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Story Magazine

Fall 2016

Inspired by the call: Researching the women of the church

by Kelly O'Hara Dyer, Correspondent

When Janet Karvonen-Montgomery received the 2015 graduate preaching fellowship grant from Luther Seminary, she made plans to turn her opportunity for a year of travel and research into an exploration of women leaders in the church.

Today, after traveling and studying in Sweden, Finland, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Haiti, Guatemala, Hong Kong and several other countries, she’s amassed nearly 60 compelling video interviews with important female church leaders, showcased on her website at

During the course of the interviews, Karvonen- Montgomery asked each woman a variety of questions, Including how they personally experienced God’s call, how they have experienced grace in their lives and why they feel women are natural leaders who should be ordained in every church.

Among the prominent women Karvonen- Montgomery interviewed in the past year are Sweden’s Archbishop Antje Jackelén, who had a one-on-one conversation with the Pope last May, and Karen Castillo, the first female leader of the Lutheran Church of Guatemala.

Karvonen-Montgomery understands the push to excel in what are traditionally male-dominated fields; she was a standout Minnesota basketball player who is honored in the Minnesota Sports Hall of Fame. However, she says as a teenager growing up in the small Minnesota town of New York Mills, she didn’t know many other female teens who shared her all-consuming love of basketball.

That changed when she was invited to play on an All-Star Team in Minneapolis. She discovered with wonder that the Marriott Hotel was packed with other passionate, basketball-obsessed young women, just like her. Seeing peers actively pursuing their own basketball dreams helped her recognize she could, too.

Likewise, Karvonen-Montgomery believes seeing women in leadership roles in the church benefits other young women who will follow.

She describes an experience she had in Iceland when she snapped a cell phone photo of a young girl standing with her back to the camera, staring raptly at the altar while clergy members Nadia Bolz-Weber, mission developer for House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, and Jodi Hogue, pastor of Humble Walk Lutheran Church in St. Paul, preached at the Iceland Pastor’s Conference.

“To me [that photo] was really just kind of symbolic of ‘Here are two awesome women who’ve been called in God’s church and this little girl,’” Karvonen-Montgomery says. “Both of her parents are pastors in Iceland, so she’s growing up in a country that’s very progressive and which has had a female president for 16 years. For me, that was really a model of how things should be. I think all people need to be represented in leadership for others to identify with them.”

During portions of her travels, Karvonen-Montgomery was accompanied by her husband and four children, including her daughter-in-law, as well as her niece, Sarah Browne, a filmmaker from California. With the help of Browne, Karvonen- Montgomery documented her many interviews on video. Tentative plans call for turning that footage into a documentary at a future date, but for now, the interviews are available via her website.

“It’s been the opportunity of a lifetime,” Karvonen-Montgomery says of the fellowship. “I still have a husband and teenagers at home, so for me to be gone for two to three weeks at a time was hard on our family in some ways, but the kids are all at an age where they are doing well in life, and my husband is very supportive. I’m grateful for the fellowship and the opportunity and I just feel like the time is right to focus on issues of gender justice. Especially with the backdrop of conversations around race and sexual orientation, conversations around women are seemingly happening more often and with more ease. I think it’s a really important time in our world.”

Through her blog, Karvonen-Montgomery has had an opportunity for further reflection on her travels. During Lent she blogged every day, often accompanying the posts with video footage of the various women she’d met.

“I’m really grateful to be part of the ELCA and to be part of a seminary system that values women’s gifts in leadership and believes that the Scripture does mandate women’s involvement as leaders in the body of Christ,” she says. “For me it has been inspiring and affirming to see women following their call despite great obstacles, social pressures, sometimes family disapproval, and to know that God’s call doesn’t stop. God has gifted women in unique ways to spread the gospel.”

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