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Bringing healing and leadership: ELCA elects new bishop

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Catherine W. Idzerda
October 9, 2013

TOWN OF NEWARK--Mary Froiland had no desire to leave Luther Valley Church, but a tragedy made the pastor consider a change.

In April, the Rev. Bruce Burnside, the former bishop of the South-Central Synod of Wisconsin of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, was charged with homicide by intoxicated use of a vehicle and hit-and-run involving death. He is accused of hitting Maureen F. Mengelt, 52, while she was running.

Froiland has been chosen to replace the interim bishop who was filling in for Burnside after his arrest.

She starts her new job Nov. 1 and will be officially installed as the bishop in a ceremony Dec. 14 at First Lutheran Church in Janesville.

For 13 years, she's been very happy as the pastor of the Luther Valley Church in the town of Newark.

It was the death of Mengelt, a married mother of three children, and Burnside's arrest that made Froiland consider leaving her congregation.

“It's a very difficult situation,” Froiland said. “If that hadn't happened, I never would have allowed by name to go forward.”

In the ELCA, bishops are elected for a six-year term by an assembly-wide synod. Names are submitted, and candidates must agree to let their name “go forward” to the voting process.

It's not that she was expecting to be elected. It was more that it “would have felt unfaithful” not to be apart of the process.

Froiland laid out the belief that will carry her forward: “As the ELCA, as Lutherans, God's grace is our foundation. God loves us and takes us as we are.”

“As we are” includes everyone and everything in the world, goodness and tragedy included.

Her call, it seems, is to plunge into the tangle of grief, bitterness and disappointment that are part of such situations. Or, as she put it, “To enter those places that are dark, and help bring some healing.”

This is not about damage control but giving people a change to experience God's grace anew, she said.

That includes, first and foremost, the Mengelt family, but her call for healing also embraces Burnside, his family, and the pastors who were close to them.

“We are people of the resurrection, we believe in new beginnings,” Froiland said.

Froiland will be the synod's first woman bishop and the ninth among the 65 synods in the nation.

Gender doesn't matter as much as it used to.

“I was ordained in 1985, and it was much harder to get calls back then,” Froiland said. “People would say, 'I've never met a woman pastor.' But now there are women all over the place.”

As bishop, her duties will be both secular and spiritual. She'll be an administrator that oversee 145 congregations, and serve as “pastor to the synod.”

In many ways, she thinks her congregations are in a good place. Again, it's about grace.

“We are based in a foundation of God's grace, and that allows us to be an inclusive denomination,” Froiland said. “I think we need to claim that, to own that. With God's grace, there's room for everybody.”



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