24 March 2023 |
At the Hamburg-Grindelberg Adventist Church, in Northern Germany’s Hanse Conference, Pastor Saša Gunjević began his first sermon of the New Year on January 7, 2023. The title of his sermon paralleled the new motto chosen by Hanse Conference for 2023: “You Are a God Who Sees Me.” In his sermon (translated here into English), Gunjević tells the story of Hagar and her struggle as she is spurned from society and flees as a minority, only to have God stop her and ask her deep questions about her journey and her identity. God asks her to go back to an uncomfortable and untenable social environment, but promises her blessings and His support. She replies by saying, “I have seen the One who sees me!”
Gunjević continued. “Hagar needed a safe place. Without this Advocate….without the God who sees her, she probably wouldn’t have returned. I also need a safe place and don’t know if I have one. ‘You are a God who sees me.’ I could always be open with Him. Now I want to entrust you with something very important to me. I’m bisexual. That means I can fall in love with both women and men. I have known this since I was 14 years old. I knew this when I was 16 years old and was baptized… It was clear to me from the start that if I wanted to become or remain a pastor, I couldn’t talk about it. That that would be impossible. So I studied theology without being able to talk about it with other Christians. I became a pastor and kept it to myself for 13 years.”
Throughout his sermon, Gunjević shares that he is grateful for the support of his friends and family, that he has understood that his “being is not a sin, because we cannot choose our sexual orientation and identity,” and that the Grindel church community will be afforded some time to study and discuss the issue together for those who have questions or theological concerns. He ends the sermon with an appeal:
I would like to continue working at Grindel to ensure that we too see people as God sees us. That we are a safe place for people with all kinds of challenges. For people who don’t share everything because they are afraid of being judged, rejected, or sent into the desert. I believe in a God who is different from what we think He is. He can see differently than we do, love differently than we do, hope differently than we do, and also believe differently than we do. That is exactly why it is good if we learn from HIM. Get a new outlook from HIM, for each other, knowing that we belong together and don’t “have to” be against each other. Even if we see and believe things differently.
Gunjević’s sermon was the last step of a long process that began in mid-2022. He wanted to come out to his loved ones and religious community on his own terms, so he began with his family, and then with the
Four days after the sermon, Hanse Conference released a statement acknowledging Gunjević’s highly personal decision, and affirming his steps in maintaining trust with the conference throughout the process:
(Translated): We want a church where queer people are not afraid of negative consequences and can live without secrecy and loneliness, which is not good for any soul and cannot be a claim of the gospel. As a team of the Hanse Conference, it is important to us to preface that a person’s sexual orientation should not be the object of disadvantage or even discrimination. Nevertheless, the local congregation and the free church have a right to expect from every certified pastor that biblically responsible sexual ethics are represented and responsibly exemplified. Pastors can only carry out their ministry fruitfully if they are wanted and supported in a safe and supportive environment. Brother Gunjevič has therefore expressed the wish that the next regular council on March 19, 2023, decide whether his certification will continue to exist. We wish you all God’s richest blessings and growth in love and understanding, and let’s not forget our motto for the year…
The Hanse Conference met on March 19, as planned, to determine the status of Gunjević’s pastoral certification. He and his congregation anxiously awaited the outcome. After the meeting, the Conference promptly released another statement with their decision. Points made throughout the statement included:
- That they met based on the recommendation of the Ethics Committee.
- That they have received opinions on this case from individual community members and churches from all over Germany (and beyond), which landed on both sides of the issue.
- That it was also evident there is still a need for “a safe space for affected persons, because some submissions and comments showed a lack of expertise, a lack of Christian charity, and a lack of basic decency.”
- That they felt pastors needed to be held accountable and had discussed the topic confidentially with Pastor Gunjević in-depth.
- That a thorough discussion had shown that there is no reason at the moment for the certification of Saša Gunjević to be withdrawn.
- That Gunjević had not committed a disciplinary offense that would prevent him from continuing to exercise pastoral ministry.
- That despite a previous complaint about him in 2022, the withdrawal of certification was the last resort of disciplinary action and his actions did not merit this choice.
- That the Conference acknowledges some will be enthusiastic about the response and some will be in disagreement, but they ask expressly for prayers and sympathy.
Adventist Today interviewed Pastor Gunjević after the statement was released:
AT: How do you feel now that
SG: I feel much lighter and freer. Having to keep this kind of secret for so long takes a toll on you, even if you might not realize the full extent of it. You don’t realize how much you’ve been holding until you don’t have to anymore. I am so glad that I was given the opportunity to be a pastor to such amazing people who have my back. At the same time, I am apprehensive… It might turn out that at the higher level, our church might have a different view than the people I’ve lived and worked beside.
AT: What was the reaction of
SG: The immediate reaction by the members of my church was very loving. They are a church of about 380 members…almost all of them came to hug me afterwards. A lot of them told me that they would support me, and that my news wouldn’t change how they see me. Many of them expressed that they would want me to remain as their pastor. At a General Assembly for my local church, my future as a pastor was put to a vote and they decided almost unanimously for me to stay. Only one person voted against it. The people within my district and who know me outside of the church mostly told me that they considered my outing very brave. They were shocked and couldn’t believe that it could result in my possibly getting fired from the job I’ve had for over 13 years. Their reactions were exclusively supportive.
AT: How long have you been a
SG: I’ve been a pastor for 13.5
AT: How long have you been
SG: I’ve known that I am not straight since I was around 14. I was fine with being what I am, but didn’t tell anyone,
AT: What is your hope for your
SG: I hope that through me, people can get the chance to really get to know a queer person as a person first, and maybe open their minds and hearts to others in the process. When they already know you, it is harder to judge a book by its cover because they already know that the content of the pages are filled with actual humanity. I hope that our churches become places where queer, gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, and intersex people can feel at home, loved, and accepted. Where we can openly live our partnerships, and dress and present the way we want, just as our heterosexual siblings are able to.
AT: Anything else you’d like
SG: 1 Cor. 13:13: And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.
Love without fine print!