18 candidates represent most diverse pool ever in Minnesota.
Never has there been a more diverse lineup of candidates for the Minneapolis area's Lutheran bishop -- so diverse that this month Minnesotans could elect the first minority leader of the nation's largest Lutheran synod.
Eighteen candidates are seeking the top job in the Minneapolis Area Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA): six female pastors, one black male pastor and 11 white male pastors.
"There is excitement about the process this time," said the Rev. Glenn Nycklemoe, 75, interim bishop of the synod. "There's a very diverse type of leadership, different ages, obviously male and female. I think it's a wonderful slate of nominees."
The election Feb. 17 and 18 comes as Lutherans are working to attract more ethnic minorities and overcome declining membership numbers.
The new bishop will replace the Rev. Craig Johnson, who stepped down after 10 years to become senior pastor at Mount Olivet Church in Minneapolis, following the death of the Rev. Paul Youngdahl in June.
Minnesota has the largest number of ELCA members of any state, with close to 800,000. Nationwide, the ELCA has nearly 4.2 million members. About 5 percent are people of color.
The quest for diversity
One of the nominees, the Rev. Kelly Chatman, 60, is senior pastor at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Minneapolis and would be the first person of color to serve as a Lutheran bishop in Minnesota if elected. Like other Lutheran leaders, Chatman believes more minorities in leadership positions could greatly help attract a more diverse population to the ELCA.
"Seeing a person of color or woman in that leadership role is an immediate statement that our church is serious in its embrace of diversity," Chatman said. "I think a lot of people ... they don't take the church seriously because they don't see how the church looks like their family, their neighborhood, their workplace."
One of the most important leadership positions in the ELCA, the Minneapolis area bishop serves a six-year term and is limited to serving two terms. Up to 1,000 representatives from Minneapolis area congregations will vote during the synod's annual assembly this month. Those participating in the voting will also have the chance to nominate more candidates for bishop during the assembly.
Synod officials have set up a website (www.mpls-synod.org/assembly/bishopnominees) with biographical and other information about candidates.
The Rev. Karen Geisendorfer-Lindgren, 55, a pastor at Lord of Life Church in Maple Grove, is one of the female candidates for bishop. Like Chatman, she believes it's vital that minorities hold positions of power in the denomination.
"I would want to be chosen because of my qualifications and background and experience," she said. "But I think that's also a reflection of our population. At least half of our [congregants in] churches are women."
Her competition for the post includes her husband, the Rev. Peter Geisendorfer-Lindgren, who is senior pastor at the 7,500-member Lord of Life Church. The couple say the campaign has brought out no animosity between them.
"We're still sleeping in the same bed," Peter joked. In fact, the couple share similar ambitions and goals -- chief among them, growing the church.
"It's what Jesus told us to do," Peter said. "We're supposed to share the good news. People are leaving the church. They just no longer care or new people aren't coming in."
Time to heal wounds
The ELCA nationwide has seen at least 600 of its congregations leave the denomination since its controversial policy change in 2009 allowing for openly gay and lesbian pastors in committed relationships to serve in the faith. The Minneapolis synod has lost 10 congregations since the policy change. In 2010, there were 188,710 members, compared with 214,003 in 2009.
Trying to rebuild those numbers will be among the next bishop's challenges, said Prof. Mark Oldenburg, who's written about the history of Lutheranism at Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, Pa.
"I think any bishop right now is going to be concerned with strengthening ties among congregations and among even just ELCA Lutherans that have been tested by issues the church has taken stands on that are controversial," Oldenburg said. The new bishop will likely "try to bring some energy away from fighting with one another and toward working on God's own mission, proclaiming the gospel and serving human need."
If anyone can make a difference, it's the Minneapolis area synod bishop, he added.
"There's a history of articulate, responsible, evidently gifted leaders who have been elected bishops" of both the St. Paul and Minneapolis area synods, Oldenburg said, noting that the ELCA's current presiding bishop, Mark Hanson, previously was bishop of the St. Paul area synod.
"Those are very visible synods and have lots of connections with other parts of the country as well."
Rose French • 612-673-4352