The Rev. Ann Svennungsen is ready for her next challenge. She's been tested before.

In a week, Svennungsen will take on the flowing robes of the bishop of the Minneapolis Area Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the largest synod of the largest Lutheran denomination in the United States.

In her career, Svennungsen has faced sexism and breast cancer. In the past year, she lost her mother and learned her 27-year-old son, who has Down syndrome, has leukemia.

She knows what faith means. "Even if you're in the depths of ... the valley of the shadow of death, there is this profound presence and comfort and hope of God there," she said.

From those depths, Svennungsen, 56, has climbed to a sixth-floor office near downtown Minneapolis, the base from which she will face her newest challenges as the first female Lutheran bishop to serve in Minnesota.

Her election comes as the ELCA deals with declining membership and works to attract more female and minority leaders to the historically white denomination with Scandinavian and German roots. The synod also recently came out against the marriage amendment -- which if passed in November would change the state Constitution to define marriage as a union between a man and woman.

"I hope her election causes every synod ... to look deep within who are gifted people for leadership ... gifted women and persons of color," said the Rev. Mark Hanson, presiding bishop of the ELCA, who will install Svennungsen at the ceremony at Central Lutheran Church in Minneapolis.

Blazing a trail

When Svennungsen takes office, she'll be in rare company. Of the 65 ELCA synods nationwide, there are six female bishops and two of color. Some 16,811 people serve as clergy in the ELCA -- 3,836 of them women. Minnesota has six synods, and none has ever elected a female bishop until Svennungsen.

"If you're the first woman in a leadership role ... you are scrutinized really from all angles. People are having to do some mental and emotional adjustments, and that just takes time," she said.

Minnesota has nearly 800,000 ELCA members, more than any other state. Nationwide, the ELCA has nearly 4.2 million members.

An accomplished minister, religious educator and mother to three grown children, Svennungsen has blazed a trail much of her 30-year career. A Montana native, Svennungsen credits much of her pioneering spirit to her grandparents, who were early settlers in the state. Her paternal grandfather was a Lutheran minister who came from a long line of ministers in Norway.

"That pioneer spirit is part of who I am, part of what I really think characterizes me," she said. "They [grandparents] were willing to set out on an unknown path. The fact that our family was so connected to the church was inspirational to me."

Women couldn't be ordained in the Lutheran Church until Svennungsen was 15. "So it wasn't part of my imagination as a young child," she said.

It wasn't until college, when she was elected the first female student body president at Concordia College in Moorhead, that she began to envision herself a leader.

"So then I thought I love to ... lead something that matters and make some positive difference," she said. "I'll go to seminary because the church is a community that matters."

At Luther Seminary in St. Paul, she met her husband, Bill Russell, also an ordained minister. They married in 1979 -- the same year she got her first real taste of sexism in the church.

"When it was time to do that year of internship, we wanted to go anywhere outside of the Midwest. We got assigned to Portland, Ore. One congregation was like, sure, 'We'll have Ann, We'll have Bill, either one is just fine. And the other congregation said, 'We'll only take Bill.' Then two weeks later, they called back and said, 'He's married to a woman who wants to be a pastor. We don't want him.'"

After seminary, Svennungsen and her husband served as associate pastors at Zion Lutheran Church in Iowa City. There she and the senior pastor's wife, Mary Nilsen, took on the all-male language for God.

"She was a real groundbreaker in terms of women in the church, of course," Nilsen said. "Two of our daughters became clergy, and I suspect they never would have if they had not had this image of Ann."

Nilsen recalled the impact Svennungsen had. "She was pregnant twice during that time. She'd be standing up in front of the congregation with her flowing robes and leading liturgy in kind of full womanhood, which was quite an image for our children."

The Rev. Erik Strand was a co-pastor with Svennungsen at Edina Community Lutheran Church from 1989 to 1994, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a mastectomy.

"She took the diagnosis like a lot of people do, both with the shock and the fear ... but also with the sense that she still had responsibilities and a call," Strand said.

The call took her from Edina to Moorhead to Atlanta to Texas, where she served as the first female president of Texas Lutheran University. She was interim pastor at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., when she was elected bishop.

Rebuilding membership

Svennungsen will replace the Rev. Craig Johnson, who stepped down to become senior pastor at Mount Olivet Church in Minneapolis.

She assumes one of the most important leadership positions in the ELCA at a time of turmoil. The ELCA nationwide has seen at least 600 congregations leave since it voted in 2009 to allow openly gay and lesbian pastors in committed relationships. The Minneapolis synod lost 10 congregations; membership dropped from 214,003 in 2009 to 188,710 in 2010.

Rebuilding those numbers will be among her challenges.

One of her first plans is to meet with each of the synod's 155 congregations to talk about their concerns and try to ease any lingering tensions.

She's choosing not to discuss specific plans for her tenure and wants to refrain from commenting about the marriage amendment until other state synods have weighed in.

Instead, for now, she wants to enjoy the celebration and reflect on what it means to be a Lutheran leader.

"I really deeply believe that the Gospel, the grace of God, is a message that changes lives, that heals, that gives hope," she said. "And that, it never becomes unneeded in our life."

Rose French • 612-673-4352