An African-American woman pastor with an impressive history of community involvement while serving at churches in the Milwaukee area and Beloit was elected Sunday as the new bishop for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s South-Central Synod of Wisconsin, which includes the Madison area.
The Rev. Viviane E. Thomas-Breitfeld, 65, of Brookfield, is just the second African-American woman pastor to be elected bishop in the 65 synods that make up the ELCA, the largest Lutheran denomination in the United States with 4 million members and 10,000 congregations in the U.S. and its territories, according to the ELCA. The first, the Rev. Patricia A. Davenport, was elected bishop of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod on Saturday.
Thomas-Breitfeld said she hopes she can help the synod and the entire ELCA become more open to change, which she believes will make it more relevant to minorities and others — including young adults of all races — who are choosing not to attend church. In 2016, just 5 percent of its membership were minorities, according to ELCA data.
“I think that, sometimes, our beloved ELCA is stuck on just being, ‘Oh, this is the way it is.’ There’s a reason we look the way we look. It’s because we have not valued those who don’t look like us,” she said.
Thomas-Breitfeld said she believes the ELCA can become more relevant and “others-centered rather than self-centered” by judging and commanding less and listening more. “We have looked at people and labeled them and condemned them. And I say that’s way above my pay grade,” she said. “Let’s leave that to God. Last time I looked when we tried to do that, it was called sin. Let’s get this clear: That’s not our job.”
ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton said the elections of Thomas-Breitfeld and Davenport were important developments for the “most white” of the nation’s mainline Protestant denominations.
“We claim, over and over again, that God is calling us to be is a diverse, inclusive, multicultural church,” Eaton said in an interview with Religion News Service. “We’ve been stuck for over 30 years, and I hope this is the start of a trend where God opens our eyes to see the giftedness of people who are not of European descent.”
Thomas-Breitfeld, who was born and raised in Manhattan, was elected on the fifth ballot during the South-Central Synod’s annual assembly at Wisconsin Dells. She is replacing Bishop Mary Froiland, who is retiring after serving one term.
The synod included about 95,000 baptized members as of 2016, which was a 6.6 percent drop since 2011, according to ELCA data. As of 2014, just 8.9 percent of the synod’s active members were minorities, the data show.
Just days before the election, Thomas-Breitfeld concluded more than a year as interim pastor at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Beloit. It was the first time she had worked for a church in the South-Central Synod and many of the pastors impressed her, she said.
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“There is a love in South-Central that is pretty special and a sense of support that is really pretty awesome,” Thomas-Breitfeld said. “When I was introduced last year at the synod assembly, no less than 20 other clergy came up to me to welcome me. That’s pretty spectacular. That doesn’t happen in most places.”
Thomas-Breitfeld believes it’s up to the synod pastors and church leaders to join together and open their hearts and minds to everyone and show that their churches can be a place where everyone can feel cared about and valued. It’s a matter of following “I have no illusions that it’s me out there by myself. We are church together and that’s what I want to see our synod to reflect,” she said.
“Our job is to be purveyors of love, the love that we’ve received and sharing that with others. As people experience that people will come to church, because people have a need to be cared for, to be valued. And that’s what the beloved communities are about; that people realize the love of God in their lives and then they realize that love of God is in others and that means we value one another, we care for one another. That is when we become that beloved community,” Thomas-Breitfeld said.
After receiving her undergraduate degree from Cornell University in 1974, Thomas-Breitfeld graduated from McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago in 1979.
Her husband, the Rev. Fred Thomas-Breitfeld, is the pastor at Jackson Park Lutheran Church in Milwaukee. They met at Cornell and moved to Milwaukee after they both accepted first calls there after graduating from seminary. They have two adult children.
Viviane Thomas-Breitfeld served as pastor at two churches for a combined 11 years and has been a campus pastor at UW-Milwaukee and chaplain at two Milwaukee area hospitals as well as the Brookfield police and fire departments. She ran for bishop twice for the Greater Milwaukee Synod but wasn’t elected.
Her community work includes extensive training in anti-racism work, serving on parental advisory boards for two Milwaukee-area schools and as a board member and president of Cooperating Congregations of Waukesha County and the Lutheran Campus Ministry. Last year, she joined the South Central Synod’s racial-equity team that includes church leaders who admit racial bias exists and creates opportunities for people to learn that “difference” is not something to fear.
“We’ve had decent attendance at those gatherings,” Thomas-Breitfeld said.
Thomas-Breitfeld called Davenport “a sister friend” and said she plans to attend her installation as bishop in September in Pennsylvania. Thomas-Breitfeld said her installation will take place in August at First Lutheran Church in Janesville.