James Siefkes was born in Iowa into a fourth generation Lutheran clergy family. His early childhood was spent in a parsonage in Ohio. His teen years, secondary and college education were completed in San Antonio, Texas. He was awarded the B.A. degree at Trinity University, San Antonio, Texas; the Master of Divinity degree at Wartburg Theological Seminary, Dubuque, Iowa; the Doctor of Sexual Attitude Reassesment degree (DSAR) by the National Sex Forum, San Francisco; and the Doctor of Divinity degree (honoris causa) by Wartburg Theological Seminary, Dubuque, Iowa, in 1991.
Jim began his pastoral career serving at First Lutheran Church in Galveston, Texas, and St. Paul Lutheran Church in Anamosa, Iowa. In 1961, he accepted a call to serve the American Lutheran Church national office as the Regional Director of Stewardship in the South Central Region at the Dallas, Texas office (nine states) and later in the Western Region at Palo Alto, California office (nine states). In 1969, he was called to begin a new Department of Congregational Social Concerns in the ALC national office in Minneapolis. Jim served in this and related capacities on the national church staff (the ALC later became the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) for 33 years until his retirement in 1991.
As a stewardship director his duties reached beyond fund development and interpretation of the mission of the church at national and local levels. In his work with local parishes he discovered there was little awareness of mission as anything more than traditional understandings and practice. Jim designed a program to broaden the understanding of mission called MATRIX. In brief, the Matrix process amounted to gathering groups of clergy, spouses, and laity and "holding class" on the streets and in the throes of the issues of the day. Issues addressed and experienced included racism, drugs, campus riots, ecology, the Vietnam war, conscription, conscientious objection, runaway kids, emerging lifestyles, women's issues, men's issues, hunger, singles, and human sexuality. Matrix proved a way to introduce social justice and ministry on the side of people suffering from oppression as critical to understanding the mission of the church.
Matrix caught the interest of church executives in the national office, not the least of whom was Paul A. Boe, director of the Division for Social Service. Paul gained approval to begin a new department in the ALC to address social concerns at the parish level. It was to be called Congregational Social Concerns and Jim Siefkes was called to be the first director. Rather than write a manual for congregational social ministry, Jim decided to make entry into the issues of the day issue by issue. By now, Jim had aquaintance with a variety of persons who had become experienced specialists in issues that particularly touched their lives.
In response to the question "where do we begin?", Jim set up a trial seminar on human sexuality with the help of the National Sex Forum at the Glide Memorial Methodist Church in San Francisco beginning in June, 1970. Church executives, social service workers and agencies (ecumenical), a bishop, medical school curriculum coordinators, and their spouses attended. It was only a matter of weeks before the University of Minnesota Medical School attempted repeat trial runs of this seminar with faculty and spouses and then with students. The seminar eventually became part of the required curriculum for medical students. Startup money and support for running this seminar at the Medical School over the next several years was afforded by the church and as a part of Jim's budget for Congregational Social Concerns. This opened the door for similar week-long training sessions for seminary students and church agency social workers. Jim was able to spend up to 25% of his staff time at the Medical School to help get this program off the ground. He established a Committee on Religion and Ethics at the Medical School in cooperation with Twin Cities seminaries. It was a greater surprise than expected that so many in the church objected strongly to the use of church funds on sex education for professionals, particularly with the use of explicit media. However, doors were opened for earnest discussions with homosexual persons and about the varieties of human sexual experience. Literally thousands of persons walked through those doors in the years that followed.
While all this was going on, Jim had come to know and hear the stories of countless gay, lesbian and persons with a variety of sexual orientations or lifestyles. Many of them were or had been Lutherans. The suffering of gays and their families was apparent, as was the inability of the church to cope with such realities. There was some internal restructuring in the ALC and, by 1974, Jim had become director of Discovering Ministries in the new Division for Service and Mission in America (DSMA). Jim wrote the following work objective: "To enable at least one national meeting of up to twenty ALC homosexual persons plus five resource persons to discuss their sexual orientation and their relationship because of it, to society and their church; to the end that they may address the church and the church might respond to them and become less a source of oppression to ALC and other persons with homosexual orientation."
This objective was approved by the DSMA board and found to be appropriate and conforming to DSMA aims and policies. Jim made contacts with and connected together a number of gay Lutherans whom he knew. These persons gathered on June 16, 1974, in Minneapolis and gave birth to Lutherans Concerned for Gay People. The number of objections by many in the church expanded greatly over the use of church funds for this purpose.
In the 30-plus years since that beginning, progress has been incremental. Gaining full acceptance in the Lutheran church has been a slow and often painful process. Disappointments along the way may have been cause for some to abandon the struggle with the church. Others have carried on and Lutherans Concerned/North America has become a strong, healthy, and growing organization.
Sexuality was not the only issue addressed by Jim through what had become the Discovering Ministries Program in the Division for Outreach of the ELCA. Issue by issue, Jim has guided the church in probing other justice issues. At one point he orchestrated and directed as many as forty issues, called probes. All were connected by the common thread of justice and human liberation. Probes were managed by persons (probers) who were living or struggling with a specific issue in their own life and ministry. Regular progress reports and findings were fed back into the church through official channels.
In his involvements with issues and events around sexuality, Jim was involved in a variety of pioneering events. His earliest mentors were founders of the Council on Religion and the Homosexual (CRH-San Francisco, 1964). He participated in first National Conference on Religion and The Homosexual sponsored by the Joint Strategy and Action Committee (JSAC) and the National Council of Christian Churches (NCCC) in 1971, and in an ecumenical dialogue for church bureaucrats on homosexuality at St. Paul Seminary, Kansas City, in 1973. Jim was also involved in planning, directing, and leading sexuality seminars in theological seminaries in the Twin Cities; Dubuque, Iowa; Chicago and Evanston, Illinois.
He served on the board of directors of the Sex Information Education Council in the U.S. (SIECUS); on the Executive Advisory Committee and as adjunct staff to the Program of Human Sexuality at the University of Minnesota Medical School; as adjunct staff for the first ELCA Task Force on Human Sexuality--"Human Sexuality and the Christian Faith" (1991); and on the exploratory and founding committee for the Center for the Institute of Sexuality and Religion.
He has addressed the first International Congress of Medical Sexology at the Medical School, Paris, France; the North American Broadcast Section of the World Association of Christian Broadcasters in Boca Raton, Florida; and the annual meeting of the American Association of Sex Education Counselors and Therapists in Washington, D.C.
Jim is the first recipient of the Siefkes Justice Maker Award, a biennial award named in his honor and given to straight allies whose efforts on behalf of GLBT Lutherans is above and beyond and has had a proven national impact.
Siefkes died on February 20, 2016.
(This biographical statement provided by Jim Siefkes with death notice added.)
Biography Date: February, 2005
“Rev. James Siefkes | Profile”, LGBTQ Religious Archives Network, accessed February 24, 2024, https://lgbtqreligiousarchives.org/profiles/james-siefkes.