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Fuller Seminary Appoints Task Force to Consider ‘Issues Related to Human Sexuality’

The school received pushback after firing an employee who refused to sign a statement affirming biblical sexuality

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(RNS) — When Ruth Schmidt enrolled at Fuller Theological Seminary in 2016, she said it was the first time she felt as if her voice mattered.

Raised in a nondenominational church in Kansas with “flavors of Southern Baptist,” Schmidt thinks of her community as compassionate but dismissive of the contributions of women pastors. But at Fuller, the 77-year-old school in Pasadena, California, known for its relative theological diversity among evangelical institutions, her calling to the ministry was never in question.

“I felt like I was seen and respected in a way that I’d never experienced anywhere else,” Schmidt said.

In January, Schmidt, a salaried employee at Fuller since 2020, was fired from her senior director position after declining to sign Fuller’s statement of faith. With her imminent ordination in the United Church of Christ, which affirms LGBTQ identities and lifestyles, she had balked at signing a statement that says “sexual union must be reserved for marriage, which is the covenant union between one man and one woman.”

A spokesperson from Fuller declined to discuss individual employees, but confirmed that all members of its community are required to adhere to its standards. He also quoted a community update from Fuller President David Emmanuel Goatley in which the president indicated the seminary is re-examining its policy on human sexuality.

“We can inform and inspire people to engage with civility and hospitality even in areas of disagreement,” Goatley wrote.

Schmidt said students sometimes come into Fuller able to sign the statement of faith, but then their beliefs evolve over the course of their studies. She told Religion News Service that is what happened when she was a student at Fuller. Students don’t generally have to re-sign the statement after their convictions change.

When she was promoted to senior director in 2022, she was asked to re-sign Fuller’s community standards, which include the faith statement. At the time, she told RNS, she was in a vulnerable financial position and was still finishing her degree. If she lost her job, she couldn’t afford to stay in California, which would throw off her ordination process.

She concluded it was “OK to sign it” in that situation.

The next year, Schmidt knew the request to re-sign was coming. In preparation, she initiated conversations with her supervisor in October 2023, alerting them to the fact that signing the statement would conflict with her denomination of choice. After a series of meetings with leadership failed to yield a resolution, Schmidt posed a legal rider that would allow her to respect, but not personally affirm, the standards regarding LGBTQ issues.

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In the end, the school stood by their statement and declined her proposal. Schmidt was terminated in a Zoom call on Jan. 2, and while she said human resources handled her situation with kindness, she accused Fuller of being disingenuous by marketing itself as a multi-denominational school while excluding people from denominations who now affirm LGBTQ lifestyles. She later posted about her termination on Instagram.

On Jan. 10, roughly eight students staged a demonstration during chapel. During the benediction, the students took to the stage, holding signs saying, “LGBTQ+ Let’s talk about it,” and “I want to talk in safety.”

“We students … demand a moratorium on expulsions and firings on the basis of community sexual standards,” a Fuller alumni said, reading a statement presented on behalf of the student-led demonstration. “We demand transparency as you discern how the community standards will form the seminary moving forward. We want to join the conversation.”

Outside the chapel, a larger group of around 40 people, including some alumni and staff, had also set up a peaceful demonstration with signs, according to students.

Following the demonstration, Goatley took to the stage to share how the seminary had been taking steps to discern the school’s approach to human sexuality and implications for theological clarity, pastoral companionship, employment and community life. Goatley also issued a community update on Jan. 18 stating the board had authorized seminary leadership to re-visit the school’s approach to human sexuality in fall 2022, which initiated conversations between the president, trustees, some students and faculty. In winter 2024, Goatley said, he appointed a task force of administrators and faculty charged with facilitating “the community’s consideration of issues related to human sexuality.”

“I invite all who are part of Fuller Theological Seminary to engage with a Scripturally inspired disposition of discernment and dialogue,” Goatley wrote. “This is a sacred journey. Join me in proceeding lovingly and carefully.”

Following Goatley’s community update, an informal group of students initiated a petition calling the board to pause disciplinary procedures based on the sexual community standards during Fuller’s discernment process.

The petition received over 200 signatures from both students and alumni and was delivered to the board in mid-January. On Jan. 25, the board responded, saying they take the concerns expressed in the petition seriously and noting the board had already commissioned the president to oversee a focused faculty discussion on the topic. The recommendations from that process, they said, would be returned to the board in May.

“In the meantime, the Community Standards and our Statement of Faith represent our current articulation of our core beliefs that guide our community’s life together,” the board chair said in an email obtained by RNS. “At the end of this current study process, we will address any needed clarifications and any corresponding implications for employment and community life.”

This isn’t the first time Fuller has grappled with LGBTQ issues. In 2019 and 2020, two former students sued Fuller, alleging the school expelled them for being in same-sex marriages. In October 2020, the courts sided with the seminary, affirming Fuller’s right to uphold its sexual standards policy.

Main photo: Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. (Photo courtesy Fuller Theological Seminary)

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Kathryn Post

Kathryn Post is a writer living in Washington D.C. Kathryn is a graduate of Calvin College, where she obtained degrees in writing and political science. Currently, Kathryn is an editorial assistant for Sojourners magazine. She enjoys writing on the intersection of faith, culture, and politics, and is particularly interested in racial justice, feminism, and mental health.