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Women senior pastors of large congregations still exception in ELCA

Photo provided. Rev. M. Susan Peterson

“The church is changing. There is a world of cultural shifts happening,” reflected the Rev. M. Susan Peterson of Gloria Dei Lutheran Church (ELCA) in St. Paul, as she discussed women’s ordination. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the ordination of women in the then-American Lutheran Church, and since then there have been a number of changes. But for many individuals, the changes are not yet complete.

“I just hope anyone, male or female, with a sense they are being called to that position would dare to risk being in a leadership role.”

On August 15, 2010, Peterson will retire, marking 25 years at Gloria Dei, and 28 years of ordination. Her retirement is significant because, when she became the senior pastor at Gloria Dei in March 1990, she became the first female head pastor of a larger ELCA congregation.

Gloria Dei’s call of Peterson was significant, and at the time it represented an anomaly. And it still does today.

A survey conducted by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s department for research and evaluation in 2005, as part of the 35th anniversary of the ordination of women in the ELCA, found that white males were the most likely demographic to receive a call as a senior pastor. Of the respondents, 24 percent were senior pastors. Of that number, only three were not male.

“For the same reasons there is a glass ceiling for women in corporations, there is still one in church,” said Glenndy Ose, bishop’s assistant at the Minneapolis Area Synod. “Of course, there are exceptions and it isn’t impermeable, but it does exist,” she added.

“It isn’t theologically thought out or named, but the assumption is still that the head pastor is a male,” Ose said.

Those assumptions manifest themselves in a number of ways “I think a lot of people thought I couldn’t manage the church,” Peterson said discussing the resistance she received to being called as the head pastor. “The scrutiny I experienced was incredible. The call process took a lot longer,” she said.

Peterson’s experience is supported statistically by the survey conducted prior to the 2005 ELCA survey:

When a similar survey was conducted in 1995, Ose was a staffperson in the Department for Synodical Relations. She worked with the Department for Research and Evaluation to put together the survey. She said that survey showed that women traditionally wait longer for a call. The 2005 survey found that among first call candidates, the waiting period between men and women have become more similar. Men, however, are more likely to receive a call within one to four months.

Such assumptions can impede congregations in their efforts to support women in their role as pastor and female. This lack of support often leads to burn out. The Rev. Tania Haber, Westwood Lutheran Church (ELCA), St. Louis Park, Minnesota, said, “I know a lot of my colleagues didn’t receive the support I did.”

Haber was the first woman called to a senior pastor position of a large congregation in the Minneapolis Area Synod. “I realized that during the years we (women pastors who entered seminary during the early 1980’s) were having babies, many didn’t last. I think many in the church weren’t sure how to support women,” she said.

As churches and women struggled with the roles of women serving as pastors, integration was stymied. The Rev Heather Hammond, interim senior pastor at All Saints Lutheran Church (ELCA), Minnetonka, Minnesota, said, “The skill set needed to run a large congregation is very specific; not every pastors has that skill set. It has taken time to develop enough with the skill set and experience needed.”

“There has always been a cadre of capable women, though,” she added. “Early on there were few models for women pastors. it was hard to know how a women should lead to build up the body of Christ without becoming a male,” Hammond said. However, as women integrated into the church and society, models developed.

“A person from the corporate world who is used to a woman CEO will be more accustomed to shared leadership between men and women.” Hammond said. The assumptions that kept women from leading congregations are challenged daily.

“The idea of an out and in-front leader does not carry as much currency. Now the qualities of a good leader include an ability to live with uncertainty and collaboration, said Hammond, referring to a June 28 “A Renewal Enterprise” newsletter. “These qualities are natural to many women,” she added.

“As needs change, women are seen as a good fit. Of course many men have these skills, too,” Hammond noted. “These changes are allowing many people new opportunities.”

The impact of barriers to women’s leadership on the whole church:

The barriers that keep women for serving in leadership roles have not only affected women. It affected the larger church, as well. “It is a stewardship issue. It is about who can help build up the body of Christ,” Hammond said.

While gender assumptions still persist, synods do not accommodate requests for a male only candidate. “If there is a good match for the congregation, we are going to recommend that candidate,” Ose said. “There are examples of a congregation saying they are sure they are only interested in a male, and there is a female that would fit the congregation perfectly. After meeting the candidate, the candidacy committee explains to the congregation why this candidate is the right match,” Ose said.

“That is when the Holy Spirit is at work,” said Pat Hansen, a bishop’s assistant working with the roster/call process of the Minneapolis Area Synod. What tends to challenge assumptions about women leading is having direct encounters. “Actual encounters with female candidates helps committees think through who is a right fit,” Ose said.

Peterson’s experience matches this sentiment. “Doing ministry with people changed people’s minds. When people were in need or able to see that I was open and willing to learn, in those places where God intervened and that holy ground was filled, that is where things changed,” Peterson said.

As assumptions change and women integrate more holistically into church, everyone benefits, according to several of these ELCA pastors. “The gifts women bring to ministry offers balance and a holistic staff,” Haber said. “The advantages for the congregations are great,” she added.

While changes in the church and society open congregations to new models of leadership, there is still a disparity between men head pastors and women head pastors. “The number of women who are senior pastors of a large congregation is still relatively small,” Haber said.

As assumptions about women in leadership roles change it is important that women feel empowered to consider themselves equipped for calls as a senior pastor. “I am concerned that women may not choose to lead. We need the wisdom of women in leadership positions,” Peterson said.

Women ready to step into leadership roles:

Metro Lutheran photo: Ryan Cosgrove. M. Susan Peterson, pastor at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, St. Paul, since 1990, is set to retire August 15. She is a pioneer in serving as senior pasor in a large ELCA congregation.

It appears that more women are considering themselves ready to serve in a leadership role. “It is a good sign that there are women who want to lead, instead of seeking the more traditional role of females,” Ose said.

“We are blessed to have really good women who are ready to lead,” Ose added. Another barrier women face is there are not enough large congregations to accommodate capable leaders. “That is part of the dilemma,” Ose said. “If the Minneapolis Area Synod doesn’t have enough congregations to consider the capable applicants, other places are going to be facing this issue, too.”

In the ensuing 40 years since 1970, a number of changes have occurred, but it is clear the process of complete and meaningful integration is still underway. Now, however, the church, synods, and candidates stand in a different position.

“Recently I celebrated my 25th anniversary of ordination,” Haber said. “It was great and I received cards from young adults thanking me for being their pastor. Those cards made me think, now for the first time in history there is a generation of people who have grown up with a women as the primary pastoral role model,” she said.

As this next generation seeks ordination and forms call committees, many hope that the process of integration will continue. “There are a lot of women doing great work,” Peterson said. “I just hope anyone, male or female, with a sense they are being called to that position would dare to risk being in a leadership role.”

Hammond sees this emerging epoch as full of promises. “Instead of using energy to explain why women are in the church and proving they are competent, energy can be used in new proactive ministries,” she said.

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