Minneapolis-area Lutherans cast a historic vote on Saturday, electing the first female bishop to lead the nation's largest Lutheran synod.

A majority of nearly 700 Lutherans representing all the congregations in the Minneapolis Area Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) voted to install the Rev. Ann Svennungsen, 56, as the new bishop at the synod's annual assembly this weekend.

"The Minneapolis synod is very diverse ... a forward-thinking, forward-looking synod, and I think this reflects that," Svennungsen said after the vote. "I have a strong belief that leadership of the church needs to reflect the membership of the church. I think we're healthier and stronger when that happens. I'm so honored and humbled to be serving as the bishop."

The election comes as ELCA members work to attract more female and minority leaders in hopes of diversifying the synod. It also came a day after a majority of those attending the assembly backed a resolution opposing a proposed change to the state Constitution that would define marriage as between one man and one woman. That proposal, to go before voters on Nov. 6, would in effect ban same-sex marriage.

Minnesota has the largest number of ELCA members of any state, with close to 800,000. Nationwide, the ELCA -- the largest Lutheran denomination in the United States -- has nearly 4.2 million members. About 5 percent of them are people of color.

The new Minneapolis synod bishop joins a select group in the ELCA. Of the 65 ELCA synods nationwide, there are currently six female and two bishops of color.

At the start of the assembly on Friday, there were 18 candidates for bishop: six female pastors, one black male pastor and 11 white male pastors -- the most diverse lineup of candidates ever for Minneapolis Area Synod bishop. The list expanded to 46 candidates when more were nominated at the assembly. That number was winnowed to two.

The Rev. Kelly Chatman, senior pastor at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, was the other final candidate. He would have been the first black pastor elected synod bishop in Minnesota. Svennungsen captured 339 votes, while Chatman had 317.

A history of leadership

Svennungsen now serves as interim college pastor at St. Olaf College and has also held several leadership positions in churches. From 1989 to '94, she was co-pastor at Edina Community Lutheran Church in Edina. She next went to Trinity Lutheran Church in Moorhead, Minn., where she served as senior pastor until 2003. She left that post to serve as president of the Fund for Theological Education in Atlanta from 2003 to '07.

Svennungsen also served as the first female president of Texas Lutheran University, a post she held from 2007 to '10.

This election wasn't the first time Svennungsen was up for Minneapolis synod bishop. She was a candidate during the synod's election for bishop nearly 10 years ago but lost to the Rev. Craig Johnson.

A wife and mother of three grown children, Svennungsen introduced her family and thanked assembly participants. "I feel so grateful you have entrusted me to this call," she said. "I can't tell you how thrilled and excited I am." She will be officially installed May 6 at Central Lutheran Church in downtown Minneapolis.

Svennungsen will replace Johnson, who stepped down to become senior pastor at Mount Olivet Church in Minneapolis after the recent death of the Rev. Paul Youngdahl. Johnson lauded Svennungsen's election and said her past leadership roles will serve the synod well. He said he believes her election indicates that the ELCA and the synod are serious about attracting women and ethnic minorities to leadership positions.

"I could not be more delighted," Johnson said. "It's just a dream for so many here. What it signals is the beginning of, or the continuing of, our church to not be a northern European club and to move it into a diverse global and welcoming community."

The Minneapolis Area Synod bishop serves a six-year term and is limited to serving two terms.

Rebuilding numbers

The ELCA nationwide has seen at least 600 congregations leave the denomination since its 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. In 2010, there were 188,710 members, compared with 214,003 in 2009.

Trying to rebuild those numbers, as well as attracting more members of minority groups, will be among the next bishop's key challenges, scholars say, along with spreading the Gospel and trying to help those in need.

DeAne Lagerquist, a religion professor at St. Olaf who has written about women's roles in the Lutheran faith, said Svennungsen's election is significant because it reflects what the church "says it wants to be."

"The pool certainly makes clear that we have a diverse ... and well-qualified cadre of leaders," she said.

Alexandra George, a chaplain at Children's Hospital in Minneapolis who was at the assembly, said that as a black woman, she was happy with both of the top candidates for bishop.

"I'm pleased the synod is open to some kind of change," George said. "I think it shows a positive direction, and I'm really excited. It just represents that we're thinking more broadly because it's always been white males leading the synod. It's not say there aren't good white males who could lead the synod. But there are other good candidates as well who can bring a different voice ... help the synod move forward in maybe a different way."

Rose French • 612-173-4352