Bishop Stanley E. Olson, a retired Lutheran leader who was an early champion for full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender members in the church, died July 2 of complications from Alzheimer’s disease, his family said. He was 87.
Whether serving as a parish pastor or as the spiritual leader of Lutherans in five Western states, Bishop Olson was a vocal advocate for social justice for more than 60 years. During the civil rights movement, he invited Black Panthers to speak at his Van Nuys church – an action that “made a lot of people in his white congregation feel uncomfortable,” his daughter, Sara Olson Rehms, said.
He never wavered in “his belief that as a Christian, he could not be silent in the face of injustice,” she said. In a 1968 sermon, he told his flock that God had called him to “a ministry that will inevitably cause the calm waters of congregational life to be whipped into the waves of a major storm.”
“And to be less, or to do less, or to do nothing out of a fear of causing controversy in the house of God, is to be trapped by the devil,” he said.
Bishop Olson remained outspoken as his stature rose in the church. In 1979, he was elected bishop of the Pacific Southwest Synod of the Lutheran Church in America, which covered Arizona, California, Hawaii, Nevada and Utah. He served as bishop in Los Angeles until 1988, when the LCA merged with two other branches of American Lutheranism to form the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
He was the first Lutheran bishop to meet with members of Lutherans Concerned, a fledgling group of supporters of LGBT people in the church. In 1980, he addressed the group’s first assembly at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in San Francisco.
After retiring to Placerville in 1990, he served on the founding board of the Extraordinary Candidacy Project, which supported LGBT people seeking to become ministers in defiance of church policies against their ordination. He also joined other serving and retired bishops in ordaining lesbian and gay ministers in defiance of church policies against their ordination.
In 2009, the ELCA changed its policy and welcomed LGBT people to the clergy.
“Bishop Olson spoke out for full inclusion and the rights of LGBT people when that was not a popular thing to do,” interim Executive Director Aubrey Thonvold of ReconcilingWorks – formerly Lutherans Concerned – said in a written statement.
“He continued his public witness for a church that lives up to the promise of Christ – that all are welcome,” she added.
Stanley Edward Olson was born Sept. 4, 1926, in Omaha, Nebraska. Although his family moved often for his father’s construction job, their Lutheran faith was a constant force that inspired Stanley and two of his brothers to enter ministry. He graduated from Wittenberg College in Ohio and Northwestern Lutheran Seminary in Minneapolis.
Ordained in 1952, he organized and led a congregation in Yuma, Arizona. He moved to California in 1957 and was a pastor and a synod administrator in Los Angeles and Oakland. He led a church in Santa Barbara for two years after serving as bishop.
Bishop Olson lived in Sacramento for the past five years and belonged to Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer. He also filled in for pastors at local churches.
“He didn’t want people to be marginalized,” his daughter said. “He was a firm believer that everyone is a child of God and that the Lutheran Church welcomes everyone at the table.”
In addition to Rehms, he is survived by his wife of 65 years, Mary Lou; three additional daughters, Louise Oberender, Ann Carlson and Mary; three brothers, George, Kenneth and David; a sister, Marianne Mitchell; four grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
A memorial service is set for 11 a.m. July 19 at St. John’s Lutheran Church, 1701 L St., Sacramento. Memorial donations may be made to Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, ReconcilingWorks or the ELCA Foundation.