Updated September 26, 2020

The fall after I was elected bishop in 2007, I headed to a Chicago for my first 5-day meeting with the Conference of Bishops. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has 65 Synodical Bishops, and one Presiding Bishop. Of the 15 of us elected in 2007, two were women, Jessica Crist in Montana and Elizabeth Eaton in Northeastern Ohio, bringing the total to seven bishops who were women. At the end of the year April Larson retired, leaving us six. That number would stay the same until 2012, just eight years ago.

The paucity could be felt in so many ways. When we sang, the women’s voices could hardly be heard. The meetings were also dominated by men‘s voices, men’s thoughts and men’s concerns. I recall in morning prayer one time, Bishop Kurt Kusserow inviting the men to modulate their voices so the women’s voices might be heard. The result was stunning. It became a metaphor for our theological and ecclesial deliberations. How might the men to modulate their voices so the women’s voices might be heard?

This fall, 47% of the Conference of Bishops will be women, maybe more, once all synods have held their assemblies. Things have improved markedly, but there is still work to do.

Sexism is alive and well in the our society. Men are more likely to get the job, whether it’s president, doctor or CEO. In 2020, 127 (105D, 22R) women hold seats in the United States Congress, comprising 23.7% of the 535 members. 26 women are senators and 101 women are representatives. For years, people believed that women cannot be doctors, lawyers, airline pilots, or one of many other professions.

The church is not immune. Every synod has congregations that say the congregation “is not ready” for female candidates. We provide them anyway. If a congregation finds a gifted female pastor who is a good fit, they think twice about risking a male candidate who isn’t. A year later, if the call is going well, it’s a non-issue. Last year we had our first all-female slate of candidates for a congregation. Some raised eyebrows. Had it been all male candidates I doubt it would be an issue. Female pastors get ridiculous questions and comments, but that’s a different article.

Some religious traditions do not believe women are worthy or qualified for the pastoral or episcopal office. We disagree. The subordination of women is a cultural phenomenon antithetical to the gospel. The early church had plenty of examples of women in leadership, but this pattern got drummed out as Christendom emerged as a powerful political force. As Rosemary Radford Ruether said in Sexism and God-Talk, any expression or practice that in any way diminishes women cannot be true, since the Judaeo-Christian scriptures and the Christian tradition has as its center the flourishing of the human person.

Lutheran ordained the first pastor who is a woman fifty years ago, in 1970. Elizabeth Platz was ordained on November 22, 1970. She served as a campus pastor for 47 years.

It would take over two decades before for first female bishop to be elected. April Larson served as bishop from 1992 to 2008. Bishop Larson’s last meeting of the Conference of Bishops was my very first. We visited briefly. What must it have been like to be the only woman in the Conference of Bishops for three years?

In 1995 Andrea DeGroot-Nesdahl was elected bishop of South Dakota, then there were two. They would be the only two for the next five years until Margaret Payne was elected bishop of New England in 2000. Slowly the numbers grew. And yet, by 2010, 40 years after the ordination of Elizabeth Platz, there were only six female bishops, 9% of the Conference. The room was still very male, in so many ways.

During my first year as bishop, I started a note in my phone tracking the number of women bishops. Over the years I kept the list up, and even worked backwards historically. It seems one or two bishops who were women would get elected. Some years there were none. We discussed it as a conference. Because synod elect bishops, there is no way for existing bishops to balance the system. We can influence the culture, however, and recommend female leaders for visible roles such as senior pastors, deans, and synod staff.

In 2013 Elizabeth Eaton, Bishop of the Northeastern Ohio Synod, was elected Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, the first woman to hold that position. This was an encouraging step forward. Six years later she would be re-elected to a second term, on the first qualified ballot.

Then, in 2018, something remarkable happened. Six female bishops were elected. The number jumped to 17, 25% of the Conference. Then in 2019 eight more were elected. With a retirement and a resignation, that meant an increase of six. 23 was 35% of the Conference. In 2020, five have been elected so far. That’s 28/66, or 42%. In five short years the percentage of bishops who are women jumped from 15% to 42%. It begins to look more like equity. It feels more balanced in the room. The singing sounds like a full choir. Three more elections remain this year.

Below is my list as it currently stands. If you see errors, please offer corrections.

1992-1995

  1. April Larson (1992-2008)

1995-2000

  1. April Larson (1992-2008)
  2. Andrea Degroot-Nesdahl (1995-2007)

2000

  1. April Larson (1992-2008)
  2. Andrea Degroot-Nesdahl (1995-2007)
  3. Margaret Payne (2000-2012)
L-R: Bishops Andrea DeGroot Nesdahl, Margaret Payne, and April Larson.

2001

  1. April Larson (1992-2008)
  2. Andrea Degroot-Nesdahl (1995-2007)
  3. Margaret Payne (2000-2012)
  4. Margarita Martinez (2001-2007)
  5. Carol Hendrix (2001-2007)
L-R: Bishops Carol Hendrix, Andrea DeGroot Nesdahl, April Larson, Margarita Martinez and Margaret Payne.

2002

  1. April Larson (1992-2008)
  2. Andrea Degroot-Nesdahl (1995-2007)
  3. Margaret Payne (2000-2012)
  4. Margarita Martinez (2001-2007)
  5. Carol Hendrix (2001-2007)
  6. Marie Jerge (2002-2014)
  7. Wilma Kucharek (2002)

2006

  1. April Larson (1992-2008)
  2. Andrea Degroot-Nesdahl (1995-2007)
  3. Margaret Payne (2000-2012)
  4. Margarita Martinez (2001-2007)
  5. Carol Hendrix (2001-2007)
  6. Marie Jerge (2002-2014)
  7. Wilma Kucharek (2002)
  8. Clair Burkat (2006-2018)

2007

  1. April Larson (1992-2008)
  2. Margaret Payne (2000-2012)
  3. Marie Jerge (2002-2014)
  4. Wilma Kucharek (2002)
  5. Clair Burkat (2006-2018)
  6. Jessica Crist (2007-2019)
  7. Elizabeth Eaton (2007)

2008-2012

  1. Margaret Payne (2000-2012)
  2. Marie Jerge (2002-2014)
  3. Wilma Kucharek (2002)
  4. Clair Burkat (2006-2018)
  5. Jessica Crist (2007-2019)
  6. Elizabeth Eaton (2007)

2012

  1. Marie Jerge (2002-2014)
  2. Wilma Kucharek (2002)
  3. Clair Burkat (2006-2018)
  4. Jessica Crist (2007-2019)
  5. Elizabeth Eaton (2007)
  6. Ann Svennungsen (2012)
  7. Shelley Wickstrom (2012)

2013

  1. Wilma Kucharek (2002)
  2. Clair Burkat (2006-2018)
  3. Jessica Crist (2007-2019)
  4. Elizabeth Eaton (2007) – Elected Presiding Bishop
  5. Ann Svennungsen (2012)
  6. Shelley Wickstrom (2012)
  7. Tracie Bartholomew (2013)
  8. Suzanne Darcy Dillahunt (2013)
  9. Mary Froiland (2013-2018)
Newly elected Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton in 2013, with the first three female bishops of the ELCA. L-R: Bishop Margaret Payne, Bishop Andrea DeGroot-Nesdahl, presiding Bishop Eaton, Bishop April Larson.

2014-2015 – 10/66 is 15%

  1. Wilma Kucharek (2002)
  2. Claire Burkat (2006-2018)
  3. Jessica Crist (2007-2019)
  4. Elizabeth Eaton (2007)
  5. Ann Svennungsen (2012)
  6. Shelley Wickstrom (2012)
  7. Tracie Bartholomew (2013)
  8. Suzanne Darcy Dillahunt (2013)
  9. Mary Froiland (2013-2018)
  10. Patricia Lull (2014)
L-R: Bishops Elizabeth Eaton, Mary Froiland, Claire Burkat, Ann Svennungsen, Wilma Kucharek, Suzanne Dillahunt, Jessica Crist, Patricia Lull, Shelley Wickstrom, and Tracie Bartholomew

2016 – 11/66 is 17%

  1. Wilma Kucharek (2002)
  2. Claire Burkat (2006-2018)
  3. Jessica Crist (2007-2019)
  4. Elizabeth Eaton (2007)
  5. Ann Svennungsen (2012)
  6. Shelley Wickstrom (2012)
  7. Tracie Bartholomew (2013)
  8. Suzanne Darcy Dillahunt (2013)
  9. Mary Froiland (2013-2018)
  10. Patricia Lull (2014)
  11. Barbara Collins (2016)

2017 – 13/66 is 20%

  1. Wilma Kucharek (2002)
  2. Claire Burkat (2006-2018)
  3. Jessica Crist (2007-2019)
  4. Elizabeth Eaton (2007)
  5. Ann Svennungsen (2012)
  6. Shelley Wickstrom (2012)
  7. Tracie Bartholomew (2013)
  8. Suzanne Darcy Dillahunt (2013)
  9. Mary Froiland (2013-2018)
  10. Patricia Lull (2014)
  11. Barbara Collins (2016)
  12. Katherine Finnegan (2017)
  13. Kristin Kuempel (2017)

2018 – 17/66 is 26%

  1. Wilma Kucharek (2002)
  2. Jessica Crist (2007-2019)
  3. Elizabeth Eaton (2007)
  4. Ann Svennungsen (2012)
  5. Shelley Wickstrom (2012)
  6. Tracie Bartholomew (2013)
  7. Suzanne Darcy Dillahunt (2013)
  8. Patricia Lull (2014)
  9. Barbara Collins (2016)
  10. Kristin Kuempel (2017)
  11. Katherine Finnegan (2017)
  12. Deborah Hutterer (2018)
  13. Patricia Davenport (2018)
  14. Vivianne Thomas-Breitfeld (2018-2019)
  15. Idalia Negrón (2018)
  16. Laurie Skow-Anderson (2018)
  17. Sue Briner (2018)
In 2018, Patricia Davenport was elected the first African American female ELCA bishop.

2019 – 23/66 is 35%

  1. Wilma Kucharek (2002)
  2. Elizabeth Eaton (2007)
  3. Shelley Wickstrom (2012)
  4. Ann Svennungsen (2012)
  5. Tracie Bartholomew (2013)
  6. Suzanne Darcy Dillahunt (2013)
  7. Patricia Lull (2014)
  8. Barbara Collins (2016)
  9. Kristin Kuempel (2017)
  10. Katherine Finnegan (2017)
  11. Deborah Hutterer (2018)
  12. Patricia Davenport (2018)
  13. Idalia Negrón (2018)
  14. Laurie Skow-Anderson (2018)
  15. Sue Briner (2018)
  16. Lorna Halaas (2019 W IA)
  17. Laurie Larson Caesar (2019 OR)
  18. Shelley Bryan Wee (2019 NW WA)
  19. Regina Hassanally (2019 SE MN)
  20. Constanze Hagmaier (2019 SD)
  21. Laurie Jungling (2019 Montana)
  22. Susan Candea (2019 Central States)
  23. Leila Ortiz (2019 Metro DC)
Bishops at the 2019 Churchwide Assembly

2020 – 30/66 is 45%

  1. Elizabeth Eaton (2007)
  2. Wilma Kucharek (2002)
  3. Shelley Wickstrom (2012)
  4. Ann Svennungsen (2012)
  5. Tracie Bartholomew (2013)
  6. Suzanne Darcy Dillahunt (2013)
  7. Patricia Lull (2014)
  8. Barbara Collins (2016)
  9. Kristin Kuempel (2017)
  10. Katherine Finnegan (2017)
  11. Deborah Hutterer (2018)
  12. Patricia Davenport (2018)
  13. Idalia Negrón (2018)
  14. Laurie Skow-Anderson (2018)
  15. Sue Briner (2018)
  16. Lorna Halaas (2019)
  17. Laurie Larson Caesar (2019)
  18. Shelley Bryan Wee (2019)
  19. Regina Hassanally (2019)
  20. Constanze Hagmaier (2019)
  21. Laurie Jungling (2019)
  22. Susan Candea (2019)
  23. Leila Ortiz (2019)
  24. Ginny Aebischer (2020 SC)
  25. Amy Current (2020 SE IA)
  26. Tessa Moon Leiseth (2020 E ND)
  27. Amy Odgren (2020 NE MN)
  28. Joy Mortensen-Wiebe (2020 SC WI)
  29. Laura Barbins (2020 NE Ohio)
  30. Anne Edison-Albright (2020 E Cenral WI)
  31. Andrea DeGroot-Nesdahl, the second female bishop in the ELCA, is serving a one-year interim in the Northeastern Iowa Synod this year, bringing the Conference of Bishops to 31/66 (47%) women this year.