The Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches, the largest organization of its kind in North America, will be led by a woman and an American Indian for the first time in its 107-year history.

"It's been pretty emotional," Noya Woodrich said Monday after her promotion was announced. She has been the council's senior vice president and executive director of the Division of Indian Work. "I'm excited about the things we can do yet, the growth we can see --the other people we can serve and other services we can provide, really continuing to explore the unmet needs in the community."

Effective July 3, Woodrich will lead the influential Minnesota faith group that has 700 member congregations, 25,000 volunteers and is considered the continent's biggest council of churches.

Woodrich, 41, started out as an intern for the council's Division of Indian Work in 1991 and worked her way up to director in 2001. Since then, the division's budget has grown from $1 million to nearly $4 million; its staff has doubled to about 45 employees, the council reports.

Established nearly 60 years ago to serve the social needs of Indians, the division is a major component of the council -- its work accounts for nearly half of the faith group's $8 million annual budget.

Woodrich's success in leading the division helped her stand out from the 300 other candidates vying for the job, said Simon Foster, chair-elect of the council's board. The 40-plus-member board unanimously agreed to appoint her president and CEO, Foster said.

"It mattered to us that she would be able to connect with incredibly diverse leadership groups ... an incredibly diverse group of folks that we serve," Foster said. "Our mission is to unite people of faith to serve people in need. That doesn't have a creed or color to it.

"I think clearly Noya has an ability to relate and identify and solve problems. At the end of the day, I think she's going to have a lot of credibility with a lot of different interest groups because she is a person of diversity herself."

Woodrich, an Athabascan Indian and Alaska native who has a 7-year-old son, says she was adopted and grew up in a white Lutheran household in Wisconsin. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees from Augsburg College.

She is also on the faculties of Augsburg and Metro State University and sits on a number of community committees and boards, including as vice chairwoman for the Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors.

Woodrich succeeds the Rev. Gary Reierson, who announced last summer he would step down after nearly 23 years of leading the council. He plans to teach at St. John's University School of Theology Seminary, and will continue serving on a number of boards.

He's credited with building the council into an organization that helps nearly 350,000 people a year through its many social programs. One of its largest and most well known initiatives is FoodShare, which provides more than half of all the food distributed by food shelves statewide.

Gichitwaa Kateri Church, a member of the Council of Churches and the only Catholic parish in the Twin Cities with a predominantly Indian congregation, welcomed Woodrich's appointment.

"We need to see different faces," said the Rev. Mike Tegeder. "These are things that are going to take place more and more. We welcome it. It's good news for the community because we like to see that people who were first here are still here and are still making an impact."

Rose French • 612-673-4352