Being First

The project I have undertaken this school year was inspired by the many “firsts” I had witnessed in recent years: women emerging as bishops, college, and seminary presidents in the Lutheran church. In the past five months, I’ve traveled to nine countries to meet some of them. Many of these leaders are taking on roles as the first women in their positions – bringing with them all that makes them a unique child of God, created in God’s image.

Yesterday’s blog post featured the ELCA’s first woman bishop, Elizabeth Eaton. Today’s post features Iceland’s first woman bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland, Bishop Agnes Sigurðardóttir. In an interview in Reykjavik, we talked about how being the “first” person to break a barrier can be a positive distinction in some ways, but often poses challenges in other ways.

Bishop Agnes has served the church of Iceland for 30 years as a youth director, pastor, and now bishop since 2012. She told me she has benefitted from observing two particular women leaders succeed, including Iceland’s first woman president, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir who lead from 1980-96, and the first women to be ordained as pastor in 1974, Auður Eir Vilhjálmsdóttir. Auður Eir brought feminist theology to Iceland after having lived and studied in Europe, a longtime member of the Lutheran World Federation. President Finnbogadóttir lead the country with warmth and authenticity, still a beloved figure in Iceland’s history. These women have shaped Bishop Agnes and many others in their paths.

Someone has to be first. The stories of how women pursued a path that lead them to an unprecedented office are surprising, even to them! Certainly, trailblazing helps those who follow-- the path is not as riddled with as many impediments such as thick brush, and the ground shows the marks of those who have already paved the way. For a person considering a new path, having a few obstacles knocked down can make something seem possible for the first time.

Many thanks to Bishop Agnes, the women who came before her, and those who will follow her, living more fully into their gifts of leadership. It’s no accident that Iceland is considered one of the best, if not the best places for women in the world to live.   

BBC Video:  Iceland #1 Country for women

The high price for being the first woman to enter the Boston Marathon, 1967

Female Bishop:  Man interrupts ordination of Libby Lane, England, 2015