Marta Zachraj-Mikolajczyk received the news that she would be one of the first women ordained in the Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession in Poland (ECACP) on Feb. 24—the same day war thundered into neighboring Ukraine.

“I got the information in the evening from the bishop’s office that I will be ordained—the same day after I spent all day with our volunteers talking about what is going on in Ukraine,” she said.

As part of the Diakonia ministry in Wroclaw, a city in southwestern Poland, Zachraj-Mikolajczyk works with young-adult volunteers from all over Europe who come for a year of service in the church’s social ministries (a senior center, a kindergarten, a home for orphans). But on Feb. 24 they focused on what was happening in the country next door.

“I went with them to protest for peace,” she said. “We saw a lot of Ukrainian people checking their mobile phones to see if parents and friends are still alive. I got the information [about the ordination], and I was like, yeah, OK, this is not important right now. Right now, we have to think about how we can help these people.”

Zachraj-Mikolajczyk’s husband, also an ordained pastor, helped her acknowledge the significance of the ordination news and take a moment to celebrate, even in the face of war.

“He was more excited than I was,” she said. “I was like, ‘Yeah, but the war . . .’ and he said, ‘Yes, but try to thank God for that, you were fighting for that for many years! It’s a big step in your life.’”

A long road to equality

After more than 70 years of discussion and debate, the ECACP Synod voted at its October 2021 conference to ordain women. The last time the issue had come up for a vote, in 2016, it was narrowly defeated.

“I believe it’s a good decision and we will see good fruits come of it,” said ECACP Presiding Bishop Jerzy Samiac in a statement. “It has been a long process for the church and now we will find a way of walking together into the future.”

“Our prayers are with all the women who have prepared, worked and waited hopefully for this day, as well as with the church leadership that took this step forward,” said Marcia Blasi, Lutheran World Federation program executive for gender justice and women’s empowerment, upon news of the October vote. “Moving towards gender justice in the church and in society is our shared commitment and witness to the love of God in the world.”

“The celebration of the ordination of the first nine women as pastors in the Lutheran church in Poland is a moment of hope that the region needs right now.”

On May 7, against the backdrop of war, the church ordained Zachraj-Mikolajczyk and eight other women in Warsaw: Halina Radacz, Beata Janota, Wiktoria Matloch, Katarzyna Rudkowska, Malgorzata Gas, Katarzyna Kowalska, Karina Chwastek-Kamieniorz and Izabela Sikora.

“The celebration of the ordination of the first nine women as pastors in the Lutheran church in Poland is a moment of hope that the region needs right now,” said Rachel Eskesen, ELCA area desk director for Europe. “I’m so grateful for the faithful witness of this church and these leaders.”

A call to service

In her sermon at the ordination service, Halina Radacz acknowledged the gravity of the war in Ukraine. By that time more than 3 million refugees had poured across the Ukrainian border into Poland, many of them finding their way to ECACP congregations for help.

“Thirst for power has brought about the dramatic war on our eastern border and every other war in the world that has been and, I fear, that will be,” Radacz said. “War is the most hideous human word. The war in Ukraine and the perversion of power is leading to the death of innocent children, women and men.”

A desire for power is a natural human impulse, she said, but Christ calls us instead to live as servants.

“As women, before we decided we wanted to be pastors—presbyters—we were deacons—servants. Are we now going to stop being them? Aren’t pastors, regardless of their position and ministry, bound by the word of Christ to serve?

“Today, as the church, we are taking another step on this journey. We want to speak about love and bear witness to it; we want to speak about equality for all and show that it is possible; we want to teach mutual respect and show how to do it. So perhaps we are getting closer to the idea of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who wrote, ‘The church is the church only when it exists for others.’”

 By that time more than 3 million refugees had poured across the Ukrainian border into Poland, many of them finding their way to ECACP congregations for help.

Going home

Dressed in her pastoral robes for the first time, Radacz greeted her small congregation for Sunday worship the next day in their sunny, window-lit sanctuary in Zyradow, a Warsaw suburb. Congregation members greeted her with a standing ovation as she wiped away tears. They celebrated with gifts, flowers and desserts—after the choir reworded the final stanza of the sending hymn to personalize it for her.

Joining the festivities was a Ukrainian family being sheltered by the congregation—a 4-year-old boy, his mother and his grandmother. They expressed gratitude for the church’s warm welcome when too many Ukrainians huddle in the dark for safety.

After the ordination Zachraj-Mikolajczyk drove back to Wroclaw, nearly four hours away, and on the following Monday found herself hosting visitors from the ELCA who had come to learn more about the church’s response to the war.

She was lifted up by the ordination service, she said, and hopes her position  will give her a platform for speaking out against the war and helping people affected by it.

“I’m full of happiness to become a pastor,” she said, “but it’s not because I can be a pastor, but because there is a big change in the Lutheran church after 70 years of thinking about it and talking about it. This is a new opportunity for young women who are thinking about studying theology but changed their mind because they couldn’t be ordained.”

Just as Radacz had preached two days earlier, Zachraj-Mikolajczyk focused not on herself but on the needs of others. As the church in Wroclaw worked to assist refugees from Ukraine with housing, employment and education, the prayers of others kept her going.

“Keep praying for us,” she said. “It doesn’t matter which language, how you do it, just keep praying. . . . The prayers are really necessary.”

Gifts made toward Lutheran Disaster Response’s Eastern Europe Crisis Response are used in full to assist those impacted by the war in Ukraine.

Emily Sollie
Emily Sollie is a freelance writer, editor and communications consultant. She lives with her husband and 4-year old son in Washington, D.C., where she is a member of Lutheran Church of the Reformation.

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