11/19/2015 2:25:00 PM
CHICAGO (ELCA) – On the 45th anniversary of the ordination of Lutheran women in the United States, "I give thanks for my sisters who were the first women pastors," said the Rev. Elizabeth A. Eaton, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). "I give thanks for all women in ministry. We are doing what Mary, the mother of our Lord, and Mary Magdalene did before us – proclaiming the gospel."
Eaton is the denomination's first female presiding bishop, elected in August 2013 by the ELCA Churchwide Assembly. She was ordained in 1981, 11 years after the first Lutheran woman, the Rev. Elizabeth A. Platz, was ordained Nov. 22, 1970, by the Lutheran Church in America, one of the ELCA's predecessor church bodies.
"Even as a young girl I felt called to service in the church, to word and sacrament ministry," said Eaton. "In the face of sometimes vehement opposition, I questioned it. My ordination was not a feminist statement but a response to an irresistible call from God to serve."
This November the 3.7 million-member church is lifting up the anniversary as an occasion to "celebrate the many gifts and talents rostered women have brought and continue to bring to the ELCA," said the Rev. Cherlyne Beck, program director for the support of ELCA rostered leaders.
Today, the proportion of active clergy who are women is 35 percent, compared to 21 percent in 2000. In the past five years, 49 percent of people ordained were women and in the ELCA's eight seminaries, the number of women and men preparing for ministry is about equal.
Lutheran women clergy serve in a variety of roles, including campus ministers, chaplains and missionaries. The majority are pastors in ELCA congregations. When it comes to top leadership roles, nine of the ELCA's 65 synod bishops are female and 86 women hold the title of senior pastor in contrast to 456 men in the same role, according to ELCA Research and Evaluation.
Working toward greater inclusion
For the Rev. Elizabeth Ekdale, lead pastor of St. Mark's Lutheran Church in San Francisco and a member of the ELCA Church Council, the anniversary is both a reason to celebrate and to reflect on the gifts of women clergy.
"I've seen more opportunities for women but the struggles are still there," said Ekdale, who was ordained in 1988, one of the first in the ELCA. The American Lutheran Church, the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches, and the Lutheran Church in America merged to form the ELCA in 1988.
"(In my synod), we've had women serve in very, very difficult calls and have to resign. Those women brought such tremendous gifts and those gifts were not welcome or received well," said Ekdale. "We need to keep working for full inclusion and equality of these gifts."
The Rev. H. Julian Gordy, bishop of the ELCA Southeastern Synod based in Atlanta, and that synod's staff are working to nurture and celebrate the gifts of women "by building into our structure and our consciousness an active awareness of the importance of inviting women to take on leadership roles in every facet of the life of the synod and its congregations," said Gordy. "While we have not yet reached the place where the gifts of women are received equally with those of men in every part of the synod, we are getting closer to that place of equality to which God has called us."
For the Rev. Dr. Cheryl Stewart Pero, growing in inclusion is especially important for the ELCA when it comes to ordained women of color. Pero, a professor at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC), was the second African American Lutheran woman to be ordained in 1980, 10 years after Platz. The Rev. Earlean Miller preceded Pero as the first African American Lutheran woman to be ordained in 1979. LSTC is one of eight ELCA seminaries.
"I think the [ELCA] needs to know that they have overlooked women of color," said Pero. "I have people who don't possibly believe that I could be a Lutheran pastor – and that hurts."
Looking ahead, Pero is working with the Rev. M. Wyvetta Bullock, ELCA executive for administration, on a project to highlight the voices of women of color in the ELCA in observance of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.
"In the years to come, I would hope that we will achieve much more equity and parity in our professional leaders," said Pero. "We're all in this together, and we're all part of the body of Christ – and when one part hurts, we all hurt."
Stepping forward in faith
The form of the body bestowing the gospel does not determine the effectiveness of the Word – this is distinctive to our Lutheran theology, according to Dr. Mary Streufert, director for ELCA Justice for Women.
"During the Reformation, Luther urged Christians to remember that it is God who establishes the holiness of Word and Sacrament, not humanity," she said. "In the 1960s, Lutherans wrestled with the difference between the religious custom not to ordain women and a literal interpretation of some biblical text and a Lutheran theology of ministry."
In 1970, the Lutheran Church in America voted to ordain women at their Fifth Biennial Convention, as did the American Lutheran Church at their Fifth General Convention that year. Records indicate no congregations are known to have left their respective bodies specifically about this decision, though it is possible one did, according to ELCA archivist Joel Thoreson.
"Lay women were integral in the movement that led to the ordination of women in our North American Lutheran church," said Linda Post Bushkofsky, executive director of Women of the ELCA.
Some 77 percent of The Lutheran World Federation (LWF) member churches ordain women, and LWF General Secretary Martin Junge said the global communion "is committed to an understanding of the ordained ministry as an office that is inclusive for both men and women."
Yet in places like Madagascar, there are more than 200 women theologians in the Malagasy Lutheran Church but none can be ordained, according to the Rev. Andrea Walker, ELCA area program director for Madagascar and West/Central Africa. In a Nov. 11 chapel service at the ELCA churchwide organization here honoring the 45th anniversary of the ordination of women, Walker prayed for inclusion of the gifts of women throughout the global Lutheran communion.
ELCA Research and Evaluation will release the results of a spring 2015 survey of 2,000 rostered leaders in the ELCA – a survey focused on the experiences of women clergy in the ELCA. In the time leading up to the 50th anniversary, the information gleaned from survey results will be used by Beck, Streufert and others to initiate specific conversations about women in ministry.
"My hope is that conversations which will be held across the church over the next five years in response to the survey results will advance initiatives that foster equality and healthy ministry opportunities in the ELCA," said Beck.
Worship resources are available to mark the 45th anniversary of women's ordination. In remembrance of this anniversary, Beck encourages members to give thanks for the gifts of all women, those rostered and as well as the many active lay leaders.
"It is still an amazing thing and a privilege for me to preside at worship, to celebrate the Eucharist, to welcome one into the family of God through the waters of baptism, to bring words of hope to people so in need of good news, to walk with folks through difficult times," said Beck. "And I am thankful for all those who have supported me and other women clergy through the years, my sisters and brothers in Christ."
A worship resource is available here: http://download.ELCA.org/ELCA%20Resource%20Repository/45thAnniv_WomensOrdinationSvc_051315.pdf?_ga=1.48926575.858137896.1422550247.
About the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America:
The ELCA is one of the largest Christian denominations in the United States, with more than 3.7 million members in more than 9,300 congregations across the 50 states and in the Caribbean region. Known as the church of "God's work. Our hands," the ELCA emphasizes the saving grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ, unity among Christians and service in the world. The ELCA's roots are in the writings of the German church reformer, Martin Luther.
*Erin Strybis serves as an associate editor in ELCA Mission Advancement.