By Sue Sprang
SYNOD – My recollection of the first time I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up was when I was in the first grade and I immediately blurted out: “A pastor!” I remember the small number of people – mostly adults – being quiet for a moment, then I was told “Girls can’t be pastors.”
The same thing happened when I was in the fifth grade. At the time, all I could think was: “Who wouldn’t want to be a pastor?”
My dad was a Lutheran pastor and his work intrigued me. I loved going to church and Sunday school. I loved the music, the Bible stories, being with other people who loved Jesus. I thought it was so cool that Dad got to wear those fancy robes and get up in front of all the people and talk about Jesus and the world, teach people about the Bible, baptize babies, visit sick people, take Jesus (communion) to shut-ins, and who knows what else.
My family would host missionaries who were home on leave and I loved asking them questions and hearing them talk about the people and places they served. The maps and the encyclopedias would come out and I was a captive audience. Maybe I could do that!
Anyway, quite frankly, I don’t remember if either of my parents were among the adults who asked me the question, then turned around and told me I couldn’t do it. I would suspect they weren’t because I don’t remember any post-conversations, especially from my mom, who was a strong woman and placed no limits on women’s possibilities.
(I would later learn that Mom had once considered being a doctor – not popular in America circa 1950. And I have no doubt she would have attained that goal. But she said she really felt called to nursing – and she excelled at it.)
So, at the age of 10 years old, I gave up my dream of being a pastor, and turned my ambitions elsewhere. During my junior high years, I was determined to be an English teacher. I loved literature – reading, discussing, writing book reports and research papers (who doesn’t love footnotes?), finding entire worlds about which I knew little or nothing. And grammar? Diagramming sentences, writing essays, learning about dangling participles. What could be more fun? And wouldn’t it be fun to teach others to do the same?
But by the time I hit mid-high school, I had turned to social work as my college major. The Civil Rights movement, the needs of the poor, the awareness that there were children who suffered in many ways that were preventable… these and related things turned me toward wanting to help others in a meaningful way. And if I couldn’t be a pastor, then I could still make an impact as a social worker.
By the end of my first year of college, with an adviser who listened to what I was saying, I found that the school I attended (Capital University, Columbus, Ohio) had a major in Church Staff Work. I switched majors and knew immediately that I had made the right choice. I specialized in Christian Education, minors in sociology and history. (Side note: Pastor Joan Oleson of our synod was with me in many of those Church Staff Work classes!)
I married my husband in 1976, the same year he entered seminary. And lo and behold… there were women there! Women who were studying to be pastors! It was a tiny group, but they were there: Connie Sassanella, Susan Swartz, Paula Maeder Connor, and a few others. I was amazed!
There were times earlier in my adulthood when I felt the tug that maybe I should go for it and follow the ordained minister path. But, in my mid 30’s, I found myself taking another route and becoming an associate in ministry (now called a deacon) of the ELCA. I found I was in the right spot and have no regrets for the parishes I served (permanently or as an interim) in Ohio and Michigan, and I can confidently say that I was the right person to be administering our synod’s Lay Missionary Training Program (later evolved to Equipping Leaders for Mission & Ministry) at the right time, helping it to grow in many ways.
When I left that position, I did so knowing that there might not be another place for me in the synod. (I did put some parameters around myself, out of selfishness, not wanting to be called somewhere outside of my geographical realm.) So three years later, as dictated by ELCA policy, I was off the roster.
But there have been no regrets.
And one of the things I am most grateful for during my times as an associate in ministry, a person active in the synod, and as the spouse of a pastor, is the women clergy I have been able to meet and get to know. For me, they have become a source of hope, encouragement, and blessing.
AND SO… As of December 2018 (the latest statistic I could find), 32 percent of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in American’s ordained ministers are women. At the same time, roughly half of those in our seminaries preparing for ministry were women.
Most assuredly a “YES!” for God’s people!
AND SO… this piece is the introduction to a series raising up the women clergy of the North/West Lower Michigan Synod. They are receiving questions from me on an incremental basis and are responding to any, all, or none of them as they choose.
I think you, like me, will enjoy what these women have to say, from the serious to the playful. I look forward to writing these pieces and hope you will look forward to reading them!