Heather and Lisa Albinson met in the band at First Covenant Church in downtown Minneapolis. Lisa had a kind of moody allure—the “sad blond girl with tattoos” who played the drums, Heather says. A friendship bloomed.
What Heather didn’t know at the time was that Lisa had a crush on her, and would continue to for about a year and a half before that friendship became a romance. On October 11, 2014—National Coming Out Day, coincidentally—the couple got married.
There was just one small snag. Their church—the place where they met, where they had so many friends and memorie—is part of the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC). It’s a strain of Christianity that describes itself as “traditional, but not rigid.” Yet one thing the ECC isn’t exactly cool with is same-sex relationships. Its standard is “heterosexual marriage, faithfulness within marriage, and abstinence outside of marriage.”
Heather and Lisa didn’t want to make trouble for their church or their pastor, so they got married at a nearby brewery. The church band leader, a close friend, did the honors. After what Heather describes as a “magical” day, they set off on a honeymoon in the Pacific Northwest as happily married wives.
The day after they returned, they were surprised by a visit from ECC’s denominational leaders. They briskly informed the assembled congregation about the church’s official stance: Marriage is between one man and one woman. No exceptions.
Heather felt like she was hovering somewhere outside of her body, watching all this unfold. She knew the leaders were talking about them, but she and Lisa didn't even know how they found out, let alone that it would become such a big deal. It felt so surreal to have someone she didn’t even know condemning their relationship.
Lisa, she says, was “seething.” She’s the fifth generation of her family to worship at First Covenant. She “grew up” in the nursery. Before she came out, she felt safe to be herself with her pastor, Dan Collison, who took the reins in 2009.
Now the leadership team from Chicago was slapping him on the wrist for allowing a staff member to marry the couple. ECC banned any further involvement in queer weddings.
As it turns out, First Covenant’s troubles were just beginning. ECC leadership also found fault with the church’s policy of offering sacraments like marriage and baptism to everyone—regardless of race, gender, and sexuality.
Five years after the Albinsons were married, Collison’s position as pastor and his entire church's official status were on the line. ECC leadership declared First Covenant to be “out of harmony” with the rest of the denomination.
On Friday, in Omaha, a group of well over 1,000 delegates voted on whether to evict Collison and his entire church for his views. It would be the first time in the church’s 130-year history that a minister or a church had been forced out. Lisa and Heather were there with him in Omaha, tensely waiting for the decision to be handed down.
Collison has made inclusivity a big part of his pastoral mission. First Covenant contains a homeless shelter, an arts collective, and some affordable housing being developed in its parking lot. He also says he has a huge network of support among fellow ECC pastors, who either feel the same way or respect his church’s right to do things their way.
They may disagree from time to time, but he never thought it would get to a breaking point.
On Friday evening, that breaking point came. Removing the church passed with a 75 percent majority. They voted to remove Collison’s credentials as well. He sent a statement saying he was “deeply saddened” by the results.
But this isn’t the end of him or the church. They own their name and their building. They’ll continue worshiping and serving the community whether the ECC accepts them or not. Collison said they would stand together on Sunday, as they always do, to “continue their journey.”
“Together,” he wrote. “Forward.”
Heather was looking forward to going home. She knew when she got there, her community and her church would be waiting, and the she would feel “held” and “loved.” She knows that this trial for First Covenant will be the first of many, and they will be there to say their piece.
“There will be sadness and grief,” she says, “but we are also free.”