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Called to empathy

February 18th, 2019

By Bishop Ann Svennungsen

What a weekend! On Saturday I was honored to convey the church’s deep gratitude at the funerals of John Nelson and Orval Westby, two pastors who’d been ordained for 63 and 73 years respectively. Seventy-three years! I’d have to live past 2055 to claim that.

On Sunday, I was privileged to preside at the ordination of Ian McConnell, someone I pray will serve as a pastor well beyond 2055. In the ordination sermon, Pastor Tania Haber spoke of the importance of imagination – quoting the Harvard commencement address given by J.K. Rowling: “Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation; it is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.”

Imagination – and its fruits of vision and empathy – are critical gifts for pastors. Empathy is central to emotional intelligence; one of the most important skills for effective leaders. Trust is built on empathy, and without trust it’s almost impossible to lead.


BUT, EMPATHY IS ALSO essential for preaching. Pastor Fred Craddock, preaching professor at Candler School of Theology, encouraged preachers to imagine what it’s like to be situations unknown to them:

When the pastor writes a sermon, an empathetic imagination sees concrete experiences. Others may display knowledge of “poverty programs” but the pastor knows what a bitter thing it is to be somebodys Christmas project. [The pastor] sees a boy resisting his mothers insistence that he wear the nice sweater that came in the charity basket. [The pastor] can see the boy wear it until out of mothers sight, but not at school out of fear that he may meet the original owner on the playground. There are conditions worse than being cold. Others may discuss “the problem of geriatrics” but the pastor has just come from the local rest home and still sees worn checkerboards, faded bouquets, large print King James Bibles, stainless steel trays, and dim eyes staring at an empty parking lot reserved for visitors. Others may analyze “the trouble with the youth today” but the pastor sees a fuzzy-lipped boy, awkward, noisy, wishing he were absent, not a man, not a child.

In his annual report to the synod, Pastor Orval Westby, then is his 90s, answered the question: What suggestions do you have for the ELCA? He wrote: “provide more opportunities for pastors to grow as preachers.”

“Even with all the vision and empathy in the world, regular preaching is a daunting task.”

I take his suggestion seriously. What opportunities encourage you in your preaching? What’s missing? Is there more our synod could do?

Even with all the vision and empathy in the world, regular preaching is a daunting task. I am eager to hear more about what sustains and stretches you. And, to explore ways our synod might be a stronger source of support.

We. Are. Fam-i-ly.

February 4th, 2019

By Bishop Ann Svennungsen

“My church is like a family!” It’s the most frequent answer I get when I ask what people like about their congregation. “We feel like a family.” There’s much to celebrate in that statement. We imagine families as places of care, deep and ongoing relationships, loving acceptance. “Family is a life jacket in the stormy sea of life,” says J.K. Rowling.

“Worship is the most public part of our shared life.”

However, there is a problem with this image. Christians are called to be a family with permeable boundaries – communities of gracious openness – welcoming people we’ve never met.

I am especially concerned when worship – the most public event of the week – seems like a family reunion. When a newcomer comes to worship in such a setting, she can feel like a stranger eavesdropping on a family dinner. Rather than experiencing welcome, he can feel even more on the outside looking in.


YES, MANY CHURCH activities can promote the sense that we’re family – support groups, small groups for prayer and Bible study, counseling, and spiritual direction. Worship, I believe, is something different. It’s the most public part of our shared life, so we must ask: How do visitors experience worship here? Think for a moment about a 28-year-old first-timer, someone new to this country, someone struggling with depression. How would they experience worship at your congregation?

“Christians are called to be a family with permeable boundaries.”

Little things make a difference:

  • Does the worship liturgy require that people recite things from memory?
  • How easy is it to get to coffee hour? Is it in the room down the hall, needing detailed directions, a place where everyone notices when you walk in the door?
  • Is the coffee good?

The congregation is a remarkable gift from God. We need the welcome and community it brings – surrounded by folks who share our greatest joys and sorrows, challenged to live lives of meaning and purpose for the sake of the world. And, we need the community of faith because Jesus has promised to meet us there – in Word and Sacrament, in the words of forgiveness, in the presence of one another.

Paul calls Christians to “welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you.” (Romans 15:7) Let that be our way of life – as disciples and communities in Christ.

Practicing Justice

January 15th, 2019

By Bishop Ann Svennungsen

Each of the three congregations I have served included an aspect of social justice or social ministry in my job description. Zion Lutheran in Iowa City, Iowa, had a peace and justice group; Edina Community Lutheran has an expectation of regularly mentioned social issues in the sermons; and at Trinity in Moorhead we created an evangelism and social justice pastoral position.

As a pastor I have often asked myself how we can live out Micah’s call to “do justice.” How can we fulfill the promise we make in the affirmation of baptism “to strive for justice and peace in all the earth?” I believe both our congregations and individual disciples want to be faithful in this calling, but we often wonder how we make a concrete difference for the sake of justice.

This week, 44 people are attending faith-based community organizing training sponsored by our synod. I attended the same training a year ago and experienced an incredible “aha” moment. For the first time, I felt like I’d experienced a specific faith practice for “doing justice.”

Justice will not come to the neighbor in need simply because we’ve got a brilliant argument for a change that makes for justice.

THROUGHOUT HISTORY, Christianity has offered specific guidance on the practice of prayer (Ignatian spiritual exercises), the practice of Bible study (the ELCA’s Book of Faith), the practice of hospitality (The Order of St. Benedict). What if we could sense the same concrete wisdom for guiding us in the practice of “doing justice?” I believe faith-based organizing is just such a thing.

Key things are “deep listening” to the needs of the community through focused “one-on-one” conversations; discernment about a particular issue the community wants to address; identification and equipping of leaders; building a coalition of allies; assessing who has “the power” to make change; planning and implementing the process needed to convince those in power.

Christian practices are initiatives Christian people do together over time to address fundamental human needs in the light of and in response to God’s grace within all creation through Christ Jesus. Our EcoFaith Network has used this practice around the issue of inclusive financing — making alternative energy solutions affordable for everyone. And, our synod is using community organizing in its efforts on racial and economic justice.

Christian practices are initiatives Christian people do together over time to address fundamental human needs in the light of and in response to God’s grace within all creation through Christ Jesus.

Oh, some may be cautious about the use of community organizing — hearing in the media about confrontational practices or attention-seeking actions. The methodology we use at the synod is more sensitive to the culture of the church — and to its values.

Sometimes, we think our calling is simply to have a good idea; make a strong case. Organizing asks us a deeper question: How can you actually succeed in making a difference? Justice will not come to the neighbor in need simply because we’ve got a brilliant argument for a change that makes for justice. We also need strategies whereby, together, we act to convince those with power to make that change.

Wrinkled and Reddened

December 18th, 2018

By Bishop Ann Svennungsen

More than any time of year, it seems, Christmas is a season for remembering. The sounds, sights, and smells evoke memories of days gone by.

I remember singing carols with my cousins on Christmas Eve – all of us jealous that my older brother got the best solo. I remember my younger brother, newly able to read, sitting by my dad reciting from the second chapter of Luke. I remember my mom bringing out the table cloth she and I had made out of net and felt fabric, with probably a thousand sequins sewn on it. (Now, I’m lucky to sew on a missing button before six months have passed.)

Yes, this is a season for memories – looking backward to the holiday experiences of our past. How ironic it is, then, that the Christmas story has little to do with looking backward and everything to do with looking forward. It’s the story of a birth, the creation of a newborn baby who has a whole life ahead of him.


I’M REMINDED OF THE FIRST time I gave birth and held my seven-pound Sarah in my arms. Thoughts of the past quickly vanished. Looking into her eyes, I was overwhelmed with thoughts of the future. How would this tiny one grow? How would her life unfold?

And no birth opened the future more powerfully than the birth of Jesus. When we celebrate this birth, we celebrate not only the future of the baby in Bethlehem, we celebrate the future of the whole creation. In Jesus’ birth, we receive the promise of a new beginning, of fresh possibilities. For, if the God of all the universe can become enfleshed in a wrinkled, reddened newborn, then nothing is impossible. The future is thrown wide open. What seemed impossible yesterday might be possible today.

“The gospel message calls us to remember way back to the very first Christmas. Then, we are turned around and we look ahead to see God’s future opening before us.”

Oh, Christmas will always remain a season for memories. And I pray that God’s grace will enfold each of us as we are touched by memories of holidays past. But, the gospel message calls us to remember way back to the very first Christmas. Then, we are turned around and we look ahead to see God’s future opening before us.

It’s easy to believe that tomorrow will be just like today; to resign ourselves to thinking there’s “nothing new under the sun.” But the miracle of the incarnation unlocks our imaginations:

  • What might this God be up to in our lives, our churches, neighborhoods, our world?
  • How might this God – for whom nothing will be impossible – lead us to participate in God’s work of healing and reconciliation?
  • What gospel surprises await us in the year ahead?

May your Christmas celebrations be filled with fresh wonder, renewed joy, and enlivened hope in the God who opens the future in the birth of Jesus.

Hope in Togetherness

November 20th, 2018

By Bishop Ann Svennungsen

My husband has gotten a record number of “likes” for his Facebook post that includes a picture of me shaking hands with Pope Francis. It was on Reformation Day 2018, a remarkable, once-in-a-lifetime experience for me.

Probably even more emotionally moving was the gift of accompanying the “Together in Hope” choir in its ministry to foster church unity through music. Comprised of Lutheran and Catholic conductors and singers from the Twin Cities, the choir was privileged to sing in the Sistine Chapel (can you just hear the singing of “Ubi Caritas” in that sacred space?), at worship in St. Peter’s Basilica, and at the weekly Papal audience in St. Peter’s Square. The highlight of the trip was giving the inaugural concert at the 17th annual Festival Internazionale di Musica e Arte Sacra with the premiere performance of “So That the World May Believe” by composer Kim Arnesen.


Pope Francis (left) offers gifts to Bishop Ann Svennungsen and Bishop Peter Bartimawus (center) of the Lutheran Church of Christ in Nigeria while they were visiting Rome with the Together in Hope choir tour.

WHENEVER I COULD, I sat with the choir for their rehearsals. (My husband was chagrined when I chose rehearsals over a tour of Assisi.) Some of the emotion came from my own deeply felt experience singing with the Concordia Choir under Paul J. Christiansen. But most came from the sheer beauty of the music and its message. With poetry by Susan Palo Cherwien and the Apostle Paul’s words about unity in the body of Christ, the composer created something that touched our very souls.

“Though technology brings incredible good to our world, it can also make it less likely that we’ll sing in a choir or play on a softball team.”

Sitting through the rehearsals, I was reminded of the philosopher Albert Borgmann’s writing about focal practicesSinging in a choir is such a focal practice. So is playing on a softball team or making a family dinner. In my own lifetime, it seems that making such commitments has become harder. It’s easier for me to watch TV or engage Facebook than commit to hosting a meal with friends. Though technology brings incredible good to our world, it can also make it less likely that we’ll sing in a choir or play on a softball team.

Advent is just around the corner. We celebrate the miracle of God-become-flesh. Our incarnational theology has something to say, I believe, about our life together.

I will always be grateful for my recent trip to Rome. And, I especially thank the Together in Hope Choir for its witness to our unity in Christ and to our God-given need for focused, communal activities that bring us together and touch our very souls.

With One Voice

October 22nd, 2018

By Bishop Ann Svennungsen

Raised in a Lutheran home, I sensed that the biggest stumbling block in Lutheran-Catholic relations was the requirement that, if a Lutheran married a Catholic, all the children had to be raised Catholic. It wasn’t fair (and fairness was next to godliness for us). We were good Lutherans. We could raise good Christians in the Lutheran church as well.

I even remember someone telling me it would be better to marry a non-Christian than a Catholic. At least, you might be able to raise your kids as Lutherans.

Praise God, a lot has changed since my childhood. Oh, some of the changes are the result of secularism – where Catholic and Lutheran parents both simply hope their children will grow up as faithful Christians, regardless of denomination. And, at least one issue in Catholic-Lutheran relations still seems pretty unfair to me. (As you may guess, it is related to the role of women.)


THIS FRIDAY, ARCHBISHOP Bernard Hebda and I will accompany a 60-member choir on the “Together in Hope” trip to Rome – an ecumenical project working to advancing Christian unity through music and the arts. Led by co-conductors Mark Stover (formerly St. Olaf College music department) and Teri Larson (St. Mary’s Basilica music director), the choir will sing at:

  • The 17th annual Festival Internazionale di Musica e Arte Sacra on October 31 at the Papal Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls
  • The 4:00 p.m. All Saints Day Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica on November 1

The Choir will perform both the Holy Spirit Mass, commissioned in 2017 for the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation and the world premiere of the newly commissioned So That the World May Believe – a Motet for Unity and Service, dedicated to Pope Francis for his many initiatives of reconciliation.

In 2016, the ELCA Churchwide Assembly overwhelmingly approved the “Declaration on the Way.” Celebrating 50 years of Lutheran-Catholic dialogues, the declaration includes 32 statements of agreement, as well as 15 areas of difference, with encouragement that Lutherans and Catholics commit to the ongoing work toward unity.

“In 2016, the ELCA Churchwide Assembly overwhelmingly approved the ‘Declaration on the Way.’”

The Declaration on the Way concludes with several suggestions for that ongoing work, such as:

  • recommending that the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church create a process and timetable for addressing the remaining issues of disagreement;
  • establishing regional Lutheran-Catholic working groups, convened by the regional bishops; and
  • encouraging Catholic and Lutheran parishes to develop covenants for joint prayer and service.

I am delighted that Archbishop Hebda and I will both be on this trip. He brings wonderful gifts to the church, including a strong commitment to ecumenism. If the “Together in Hope” trip is intended to promote unity, I find great hope simply in the opportunities for conversation between the two of us.

Jesus prayed that “all may be one.” We join together to work and pray for the fulfillment of that promise.

Where do we find ourselves?

October 9th, 2018

By Bishop Ann Svennungsen

What does one say after the events of the past 10 days? What does one write when events have affected you more deeply than you could have imagined?

To watch the testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Judge Brett Kavanaugh was heart wrenching for me. Though I have not been a victim of sexual assault, I have experienced sexual harassment. And I’ve spent hours with victims of both, as a pastor and bishop. Perhaps, the countless hours a bishop puts into protecting the church from sex abusers and working for restoration after a congregation suffers the agonizing effects of sexual misconduct have made the past 10 days especially heartbreaking.

Oh, I admit that any event can be used for partisan ends. And, I admit that I wasn’t following closely the hearings early on; I did not experience great passion over whether Kavanaugh was confirmed as a Supreme Court justice or not. But, I was pained by the way we handled allegations of sexual assault.

Though columnist David Brooks is often my “go-to” guy on issues of character, I struggled with his October 4 column. He writes: “[R]eactions to the narratives have been determined almost entirely by partisan affiliation. Among the commentators I’ve seen and read, those who support Democrats embrace Blasey’s narrative and dismissed Kavanaugh’s. Those who support Republicans side with Kavanaugh’s narrative and see holes in Ford’s.”

“The countless hours a bishop puts into protecting the church from sex abusers and working for restoration after a congregation suffers the agonizing effects of sexual misconduct have made the past 10 days especially heartbreaking.”

Brooks goes on to describe an epidemic of bigotry: It was bigotry against Jews that got Alfred Dreyfus convicted in 1894. It was bigotry against young black males that got the Central Park Five convicted in 1990. It was bigotry against preppy lacrosse players that led to the bogus Duke Lacrosse scandal.”

Did you notice which group (among many) who’ve experienced bigotry was omitted from Brooks’ examples? Women and girls. Kavanaugh can probably find himself in the lacrosse player example. Where would Ford find herself? In not one example. There are no women. Not one.


THIS THURSDAY I MEET with the Task Force drafting the ELCA’s social statement on Justice for Women – to be considered at the August, 2019, Churchwide Assembly. I am deep into reading responses from all the hearings around the church – including several in our own synod. The current draft begins:

We believe God’s intention for humanity is abundant life for all. This calls us to equity and justice for all with respect to issues of gender and sex. … In this statement we commit ourselves to the continual work of prayer, learning, reflection, discernment, and action to resist patriarchy and sexism.

Whatever your reaction to the events of the past 10 days, I hope we can join hands in the work ahead toward that day when we “live together in community into the promised abundant life God intends for all.”

The ministry of consolation

September 18th, 2018

By Bishop Ann Svennungsen

It continues to amaze me how clearly I remember the people who attended our son’s funeral in 2015:

  • My brothers’ families from California and Montana who’d just gotten back from their trips to embrace John as he was dying
  • His grade school teacher and principal from Fargo
  • His preschool teacher from Edina
  • His oncologist and oncology nurses
  • A special education nurse who opened her heart to us when John was a newborn in Iowa City
  • Ten members of his all-time favorite worship ensemble from Moorhead

Recently, I saw one of our synod pastors whom I didn’t know well in 2015. I had this rush of emotion, stopped him, and said, “Thanks so much for being there for my son’s funeral.” I imagine that comment was a little out of the blue for him. But, it was very real for me.

Showing up matters. Often, it matters a lot more than we realize.


I WAS SO GRATEFUL and proud of our synod members and pastors who “showed up” for last Saturday’s funeral for Stephanie Coltvet Erdmann. And, I gave thanks for the particular ways Stephanie’s family helped us to “show up”:

  • A play area and a children’s sermon to help kids show up and feel welcome
  • A line of more than 20 female clergy gathered as communion servers – a powerful witness to Stephanie’s commitment to gender equity
  • A worship assembly of more than 1,200 and the hospitality of Central Lutheran with the space to welcome them

Dr. Martha Stortz writes from her own experience at the death of her husband: “At its core, the funeral liturgy gathers people together. This simple act of assembly stands as both gesture of defiance and witness to faith. Suffering isolates people one from another. … The funeral liturgy counteracts the centrifugal force of loss. It gathers people to comfort those who mourn.”

I give thanks for how our community has come together to counteract the centrifugal force of isolation amidst suffering.

“Showing up matters. Often, it matters a lot more than we realize.”

And now the suffering continues for all who grieve this deep and tragic loss. And showing up will continue to matter. It will look a little different, but it will matter. We will show up in lots of ways – meals we bring, childcare we offer, cards we write, prayers, hugs. This is the ministry of consolation.

Stortz offers a word for the journey after the funeral, quoting Herbert Anderson: “The mystery of consolation. … It is not ‘What shall I say?’ but rather ‘How much can I hear?’ that will make the difference. If empathy consoles, then listening is much more important than speaking. We need to be able to hear and feel where the ‘wounds hurt most’ in order to transform the isolation of grievers into communities of the suffering ones.”

May God guide and encourage us in all our ministries of consolation. And, may our congregations continue to foster worshiping communities that help us to “show up.”

Tap, tap, tap

August 27th, 2018

By Bishop Ann Svennungsen

In the past seven days, I presided at three ordinations. I’m pretty sure that’s a record for me as bishop. Two men and a woman; two full-time and one half-time; two younger and one mid-career; one called to a rural community, one to a suburb, one to the city. All with wonderful gifts to share, a deep sense of call, and solid formation in faith and theology. What a week to feel hopeful about leadership in the church.

Nearly 20 years ago, I was invited by the Lilly Endowment to be a member of “The Pastors Working Group,” a cohort of 12 pastors from various denominations and parts of the country who met for 20 days over 18 months. We gathered to explore pastoral excellence or what we came to call “the pastor imagination.”

“Our Pastors Working Group was one means to help the endowment understand the contours of the pastoral calling – and the characteristics needed to be effective pastors.”

Lilly Endowment had received a significant influx of resources (read: Prozac) and was prioritizing its use. They came to understand that – to strengthen the future of American Christianity – the best place to invest was in the calling, formation, and support of pastors. Our Pastors Working Group was one means to help the endowment understand the contours of the pastoral calling – and the characteristics needed to be effective pastors.

We worked with the Rev. Dr. Craig Dykstra, then head of the Lilly Religion Division. I am forever indebted to his wisdom and investment in my own ministry. And I’ve not forgotten his suggestion that the work of the pastor may just require a greater multiplicity of intelligences than any other profession: left brain, right brain, analytic, artistic, kinesthetic, interpersonal, and linguistic.


I’VE OFTEN THOUGHT THAT describing the diverse and wonderful challenges of ministry – and the many intelligences needed – would be sufficient to inspire a person to explore this calling. Sadly, that isn’t the case. Still, what is more tragic are the number of young people in our synod who haven’t even been encouraged to explore this calling.

Ask any of the three people I ordained last week and they will tell you about a person(s) who tapped them on the shoulder, who encouraged them to explore this calling. “You would be a great pastor,” they might say. In some parts of our church, there is only one first-call pastor available for every two congregations looking to call one. And, throughout the church, the need for gifted, diverse, and faithful pastors remains strong.

When is the last time you tapped someone on the shoulder? Maybe you could make that a goal for yourself in the next seven days.

Grace-filled daily-ness

August 15th, 2018

By Bishop Ann Svennungsen

I’ve blogged before about my family reunions – the Rev. David and Kari Svennungsen Memorial Golf Tournament and Potluck held every year on the last Saturday of July in Montana. I don’t think I have mentioned the tradition of the family worship service held the next day.

Early Sunday morning, a young adult drives into town for donuts and fresh-squeezed orange juice. My husband Bill and I go back and forth deciding who’s in charge of what part of the service (also a family tradition). My brother, Rock, tunes his guitar and plans the songs. Then, we all pack up our lawn chairs to gather down at the beach.

We reflect on scripture, share our thanksgivings for the past year, and offer our prayer requests for the year ahead. Miraculously, everyone shows up! That continues to amaze me. Sitting in that big circle are those who attend church every Sunday … and those who rarely attend. Perhaps, David and Kari’s expectations permeate the generations. Perhaps, people know there are gifts awaiting them in that gathering.


EARLIER IN THAT Montana vacation, I wrote a blurb for the soon-to-be-released Sparkhouse book Little Steps, Big Faith: How the Science of Early Childhood Development Can Help Parents Grow Their Child’s Faith.

Author Dawn Rundman, a member of Edina Community Lutheran Church, uses stories, humor, and insight into brain science to support those who yearn to raise children in the faith.

My lakeside worship experience made me even more grateful for her book. The activities available for kids seem to grow exponentially every year – crowding out church attendance and the formation church provides. So, what happens at home, what happens in the daily-ness of life, truly matters.

“The activities available for kids seem to grow exponentially every year – crowding out church attendance and the formation church provides.”

Rundman encourages caregivers to incorporate faith formation into the most basic activities: bath time, bed time, meals.

  • Learn a few basic prayers and repeat them in the morning, at meals, at bedtime.
  • Learn a few faith affirmations and repeat them as you help your child tie their shoes, take them out of the car seat, or comfort them.
  • Ask other caregivers to share simple faith stories with your child.

One of the best parts of Rundman’s book is how grace-filled it feels – no judgment or guilt trips – just empowering harried parents and caregivers in the journey faith formation.

What ways do you support the faith formation of children? How does your congregation support parents and caregivers? What’s something new you could do? May God give us imagination, courage, and grace as we embrace all God’s beloved children.

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