“Sister, carry on!”

Bishops and other women in church leadership positions met in Wittenberg, Germany, to reflect on their experiences and to share advice and support. LWF/Marco Schoeneberg
Bishops and other women in church leadership positions met in Wittenberg, Germany, to reflect on their experiences and to share advice and support. LWF/Marco Schoeneberg

WICAS meeting of bishops and women in church leadership

(LWI) – “We owe great respect and a debt of gratitude to the women who were the first to move into leading positions.” This was the unanimous opinion of women bishops and church leaders about those who had trodden this path two or three decades ago. The latter include, for example, Maria Jepsen from the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Northern Germany, who in 1992 was the first woman in the world to be elected a bishop in a Lutheran church - 25 years ago.

One event of the Reformation Summer 2017 in Wittenberg, was a meeting of woman bishops and church leaders. It was hosted recently by WICAS, the Women in Church and Society Program of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) and the German National Committee of the LWF on the initiative of Bishop Ilse Junkermann of the Evangelical Church in Central Germany. From 10 to 14 August women from Germany, Greenland, Indonesia, Latvia, Norway, Suriname and Zimbabwe took the opportunity to share experiences from their respective contexts on the opportunities and difficulties for women in positions of church leadership and to offer each other advice and support.

Independent of their country of origin, women who are church leaders often find themselves confronting substantial reservations. The first women in the top positions of their churches have it the hardest, especially as they have no female role models. Progressively it gets easier and easier, says Ann-Helen Fjeldstad Jusnes, bishop from Norway: “Today it is not unusual for a woman to be a bishop. But forty years ago we women had to fight even to be ordained.”

Maria Jepsen, former bishop in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Northern Germany, was ordained in 1972 and became the first female Lutheran bishop worldwide in 1992. Photo: LWF/Marco Schoeneberg
Maria Jepsen, former bishop in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Northern Germany, was ordained in 1972 and became the first female Lutheran bishop worldwide in 1992. Photo: LWF/Marco Schoeneberg

Challenges to women in leadership

In her keynote presentation, retired bishop Maria Jepsen reported of colleagues and journalists who followed every step she took with a critical eye and commented accordingly. There were situations in which she was conscious of a lack of backing and public support, Jepsen admitted. She had stood up for a transparent handling of controversial issues and a leadership style close to grassroots levels. When working on draft proposals for decision by governing bodies, she had consulted those who would be affected by the decisions. This had often caused criticism from the central church officials. Jepsen underlined that she had always given priority to transparent communication and transparent leadership.

Margot Käßmann was the first woman elected to be the chair of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) in 2009 after becoming the first female bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Hanover in 1999. Photo: LWF/Marco Schoeneberg
Margot Käßmann was the first woman elected to be the chair of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) in 2009 after becoming the first female bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Hanover in 1999. Photo: LWF/Marco Schoeneberg

A few years after Maria Jepsen took office, Margot Käßmann was elected the first woman bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Hanover in 1999. Unlike her male rivals, she reported, she had first had to answer questions about how she would manage her family life and care for her four daughters. It had been encouraging, however, that changes were accepted - when a person proved she had, or could acquire, the necessary skills to go ahead. In 2009 she took on the additional office as chair of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD). The Russian Orthodox Church, which does not allow women to be ordained or take a leading role, then questioned the continuation of its dialogue with the EKD, which had been going since 1959. In 2012 – when Käßmann was no longer in this office – the dialogue was resumed.

Käßmann remarked that Luther‘s distinction between the office and the person was a helpful concept and a relief to her. It made it possible to be true to yourself without the “insignia of power”, she said.

Ilse Junkermann is the current bishop of the Evangelical Church in Central Germany in 2009. The church had just been formed from the Evangelical Church of the Church Province of Saxony and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Thuringia. Photo: LWF/Marco Schoeneberg
Ilse Junkermann is the current bishop of the Evangelical Church in Central Germany in 2009. The church had just been formed from the Evangelical Church of the Church Province of Saxony and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Thuringia. Photo: LWF/Marco Schoeneberg

Ilse Junkermann then spoke to the gathering. She comes from Western Germany and has since 2009 served as bishop of the Evangelical Church in Central Germany, which had just been formed from the Evangelical Church of the Church Province of Saxony and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Thuringia. “In eastern Germany the churches are clearly minority churches,” she stated. That means that the concept of an official church like a state church had died out and the church had to “reinvent” itself. She was convinced, Junkermann said, that a traditional womanly skill and art would be crucial for the church as it treads this new path – that of the midwife.

“That will be the prime task of pastors and congregational educators of both genders: standing by the baptized so that their gifts can be born and flourish. Accompanying them when these gifts are conceived and begin to take shape. Encouraging them to put up with the pain that comes with any change. Strengthening living processes and being there when things get tough.”

Chiropafadzo Moyo is a dean in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Zimbabwe and the only woman with a PhD. Photo: LWF/Marco Schoeneberg
Chiropafadzo Moyo is a dean in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Zimbabwe and the only woman with a PhD. Photo: LWF/Marco Schoeneberg

Looking into the Bible

Focusing on the topics of “family” and “women and leadership”, Chiropafadzo Moyo, a dean in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Zimbabwe, led a Bible study on 1 Samuel 1:1-23 (Hannah’s prayer and Samuel’s birth). Hannah was a woman who took decisions by herself, persevered in putting them into practice, was not deterred by the behavior and mockery of her co-wife Peninnah and communicated clearly and transparently with her husband.

What particularly characterized Hannah: “She was aware of her weaknesses,” said Moyo. “Most people talk about their strengths if you ask them about their weaknesses – but for successful leadership it is very important to be aware of your weaknesses.”

LWF News

19 June 2018
GENEVA, Switzerland
18 June 2018
TWIC EAST, South Sudan/GENEVA
17 June 2018
GENEVA, Switzerland
15 June 2018
KAKUMA, Kenya/GENEVA