By Paula Schlueter Ross
The first time Dawn Modlin attended a national conference of the Women’s Leadership Institute (WLI), in 2008, she was surprised to learn that women in The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod may serve as presidents of their congregations. And that the LCMS permits women to read Scripture during worship services.
Watch Dr. Jean Garton share her thoughts on women’s service to the church and the Women’s Leadership Institute Conference.
“I was like, ‘What?’ Because that’s not been historically anything I’ve ever grown up with, or seen, or experienced,” said Modlin, 45 and a lifelong Lutheran in the Midwest.
Modlin, who has studied theology and has a lay minister father and a deaconess step-mother, says she is disappointed that not all Synod congregations allow or encourage laywomen to serve as fully as laymen.
“I’m not a feminist — I’m a Christian woman who has gifts and has a heart for theology, and I want to make use of it,” Modlin told Reporter. So, attending the WLI biennial conference, with “women of similar minds,” who are anxious to serve their church body, “is really encouraging,” she said.
Some 180 women — and a few men — attended the conference, April 16-18 in Milwaukee, under the theme “Listening, Linking, Leading: From Words to Action.” The theme was based on Ex. 4:12 — “Now go. I will help you speak and I will teach you what to say.”
It was the third national conference sponsored by the WLI, which is based at Concordia University Wisconsin, Mequon. The WLI works to encourage, equip, and educate women for Christian leadership. It does not advocate for the ordination of women.
The wide diversity in how women may serve in LCMS congregations and other topics of interest to women were addressed by plenary speakers and more than a dozen workshops that explored issues such as resolving conflict, the differences in male and female language, mentoring, Bible studies, marriage, mission, public speaking, prayer, young-adult ministry, and women’s ministries.
Dr. Jean Garton, author, speaker, founder and 17-year president of Lutherans For Life, and a current member of the Synod’s Commission on Theology and Church Relations and the Board for Human Care Ministries, fashioned her keynote after the book Letters to My Younger Self, in which some 40 well-known women share what they’ve learned over the years.
“So I decided to talk to you — my younger selves — because many of you are where I was,” said Garton, now 81, “and I want to encourage you with lessons I learned along the way.”
She urged those who serve as church leaders to guard their marriages and family life because no other work, she said, “can be as pervasive and as destructive” to lay leaders. She recalled missing the college graduation of one of her children and other special days because of her LCMS service.
Church workers shouldn’t feel like they have to “save the world” because God “already finished the job,” she said.
Garton said we all have been given gifts “for God’s purpose — not ours — and it’s He who will decide how we use them.” She encouraged women to heed God’s call to service, even if they feel they’re not ready.
She said she has learned that “laughter is an instant vacation,” and shared several jokes, adding that church humor “is even funnier.” She recalled her small, southern, “mission” congregation inviting its community to an “Octoberfest” in March for St. Patrick’s Day. No outsiders came for the bratwurst and sauerkraut. “That Irish menu just didn’t work,” she quipped.
She also asked attendees to frown, cross their arms, and say to those nearby, “Jesus loves you.”
“It’s not working,” she teased.
Garton said women often can see things that men can’t, and should be encouraged to share their “wisdom that comes from experience.” She lamented that more women aren’t serving the Synod in leadership roles, and quoted a woman who said she loved attending LCMS events because “there’s never a line at the ladies room.”
“Not much has changed,” Garton said.
She recalled planning the first-ever prom for fellow students when she attended Concordia College, Bronxville, N.Y., putting her own graduation in jeopardy. “Sometimes it’s important to take a stand and take a risk” in order to challenge the status quo, she said.
She encouraged women to live lives “that matter,” and quoted the late humorist Erma Bombeck, who said she hoped she wouldn’t have a single bit of talent left when she died so that she could say, “Lord, I used everything you gave me.”
Garton also led a workshop titled “On Being the Only ‘Rib’ in the Room: Challenges of Leading With/Among Men in the Church,” that explored the “God-planned differences” between genders.
Because they think in ways different than men, women have much to offer the church in brainstorming and decision-making, she said. And when the role of women is discussed only in terms of what they cannot do, “then to see women as gifts who are necessary to the church is almost impossible.”
Women attend worship more often than men, and study the Bible more often than men, she said, so why not increase their opportunities to serve?
Garton, the first woman to serve on a national LCMS board (for public relations), also spent 12 years on the Synod’s Board of Directors, including a number of years as the only woman serving among 17 men. And she offered advice to women on working alongside their male counterparts, including encouraging them to consider one another as brothers and sisters rather than male and female, and to “stand their ground” in discussions.
During a question-and-answer session following Garton’s talk, a participant suggested that more women are needed in church leadership to “stop this [political] division” within the Synod.
Also giving plenary presentations were Dr. Bernard Bull, assistant professor of educational technology at Concordia, Mequon, who gave participants a tour of today’s “digital world” and explored how the church can respond, and Dr. Carol McDaniel, director of the parish music program at Concordia University, Irvine, Calif., and a congregational leader at Bethany Lutheran Church, Long Beach, Calif., who led attendees through a series of “spiritual disciplines” designed to help them relax, recharge, and get closer to God in today’s busy world.
Bible studies were led by Karen Lippert, director of women’s ministry at Divine Redeemer Lutheran Church in Hartland, Wis., who urged conference-goers to avoid “idolizing” what they’re thinking about the most, to ask God to help them with their problems — and trust that He will, and to build people up rather than tear them down.
Every day “we have a chance to really bless somebody’s life” with words of encouragement, Lippert said.
Pre-conference “schools” for in-depth, personalized training in speaking and writing were held April 13-16 at the conference site. The Speakers and Writers Schools were led by Dr. Ruth N. Koch and Dr. Jane L. Fryar, respectively. Koch is a mental health educator and author, speaker, and consultant. Fryar is a writer, editor, speaker, and consultant.
The WLI conference included some 40 students and staff from all 10 Concordia University System (CUS) schools. A $23,500 grant from the Siebert Lutheran Foundation, Milwaukee, was used to cover travel and conference expenses for the CUS participants, as well as a “networking breakfast” and a “resource kit” for starting on-campus ministries for women.
Director Lois Giordano said the WLI, at Concordia-Mequon, is working with the other CUS schools to educate women for leadership, bring together women for mutual support on college campuses, equip young adults for church service, and build regional networks to encourage and prepare women for service.
Giordano called the conference “exhilarating,” and credited the participation of “so many young women.”
“At least a third of those attending were under the age of 40,” she said. “These young women are incredible! We are learning as much from them as they are learning from us. That intentional interaction was a big part of the power of this conference.”
Kimberly Lyskawa, 20, a sophomore at Concordia, Mequon, said the conference was “absolutely amazing. The women here are so uplifting — they’re so intelligent and funny and encouraging.”
Lyskawa said it was “refreshing,” as a young person, “to see that there’s actually a need and a want for us in the church.” She said it was “awesome to see other sisters in Christ who are so ‘on fire’ for the Lord,” and that her experience at the conference “makes me want to go out and serve more, and lead more, and make more of a difference.”
Dr. Barbara Brunworth, a marriage and family therapist from Garland, Texas, who is a member of the WLI advisory board, called the WLI and its national conferences “unique” and “necessary” to “encourage one another as women.”
Brunworth said she believes the Synod does not use women as fully as it could, particularly as members of national boards and commissions. Even those few women who do serve in such capacities, she said, are “among a table of men.”
So, she asks, is this sort of limited participation “still just a token recognition of women in Synod?”
Eva Fronk, of Hales Corners, Wis., and also a member of the WLI advisory board, said she has worked alongside men in a number of LCMS capacities. “I’ve been blessed with their mentorship and their encouragement. I would like to see more women have this positive experience,” she told Reporter.
The WLI, she added, “is here to encourage women to develop the skills needed to be self-confident enough to accept opportunities to use their God-given gifts in service to God’s people.”
For more information about the Women’s Leadership Institute, call 866-559-0002 or visit its Web site at www.wlicuw.org.
Posted April 28, 2010