In the biblical story of Esther, a young woman called by God “for such a time as this” uses her voice and influence to seek justice for her people. This ancient text echoes today in the #MeToo movement, exposing histories of gender-based exploitation and assault; in statistics that reveal continued inequalities between women and men worldwide; and in discussions about the meaning of gender and sexuality in human society—and in the church. 

Since last November, ELCA members have been gathering to read and discuss a draft of the church’s social statement on women and justice. Through prayer, study and conversation, Lutherans have pondered what it means to pursue justice for women—and all genders—in the church and the world, as Christians called “for such a time as this.” 

Here we introduce some of the many Lutherans who engage in learning, speaking and doing gender justice in their daily vocations. Their callings may differ, but they share a common foundation: the conviction that all people are made in God’s image and are equal in God’s eyes; that our identity in Christ, “neither male nor female,” invalidates patriarchal structures that create power imbalances between genders; and that God’s intention for the world is greater freedom for women, leading to greater freedom for all.  

Learning justice: Holy conversations 

Amy Marga, associate professor of systematic theology at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minn., started Feminist Café as an informal student reading and discussion group for feminist theology. Three years later, Marga has learned as much from her students as she has shared, including an understanding that sex and gender are much more varied, and less absolute, than the language of “male and female” allows. 

“The first step toward justice is recognizing that humanity is made in different ways,” she said. “If we take the imago dei (image of God) seriously … how do we do justice to the image of God in people?” 

Marga also finds support for gender justice in the theology of Lutheran vocation: “We are created and called by God” with many gifts. Still, at times the church “is not good at recognizing ‘many gifts,’ ” Marga acknowledged. “We haven’t recognized women’s, gay men’s or trans [people’s] gifts. God has been doing something new in our church, but do we have eyes to see it?” 

For Marga, gender justice involves recognizing God’s abundance in “what people bring to the table. No one is taking away something from us. If we recognize other people’s gifts, it’s not like our gifts don’t matter.”  

“God has been doing something new in our church, but do we have eyes to see it?”

Bringing all gifts to the table is likewise the goal of Grady St. Dennis, chaplain and director of church relations at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, Minn. For 15 years, Gustavus has facilitated a clergy wellness program called Pastor-2-Pastor that brings rostered ministers together for small-group learning and renewal. Last fall’s gathering, “Faith, Sexism and Justice,” used the ELCA social statement draft as a conversational “road map” and inspired a follow-up gathering focused on domestic violence.  

In his work with students, faculty and staff, and the St. Peter community, St. Dennis has learned that “identity matters. … We’re missing out when people can’t share all of who they are.” Gender justice means “equity in one area allowing all to flourish … [and] it’s as much good news for young men as young women,” he affirmed. 

Jim Arends, bishop of the La Crosse Area Synod, has also experienced the flourishing that can occur in holy conversations between congregations and rostered ministers seeking calls. “Gender justice means fairness, working at things as if we’re all the same qualified people, because we are,” he said.  

Arends and synod staff strive to build credibility with congregations so call committees can trust they are being presented with the best candidates for their ministries, regardless of gender or sexuality. In return, congregations are expected to interview all candidates. The goal is “to put an individual person in front of you, as opposed to [putting] your hang-ups in front of you,” he explained. 

It’s a process that can lead to new possibilities—as it did for Becky Goche, the first openly lesbian pastor called to English Lutheran Church in La Crosse, Wis. Goche, a married second-career pastor, expected to wait longer to receive a first call, knowing that many congregations are unwilling or reluctant to consider LGBTQIA+ pastors and deacons. The synod’s support affirmed her call and gifts, which helped congregants look beyond their preconceptions. This made gender justice as simple and profound as the conversations that led to Goche living out her calling, with the support and partnership of her congregation. 

Speaking justice: Lifting up unheard voices 

Some Lutherans find that their calling lies in amplifying voices often unheard in places of power. 

“Our mission is to bring about healing and wholeness in church, society and the world … and we help provide resources for women to live that out,” said Linda Post Bushkofsky, Women of the ELCA executive director. “People all over the world download and use” the Bible studies, devotional and educational materials, and other resources the organization makes freely available to the church in print and online, she said. 

Many of the resources intentionally focus on racism and other social concerns alongside gender. “Women who are from marginalized communities are disproportionately affected by injustice,” said Jennifer DeLeon, Women of the ELCA director for justice. 

Intersectional justice works to address the overlapping challenges faced by women who contend with racism, poverty, hunger and disability, as well as sexism. “We’re not all free if only some of us are free,” Bushkofsky added. 

Amy Reumann, director of ELCA Advocacy, also finds that freedom inspires her work. “Our gendered selves are all equal and marvelously cherished and loved by God … so as a church, we name and dismantle sexism and patriarchy, and seek to support more life-giving ways” of being, she said.  

“We’re not all free if only some of us are free.”

In 14 state public policy offices nationwide, including Washington, D.C., ELCA Advocacy works on a range of issues to ensure “the full participation of women and all genders in decision-making, so that their realities, needs and experience are fully taken into account in the formation of laws, regulations and policies,” according to its materials. 

ELCA social statements provide Advocacy staff with “tools and language to take into our work … [so we are] not just speaking for, but speaking with” the church as a whole—especially the people for whom it advocates, Reumann said.  

As program director for the Lutheran Office for World Community, a joint ministry of the ELCA and the Lutheran World Federation that represents Lutherans at the United Nations, Christine Mangale knows from experience what it means for the church to empower women. She grew up in the Kenya Evangelical Lutheran Church and came to the U.S. in 2009 through an ELCA scholarship. Today, she arranges for global Lutherans to speak at the U.N. to address human rights and other issues to ensure that women and girls—and men and boys—receive equal rights and dignity worldwide. 

“Our Bible … and our faith affirm that we are all God’s children [and that] women are equal and made in the image of God,” Mangale said. “[Therefore, gender justice also means identifying the gaps where] women are lacking access to quality education, equal work and pay, [and] places of decision-making.”  

Doing justice: From the kitchen table to the world

Gender justice also finds expression in “doing justice” by making a material difference in the lives of people of all genders. 

For Kara Haug, founder of Grace Unbound, this work takes the form of comprehensive sexual health education that helps children, youth and adults understand their bodies and sexuality without shame. 

Haug, a member of St. John Lutheran Church, Sacramento, Calif., and a graduate of Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, Berkeley, Calif., felt called to bridge her faith and theological training with sexual health education after years of working with youth in outdoor ministry, youth ministry and foster care. “I recognized the needs of the youth in yearning for information about their bodies and relationships,” she recalled.  

Through Grace Unbound, Haug teaches workshops on sexual health and gender identity in congregations and schools, and leads “table talk sessions” that gather families for frank, caring discussion. She finds that, despite some initial awkwardness, people are grateful for opportunities to connect their faith to the whole of their lives—body and sexuality included. 

“All of us wonder if we are OK. We want to be loved, seen, heard and cared for,” Haug said. “That is where we need to start in ministry.” 

This is also the starting place for the Healing Center, an ELCA social ministry housed at Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Brooklyn, N.Y., that offers holistic support for survivors of domestic abuse and their families, as well as programs of education and awareness about gender-based and relationship violence. Antonia Clemente, founder and executive director, sits on the Gender Justice Task Force for the City of New York, where, as an ELCA member, she said she is proud to be able to say she belongs to a church addressing this at the national level.  

“All of us wonder if we are OK. We want to be loved, seen, heard and cared for. That is where we need to start in ministry.” 

Still, Clemente is concerned that many congregations are reluctant to address issues of domestic violence despite its prevalence in communities and in the church itself. Part of the church’s responsibility, she believes, is repentance for the ways it has enabled or overlooked sexism and gender injustice. “Without repentance, how can there be reconciliation? But repentance means support,” she said. 

The Healing Center seeks to offer that support—and after nearly two decades of ministry, Clemente sees it as “a living testimony of God’s grace.” 

The ELCA International Leaders Program has also chosen in recent years to focus more intentionally on gender justice. The program has provided scholarships to members of global companion churches ever since the ELCA was formed. But “after 25 years of administrating the scholarship awards, we found that only one-third had been given to women,” said Tammy Jackson, program director. The problem wasn’t that female applicants were unqualified, but that so few of them applied in the first place.  

“We knew there were women out there who wanted to receive more education and access to training and deserved to have better futures—and we were inspired and compelled to create a track for women to address the deficit we had been experiencing,” Jackson said. 

That track is the ELCA International Women Leaders initiative, part of The Campaign for the ELCA, which since 2015 has offered scholarships to women from companion churches to complete undergraduate or seminary degrees at ELCA schools. Currently supporting 26 young women, the initiative has also increased women’s participation in the scholarship program as a whole; in 2017, for the first time, more than 50 percent of the scholarships were granted to women. 

The desire to accompany and empower global women also led the International Leaders Program to create the weeklong Wittenberg seminars for women who can’t commit to a formal four-year degree program. From 2014 to 2017, 100 women gathered to focus on the legacy of the women of the Reformation. This fall, the next generation of seminars will launch in Hyderabad, India, focused on action for gender justice, cross-cultural learning and leadership development. 

Some women from the seminars may go on to pursue International Leaders Program scholarships; many more will return to their communities inspired and equipped to lead. 

Ultimately, an ELCA social statement on women and justice will shape the gender justice work the church does on a national level. But it will also reverberate beyond the walls of the church. Adopting a social statement on gender justice would create “a huge opportunity for the church to be a public witness in the age of #MeToo,” Bushkofsky said. 

Clemente agreed: “This is the moment. This is the time. … A just world is God’s world … [and] to do justice, to be there, to walk with people—that’s our call.”

Find out more about the process for the ELCA’s social statements by searching for “social statements”  in the search box at the top of this page.

Learn about the work and resources of the ELCA’s Justice for Women program, which taps into Lutheran theological roots to address gender justice.

Read and respond to the “Draft Social Statement on Women and Justice” here. The task force will read and consider all responses submitted by Sept. 30. 

Meghan Johnston Aelabouni
Meghan Johnston Aelabouni is the incoming Synod Bishop of the Rocky Mountain Synod. She previously served as the ELCA Theologian-in-Residence for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land.

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