The Stone Cast Upon the Water

Post Author: Melissa Bills

droplet of water bouncing out of water with circular pattern resulting


The August 15 edition of the “Christian Century” magazine highlighted research done by Benjamin Knoll and Cammie Jo Bolin which shows that “girls who have had a direct example of clergy-women in childhood grow up with higher self-esteem, better employment records, and more education than girls who did not.” [1]

In a spectacularly coordinated move of the Holy Spirit, just three days later, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America celebrated the installation of the Rev. Viviane Thomas-Breitfeld to the office of synodical bishop. This past May, she and the Rev. Patricia A. Davenport became the first two African-American women elected to the office of bishop in the denomination’s history.

Davenport and Thomas-Breitfeld were two of six new women elected to the office of synodical bishop in the ELCA this year. If you’re keeping count, this brings the total number of women serving as synodical bishops in the denomination to sixteen. And then you can add to that the denomination’s Presiding Bishop, Elizabeth Eaton, who has been serving in that role since 2013.

To help put all of this in perspective, here’s your quick ELCA primer:

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is the largest Lutheran church body in the United States and is among the largest mainline denominations, with about 4 million members and nearly 10,000 congregations. The congregations of the ELCA are grouped into nine geographic regions. Each region is subdivided into synods, which contain anywhere from 30 to 300 congregations. There are 65 synods, and each synod is under the care and leadership of a synodical bishop. Meanwhile, the entire denominational organization is overseen by a bishop-in-chief, called the Presiding Bishop.

In 2015, the ELCA celebrated the 45th anniversary of the ordination of Lutheran women in the United States. As of that time, women made up thirty-five percent of all active ELCA clergy. Women made up nearly fifty percent of all people ordained in the ELCA between 2010 and 2015. Currently, women represent one-quarter of the total number of bishops serving the ELCA.

As a young clergywoman serving as an ordained minister of word and sacrament in this denomination, I feel both proud and hopeful looking at these numbers. I am pleased that the number of women serving and leading in this denomination continues to trend upward.

I am in a strange and beautiful context right now, where there exist thirteen ELCA congregations in and around my town. (As a point of reference, the population of our town is 8000 people!). Of these thirteen congregations, eight of them are served by women clergy. There are also a handful of women clergy serving in other denominations and in neighboring towns, which means that most of my colleague interactions are with other women – women for whom I am profoundly grateful, both for their gifts of ministry and for their friendship. I am grateful to be living in a place and time where women in ministry are the norm and not the exception.

But this isn’t the norm in most places. Even if the numbers trend positive, the truth is that the numbers still reveal a majority male clergy population and a majority male conference of bishops. Many of my colleagues have stories to tell about conflict in their current calls that is rooted in gender or stories to tell about difficulties in finding a call. The comment threads from the online reports of our historic season of bishop elections reveal an angry underbelly of denomination members who interpret the election of this new class of women bishops as a liberal agenda, something abhorrent to scripture, the root of our denomination’s decline, and the utter demise of Lutheranism into the future.

It is clear that there is still more work to do.

An unofficial cohort of pastors in the ELCA are profoundly concerned with continuing to resource and empower women to serve as leaders in the denomination. They have rallied around a goal of “20 by 2020,” hoping to achieve a goal of 20 women bishops by the year 2020.

It is my hope that this and other concerted efforts to follow the Holy Spirit into the work of raising up more women to the office of bishop will have a powerful and positive effect on the culture of ministry in the ELCA. I believe that the election of more women bishops, and women bishops of color, reflects the work that the Holy Spirit is doing within the ELCA to open up the denomination to a wider and more courageous vision of God’s grace made manifest in welcome, inclusion, and public witness. An increasingly diverse conference of bishops reflects and models for the denomination a more faithful and expansive vision of leadership.

This spring’s historic bishop elections come during a broad season of the Spirit’s stirring. The ELCA is currently working on a draft of a social statement on women and justice, adding to a long list of public statements about faith and society. A grassroots movement in the ELCA called #decolonizelutheranism continues to break down racial and cultural assumptions about the denomination and to refashion a more expansive and faithful Lutheran identity that is not grounded in a primarily white, Euro-centric ethos. This past summer’s triennial ELCA Youth Gathering in Houston, Texas, featured an intentionally diverse range of speakers across age, race, culture, gender, gender expression, sexuality, and life circumstance. Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton continues to make courageous public statements in support of immigrants and refugees, and against unjust policies that discriminate against neighbors of color and neighbors of different faiths.

The Holy Spirit is at work in the church. And it is a crucial time for the blowing of this Spirit.

Within the ELCA and beyond, it is an anxious time to be the church and to be a leader in it. Many of our congregations and our denominations are in a state of decline, reflecting a broader decline in Christianity itself in many of our contexts. The church is newly confronting old damages done by systems of unchecked power, privilege, patriarchy, sexism, and racism. We live in a world that is increasingly hostile or apathetic toward Christianity, and the church is thus being challenged to evaluate the distinctive witness of our faith.

If the gifts and leadership of women clergy can have a measurable, positive influence on the lives of girls and young women, then what positive influence might these same gifts and leadership of women clergy have on the life of the church? What hope do we offer, simply by our presence? What new work of the Spirit is being done through us? What peculiar and necessary creativity, sensitivity, and strength do we bring to the task of loving God, loving neighbor, serving community, seeking justice, and building up the church, the body of Christ?

As Bishop-Elect Davenport reflects, “We can do more, and we can do it together. How do we move from the mentality of ‘the church is declining, the church is declining,’ to building up the kingdom of God? That’s what we’re called to do. I’ve said this, and I’ll continue to say it until it happens: We are the stone that’s cast upon the water to cause a ripple effect in the ELCA. People get excited about that. Who, us? Yeah, us.” [2]

[1] “Century Marks: Pastoral Example.” The Christian Century, 15 Aug. 2018, p. 8.
[2] McFarlan Miller, Emily. ‘She Is Loose’: A Historic Group of Female Lutheran Bishops on #MeToo and the Holy Spirit. Religion News Service, 25 July 2018, https://religionnews.com/2018/07/25/new-elca-female-synod-bishops-talk-metoo-religious-left-what-lutheran-looks-like/

Melissa Bills is ordained in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and is currently serving First Lutheran Church in Decorah, Iowa.

Image by: TimOve
Used with permission
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