Two Short Reflections on Women’s Leadership as Teaching Theologians

Thank God for the Academic Vocation

[1] Thank God for the academic vocation. Without it, I have no idea when I would eventually meet, know, and eventually become a female leader in the Lutheran church. Insofar as colleges and universities continue to exist as expressions of the church in the world, female faculty have a wide-ranging influence on the church as well as the communities in which they and the church exist. Based in part on where I have lived throughout my life, I still in 2020 have never been a member of an ELCA congregation with a full-time female pastor. Though I did not have a female faculty advisor as a doctoral student, I had several influential female professors throughout my graduate theological education, and a stellar female faculty mentor when I was an undergraduate Religion major at a Lutheran college. Building on that, my companion teachers, scholars, mentors, and friends for twenty-five years have primarily been women. It is this community where I have been challenged, formed, and supported as a teacher-scholar and as a person of faith.

[2] Had I only known the ELCA as congregational life, I still might not have had a direct experience of women’s leadership in the church. It is because of the academic vocation that generations of women have been called and trusted to teach and mentor communities of learners. It is because of those generations that I carry a broader vision of church and a more diverse experience of it than can be found in many congregations. It is because of the academic vocation that I found a dynamic and diverse woman-church that has at times been the real life-giving connection between me and the Lutheran tradition. It is because of the academic vocation and because of Lutheran higher education that I can now count myself among the women leaders of the ELCA.

[3]  Without it, God knows where we would be now.

Caryn D. Riswold is Professor of Religion at Wartburg College. She co-authored with DeAne Lagerquist the chapter titled “Historical and Theological Legacies of Feminism and Lutheranism” in Mary Streufert’s edited volume Transformative Lutheran Theologies.

Reflections on Women’s Leadership in the Lutheran Academy

[1] Some of my best friends are female, ordained Lutheran pastors. I am female, a baptized and confirmed Lutheran Christian, but I am not a pastor; I am a historian and a college professor. In the late 1960s, Lutherans in the United States were studying women’s ordination and in 1970 the Lutheran Church in America and the American Lutheran church voted, like some European Lutherans and other North American Protestants, to ordain women. In those years I was a diligent and enthusiastic confirmation student in a post-WWII mission congregation in a midwestern university town. The contrast between what I learned about God’s grace and what I observed around me made me a feminist. Nearly half a century later, with one of my students–an undergraduate history major and aspiring archivist, I studied that debate, decision, and its aftermath. We constructed Fifty Years On: A Half-Century of Ordaining Lutheran Women. For my student collaborator this was a plunge into women’s history; for me it was also a recollection of my own experience.

[2] Fifty years ago Lutherans were wrestling with questions about ministry, about gender, about how to read the Bible, about the authority of the Confessions and secular knowledge, and about ecumenical implications. They did so in the midst of the second wave of American feminism and in a heady time for Christian ecumenism. Put sharply the dual issue was this: can women fulfill the pastoral office of word and sacrament? And, if women can, should these churches ordain them? Although few women were included in the official deliberations, for many the question was personal–both for girls still in confirmation class and for adult women who had been hearing the Spirit’s call since they were children. In the decades since, thousands of women have been ordained. When hundreds of them, vested in green, processed (some dancing) into a festival Eucharist service last August at the ELCA church-wide assembly, it took five minutes and brought tears to my eyes.

[3] However, my story is different from those women’s. Although I was encouraged to listen for a pastoral call, my seminary field education assignment made clear that my gifts are ill suited to parish ministry. Some of my classmates were puzzled by my discernment. Their reactions seemed to assume that I would covet the authority that their ordination would grant them. Perhaps they were even suggesting that lay leadership might be second rate. Another expectation leads some people to assume that I am a pastor: anyone with professional expertise in religion, particularly related to Christianity, certainly will be a pastor.

[4] Of course until 1970, lay leadership was the only sort open to Lutheran women. Some were volunteers or staff in their local congregations. Others were professionals in church agencies and educational institutions. Deaconesses occupied a liminal space between lay and clergy. For some women, women for whom that work was a second choice, the 1970 decisions opened the door to the pastoral office. But for other women the reality of women’s ordination also raised the possibility that lay ministry would be further devalued. One lay leader reported, in an oral history, that in 1970 a colleague remarked: “Now we’re going to be THIRD-class citizens.” Reading this comment last summer, I recalled my classmates’ unarticulated implication and the attitude that I sometimes still encounter: that my ministry is less valuable, less authentic, less holy for being a baptismal calling.

[5] Let me quickly add that this is not the predominant attitude and that I do not write these reflections as an expression of anti-clericalism. Indeed, in the midst of proper commemoration of these fifty years of women’s ordination, forty years since the first ordination of Lutheran women of color, and ten since the removal of barriers to ordination of LGBTQ persons, I am grateful that the door to the pastoral office has opened wider and that so many gifted persons, having passed through it, are proclaiming the gospel, baptizing, and feeding us at the table. In 2020, American society, our churches, and our views about identity are changed since the 1960s and those are changing still. Perhaps we in the ELCA have settled the question of whether a woman can be a pastor, but we are still wrestling with theological, ecclesial, and practical questions about the relationship between the priesthood of all believers and office of the pastor. This is so in multiple settings, not the least in the academy and for those of us — women and men — whose teaching vocation is solely (but not merely) baptismal.

DeAne Lagerquist is Harold Ditmanson Distinguished Professor of Religion at St. Olaf College. Her project on fifty years of Lutheran women’s ordination can be accessed at  Fifty Years On: A Half-Century of Ordaining Lutheran Women.

Caryn D. Riswold

Caryn D. Riswold, Ph.D., is Professor of Religion and Chair of Gender and Women’s Studies at Illinois College, and blogs regularly on the Progressive Christian Channel at Patheos.com.