CHICAGO (RNS) — When the Rev. Anne Burghardt was elected general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation in 2021, the Estonian theologian became the first pastor from Central and Eastern Europe to lead the global communion of 148 Lutheran denominations, and the first woman to do so.
The first achievement is important because she believes her region has much to teach the wider church about living in the context of persecution and extreme atheism. As for the second, Burghardt said she hopes her work “will bear good fruits for the lives of our member churches, particularly for the women in our member churches.”
The secretary general spoke to Religion News Service last week in Chicago, where she was visiting the headquarters of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the largest Lutheran denomination in the country. She also planned to preach at St. Peter’s Church in New York and meet with members of the ELCA’s advocacy team and “key U.N. stakeholders,” including the Ukrainian ambassador to the U.N.
Burghardt’s U.S. visit follows her first trip as general secretary to the Holy Land and the Middle East, where she attended the ordination last month of the Rev. Sally Azar, the first Palestinian woman ordained as a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land.
The general secretary said she wanted to convey that the “worldwide Lutheran communion is really grateful for ELCA’s continuous support and for the fact that ELCA hasn’t forgotten its sisters and brothers worldwide.”
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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What were your takeaways from your visit to the Holy Land? What does Azar’s historic ordination mean for the wider church?
This was indeed a very eye-opening trip for me personally because I (not only) attended the ordination of Sally Azar, but also visited our LWF World Service program and Augusta Victoria Hospital in Jerusalem, which is serving Palestinian people in a very special way. To have an insight into the realities (of) where Palestinian people are living these days was very moving and made it very clear that we need to strengthen our advocacy efforts. We always say that our task is to give voice to the voiceless, and Palestinians, unfortunately, often tend to be the ones who don’t have that strong voice globally.
Sally Azar’s ordination was, of course, a very special moment, not so only in the life of our member church in the Holy Land, but for the whole region. We hope this will serve as an encouraging example also for other Protestant churches. Knowing that many young Christian Palestinians tend to leave the country, it was also a sign of hope to see that a young person is willing to stay and to serve in her home country.
You grew up in a secular family and were baptized Lutheran as a teenager. Can you say a little bit about what drew you to the Lutheran church?
If you look at the clergy in the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church today, approximately 50% come from secularized families. There was a big, let’s say, opening at the end of the ’80s, when the Soviet Union was about to break down, and many people came to the church to find their religious roots, in a sense. For many, the Lutheran church was the first and evident choice because this had been the church of their forefathers and mothers.
I came to church through attending confirmation classes, through asking questions about the meaning of life, the meaning of the world, etc. It was more of a philosophical journey in the beginning, I would say, and very much also linked to the worship life. So I could say that I, in a sense, really entered the church through worship.