Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: PLU welcomes first openly gay university pastor at a Lutheran college

Pastor Jen Rude arrived at PLU in August.
Pastor Jen Rude arrived at PLU in August.

The 36-year-old Rev. Jen Rude arrived in the Pacific Northwest in August, specifically at Pacific Lutheran University.

But she long ago made a name for herself.

In May, Rude — who was previously the program director for Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries in Chicago — was named PLU’s university pastor.

In the Lutheran vernacular, Rude wasn’t just hired, she was called to PLU. It’s a lofty distinction that denotes the importance of the work ahead of her.

“She was just in every possible way a great, great candidate,” PLU President Thomas Krise tells me.

She was identified for the job in a search conducted by PLU and the Southwestern Washington Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), with which PLU is affiliated.

There was a time, however, when such a calling wouldn’t have happened.

At PLU, where the university congregation is led collaboratively by students and staff members, Rude becomes the first openly gay university pastor at a Lutheran college.

That’s a big deal.

“We’re very proud,” Krise says.

It’s not the first barrier Rude has broken. In 2007, she became the first openly LGBTQ pastor to be ordained after the ELCA urged bishops to stop penalizing congregations for violating an outdated celibacy requirement for gay clergy. It was a rule that Rude at the time described as discriminatory, and one the organization rightfully did away with two years later.

Rude’s activism and advocacy played a significant part in the ELCA’s necessary evolution.

Now, Krise tells me, she gets a chance to play a big part in an ongoing evolution at PLU.

“PLU is making great strides in our recruitment of students with a lot of diversity of background,” says Krise, pointing to a student body with a variety of religious backgrounds, not just Lutherans, as well as a marked increase in the percentage of first-generation college students, students of color and students receiving federal Pell grants.

“We’ve got students with lots of different experiences. And she’s got all this experience that, I think despite her relative youth, is really great for our students. She’s doing some really cool and innovate stuff. … Her experiences of reaching out to people who feel marginalized is really critically important to us.”

Evidence of Rude’s approach could be seen Wednesday, when the chapel service she leads was devoted to issues of violence in society. Krise describes a service where the names of victims from the Orlando nightclub massacre, along with those recently killed by police and by terrorists, were read aloud — and a candle was lit for all of them.

As Rude begins her tenure at PLU, the university can expect more of this unique approach.

“I already see my role as partly creating a space for people to just be and be cared for,” Rude says. “Campus ministry can be a touch point for people, and a space to just kind of breathe in and out. … It can be a place to have questions to cry, and be angry at God, all that kind of stuff.”

These are challenges Rude seems specifically prepared to tackle. She grew up in the Lutheran church, where her father and grandfather were pastors, though her sexual orientation initially led her to question whether she could ever have a similar role.

“I definitely grew up in that faith environment,” Rude says. “But I did wonder if there was a place for me in the church. As I kind of explored my own vocation, it really became part of my vocation to be an activist and an advocate, not just for myself but for other LGBTQ folks, and other people that felt excluded from the church. Our church desperately needs the gift of diverse people.”

And college — a time when Rude says “people are engaging big questions and figuring out who they are” — may just be the perfect fit for her. As an undergrad, she attended Augustana University in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and remembers her time there, and specifically 1998, as “the year of Matthew Shepard.” ( In October of that year, Shepard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming, was beaten, tortured and left to die near Laramie.)

She also remembers her own decision to come out.

“One of the first people I told was my campus pastor,” Rude recalls. “She was supportive and really accompanied me. She really walked with me and supported me. I want to be someone who can walk with people. I don’t have all the answers, but I can walk with people and accompany them as they steadily kind of move forward on their journey.”

When it comes to her call to PLU, Rude says she was “really intrigued by the campus environment,” and so far has been excited about the sense of openness, experimentation and collaboration.

In other words, she’s happy to be here and ready to get to work — sentiments she says feels reciprocated by her new community and the people around her.

“Overall, I think (the reaction has) been really positive,” Rude says. “I’m sure there are others that aren’t thrilled, but I think that’s a minority. I think most people are excited and feel like (inclusion is) an edge we need to keep pushing.

“I think it says that PLU is not just talking about belonging and welcoming, but actually living it,” she continues.

“I think it says PLU is willing to take risks for what it believes in.”