Ann Svennungsen: ‘It’s about the mission’

The Rev. Ann Svennungsen, president of Texas Lutheran University, talks about her experience breaking gender barriers in church leadership.

The Rev. Ann Svennungsen became the first woman president of Texas Lutheran University in 2007 after serving since 2003 as the president of the Atlanta-based The Fund for Theological Education. She also was the first woman to hold that position.

Ann SvennungsenAn ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, she spent 22 years in pastoral ministry, including serving as senior pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church, a 3,700-member church in Moorhead, Minn. It was the largest ELCA congregation with a woman as senior pastor. She also served parishes in Minneapolis and Iowa City, Iowa.

Svennungsen has a degree in mathematics from Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn., and a Master of Divinity degree from Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn.

Svennungsen spoke with Faith & Leadership in December 2008.

Q: I read in an interview that it did not enter your imagination to be a pastor until you were 25. What made you realize you could take on a leadership role in the church?

I was 15 when women first were given the opportunity to become ministers, so it wasn’t part of my childhood to imagine that. And yet in college I was privileged to be in a situation where people asked me to imagine things that I hadn’t imagined. And [they] saw me with leadership gifts and invited me to explore the possibility of being a leader in the church.

And so I took baby steps to do that. I went to seminary and I thought I might just study for a while and see if this might work for me. I waited till the third year and it all clicked and came together in a way that I realized, yes, this is something for which I have gifts and passion and is a good fit.

Q. What kind of mentors did you have?

Both faculty and ministers. And my choir director in college, actually, was my mentor in this. Throughout my life, I’ve had mentors, both professional and personal.

I really think that for women pioneers that’s really important. Your professional mentors will primarily be men. But you need women who are strong and wise and have lived longer than you to also mentor you in this journey.

Q: In almost all the jobs you’ve held, you were the first woman in the position. What were the biggest challenges that you faced because you were a woman in a particular role?

I think a woman pastor, at least in my generation, struggled with the questions of both internal and external authority and -- one might even say -- confidence. Authority as you might define it is others’ willingness to give you power over them because they think you have a skill to be able to make their life better. For example, Coach K: All those basketball players give him a lot of authority because he has the power to help them win a basketball championship.

But sometimes authority is not really earned, but by habitual deference it has been given. All of my predecessors have been men, and men, more often than not, can come into those positions with the sort of unearned authority -- a deference -- that’s given to them.

Whereas for a woman, it’s all up for grabs. There’s a sense that women in those authority positions have to prove themselves because authority hasn’t been granted to them in the past. So I think there’s a challenge for women to come into those positions with a sense of inner authority when they’re not sure they’ve received the authority from outside.

An example for me: In my first congregational assignment, there were two congregations that didn’t want me, simply because I was a woman. Since I was married to a pastor, one of the congregations didn’t want him because he was married to a woman who was going to be a pastor. So that sort of exclusion -- not just because I was a woman, but because of a specific theology -- made me pretty sure that there were going to be people wherever I went who would not accept me.

Q: What challenges as a leader stemmed from the fact that you were a woman in a leadership role?

I would suggest that all leaders are faced with challenges because your role is to move an organization forward in its mission, and sometimes there’s resistance to that moving forward. There’s change implicit in that moving forward.

There is sometimes resistance if you are a woman, and that leadership position has never been filled by a woman. So people are wondering, “Is this person qualified for this? Is this person capable of leading this organization?”

I think women also have some internal issues in that they are socialized in certain ways. Some of that socialization helps, because a significant part of leadership is emotional intelligence, which includes empathy and tending to relationships, which women are socialized to do well. Some of that socialization means women are taking things personally that they shouldn’t be taking personally. You throw out an idea and people are critical of it, and you think, “Oh, that’s a slam against me.” When really that’s just the way processes work. Things don’t always end up in the way you originally suggested, which is part of leading a group, where the ideas are refined and better by the time the group is done processing it.

So, yes, there are challenges. But there are challenges in any leadership role, and for women -- and men -- this includes gender awareness. How does my socialization as a woman, how does my socialization as a man, affect the way I lead? How am I aware of that, and what do I need to do to compensate for that, and to maximize that?

Q: In what way did having taken over at The Fund for Theological Education affect your ability to step into the job at Texas Lutheran University? Was there a carryover of your experience?

I believe very strongly that all our experiences are incredible teachers -- especially when it comes to leadership. Leadership is something that is learned by study but also by action and reflection. You learn leadership best in context. So I would suggest that every experience as a leader has shaped my experience as a leader at Texas Lutheran.

Being a parish leader and being the leader of a small college are very similar. My work at The Fund for Theological Education was much more behind the scenes. So even though I loved the mission -- I was passionate about the mission -- I missed being part of the larger community, where the work is really done. So coming to Texas Lutheran, where I get to see 18- to 22-year-olds whose lives are transformed by the mission of the institution, is immensely rewarding.

I have heard that the sweet spot for the leader is where your passion for the mission meets the use of your greatest gifts and your greatest competencies. And so for me, this place has been that. My sense of mission for what we’re doing in these young people’s lives, and the use of the width and breadth and depth of my gifts as a leader of a community, are tapped. I love that.

One of the great blessings for me in leading a church-related institution is that I never feel alone in my passion for this work. I always know that Evelyn Streng is praying for me -- probably daily. She’s not praying for Ann, but for Texas Lutheran University to be faithful in its mission and she knows that part of that is a good leader who is faithful in her leadership role, her vocation. There’s a foundation, there’s a cloud of witnesses -- prayer warriors, one might say -- who are about helping this institution be effective.

At the end of the day, there is a mission that you trust that the Holy One, the Creator of all, is passionate about seeing accomplished and is invested in the effectiveness of what you do for it.

Q: So I have to ask you: Who is Evelyn Streng?

Evelyn Streng has worked at Texas Lutheran University for years, now she’s retired. She loves this place and has invested her whole life in it and continues to invest her time as a volunteer. [She is] someone who I know is prayerfully cheering us on.

Q: You have talked in the past about the transformation from chaplaincy to leadership in mission. Talk about that distinction.

In parish ministry, at least in my tradition of the Lutheran church, there was some move to [having] the pastor of a congregation be the chaplain of all the members, with that as the primary framework or paradigm for ministry. While that is certainly part of a congregational minister’s role, it’s not the whole sum of a pastor’s role.

A very significant part of a pastor’s role is to be a leader, to lead a congregation in greater faithfulness to its mission in the world. Leadership is clearly a vocation and chaplaincy is clearly a vocation, but they’re very different vocations.

Chaplaincy is really nurturing people in their journey, oftentimes in their pain and sorrow, and being truly present with them. Leadership as a vocation, to me, is much more about leading a community effectively to achieve its mission and to be growing towards its mission. Growth is a wonderful thing, but it’s also sometimes a difficult thing because it includes change and it includes letting go of that which is holding you back. And so leaders are sometimes beloved and they’re sometimes resented. And so it takes a lot of courage to be a good leader.

It also takes a lot of love to be a good leader, because you’re not going to accomplish what you want alone. So you have to build a team, you have to care for a team, you’ve got to challenge a team. So I suppose that one might argue that a person of faith who comes into a role as leader is one who is both confident and humble, both willing to stand up and be prophetic, but also willing to recognize that you don’t go it alone.

Because, at the end of the day, it’s not about you. It’s about the mission. It’s about the institution moving more deeply, more faithfully, into what God has called it to be.