Herbert W. Chilstrom, who led more than 5 million Lutherans after the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America launched in 1988, died Sunday at his home in Sahuarita. He was 88.
Chilstrom was a loyal Minnesotan with deep Swedish roots and a deeper love for Christ and people.
He served as a pastor in Pelican Rapids, Elizabeth and St. Peter, Minnesota, and was a dean at Luther College in New Jersey before becoming bishop of the Minnesota Synod in 1976.
Chilstrom was elected first presiding bishop of the ELCA when three Lutheran denominations merged, and represented the church in several roles on the national and international stage. He led a committee for the National Council of Churches that looked at forging ties between that group, Catholics and evangelicals.
Soft-spoken but firm, Chilstrom forged a path guided by Scripture and prayer and shaped by life experiences that often put him at odds with fellow conservative Christians.
“I’m an evangelical conservative with a radical social conscience,” Chilstrom told the Green Valley News in 2012. “Christ is my heart and the soul of my life. Radiating out from that is my conviction about being involved in the structures of society.”
Chilstrom did not hesitate to enter an arena where few had gone, and where few still go today: Evangelically conservative and socially radical.
“I live on both sides, and I live there all the time,” he said.
Learning from others
He said his convictions and views on homosexuality were changed after a meeting in 1977, when he was bishop of the Minnesota Synod.
Chilstrom said he was approached by several men who told him, “We’re gay, we’re Lutherans, we’re part of the synod, and we’d like to talk to you.”
They set up a meeting at a home in St. Paul. He entered what turned out to be a mansion and found 20 to 25 men sitting in a semi-circle in the entry hall.
“They were petrified, too, because they were coming ‘out’ to the bishop,” he said.
The men were sons of Lutheran pastors and many were graduates of Lutheran colleges. Chilstrom knew most of them or their families.
“They simply told their stories,” he said. “Their stories centered on how they didn’t choose to be gay.” One by one they told him they’d prayed to “go straight,” had counseling, read books.
“We finally realized this is who we are, and we got comfortable with who we are,” they told him. “They were living in great fear of being outed.”
For Chilstrom, “It was the start of rethinking” his beliefs on the Bible and sexuality. He read books, read the Scriptures, and met with gay and lesbian groups — “and I was especially impressed with their Christian faith.”
“My mind was changing but I refused to change until I could figure out how to deal with Scripture,” he said.
Chilstrom eventually concluded that the Bible’s condemnation of homosexuality referred to “abusive sex, domineering sex, which we’d all agree is inappropriate and sinful. But I found the Scriptures silent regarding the people I was meeting.”
In the heart of Jesus, he decided, there is love and acceptance for gay men and women, though he acknowledged the Bible doesn’t present any examples of homosexual couples in what he’d call acceptable relationships.
In retirement, he occasionally preached at Desert Hills Lutheran Church in Green Valley, where he and his wife, Corinne, attended.
He also wrote several books, on everything from dogs to a brother with special needs and a teenage son who committed suicide. He traced his paternal family history to the early 1600s.
“No matter how insignificant one may feel, everyone should leave an account of one’s life,” he told the Green Valley News. “Even a few paragraphs may become a treasure trove for future descendants.”
Chilstrom, who lived at La Posada, said his autobiography, “A Journey of Grace: The Formation of a Leader and a Church,” is his “signature work.”
He graduated from Augsburg College in Minneapolis; Augustana Theological Seminary; Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago; Princeton Theological Seminary; and New York University, where he received a doctorate.
He is survived by his wife of 65 years, Corinne (Hansen), also a pastor; a daughter, Mary Cress of Mesa, Arizona; and a son, Christopher Holt of Baltimore; and four sisters, Winnifred Christenson of Robbinsdale, Minn.; Virginia Francis of Pickens, S.C.; Martha (Charles) Anderson of Ashby, Minn.; and Janet (Frederick) Sickert of West Linn, Oregon.
According to the ELCA, the family asks that memorial gifts be given to the Herbert Chilstrom Chair in New Testament Studies at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, or to one of the Chilstrom Student Scholarship Funds at Luther Seminary; Augsburg University, Minneapolis; Gustavus Adolphus College, or Concordia College, Moorhead, Minnesota.