CLU posthumously bestowed the Christus Award on the Rev. Paul Egertson, a longtime member of the religion faculty and a former bishop of the Southwest California Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), at Founders Day Convocation on Oct. 28.
Each year, CLU presents the Christus Award to someone who has made significant contributions to strengthening the partnership between CLU and the ELCA out of love for both institutions.
An ELCA pastor for 21 years, Egertson led several congregations in California and Nevada. He had been a part-time or full-time member of the CLU faculty since 1984 and was a senior lecturer when he died unexpectedly last January of a heart attack at the age of 75. He had also served as director of the Center for Theological Study, a continuing education program for Lutheran pastors at CLU.
“He brought the church to campus in that he was active in making CLU a place where the church, pastors and laity could get educated,” the Rev. R. Guy Erwin, the Gerhard and Olga J. Belgum Chair of Lutheran Confessional Theology at CLU, told the Ventura County Star.
“He walked in both the world of the academic and the world of the church in so many ways and provided leadership in both of those worlds,” former interim CLU President Howard Wennes, a cousin of Egertson, told the Star. “He was a gifted preacher, an inspiring teacher and persistent prophet.”
Fostering connections within the ELCA was a priority for Egertson, his son Greg Egertson ’78 explained in an interview.
“His whole professional life was dedicated to strengthening partnerships throughout every expression of the church, because he saw it all as one big family,” said Greg Egertson, an associate dean at Golden Gate University School of Law.
The senior Egertson gained national attention when he decided part of that family was being excluded. After Greg Egertson found his path to ministry blocked because the church began requiring a vow of celibacy of gay candidates for ordination, his father became an advocate for full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons in the life of the church. In 2001, he became the first active bishop in the denomination to join in the ordination of a noncelibate gay or lesbian pastor. In response, ELCA leaders asked him to resign. He resigned one month before his term expired, as he had promised to do if his convictions led him to act against national church policy.
“If we are a family, then we treat each other a certain way,” said Greg Egertson, summarizing his father’s view. “One of the ways we don’t treat each other is we don’t judge each other, because families don’t do that. We support, we encourage, we love, and we are grateful to each other.”
The church finally changed its policy at the 2009 Churchwide Assembly, which voted to allow the ordination of gay and lesbian pastors in monogamous, committed relationships. After the vote, the late bishop urged Erwin, who fit that description, to put aside fresh doubts about his calling and to join the ministry. He was ordained in May of this year.
“I thought that maybe it was too late,” Erwin said. “And Paul said, ‘That’s nonsense. The church has been calling you all your career.’”
The profound impact Egertson had on members of the CLU community was evidenced by the standing ovation Greg Egertson received as he approached the podium at Founders Day Convocation to accept the Christus Award on his father’s behalf.
“I suspect he would … say that of all the things he accomplished in his professional life, the Christus Award from CLU is the one that probably means the most,” Egertson told the audience. “He would be both blessed and, I am quite sure, humbled by the honor you have given to him and to us today.”