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​Female Clergy Advocate For Social Change as ELCA Leaders

September 20, 2018

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From politics to humanitarian crises, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) is continuously responding to an ever-changing world. Clergy are often seen as very influential members of our society and females in church leadership are utilizing their positions to elevate causes they feel personally obligated to address.

Whether its family separation, the #MeToo movement, or LGBTQ+ issues, women like ELCA Southwestern Texas Synod Bishop Rev. Sue Briner and TLU Campus Pastor Kara Stewart are ready to have these conversations with their congregations. Bishop Briner was one of six elected women bishops this year—a record for the ELCA.

While there seems to be a growing number of female church leaders, Pastor Stewart says this is actually part of a worldwide trend.

“Women are taking on leadership roles in lots of fields and the church is just one area where our voice is finally being heard,” she said. “We’re not saying new things, but we’re being heard by men who are in power. When power is shared, there is a noticeable difference among everyone. While it’s not strange to see women pastors and church leaders, especially in larger cities and urban areas, we’re opening up a bigger conversation because now we’re actually starting the conversation. We’re finally in a place where we can initiate the conversation and discuss new perspectives. We already come at things non-traditionally and we don’t do what has always been done.”

Pastor Kara Stewart

For Bishop Briner, this representation is powerful and often makes congregants feel more comfortable to discuss timely or difficult topics they feel intersect with their faith.

“It’s important for our girls and young women to have strong role models in leadership so they can imagine themselves in these kinds of roles and have the courage to step forward,” Briner said. “It’s also critical that we show there is no one right way to lead. Women don’t need to behave the same way men do to have valid leadership. The days of the ‘lone ranger’ clergy person need to be over. Networking, collaboration, servant leadership, and equipping others are skills needed in today’s church.”

From her perspective as a leader in the church, Pastor Stewart says having women initiating new ways of doing ministry opens up spaces for other people to “sit at the table.”

“Women are engaged and participating in ways that weren’t allowed or even thought of before,” Pastor Stewart said. “Because of my role in the church and the fact I’ve been heard gives me confidence to be prophetic in the world. Congregants are now participating in other movements because they see it as a faith issue for them to speak up. We see folks in our community engaging with issues as people who are trying to follow Jesus. Politics is taking a backseat to compassion. We’re reclaiming community and inspiring people whether that’s running for public office or being part of social ministry groups.”

Pastor Stewart sees a renewed interest in what the church says and how what’s happening in our country is related to what she and her colleagues preach on Sunday mornings.

“As progressive Christians, it gives us a place to reclaim that we’re on the side of the oppressed just as Jesus was,” she said. “This is a prophetic moment in time and it reminds me of the story of Esther in the Bible. As progressive Christians we’re feeling that. We take a risk being out front and vulnerable, but there is no doubt that this a moment we will remember even if there are fewer people in the pews and fewer dollars in the offering plate. We will still not regret speaking truth to power.”

Bishop Briner recognizes that our society is deeply divided on many issues. Women, she says, can lead the way when addressing difficult topics.

“Women tend to be more collaborative, better listeners, and bridge builders, which are hugely critical skills for our world right now,” she said “Because women have in the past and present often been marginalized or discounted, we can better understand and advocate for others who are being marginalized like other women, persons of color, LGBTQIA persons, and immigrants. Also, with all of the abuse and cover ups that have gone on in the church and in society right now as it relates to sexual abuse and harassment, people are very mistrustful of current leadership and ready to elect or appoint those who will no longer tolerate this kind of behavior or culture.”

Bishop Rev. Sue Briner

According to Bishop Briner, the ELCA creates social statements as teaching and policy documents to help congregations in thinking about and discussing the intersection of daily life and faith. The current social statement draft that is being discussed in congregations now is about women and justice. She is hopeful they will be officially adopted at their next churchwide assembly.

“I appreciate that these statements offer a wide range of perspectives so that people on all sides of issues can have thoughtful, helpful discussions,” she said. “This is especially important in our polarized times. We also have amazing agencies and institutions. For instance, Lutheran Disaster Response does a wonderful job responding to human need in a holistic fashion, both domestically and worldwide, and they stick around after a lot of other agencies have left. Upbring in Texas works with foster care, adoption, and has shelters for immigrant children. We also have a program called AMMPARO that specifically addresses the challenges of unaccompanied minor immigrants. We are a church that cares deeply about caring for those who are the last, the lost, and the least in our society.”

As the amount of incredible change within the church parallels the changes in our world, Bishop Briner says while the church is moving forward, they still struggle with figuring out how to respond.

“There are no easy answers,” she said. “It requires trust in God, attentiveness to God’s spirit, and a willingness to let go of what no longer works. We must be bold, take risks, experiment, try, fail, try again, and keep trying for the sake of this incredibly good news about Jesus. I am excited to be a part of the church at this point in time. It’s a time for adventure, for pioneering, for following the Spirit wherever God leads. And we have an incredible mission field here in this diverse territory of our Southwestern Texas Synod; From north of Georgetown, all the way to the border in McAllen; from the Hill Country to the West to Corpus Christi to the East. I look forward to being part of whatever God is up to.”

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