I received a picture and story from the Religious News Service about six new female bishops who were elected this spring in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, in which I serve.
When six synods of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America elected female bishops in May, they set a record for the most women chosen in one year to lead the mainline Protestant denomination’s geographical subdivisions. Among the six were the denomination's first African-American bishops: the Rev. Patricia A. Davenport, elected May 5 to the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod, and Rev. Viviane Thomas-Breitfeld, elected the next day to the South-Central Synod of Wisconsin.
They bring the number of female ELCA bishops from 12 to 16. A total of 17 counting presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, who became the denomination’s first female presiding bishop when she was elected in 2013. The ELCA is the largest Lutheran denomination in the U.S., with about 3.5 million members in 9,300 congregations, grouped into 65 synods.
I am so proud to be a part of a church that accepts and calls women as pastors, bishops, seminary theologians, college presidents, and influential leaders in the church. Bishop-elect Rev. Laurie Skow-Anderson was one of my classmates at Luther Seminary in St. Paul. Together, we labored through summer Greek course and received theological, biblical and practical training in our four-year course of study to become pastors.
Laurie was an excellent student and will be an excellent bishop. My own bishop in the Montana Synod, Bishop Jessica Crist, graduated from Yale and Harvard Divinity School and is respected and known nationally and internationally, having met with two popes. I’ve always bragged, “My bishop is smarter than your bishop,” but what makes Bishop Crist unique is the clarity of vision for the mission of the church, her understanding of law and gospel, her passion for grace and justice, her wit and her inspiring preaching. Bishop Crist, having been elected and served two successive six year terms, will not be standing for re-election next year. For someone to follow in her “gospel shoes” will be a daunting task.
Almost 50 years ago, our church began ordaining women. What a tremendous loss our church would have experienced had these women not been allowed ordination. In a time of pastoral shortages for our denomination, these women have answered God’s call to serve as pastors. Our synod also has Lay Pastoral Associates who do word and sacrament ministry full time, and part time as supply preachers and leaders of worship. Well over half of the LPA’s in our Montana synod are women.
Why is it so important to have women in ordained ministry?
In another Religious News Service article entitled,” It’s good for girls to have clergywomen,” the author says, in our new book, "She Preached the Word: Women’s Ordination in Modern America," we ask whether the presence of prominent female religious congregational leaders in the lives of girls and young women affects their self-worth and empowerment later in life. According to the General Social Survey, nine out of 10 Americans report attending religious services at least occasionally in their youth. This means that places of worship are a key setting in which children and young people have the opportunity to observe leadership in action. One of our most striking findings is that women who had female congregational leaders in their youth enjoyed higher levels of self-esteem as adults.
Women who said they never had a female religious leader growing up are 10 percent less likely to agree that they “have high self-esteem” now as adults, and 30 percent less likely to “strongly” agree, compared to women who had female clergy at least “some of the time."
"This is important because low self-esteem has been linked to higher levels of depression and anxiety as well as lower levels of relationship success, job satisfaction, and motivation for personal improvement.” Rev. Kedron Nicholson, an ordained Episcopal priest said, “ I was ordained to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church [in 2003]. When the service concluded I was greeting people in the shaking hands line and a family of four (mom, dad and two little girls) came up and the mom said, “I know we don’t know each other. I hope it’s okay that we came. We wanted our girls to see this and know that they can do anything.”
Role models matter. Women clergy matter.
I am thankful for all the gifted women who are leaders in all churches today; clergy but especially lay. They have been, are, and will be essential for the mission of the church. Like Deborah, the judge and Lydia, the seller of purple and leader in the church in acts, like Mary, and Mary the mother of James, Martha, Joanna, who followed Jesus and financially supported Jesus’ ministry, who were also the first evangelists for our resurrected Lord, women continue to step up to answer Christ’s call to lead and serve.
Well done, good and faithful servants and leaders! We couldn’t and wouldn’t be the church without you! Now, which of you girls and women will be the next one to answer Christ’s call to lead and serve? Who knows, in some churches like mine, God may be calling you to be the next bishop!
“Behold, I make all things new!” II Corinthians 5:17
Pastor Brad Ulgenes has been pastor at St. John’s Lutheran Church for more than six years. His partner in the gospel and in life is Elaine. He enjoys music and sings in the Helena Symphony Chorale.