A Call to be a Pastor or a Rabbi

Leslie Mahraun knew as a child she would either become a pastor or a rabbi—she just didn’t know which one it would be.  Leslie’s mother was Jewish. Her father was baptized at age 46, along with Leslie and her brother. At her baptism at age 11, she said she deeply understood she had a call to God. “Because Jesus was a Jew, I was open to serving God whatever way it came.”

Ordained in 2012, Pastor Leslie Mahraun leads the congregation at Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity, Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. She has never had any qualms about the validity of being a woman pastor-- or in being the first woman pastor at her church. 

 

Her call to ministry has always been strong and has been affirmed as a rostered leader in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA). But it hasn’t been easy. She formerly pursued seminary in her 20s, but health concerns and a divorce made it impossible at the time. When her son turned 18, she felt the opportunity to pursue a seminary education opening up once again. She credits Dr. Karoline Lewis of Luther Seminary for standing by her as she cleared hurdles in her path through her seminary training.

Pastor Mahraun believes positive changes are happening for women leaders, but does not believe the playing field is level. She points to the following obstacles women church leaders face as examples: considerably lower wages for the same job as a male pastor: critique about appearance, including nail color, clothing and makeup; and the added pressure of women assuming more of the workload on the home front than their partners. On a personal level, she has also faced anti-Semitism.


Yet, Leslie believes the ministry of word and sacrament offers words of God’s grace that make all the difference in the world. Recently, Leslie reminded her dad of God’s promises through baptism while she sat with him before he passed away. She describes their time together as an "immense honor" to pray with her dad, to answer his questions, and to provide him a last absolution. "Those are moments of grace. You can't put those moments into words. They just are."

“We walk wet and follow one another’s trail into the arms of God. I’m not the typical Lutheran--I remember my baptism. The command that Jesus gave is how I live my life. It is what I do and who I am. I want that for all of us.”

Jesus said, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age"

(Matthew 28: 19-20).


A Female Voice of the Reformation

“Luther's greatest friend and one true love, Katharina von Bora, shines as one of the leading female leaders of the Reformation. A former nun turned loving wife and mother, Katharina was a smart, shrewd woman and pillar of strength for Luther and their many children” (visit-luther.com).

Katje Köhler loves her job as a local tour guide in Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany. (The “Lutherstadt” designation has been given to a few cities wanting to identify as a “Luther City”). On the eve of the upcoming 500th anniversary of the Reformation happening in 2017, Katje has been busier than usual. Tourists come into town to learn more about Martin Luther; however, they soon learn that he could not have accomplished as much as he did without the support of many others. Katje weaves the names of Elector Frederick the Wise, Philip Melanchthon, Johannes Bugenhagen, Lucas Cranach, and Katharina von Bora into her stories about life during the Reformation.

Martin Luther was one of the most influential people in Western Christianity, largely responsible for the division of the Roman Catholic Church, resulting in a variety of Protestant faiths. Listen to Katja, dressed as Katie Luther, talk about Martin Luther’s contribution to Germany and the life of the church.

 

On the religious landscape of the day, Luther’s mark was revolutionary. His interpretation of Scripture, primarily Galatians and Romans, helped to shape a different way of looking at God’s relationship with people. Luther believed that God’s grace, life and salvation are not earned by human works, but are freely given to us, without any merit on our own.

Katharina von Bora (1499-1552) became the most famous pastor’s wife in the world. Left by her father to be raised in a convent at age five after her mother died, she lived there until she learned about Luther’s writings. To her good fortune, she received an education, including instruction in Latin.

Katharina and the other nuns wrote to Luther, asking for his help in leaving the convent. At the risk of being killed for doing so, Luther arranged for them to be smuggled out on a cart carrying barrels of herring. While some of the nuns returned to their homes, others were married, and the rebel monk and former nun were also married (although he resisted at first.)

When the couple was gifted the the Black Cloister monastery by Elector Frederick, Katharina ran the house, regularly hosting religious scholars from around the world. Accustomed to as many as 40 people at the dinner table, Katie brewed beer, ran a dormitory, managed the gardens and farm and earned a considerable income. With her financial savvy and leadership, the operations of the Luther House were strong, whether Martin was in town or not. She even created a hospice for people during plague times.

The only woman present in the theological “table talk” discussions with theologians and students, Katie’s vocal contributions to the discussions were recorded as from “a student”. Unheard of for the day, Martin made Katharina the sole heir to the estate when he died in 1546. He called her “my morning star.”

Trust in God’s Possibilities For You

When I visited Germany for several weeks in January, I was surprised how much of a distinction people still make between the former East and West Germany. Divided since the end of World War II by an 87 mile long wall that went through Berlin, the wall came down in 1990 when Germany was unified. That is kind of old news for us, isn’t it?

“GDR” is a term used often by pastor and professor, Dr. Gabriele Metzner. (It refers to the German Democratic Republic, the former communist Eastern Germany, controlled by the former Soviet Union.) More than 25 years after unification, Dr. Metzner believes the former communist oppression has continued to have a negative affect on many aspects of life, including the development of women leaders in the church:

 

 

Gabriele grew up in Lubben, where the famous German hymn writer Paul Gerhardt also hails. Because her family had a public “Christian” identity in the GDR, Gabriele was not selected to attend the local high school or university. Like many others who were penalized for having Christian allegiance, she had to attend school in Potsdam, located more than an hour away from her home. She smiles as she talks about the red lapel buttons she and the Christian teenage students wore in protest, saying, “Jesus loves me”.

Since 2007, she has been a preaching professor at the Evangelical Preaching Seminary in Wittenberg, Germany, the “home base” of Martin Luther during the Reformation. With only ten percent of the population identifying as Christian in the area, Gabriele believes the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ is as important as ever. She defines the message of grace in the phrase, “Jesus loves me”, and believes the GDR people especially need to hear it.

(Below, photos of several buildings in Wittenberg discovered on our walk. Graffiti is everywhere - and dilapidated buildings like the one on the right are common. The restoration of the former GDR has been very expensive for the country and is ongoing.)

Breaking through generations of political turmoil and fear is not an easy task for Christians, even in the homeland of Martin Luther. There are stark difference between the former East and West Germany, visible in many ways, including the bland basic housing structures constructed during the nearly 45-year period of the Cold War. In conversations with the leaders in Wittenberg (and former GDR), the context poses challenges for reaching people with the gospel.  Dr. Metzner knows  the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017 will attract an international audience, but she hopes it piques interest among the locals as well.

Photos above:  From the Stazi Museum in Leipzig, Germany. 

 

 

 

A Natural Calling

Ragnhild Jepsen attended a youth camp in Holland while she was in high school. The theme was: “How can I be used in the kingdom of God?”  The day after she returned home, she was sitting in the garden, thinking about the theme, when it came to her. “I should be a pastor,” she thought. “What did I just think? It was a very concrete moment,” she said, adding, that her call has been matured before and after that moment.

When Ragnhild told her mother about her experience, she responded, “Of course, Ragnhild, this is who you are.” Her friends and family supported her, sensing this calling as “natural.” But Ragnhild’s own parish pastor was actually against the idea of women pastors and voiced his opposition to her.

Sad. But not uncommon, even in traditions that ordain women.

When I met Pastor Jepsen, she was representing the country of Norway at conferences in Jordan at Bethany-Beyond-The-Jordan Baptism Site. Along with a contingency of European representatives, Jepsen also attended the interfaith dialogue meetings, which included a united concern and helpful dialog about how to address the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis.

Pastor Ragnhild Jepsen is also a dean in the Church of Norway, pastoring at the Gothic-style Nidaros Cathedral in Tronheim, Norway. It is the burial site of “St. Olaf,” King Olav II (995-1030) who is remembered for initiating Christianity in Norway. It is an epic story and a spectacular memorial to the great Norwegian king.

Since 2011, the Church of Norway has its first woman presiding Bishop, Helga Haugland Byfuglien. Currently four of the countries 12 bishops are women and 30% of the clergy are women. 

 

Part of the Call: Identifying Injustices

Jessica Crist was blessed with supportive parents who encouraged her to dream dreams of things she had never thought about. Her mother was the first director of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) Commission for Women.  

As a teenager, during a particular confirmation class, she recalled the pastor talking about the various careers available in the church. When he asked who would like to be a pastor, her hand went up. And he got very uncomfortable, hemming and hawing, finally saying that wouldn’t work out for her. For confirmand Jessica, that was a “note to self” moment that would be filed away for many years.

The pastor didn’t realize the resolve of young woman whose dreams he was dismissing that day. The pastor didn’t realize that confirmand Jessica would eventually graduate from with a degree in English literature from Yale University, a divinity degree from Harvard University and become a future ELCA Bishop.

Growing up in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Jessica was progressive, working for the National Organization of Women (NOW) during one of her college summers. (NOW promotes equality and justice in the workplace, schools, justice system, and other sectors of society.)

As a pastor, Jessica was ordained in 1979 and served the University Lutheran Church on the Harvard campus.  A variety of calls and positions came after she and her husband moved to Montana. In 2007, she succeeded Rich Omland as the first female bishop of the Montana Synod. In 2011, she was elected the Chair of the 65 Bishops in the ELCA, the first woman to hold the post. Bishop Jessica Crist strives to be open and fair, as she works for justice in the world and in the church. 

As one of 10 female bishops in the ELCA, Jessica Crist has modeled leadership on difficult issues facing the church. She points to her college chaplain at Yale University, William Sloane Coffin, who influenced her to approach the church with a unique perspective. Because he had been very active in anti-war and liberal causes, she said, he modeled how to pull scholarly integrity and social justice together in the church.

Sexism is a still systemic sin. Lord, help us all to work against the powers of injustice and prejudice. 

A Visionary Voice for Inclusion

“If I could say anything to a women clergy, I’d say, find a community of women who can support you. I’ve been part of a women’s clergy group since 1983. It has been life giving and life saving for me.”

Barbara Lundblad points to her aunt, Trudy, 89, as a source of inspiration throughout her live, including today. Trudy was a lay leader, mentor and someone who “would have become ordained” had it been possible in her day.

In 1966, they still weren’t ordaining women, so Barbara worked in youth ministry in Minnesota for the first ten years of her ministry career. The pastor gave her opportunities to preach. Feeling a stirring she wanted to explore, Barbara went to Yale Divinity School. She regretted leaving her position working with youth and education areas. “We were trying to validate those kind of ministries and so when I left – it felt like I was betraying this work. I left kicking and screaming.”

Ordained in 1980, Barbara Lundblad recently retired from her position as a preaching professor at Union Theological Seminary of New York City. She’s an author of Transforming the Stone: Preaching through Resistance to Change and Marking Time: Preaching Biblical Stories in Present Tense as well as many published articles.

Barbara has not been afraid to speak about justice and sexuality issues. Listen to her speak to how things have changed for women leaders in the church:

 

A different day. Yes, indeed. Thanks be to God.

“I would like to be remembered as a teacher to help others find their voice--not to copy my voice or someone else’s—but to find the gift of the word for themselves.”

 


I heard the voice, "Come follow me."

Since she was a young girl, Nkiruka Okafor participated in gatherings of the faith in her home country of Nigeria. While her mother did not want her to be a nun, she has been through what she describes as a series of calls and “a long process of discernment” in her life. Nkiruka said, “I heard the voice. Come follow me.”

“The last call was one that shook my world. It was a call to work with women in the sex trade.” As a sister, Nkiruka has often visited women who have been incarcerated for prostitution and drug activity. She believes God has called her to return to her home country to work with them. She said, “Once you gain their trust, they really open up to you.”

Catholic Sister Nkiruka Okafor believes in the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It has sustained her through the last five years, especially through the pursuit of three graduate level degrees in Minnesota. She received a Master of Theology and is now finishing her work on a Ph.D. in Pastoral Care and Counseling from Luther Seminary. Simultaneously, Nkiru (KEER-oo), as she called by her friends, is working on a Marriage and Family Therapy degree from Bethel University.

She believes her educational background will help her to be more effective in reaching troubled women. Most of them, she said, have been traumatized as childhood victims of incest.

Sister Nkiruka is hopeful about the changes she has seen in the Catholic Church and has high praise for Pope Francis. She believes that in the next 10 years, women may be trained as permanent deacons in the Catholic Church. (Women becoming priests is not a consideration in the Roman Catholic Church.)

She is also pleased at how things have improved for Nigerian women in ministry:

Sister Nkiruka Okafor has shown incredible strength and persistence in following God’s call in her life. May God continue to strengthen her in service to others who need to have their lives validated and experience the gospel of Jesus Christ.

A Dual Call: Pastor and Professor

God’s call came very naturally to Rev. Dr. Arnfríður Guðmundsdóttir. She recalled a sense of God since the age of six. At 16, she had finished a summer job working in a local hospital but decided then she would pursue theology as a career instead of medicine.

During my interviews of women pastors around the world, I have learned that many of them had family and friends tell them that they should use their gifts for other pursuits like medicine or law. One American pastor shared her plan to become a pastor; she was met with the response, “What a waste.” 

 

When Arnfríður Guðmundsdóttir began her studies in theology, there was only one woman ordained and no women teaching in theology in Iceland. She said, “So it was not a logical thing to do but I really felt very strongly about studying theology in order to teach. That was my goal.”

Ordained in 1987, Arnfríður received her Ph.d. from Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago in 1996 and began teaching Systematic Theology at the University of Iceland. Since 2014, she is the Dean of the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies at the University, where the country’s pastors are trained. She has written many articles in the fields of Systematic Theology, Lutheran Theology, Feminist Theology, Women and the Church, as well as Religion and Film. 

While Arnfríður thinks women in Iceland know they can become pastors, she thinks it is can still be quite difficult for them. She believes that more women teaching theology and building a stronger networks for women have helped.  “In 2009, we decided to form an association of women pastors. Of course the reason why we did that is women needed more support and there was a need of solidarity of becoming friends. They don’t need to agree on everything but they can support each other.”   (Below is a picture of the women pastors of Iceland. Arnfríður has found herself in the front row, second from the left. Iceland's first female bishop, Agnes Sigurðardóttir is located in the front row, center, wearing the cross.)

Rev. Dr. Arnfríður Guðmundsdóttir is the author of Meeting God on the Cross: Christ, the Cross, and the Feminist Critique, published by Oxford University Press, 2010. You can read more about it here. She argues that there is a redemptive message hidden in the cross of Christ that is valuable to women today. Despite its potential for abuse and its well-documented history of misuse against women, a theology of the cross can also affirm Jesus as a divine co-sufferer who brings good news to all who are poor and oppressed. Such a theology, Guðmundsdóttir contends, offers women meaning and strength from a God who takes human form and enters redemptively into their suffering.



If God Asks Me, and I'm Able, I Must

It is common for people to experience barriers when making a change in their lives. From the interviews I’ve conducted, most people have encountered difficulties or resistance in pursuing their call to ministry.

After retiring from a rewarding career in the corporate world, Ina Barton was interested in going to seminary at some point in her life.  She began her studies in church history and theology; but they were put on hold when her husband’s health declined. Ina took a leave from her schooling to care for her husband, Michael, and after his death, graduated from Luther Seminary with a Master of Arts degree.

As a lay leader, Ina enjoys serving in her church and as a volunteer, enjoys leading weekly worship services at a local nursing home.  Her training has benefited her, her local congregation, and the residents of the care facility who attend the services she organizes.

Ina reflected on what lead her to go back to school after her retirement and the response she received from others:

Ina Barton responded to God’s call. God’s call comes to people. God’s call persists in the midst of questioning from others.

When a person takes a risk to share something deeply personal, like a call from God, it often makes them feel vulnerable. Personally, I did not bring up the subject of going to graduate school until I had considered it for a period of years. When I shared the idea with others, I often received a response similar to Ina’s: “You’re not going to be a pastor, are you?” 

Wouldn’t it be nice to hear others react with a response like: “Oh, that’s great!” or “I’m happy for you.” Or “Best wishes with that!”  Often, the questioning and skeptical reaction can feel invalidating. 

Perhaps others just don’t see what you see. Perhaps they are seeking a deeper understanding in their questions. Perhaps they personalize it and could not imagine making the move themselves. And while it would be nice and possibly helpful to hear some encouraging words, it isn’t a deal breaker. God’s call, drawing people into a deeper and transforming relationship, surpasses human approval.


A Woman in a Pulpit

In the course of the dozens of interviews conducted for this project on women leaders in the church, it is always striking when someone shares a specific moment in time that solidified their call to ministry. How people perceive the cues they sense from God or through others can be spoken of as an internal or external call. God’s call comes to people “externally” through others who are verbally affirming another's gifts and how one’s qualities could benefit the church. We also speak about one’s “internal” call—how one perceives God is intimately speaking to a person about the direction in ones’ life.

Growing up at a time when women pastors didn’t exist shaped her journey. Listen how the Senior Pastor Tania Haber of Westwood Lutheran Church in St Louis Park, Minnesota, shares how she processed God’s call:

During her college years at Gustavus Adolphus College, Tania Haber thought she would like to work in campus ministry. Positive experiences working with youth in the Willmar area after college led her to enroll in Luther Seminary with the idea of being a campus pastor.

When she arrived on the Luther Seminary, she was part of the first larger wave of women attending seminary. Having women on campus was still such a new idea that they had to put a sign with tape over a few of the men’s restrooms for the women seminarians.

It was during her internship experience where when she was assigned to serve a “wonderful mission congregation” that she felt drawn to leadership in the parish. She has served the church for more than 30 years since being ordained in 1985.

Pastor Tania Haber has seen a lot of change in the church in general and knows there are future challenges for women and men alike. Yet, she is resoundingly positive about the grace shared by God in the person of Jesus Christ. This is the grace modeled at Westwood Lutheran, where the Senior Pastor believes in embracing the messiness of life and people. Pastor Haber said, “When we say all people are welcome, we mean it. You are loved. You are accepted. Now, let’s go change the world”.




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Called to Lead

“Grace fills us with a passion to be able to share that kind of senseless love with the world.”  

She was all of 8 years old, in the third grade. Pastor Kris Capel felt a call to ministry when she was asked to read Scripture on Mother’s Day. She recalls how seriously she took her role that day in church, and how she was “weirdly at home” in the pulpit.

With 4500 members, Easter Lutheran Church, Eagan, is the largest congregation led by a woman pastor in the ELCA. It is not lost on her how important it is for women to have the opportunity to be ordained – and to lead. 

There are still Lutheran churches in the ELCA unwilling to call a woman pastor for any position. There are churches who will call a woman for an associate position, but not as senior pastor.  This seems especially true for larger congregations.

Pastor Kris is grateful for the vision of Easter to hire a lead woman pastor in 2011. Easter’s current theme, “All In”,  sums up how Pastor Kris describes the “Vision Board”, a term used to describe the group known as the “church council” at most churches. She speaks with excitement about the level of trust and cohesiveness in the leadership team at Easter.

Pastor Kris points to her mother as a key influence in her life of faith. Karen Capel was also ordained as Lutheran pastor at age 65, after Kris became a pastor. Kris said her mother would have become a pastor earlier in her life had the church been ordaining women at that time. Rev. Karen Capel served four years and passed away in October of 2014. Her legacy of love and grace and possibility lives on.

So God created humankind in his image,

in the image of God he created them;

male and female he created them.

 Genesis 1:27-28 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

 

A Call to Haiti

"The will of God will never lead you where the grace of God cannot keep you." -Sister Liberija

In our American culture, many people are starting to “wind down” at age 66. You know, work less, kick back to an easier pace of life. Not Sister Liberija Filipovic, whose energy and enthusiasm are contagious. Two years ago, at 66, she took a new position at an orphanage in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, as one of three nuns overseeing the care and well being of 51 children. They are identified as Sisters Servants of the Infant Jesus, working through Croatian Relief Services.

Six years after the earthquake of 2010, children have continued to suffer from the longstanding poverty in Haiti along with the aftereffects of the quake. Parents died in the earthquake or were often left in a position of being unable to care for their children. Sister Liberija said, "I am here because the children are here."

Sister Liberija, Sister Ana and Sister Miriam are superstars of love. The three loving nuns assure the 51 children ages 2-17 that they are fed, clothed, and educated. They celebrate birthdays, holidays and learn about the Christian faith. They play soccer and since our visit, I noticed in their Facebook posts, they have added a basketball hoop! (God answered my prayer!)

Sarah and I traveled to Haiti with Reiser Relief, a nonprofit founded by the late Father Bernard Reiser of the church of the Epiphany of Coon Rapids. (See earlier blog post on January 28, 2016) Their ongoing visits and the physical delivery of items such as shampoo, soap, underwear, school and art supplies all help.

If you would like to learn more about Reiser Relief or how you can help, join us on April 19 at the American Legion in Coon Rapids. I’ll be one of the speakers for the event. Remember, it doesn’t matter how old you are. God can use someone like you!

 

 

Walking by Faith

How have you experienced God’s call? What a holy question this is to ask someone!

How people listen to God’s call – God’s invitation to their gifts for God’s mission—is not something people talk about every day. Even pastors!

In the first six months of the Graduate Preaching Fellowship, I have been asking a lot of questions and doing a lot of listening. What a gift it has been to hear nearly 50 theologians answer this question!

Scripture tells us “We walk by faith and not by sight” or as the contemporary paraphrase The Message puts it: “It’s what we trust in but don’t yet see that keeps us going” (2 Corinthians 5:7).

Solveig Lára Guðmundsdóttir , the second female bishop elected in Iceland, representing the North Iceland bishopric, has served the church for 32 years as pastor. In 1974, at 18 years of age she witnessed the ordination of the first woman pastor in Iceland, Rev. Auður Eir Vilhjálmsdóttir. (Solveig Lara was friends with her daughter, who became the second woman ordained and Solveig Lara became the third.)

 

Through this Lenten season, take time to look back over your life. Where have you seen God at work? What are the crossroads of your life where has God’s hand has guided you? Have a holy conversation with someone. It may help you to see God’s faithfulness in your own life more clearly, to witness to someone, and to strengthen your lives of faith. 

 “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known”  (1 Corinthians 13:12New Revised Standard Version, NRSV).

Talent Scout for Jesus

The Minneapolis Area Synod works together so that all experience gracious invitation into life- giving Christian community and live in just and healthy neighborhoods.

This is the vision statement of the ELCA’s largest synod representing roughly 180,000 Lutherans. Minneapolis has 155 congregations with over 700 rostered leaders in seven counties and a 16-mile radius.

In leading a large group of people in mission, Bishop Ann Svennungsen believes that the synod’s vision statement can be carried out only if people work together. Acknowledging that patriarchy is systemic in American culture, Bishop Ann believes it is important to have diversity represented in leadership positions, including women.

The first female president of the student body at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, Ann entered ministry only after a lengthy process of discernment. While her mother was concerned she would never marry if she became a pastor, she met her husband in seminary and raised a family.

Yet, she often wondered if the cautions from her family would prove the journey too difficult. Women leaders are often subjected to different forces from the public. “Any time you go into a field as a small minority you feel the pressure of scrutiny much greater than when you are in the majority,” she said.

Bishop Svennungsen is grateful for the many mentors who have helped her – mostly male. One of them was Paul J. Christiansen, the longtime choral conductor and composer from Concordia College, where she sang during her college years. He was genuinely excited about her following her call to ministry – one that came full circle when she visited his bedside near the end of his life and preached at his funeral as the senior pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church of Moorhead.

Theologian Frederick Buechner’s quote is one that has resonated with Bishop Ann Svennunsen for a long time:  “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”  Facilitating the connections where people’s gifts meet the world’s needs is important work. Bishop Svennungsen is doing just that – from the inner city to global missions.

A Country and a Church for Women

Growing up in a small town in rural west central Minnesota, I did not see a woman basketball player until I was 12 years when our school quickly got on board with the requirements of Title IX. I did not see a woman pastor until I was 32 years old. And I realize that even today in the United States and many places in the world, there are large numbers of people have no experience with a female pastor. That is not the case in Iceland.

During my interviews of Icelandic pastors, nearly every one spoke of the importance of the example and teachings of Iceland’s first ordained woman, Rev. Auður Eir Vilhjálmsdóttir.  (See blog post for February 13, 2016 to learn more about her.)

Many also pointed to Iceland’s first woman president from 1980-96, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir as a shaping influence in their lives. Finnbogadóttir was an example of strong leadership-- contributing to their belief that women can hold offices of position and power. She was reelected three times and hosted the summit between Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and President Ronald Reagan in 1986. Finnbogadóttir promoted girls’ education and her motto was: “Never let the women down.”  (Finnbogadóttir pictured below:)

Pastor Arndis Linn was not raised in the church, but had strong examples in her grandparents. Her grandmother had no opportunities for education, but was an intelligent, strong and hardworking person. Her grandfather told her stories about Jesus and God, “God has always been a reality in my life. I’ve talked to God my whole life and used to read the Bible for support as a teenager.”

For Arndis, motherhood was a first call, seeking to become a pastor when her children were raised. Ordained in 2013, she now serves as the pastor of The Women’s Church in Reykjavik, which was established by seven women, including Rev. Auður Eir Vilhjálmsdóttir. The Women’s Church is a good fit for Pastor Arndis, especially since feminist theology has given her a greater appreciation of God and God’s church. “I used to think that the church was dull and hard to relate to – until I began reading feminist theology.”  In fact, it was the subject of her candidate thesis for her theological training.

The Women’s Church, open to men and women, has mixed old liturgies with new ones. Inclusive language is important—as well as female images for God. A new hymnbook was written in 2003 called Bread and Roses featuring hymns with inclusive language and female hymn writers.


Christians in the Holy Land

The number of Christians in the Holy Land is dwindling, making up about two percent of the population in Palestine/Israel.  In neighboring Jordan, Christians are about six percent of the population—the remaining 94% is Muslim.

Pastor Samer Azar is the leader of the Evangelical Church of the Good Shepherd in Amman, Jordan. He is a Palestinian Christian, born in Jerusalem. His mother was drawn into the Lutheran faith through Lutheran schools. Samer was trained in a Lutheran Seminary at the Makumira University College in Tanzania, Africa, and was ordained in 1996 as a pastor serving the in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Jordan and the Holy Land (ELCJHL).  The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) is in full partnership with the ELCJHL. Samer is clear about his identity in Christ. “When you speak about Arab Christians, we are not immigrants. We have been born here. We were here long before Islam came. We are not strangers. We are the original inhabitants and this strengthens our identity.“

As the only Lutheran pastor in all of Jordan, Samer has worked hard to establish a congregation. It is made up largely of refugees from Palestine who emigrated looking for a more peaceful place to live.

In Amman, he attends regular “tent” meetings with people of the community, where dialog is an important way to build relationships with others. When I interviewed him in Jordan recently, he said, “People don’t understand how we are breaking boundaries. A loving approach is very inviting. To present Christ, his love has to be shown to all.” 

The country of Jordan under the reign of King Abdullah II has modeled peace and religious tolerance in a manner that Americans should consider. Jordan has opened its borders to millions of refugees over the years, at great cost. When I attended a meeting of religious leaders from around the world to address the Syrian refugee crisis, I found the collaboration between Christians and Muslims to be refreshing.

In a world of increasing religious pluralism, Pastor Samer Azar taught me a great deal about seeking a greater understanding of the context you are serving. He said, “We present Christ – but not by force or to convert or to uproot them from their religious backgrounds. Sometimes this can endanger their lives. We have our own way to present the gospel.  We feel that we are very professional in this. The love of God through us has to spread in our natural life.”




An Ambassador on the Streets of Jerusalem

When Pastor Carrie Ballenger Smith walks through the streets of the Old City of Jerusalem, she hears people talking about her as she passes. People call her “sister” or “Padre” or even “assise”, a feminine take on the Arabic word for pastor, “assis”.  It’s just part of being one of the first visible women clergy in a culture more familiar with male leaders in Orthodox traditions. Jewish rabbis, Muslim imams, Catholic priests are a common site in the Holy Land. Women wearing clergy collars? Not so much.

As an ELCA pastor and missionary, living with her husband and two children in Jerusalem, Carrie is following in her parent’s footprints by taking risks and being bold in pursuing her vocation.  As an American serving in the Middle East, she hopes her service will help others to become more accustomed to women pastors.

Pastor Carrie Ballenger Smith spoke open and honestly about sexism in the church, saying it is more difficult for women to become senior pastors and that women pastors, who are mothers, undergo greater scrutiny from their congregations than their male counterparts.

“I hope that we can change and transform as a church so that everyone’s gifts are used. You know, all races, all genders, all sexualities, all abilities. I hope that we can find ways that everyone who is called can find a way to work within the church.”

Preach it, Sister. I mean, preach it, Pastor.

Sometimes a Champion is Needed

While there are a few women pastors in the Holy Land, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Jordan and the Holy Land (ELCJHL) has yet to ordain one. Bishop Munib Younan served as president of the Fellowship of the Middle East Evangelical Churches (FMEEC), leading them to a unanimous vote in favor of women’s ordination in January 2010. Now, he is looking forward to the day when one will rise up from within the region.

Bishop Younan talked about how his Lutheran theology is the basis for defending women’s ordination: 

Bishop Younan is pleased that the ELCJHL has recently established the ecclesial court system, giving women more equal standing in matters of family conflict. Gender justice issues are also a focus of his work with the Lutheran World Federation. Bishop Younan is also the president of the board for the LWF, overseeing 72 million Christians.

I’m thankful for men who are champions for women and girls in the world. My brother, John, who taught me to play basketball, is one of them.

Perhaps, for a man with a patriarchal identity to rethink his position, he needs to more fully consider the beloved women in his life: his partner, a daughter, or granddaughter. Perhaps, in the midst of his privilege, he even asks himself, “Is my life of more value than a woman-- than my wife or my daughter?” Privileged people of the world enjoy their position and privilege: giving up that privilege is difficult for many.

Jesus was a friend to women. He loved those considered “less than” by society – the sick and the poor.

Bishop Munib Younan is a leader whose identity in Christ is not the least bit threatened by women being invited into full participation into the body of Christ. Thanks be to God for his witness and work on behalf of God’s people.