On Feb. 18, Ann Svennungsen was elected the first female bishop of the Minneapolis Area Synod. She is also the first woman I saw in the pulpit. She became my inspiration for the ministry.
When I was 8 my grandmother sent me to a non-Lutheran Bible camp for the first time. I loved it. I experienced strictness but also learned about the love of Jesus. We did crafts and memorized Bible verses. Since we had to stand in the corner with a dunce cap if we didn't get the verses right, I made sure I knew all of them. And during daily worship I knew that someday I would stand behind a pulpit.
I was hooked — even though the boys could go outside and play baseball at recess while the girls played quietly inside (and were required to wear skirts). So when I returned home from my grandmother's that fall, I told my mother I wanted to attend church. "Seek and ye shall find. Knock and maybe they'll let you in," she responded, quoting author and humorist Garrison Keillor.
My mother suggested I attend church with friends. My first stop was the Unitarian Church, but I was disappointed when the kids were pulled out for Sunday school during the middle of the service. I wanted to worship — it was, after all, what had drawn me into the church and taught me about Jesus.
When we were invited to ask questions during Sunday school, I asked: "What do you believe about Jesus?"
"Well," the teacher stumbled, "we believe that Jesus was a good man who did many good things. And though he was a real man proven by history we don't believe that he was God."
Next I attended a Friends service. I was once again stymied by worship, expecting to see someone behind a pulpit and to hear a choir singing with an organ. I shifted uncomfortably in my chair, wanting to speak up. Could a child be moved by the Spirit, I wondered? I wanted to ask about their belief in Jesus, but the service was so foreign to my expectations that I wasn't able to do so.
A school librarian somehow heard about my quest for a church and had a biography of Martin Luther that she thought might interest me. "I like him," I said. "He's a rebel like me."
"There's a church not far from your house and your friend Kristen Bartell goes there," she said, suggesting I might go with her. "I think you'll like it."
I stayed at Kristen's house on a Saturday night — giggling and making French bread pepperoni pizza. On Sunday we made our way to Zion Lutheran Church in Iowa City, Iowa. When worship began I saw a tall blonde woman standing behind the pulpit in a flowing white robe that looked like a skirt. Women could stand where the men did, all the while wearing skirts!
Svennungsen was the first woman to serve as pastor of Zion. I had grown up in a progressive home and town with the understanding that I could do anything that the boys could do, even if it meant doing it in a skirt or in heels. But this was my first time actually seeing and hearing a woman preach.
Since that moment I've known that I was meant to be a minister in Christ's church. In 2007, I was ordained in the ELCA, and now this pastor who inspired me nearly 27 years ago was elected a bishop. You go Bishop-elect Svennungsen! Continue to inspire me — and girls everywhere — to grab that pulpit and never let go.
© 2014 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers