statement, titled “Reaffirmation of the Biblical Criteria for Pastoral Ministry and the Biblical Teachings on Human Sexuality,” says that the actions of the pastor and his local conference are “inconsistent with the biblical beliefs accepted by the worldwide body of believers.”

The statement does not identify Pastor Saša Gunjević by name but describes him as a “Seventh-day Adventist Church pastor in Germany” who “presented himself as bisexual and has promoted this lifestyle.”

On January 7, Gunjević, pastor of the Hamburg-Grindelberg Adventist Church in the Hanseatic Conference, gave a sermon titled “You Are a God Who Sees Me.” Gunjević came out to his congregation in the sermon, which was first reported in English by Adventist Today, saying that he had been aware of his sexuality since he was 14 years old. “I am thankful that after many years of struggle I have understood that my being is not a sin, because we cannot choose our sexual orientation and identity,” he said.

The Hanseatic Conference issued a statement in response on January 11. “We want a church in which queer people can live without fear of negative consequences and are not driven into years of secrecy and loneliness,” the statement reads (translated into English from the original German). “Nevertheless, the local congregation and the free church have the right to expect from every certified pastor that a biblically responsible sexual ethic is represented and responsibly exemplified.”

According to an interview with Adventist Today, Gunjević first came out to his family and then to the president of the Hanseatic Conference in the second half of 2022. The conference’s ethics committee was presented with his case in 2022, and on March 19, 2023, the conference’s executive committee voted to keep Gunjević’s credentials in place, saying that it hadn’t found any policy violations that warranted the extreme step of revoking his credentials. In a statement, the conference said that a large majority of Gunjević’s church advocated for him to continue in his position.

Two days later, the Northern and Southern German Unions authored a joint statement, saying that the unions affirm the church’s official guidelines and advocate that the “concept of marriage should apply to (solely) heterosexual relationships.”

“In our congregations, too, there are LGBTQ+ persons who experience an ongoing, inner tension,” the statement continues, adding that congregations should offer “a home and be a safe place of loving acceptance for them, just as they are for all of us.” The statement does not mention Gunjević or his employment status.

The Adventist Church’s official statement on Homosexuality, adopted in 1999 and revised in 2012, says that the church is “opposed to homosexual practices and relationships.” The Church Manual also condemns “homosexual and lesbian practices,” though the statements—and the church’s Working Policy—do not explicitly address bisexuality or prohibit identifying as non-heterosexual.

Higher levels of church leadership would soon respond to the Hanseatic Conference’s decision and the resulting publicity. On March 30, the Inter-European Division, which contains Germany, published a rebuttal. “The public statements of Pastor Saša Gunjević concerning his sexual orientation have created significant concern among leaders and church members in Germany, in the territory of the Inter-European Division of the Seventh-day Adventist Church (EUD), and beyond,” the statement says.

“We regret that he openly promotes views that undermine and contradict the position of the church. We consider that his open rejection of the official position of the worldwide church disqualifies him for pastoral ministry. The administration of the EUD will work with the Hanseatic Conference, in close consultation with the North German Union, to address this issue and reconsider the status of his credentials.”

According to the church’s Working Policy, unions and local conferences are responsible for issuing ministerial credentials, and issues not resolved at those levels can be appealed to the division. But there is not a clear procedure outlined for what a division—or the General Conference—can do if a union or local conference does not revoke a pastor’s credentials.

The April 4 statement from GC and division officers emphasized upper church leadership’s desire to remove Gunjević from pastoral ministry. “As world church leaders, we support the current efforts of the EUD administration to work with the Hanseatic Conference, in close consultation with the North German Union, to address the issue of a pastor continuing to hold ministerial credentials while presenting himself to be bisexual and promoting this lifestyle,” the statement says, though it does not give specifics about how the credentials are being addressed.

In the meantime, Gunjević’s future employment status remains uncertain.

“It’s a tough road now,” Gunjević wrote in a message to Spectrum when reached for comment. “After the reaction of the EUD and the GC, I think [it] is important to react. I believe that it is important to show that the GC is more and more concerned with conformity and how deviations are handled. Thus, many have theological challenges and cannot share this church policy.”

Gunjević’s case is unique in how the local conference kept his credentials in place after he came out publicly. Other pastors have not been able to remain in their positions after identifying as part of the LGBTQ community. In 2017, Alica Johnston resigned as a pastor in the Arizona Conference after coming out as bisexual. (Johnston would go on to publish The Bible & LGBTQ Adventists, a book addressing affirming theology from an Adventist perspective.) In 2021, Esther Loewen resigned as a pastor in the Southern California Conference after coming out as transgender.

While the General Conference has reiterated that it considers acceptable sexual relations as limited to heterosexual marriage, the latest statement stands out for using language often deemed antiquated or offensive by LGBTQ advocates, twice referring to Gunjević as promoting a bisexual “lifestyle.”

In its Media Reference Guide, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), a US-based non-governmental organization, identifies “lifestyle” as a term to avoid when discussing LGBTQ issues. “[It is an] inaccurate term used by anti-LGBTQ activists to denigrate LGBTQ people and inaccurately imply that being LGBTQ is a voluntary or a ‘choice,’” GLAAD says. “As there is no one straight lifestyle, there is no one LGBTQ lifestyle.”

Responding to the General Conference and union statements, SDA Kinship commended the Hanseatic Conference’s action as an “act of bravery.” 

“We call on local Adventist congregations to provide sanctuary and welcome to gay, lesbian, and transgendered people, their friends and families,” SDA Kinship said in a statement. “The presence of LGBTQA+ local church leaders is not a liability, it is a benefit. In a society increasingly segmented, unity, not uniformity, is essential.”

Following the publication of his sermon in English and being identified as the first Adventist pastor to retain their credentials after coming out, Gunjević took to his personal Instagram to reflect on the experience. “I may have been the first, but hopefully I won't be the last,” he wrote.

Alexander Carpenter contributed reporting.

 


Alex Aamodt is the managing digital editor and the Roy Branson Investigative Reporter for Spectrum. You can contact him here.

Title image credit: Saša Gunjević / General Conference Headquarters / AME (CC BY 4.0).

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