by Rebekah Thornhill
Diaconal Ministers are a relatively small group of rostered leaders, with only about 200 of them throughout the entire ELCA. After the candidacy process, they may be called by a congregation, synod or churchwide expression, often serving in schools, agencies, and institutions. They strive to be witnesses to the church and world in a position other than the traditional role of pastor.
We recently sat down with Ross Murray, the newest diaconal minister called to our synod, to learn just how he bridges both the secular and religious in his called position at GLAAD.
Murray is originally from Northern Minnesota and attended Augsburg College, focusing on Youth and Family Ministry. "Before the 2009 vote," remarked Murray, referring to the decision to accept same-gendered leaders on the ELCA roster. "I wanted to do youth ministry and expected to go through the candidacy process and be single and live within the expectations of the ELCA. Then I met my partner and fell in love." While in college, he had no trouble being an openly gay student that was active in campus ministry. But after graduation, he worked with a pan-Lutheran organization that was at it’s own turning point with how they might accept LGBT persons. In the end, his time with the organization was cut short as they decided not to welcome LGBT people.
"I came out of it thinking, if I, who is pretty together, can experience this, what does it mean for someone who doesn’t have a social system of friends and family supporting them? Who else is harmed by this? That’s what brought me into advocacy work."
He began his ministry working with local and regional chapters of Lutheran Concerned (now Reconciling Works). He also worked with others to create The Naming Project, a faith-based, week long camp for 14-18 year olds of any sexual orientation or gender identity or expression. The camp has been running since 2004 as an all-volunteer organization. Murray continues to be program director with the camp.
As he looked for the public voice of the church on LGBT issues, he accepted a job working with GLAAD in New York. GLAAD formed in 1985 and works with news sources to lift up stories from the LGBT community that build support, equality, and acceptance. GLAAD also works with writers, producers, and studios to bring accurate and inclusive representations of LGBT people to the screen. Murray is now GLAAD’s Director of Programs, focusing on global and the US South. The GLAAD Global Voices program partners with LGBT organizations doing work in various countries to offer support and expertise in media engagement for LGBT advocacy. Similarly, in the US South, GLAAD is working to create a cultural shift towards LGBT acceptance and understanding in the region.
Much of Murray’s work involves providing resources to help the media in portraying an accurate story. He has done so during the Pope’s visit, the Sochi Olympics, the World Cup, and so forth, typically providing resource guides and helping journalists get to the questions they should be asking. "We often have to get past the idea that all religion is opposed to LGBT persons. And sometimes when things are going well, we have a situation that re-polarizes people around an issue (such as Kim Davis did this summer). We have to keep persisting in asking the right questions. A part of my job is to be a pusher when we need to speak out against injustices, which is a good place for a diaconal minister to be."
Murray also reflects this call to action in how he sees his Christian vocation. "We move from creation, to redemption, into vocation. You’ve been created and loved, now what is the next thing? What do you do with that? You are able to be sent into the world where you can share that message with someone else or be the positive agent of change."
And Murray reminds us that we all have a role in this type of work. "Advocacy work complements congregational work. Sometimes we think that we’re progressive New Yorkers and we’re past these conversations. When the ELCA started conversations leading up to the 2009 vote, we were internally focused: Who are we as church? Who are we as a denomination? What do we believe? Now that we’re 7 years later, we need to turn our conversations externally. It isn’t just about making sure someone is comfortable when they enter our church building, but how do we become a faithful, theologically sound voice speaking out for full participation of LGBT people in society."
And many of the religious voices in the media are voices from groups that are traditionally anti-LGBT. Protestants are under represented in the media and even the pro-LGBT voices that are people of faith don’t always know how to talk about it from a faith perspective. "When one side uses a faith perspective and another side uses a legal perspective, it doesn’t advance the conversation. They don’t connect."
Looking to the church in current discussions, Murray remarked, "Things are shifting again and we have an opportunity to enter the conversations. We need to be able to speak to any movement, issue or time where we see an injustice happening. How do we talk about these things from the pulpit, in the classroom, and on television?"
When asked of goals, Murray focused on helping to shape vocationally the next generation of people doing Christian ministry in the world. "I am very proud to be a rostered lay leader. People need to see such examples of living out your faith in your everyday life and work. My calling through the church to a secular organization doing LGBT advocacy work is a calling from God."
On April 30, 2016, Ross Murray will be consecrated as a diaconal minister, alongside Abby Ferjak of the New Jersey Synod. Learn more here.