In January the ordination of Sally Azar as the first female pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land (ELCJHL) was celebrated worldwide. This historic moment emphasized a powerful message of acceptance and progress in the church’s journey toward gender justice.
Though Azar blazes a path for women in the ELCJHL, she isn’t the first Palestinian Lutheran woman to be ordained. The ELCA ordained Niveen Ibrahim Sarras, a Palestine native, in 2016, and she now serves as pastor of St. Mark Lutheran Church in Neenah, Wis. She came to the United States because the ELCJHL didn’t ordain women at that time.
Sarras’ first call was with Immanuel Lutheran Church in Wausau, Wis., where she served six years. Last year she began a new call at St. Mark after expressing interest in ministering in a metropolitan area and engaging with more lay leaders.
Living Lutheran spoke with Sarras about her ministry and whether she considers herself a trailblazer for ordained Palestinian women.
Living Lutheran: How did you feel when you learned about Sally Azar’s ordination?
Sarras: It was an amazing moment to learn of Sally’s ordination but also heartbreaking because I couldn’t be ordained in my country and be close to my family. I’m very happy for her. I pray that her ordination will open the door for other women, particularly those of less privilege. I’m grateful to God and to the ELCA for my ordination.
How have you broken barriers as the first Palestinian Lutheran woman to be ordained?
If God called me to be a pastor here, then God also calls women in Palestine. I am the first Palestinian woman to be ordained but not the last. I did the hard work. Like John the Baptist, I prepared the way for Sally.
There is nothing more fulfilling than being a pastor, and I love my ministry. All the years of struggling and working hard to become a pastor, and the rejection I got from my church at home, was all worth it to be where I am. I hope the church will open the door to all called women. When God calls a person, God will make a way. I’m a living witness.
What was your journey to ordination in the United States?
My undergraduate study was at Bethlehem Bible College in Palestine, and I went to Egypt Presbyterian Seminary in Cairo for a master’s degree in biblical studies. There, I also studied Greek and Hebrew, languages needed to pursue a Ph.D. in Old Testament. When I returned home, I was the director of Christian education and church secretary at Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem from 2005 to 2008. I tried to convince my church to ordain me—and to help me get a doctorate—but at the time, it didn’t support female ordination.
Disappointed, I came to the United States in 2008 for two reasons: One, to get a doctorate in Old Testament that wasn’t available in Palestine, and two, to seek ordination. I earned my master’s degree in biblical studies and a Ph.D. in Old Testament at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. I later earned a Master of Divinity degree from Pacific Lutheran [Theological] Seminary in Berkeley, Calif. I was ordained in Minneapolis, where I was an intern.
How were you called to ministry?
I grew up in a Catholic and Greek Orthodox family but attended a Lutheran school and worshiped at the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Reformation, so the Lutheran church was familiar. I studied Christian education at Bethlehem Bible College to be a tour guide because the profession required [knowing] the Bible. While [I was] a student, a friend invited me to worship at a Catholic church. As I watched the priest celebrate communion, the Holy Spirit moved me, and a voice inside me said, “I want you to do as this priest. I want you to be a minister like this priest.”
I started talking to my family and my church about my desire, but no one would believe me, because a woman [had never been] ordained. I strongly felt God calling me to bivocational ministry—the Bible and being a pastor, a ministry of word and sacrament.
What is your ministry style?
I prefer team ministry and working with laypeople. I like to connect with more people in the kingdom of God, and I believe in the priesthood of all believers. I have a democratic style and enjoy making decisions with a congregation. Decisions are best supported when church members have a say.
Do you have any closing thoughts to share?
The ELCA is a pioneer in inclusion and social justice. My hope is that it expands to raise the voices of those who are from Middle Eastern backgrounds. We can be an even more inclusive church.