Tanzania: Towards full women’s inclusion in the ordained ministry

Members of the Executive Committee of the ELCT Women's Department display their national banner. All Photos: ELCT Communication/Evans Ayo

ELCT women pastors and theologians celebrate milestones in a 30 year-journey

(LWI) - Women of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania (ELCT) recently marked three decades of women’s ordination by celebrating the more than 300 female clergy in the church, and urging the church to ensure all its dioceses ordain women.

 “We have been on this journey now for 30 years. We have seen a lot and learned a lot,” participants said following the Fifth Consultation of Women Pastors and Theologians in the ELCT, held at Katesh in the northern diocese of Mbulu. “We are happy that many dioceses have adopted and implemented the ELCT policy and today there are more than 300 ordained female pastors. Still, there are 74 trained theologians who have not yet been ordained,” they stated. 

Meeting 22-27 June for the every-four-year event, participants said they were however saddened that two of the ELCT’s 26 dioceses -- the South-East of Lake Victoria and the Mbulu Diocese -- do not yet ordain women. The Lutheran World Federation (LWF) member church has a total of 2,500 men and women clergy. 

This year’s consultation was attended by nearly 400 women from all the dioceses. They discussed theological training for women, understanding gender equality and leadership in the church, accountability and resource management, entrepreneurship and innovation and how to address sexual and gender-based violence. 

ELCT, ELCA and LWF Communion leaders with women clergy, deans and theologians, attending the Fifth Consultation of Women Pastors and Theologians in Katesh, Mbulu, northern Tanzania.

Opening the consultation, the Northern Central Diocese Bishop Dr Solomon Masangwa called for joint efforts in carrying out God’s work. Referring to the consultation’s theme (Isaiah 43:1), he reminded the women pastors and theologians: “Do not fear, for God has redeemed you and called you by name.” ELCT Presiding Bishop Dr Fredrick Onael Shoo addressed the gathering, which was also attended by the Pare Diocese Bishop Charles Mjema and the Mbulu Diocese Bishop Nicolaus Nsanganzelu.

Invited guest speakers included the LWF Vice-President for North America, Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), and the Africa Vice-President Rev. Dr Jeanette Ada Epse Maina, Evangelical Lutheran Church of Cameroon. Also present were ELCA Bishops Patricia Davenport, Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod and Viviane Thomas-Breitfeld, South-Central Synod of Wisconsin, staff from the ELCA churchwide office and LWF Communion Office.

Commitment to the ministry

ELCT deputy secretary general for Social Services Rev. Rachel Axwesso said it was “inspiring to see so many women leaders who are committed to the ministry and ready to serve alongside their male counterparts in Tanzania and the wider Lutheran communion.” She challenged the church to “strategically address the outdated cultural perception that women cannot hold leadership positions, yet this is a country with many female leaders in the public and private sectors.”

Rev. Setina Kaanga from the ELCT Central Diocese said “over the years, the national gathering of women pastors and theologians has illuminated the way ahead for women” although they still face many challenges compared to their male counterparts. “We started with one educated theologian who had to wait for more than 30 years before she could be ordained as a pastor. It is very different today. We have hope and faith that there will be greater participation of women in our church,” she added.

From left. Mr Fabian Adayo, Mbulu diocese secretary general; Mr Brighton Killewa, ELCT secretary general; Rev. Benyam Kassahun, ELCA regional director; Ms Christowaja Ntinda, ELCT deputy secretary general for Education; Rev. Rachel Axwesso, deputy secretary general for Social Services; and LWF Council member Ms LoeRose Mbise.

It was in the late 1960s that the ELCT first decided to train women as theologians. The decision to ordain women was made at the 1990 General Assembly, during which the first five women pastors were ordained into the ministry of Word and Sacrament.

“For the sake of the gospel”

ELCA presiding bishop Eaton expressed appreciation for the opportunity to take part in the consultation, preach during Sunday worship and witness the events together with the ELCT national and diocesan leaders.

“Seeing the power of these women gathering together every four years is a model that I would like to take back to my church for our women pastors to have a chance to meet, to spend some time with each other, have some wonderful speakers and also to come up with some action,” Eaton said. 

She thanked the ELCT women pastors and theologians for their message that “women’s ordination needs to happen in the whole church for the sake of unity and more importantly for the sake of the gospel.”

Church leaders leaving the conference hall following the official opening in Katesh parish. In the foreground, Northern Central Diocese Bishop Dr Solomon Masangwa, followed by Mbulu Diocese Bishop Nicolaus Nsanganzelu, ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton and Pare Diocese Bishop Charles Mjema.

The Africa Vice-President affirmed LWF’s commitment to “including women and men at equal levels and numbers in all its activities and decision-making bodies since 1984,” and the continuous support to the member churches to increase women’s participation. “While churches such as the ELCT, ELCA and others have taken a leading role in this cause, we also understand that for some, the journey is just beginning, and more needs to be done in order to reach full inclusion in the church,” she said. 

Ada Maina called on “all men and women of the church to join hands together and act boldly against all actions that prohibit the children of God from enjoying life in its fullness. We need to proclaim the gospel message that would transform these systems of injustice,” she added.

From left: Bishop Patricia Davenport, ELCA Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod, and the bishop’s executive assistant Ms Yvonne Curtis; LWF Vice-Presidents Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton and Rev. Dr Jeanette Ada Epse Maina; and Bishop Viviane Thomas-Breitfeld, ELCA South-Central Synod of Wisconsin.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania has 7.5 million members, and it joined the LWF in 1964.