By Cindy Novak
If Kathryn Lohre had taken a slightly different path, she would’ve become the first woman in her family to become a Lutheran pastor, joining her father and many other relatives.
But in pursuing her Master of Divinity degree from Harvard University, it was clear that God had another purpose in mind for her. Since then, she has devoted her time, energy, gifts and talents to building relationships with those of other faiths and Christian traditions.
And that commitment continues today as she becomes the 26th president of the National Council of Churches. She is the first Lutheran and ELCA member — and the youngest woman — to lead the national ecumenical organization.
In addition to becoming president of the National Council of Churches, Kathryn recently joined the ELCA’s ecumenical and inter-religious team, a role that she “feels quite called and delighted to serve,” she says. Kathryn will work under the leadership of Donald McCoid, assistant to the presiding bishop, Ecumenical and Inter-Religious Relations.
Prior to that, Kathryn served on the staff of Harvard’s Pluralism Project, a 20-year research project dedicated to mapping and interpreting the changing religious landscape of the United States. Serving the Project since 2000, and as assistant director since 2005, she supervised graduate and undergraduate student research on religious pluralism and provided leadership to the women’s initiative and multi-religious women’s network, among other responsibilities.
Influence of the ELCA
Kathryn notes that being a member of the ELCA has been instrumental in her growth as a leader. She was raised at Immanuel Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation in St. Paul, Minn., and then later in high school became a member of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Pine Island, Minn.
“This church … has been very formative for me, whether in the local congregation where I grew up — and where my dad was one of the pastors — as a student at St. Olaf, or as an intern for the ELCA churchwide organization,” she says.
Through those experiences, Kathryn has gained a clear sense of her gifts, as well as her calling.
For example, as Kathryn participated in the Global Semester program as a student at St. Olaf College, an ELCA college in Northfield, Minn., she began to grapple with questions like: “How do I live out my faith in relationship with people who don’t share my faith, but who also are answering God’s call or living out their faith in some other focused way?” as she traveled throughout Jordan and such Asian countries as India, China, South Korea and Nepal.
Kathryn also cites serving as a member of the former ELCA Commission for Women’s steering committee as part of her leadership development at the invitation of ELCA members.
And in 2006, when Kathryn attended the ninth assembly of the World Council of Churches as a delegate for the ELCA, she became more aware of “the profound interdependence of the one body of Christ,” and the “challenge of reclaiming ecumenism,” which means “God’s household” or the “whole inhabited Earth” in its Greek root, “oikoumene.” She then asked herself, “As children of God, living in God’s household, how do we relate to those with whom we share that household?” Kathryn recalls.
A passion for ecumenism
Her calling and passion for ecumenism continued to grow as Kathryn began finding answers to her questions.
“As a member of the ELCA, I have been formed by the belief that I am freed in Christ to serve my neighbor, regardless of that neighbor’s religious commitments,” she says. “When that neighbor is Christian, I have been formed by a commitment to seek the unity we share in Christ Jesus. This is a challenging — and life-giving — demand of Christian discipleship.”
Through her new roles with the National Conference of Churches and the ELCA, Kathryn looks forward to continuing her journey, serving with the gifts God has entrusted to her and being inspired by others who witness in their own unique ways.
“The priesthood of all believers is not simply just about Sunday worship,” she says. “It is about how we find our vocation, how we find ways (to see how) God is calling us in our everyday lives, no matter how ordinary those callings may seem.
“It might mean bringing food to a neighbor who is experiencing a medical issue, serving in a soup kitchen or finding ways to combat poverty and homelessness in your own neighborhood. But it’s really about staying open and listening for God’s calling in whatever form that might take.”
Cindy Novak is a member of Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Naperville, Ill. She lives in Lisle, Ill., with her husband, David, and her children, Sam and Emily.