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Bishop-elect in ELCA’s SW Minnesota Synod takes over during a pandemic-changed landscape

“Church is all about building community, and the ELCA is looking at how we can connect with more people – people who are new, people who are young, people with diverse backgrounds …,” said the Rev. Dee Pederson.

photo of dee pederson in a church
The Rev. Dee Pederson, right, with church president Vanida Scott at Reborn Lao Lutheran, an ELCA mission church in Waite Park that started up in 2019.
MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot

Last month, the Southwestern Minnesota Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), one of the largest Christian denominations in Minnesota with more than 600,000 baptized members, elected the Rev. Dee Pederson as its next bishop.

Pederson, who will succeed Bishop Jon Anderson, is currently the Redwood Falls-based synod’s director for evangelical mission. She has served as pastor at churches in Spicer and St. Cloud during a ministry career that began in 1981.

Pederson will start her six-year tenure in September during an era that poses all sorts of challenges for rural faith leaders, including declining church membership, demographic change and economic uncertainty.

I talked with Pederson about those issues and others. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity:

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MinnPost: You are taking over the synod just as a recent Gallup poll shows that fewer than half of American adults belong to a church, synagogue or mosque. Moreover, the COVID pandemic prevented many people from attending services. How can the ELCA respond to that?

Dee Pederson: Things have been going in that direction for decades and the pandemic just shifted things into a much higher gear and changed people’s patterns so quickly. Everyone is concerned and wondering if people will be back (to church) in the fall and what that means now. Pastors have adapted to becoming TV producers; the courage and imagination they brought to (creating webcasts) has been incredible!

I think we learned that digital worship is connecting with people near and far. We know that people are joining in on worship from across the country and across the world, that people will join in the worship of their home congregation because it is available to them.

MP: Do you see that digital component as an antidote to declining membership?

DP: I don’t know if it’s an antidote, but we have been able to discover that we can have real relationships and communication when we can’t be physically together. That might include the homebound, or families going to soccer tournaments and worshiping from their hotel rooms. It’s a really important way to stay connected. The unknown is how much that will replace in-person connections for some people.

MP: The southwestern synod covers a largely rural area of Minnesota, with lots of small towns that might struggle economically but also retain a strong sense of place. What do you see as the church’s role in that environment?

DP: Church is all about building community, and the ELCA is looking at how we can connect with more people – people who are new, people who are young, people with diverse backgrounds – so that they might experience the message of Jesus – that message of community, justice and love. We know there are so many needs in smaller communities, and we have seen tremendous contributions from people in those places (during the pandemic): meals for people who are homebound, or groceries brought to people who were out of work, or farm-to-table produce sharing by congregations. The ELCA gave out $15,000 in COVID response grants to congregations (in the southwestern synod) that were doing some kind of food ministry focused on food insecurity. People in small communities know each other and know where the needs are, and they have really been innovative in being good neighbors in living out the mission of Christ.

MP: As you noted, southwestern Minnesota has become more ethnically diverse in recent decades – especially in towns like Willmar, St. James and Worthington. Can you say more about what kinds of challenges and opportunities that presents?

DP: Our synod has been focusing on cultural competency and anti-racist work. In St. Cloud [where Pederson was a pastor for three decades] we worked to help make it a welcoming place for all people. This is lifelong work, and it involves building relationships. It’s been a gift to be a part of that, of that interfaith work, to stand with our Muslim neighbors, for instance, to show them that we are supporting them and being their neighbors.

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During the pandemic we really discerned how we are able to be together when we are apart. It was a time when “church has left the building”; I saw a wonderful T-shirt that said that! When we had to do that, we perhaps started seeing the pain of our neighbors and the pain in our families in new ways. We more clearly saw some of the inequities that have existed and discovered the importance of trying to do something about that.

MP: Can you give readers a sense of the bishop’s job?

DP: Think of the bishop as the pastor of the synod. That involves supporting pastors and caring for pastors and supporting congregations. It involves many things. I bring to (the job) a priority and commitment to support the vitality of our congregations. God has planted us in particular places – our mission statement says “in cities, farms and towns” – and each congregation has a special calling right where God has placed them. Congregations are where God’s work is unfolding.