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Nation’s largest Lutheran parish with a female lead pastor

Easter Lutheran Church in Eagan has become

The Rev. Kris Capel was born the same year that Easter Lutheran Church, Eagan, was founded by the Rev. James Borgschatz. Photo provided by Easter Lutheran Church

When Lutherans in North America began ordaining women clergy in the early 1970s (the Lutheran Church in America first, then the American Lutheran Church), there was some question as to whether any of them would be able to get calls. Congregations were wary. Those women who succeeded in getting placed in congregations (not all of them succeeded) had to accept positions in “first-call” situations, marginal parishes, or on pastoral staffs where male pastors were the senior clergy.

Several years ago, Gloria Dei Lutheran, a sizeable Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) congregation in St. Paul, placed the Rev. Susan Peterson at its helm. Today there are a growing number of women clergy in Twin Cities area congregations. [Among the Lutheran church bodies, only the ELCA, the North American Lutheran Church (NALC), and Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ (LCMC) ordain women. LCMS, WELS, and the other Lutheran groups proscribe this practice, based on their understanding of Scripture.]

Now Easter Lutheran Church in the Twin Cities south-river suburb of Eagan has elevated the Rev. Kris Capel to the office of lead pastor. What is groundbreaking about this is the fact that Easter is one of the 15 largest Lutheran congregations in the United States, and the largest ever to select a woman to lead its ministry.

Capel (pronounced KAY-pul) told Metro Lutheran, “I’m excited about becoming the director of this [4,700 member] orchestra. I’m going to get to help a lot of people make beautiful music together.”

Some large congregations have been only loosely connected to their synods and the wider church. That didn’t happen at Easter.

Was this “double burger” (a graduate of both Wartburg College and Wartburg Seminary) surprised to be chosen from a field of more than 30 candidates? Says Capel, “Yes. At every turn. I was surprised to be included in the first interview, in the second, and in the final one.”

It was a case of “hiring from within” (although Lutherans don’t really hire their pastors — they call them). Capel had been on the staff at Easter for five years, serving on a team of five clergy, including the congregation’s founding pastor, the Rev. James Borgschatz.

In a curious twist of history, Borgschatz, fresh out of seminary, founded Easter Lutheran the same year Capel was born. He canvassed the streets and neighborhoods in the growing south Twin Cities suburb 38 years ago, organizing the fledgling (then-LCA) congregation with a handful of charter members in the basement of his home.

Over the decades since, the parish has grown with the community, adding clergy and lay staff, and expanding eventually to two campuses (one overlooking a suburban lake).

Says Borgschatz, “It was a combination of community growth and [the congregation’s] readiness to grow.” He remembers advice he got from the Rev. Thomas Wersell, then director of new mission starts for the LCA’s Minnesota Synod. Said former Metro Lutheran board member Wersell, “Jim, this is not about you. It’s the Holy Spirit. Don’t mess it up.” Borgschatz took the advice to heart.

Someone has astutely observed that “Lutherans don’t generally have mega-churches — except in the Twin Cities.” Those large congregations have been only loosely connected to their synods and the wider church. That didn’t happen at Easter. Borgschatz says this was intentional. “We understand partnership. We understand interdependence.” That sense of collegiality keeps Easter tethered in a healthy way to the St. Paul Area Synod — and to the ELCA.

What’s changed over the life of Easter congregation since Borgschatz launched the parish 37 years ago? “The way people connect to the Gospel has changed. It’s now less about institutions. But that change is not unique to Easter Lutheran. It’s cultural.”

As she begins her tenure as lead pastor, Capel is fully aware of the cultural shifts. “Our attendance and giving have both increased during the past six months, but our membership numbers have hit a plateau. This is happening to mainline churches across the country.” Still, she’s optimistic. “The opportunities are ripe,” she says.

Not many members departed from Easter Lutheran following the ELCA’s controversial votes on sexuality at the 2009 Minneapolis Churchwide Assembly. Capel credits Borgschatz’ leadership for minimizing the losses. “We didn’t bleed,” she says. “We were able to stay focused on ministry and mission. That’s a credit to [Borgschatz’] leadership. People here hold him in high esteem.”

Now Easter Church will get a taste of leadership from another lead pastor — its first woman, and only the second senior pastor in its history. Capel was installed on September 18. On October 8 the congregation will hold a farewell celebration for Borgschatz.

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