Affirming the Ministry of Women in the Lutheran Church of Australia

Returning from Theological Study in US America

Tanya Wittwer

I knew the learning would be more than academic when I accepted a LWF scholarship to study theology overseas.Some of the unexpected things I learned include:

  • If you leave a banana and a camera in a car when the temperature drops to minus 15 degrees overnight, the banana turns black and the LCD freezes.
  • Australian’s don’t make as much eye contact as people from the US, and don’t smile as much.
  • We have a long way to go in addressing racism in our country, but at least we don’t have the added complication of a past built on slavery.
  • There’s a lovely rhythm about daily chapel, even when the culture of the worship is unfamiliar.

We stood with the rest, gathered around the huge TV screens in the refectory, watching the events of September 11th unfold.  Then moved into the chapel for our daily worship – a small piece of reality to anchor that unreal day.

Wartburg Theological Seminary is in the “mid-west” of the US, on the Mississippi River.  Iowa is a relatively small state, but there are as many members of the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) in Iowa as there are Lutherans (of any connection) in Australia.  There are churches where thousands worship each week, and there are many little country churches trying to hang on to their identity as a discrete congregation with its own pastor.

Wartburg Seminary is now in its 150th year.  Many pastors from Australia had preceded me there.  I was particularly intrigued to find that prior to the establishment of Immanuel Seminary in Adelaide, Australia, a number of pastors had completed their seminary education at Wartburg, after WWI interrupted their studies in Germany.

There are about 130 – 150 students on campus in any year. As well as the Masters of Divinity program (the four year course of preparation for ordained ministry), the seminary provides theological education for diaconal workers and community development training for a small group of overseas pastors.  The majority of students live on campus and with the range of ages of students (23 – 60+), there comes a range of family situations and a host of children.
The night before my graduation a group of pastors that had graduated 40 years previously were talking about how much the seminary had changed.  They commented that the most obvious change was the inclusion of women students, and as one they agreed that they could no longer imagine the church without the contribution of ordained women.  They believed it had been a very positive change.

Just over half of those preparing for ordained ministry are women.  For me that was a real gift!  I was able to pursue theological study where there was nothing strange about being a woman.  I was able to develop my preaching skills with the novelty being my accent, not my gender.

The seminary took into account the pastoral work I had already done in Australia, so did not require me to do an internship; this meant I was able to complete my M Div.

We found people to be very generous and open.  The society provides many opportunities to care for others:  my church opened the doors of its basement every two weeks to the poor of the town, for them to choose whatever and as much as they wished of the sorted clothing stored there; the Methodist church just down the road had a soup kitchen where people could come and eat without cost; the seminary and many churches had a “food pantry” which opened for a few hours each week, where people could take a selection of food without payment. But people didn’t seem to ask questions about why there was poverty, or to think about things at a societal or political level.

We learned in a new way how deeply ingrained into the Australian way of thinking is an attitude of societal responsibility to all, especially the most vulnerable.  And that this is not necessarily so in other places.

I saw this most clearly in relation to health care.  A fellow student’s family had had to sell their farm in order to pay the medical costs for his dying mother.  I visited church members who had to decide whether to adequately heat their home, or to buy the medication they needed.

“Hi!  I’m Tanya, one of the chaplains here at Heartland,” I said, extending my hand.
We chatted for a while.  She was 23, bright, beautiful … so much potential for the life ahead of her.
“… and where do you work?” I asked.
“I’ll never get a job,” she said, “because of the diabetes.”

Management of the disease was not the issue:  health care insurance is a regular benefit of employment and few employers were prepared to pay the cost of insurance for someone with diabetes.

So we were given the gift of knowing how blessed we are in Australia, and the challenge to work to improve the structures of our own social security and health systems, at a time when these continue to be eroded.

We were given the gift of friendship and hospitality.

And the greatest gift these generous people gave me was their tears as they affirmed my call to ordained ministry and lamented that my church was unable to so affirm.

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