Next Lutheran bishop is woman from Beloit

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The Rev. Mary Froiland, pastor at Luther Valley Church, was elected the first woman Bishop of the South-Central Synod of Wisconsin of the ELCA on Sept. 28. She officially begins her duties on Nov. 1 in Madison.

The Rev. Mary Froiland has embraced many paths in life.

And now, at the age of 55, she finds herself ready for yet another challenge.

The pastor at the Luther Valley Lutheran Church in rural Beloit since 2000, she recently was elected the first woman bishop in the South-Central Synod of Wisconsin of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

She officially begins her six-year term Nov. 1 in the Madison office, after being elected in a special synod assembly Sept. 27-28. She will become part of an elite group of just 65 ELCA bishops overseeing 10,000 congregations in the 50 states and the Caribbean region. Nine of the bishops are women.

From her Luther Valley office on Wednesday, she talked about her new job and her life.

She was born in Iowa, and her father (the Rev. Wayne Stumme) was finishing seminary school at the time. He later moved the family to Great Britain where he served a congregation until Mary was 8 years old. The family then moved back to the states and to Moorhead, Minn. where her father was associated with Concordia College. That was followed by a move to Minneapolis where Mary graduated from high School, she said.

Meanwhile, her brother, John, was born and her parents adopted three more children who are bi-racial.

“There is lots of diversity in my family — this is what I’ve always known,” she said, showing a visitor a family photo framed in her office. When she came to one of the siblings she said, “That’s my brother and his husband and kids — he was married once before.”

Froiland earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and philosophy in 1979 from Augsburg College and then a Master of Divinity degree in 1985 from Luther Theological Seminary in St. Paul.

“My mother also graduated from seminary in 1985,” she points out of the Rev. Carol Stumme.

Not only are both parents in the ministry, she also married a pastor.

The Rev. John Froiland is the chaplain at St. Mary’s Hospital in Janesville. The couple have three grown children and one grandchild.

Luther Valley was the third church she had been employed at over the years. The first was in Ohio from 1985-1989 and the second was Our Savior’s Lutheran in Beloit from 1989-1991.

Then she took a break from the church.

The separation was partly due to disillusionment with organized religion and partly because she was a busy mother raising three young children, Froiland said.

She took a job with the public health department working with pregnant teens and later worked in human resources at Elder-Beerman in Beloit.

What she discovered during that time, was “I was working with people who needed help.” In many ways, it resembled her work in the ministry.

Nine years after leaving, she returned to the call of the ministry when Luther Valley needed a pastor. Her children were older and she had missed the church, she said.

“Again, I felt a call to come back — I always said I missed Jesus. I had a sense I had come back home.”

And so she began again and grew strong ties to the congregation as well.

Leaving people you’ve come to love is never easy, she says. Her last Sunday at the Luther Valley pulpit will be Nov. 3 with a 10 a.m. worship service followed by a potluck.

September was not her first brush with the possibility of moving on. Froiland also was nominated for the position of bishop six years ago, but declined. This time it was different. The incumbent bishop would not be running again for election.

According to Wisconsin Circuit Court records, the former bishop, Bruce Burnside is facing serious criminal charges in connection with the death of a Sun Prairie woman. Felony charges include homicide by intoxicated use of a vehicle.

While Froiland knew it was a possibility that she would be elected to the job, still, learning she was the top candidate out of 11 pastors was a bit daunting.

But that was a couple weeks ago and Froiland and her husband have already made plans to move on and travel down the next path in their lives. Soon, they will be moving to Edgerton and vacating the home next to the church Mary has served for the past 13 years.

Among her goals is to listen to and reach out to young people, the newly elected bishop said.

“There needs to be more diversity in the Lutheran Church and it needs to be more relevant to young people.”

Bishop Froiland also appears positive this will happen.

“I think the church is changing — it will not be the church of my grandparents. I think it’s transforming not declining.”

She is likely to learn much more about the direction of the Lutheran church as she oversees the 143 congregations that are part of the South-Central Synod she will head.

Installation for the bishop is set for Dec. 14 at 2 p.m. at First Lutheran Church of Janesville. All are invited.

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