If God ever needs an assistant executive to help run things, the Rev. Deborah Hutterer might well be on the short list.
Running things has been a hallmark of the Ahwatukee woman’s career and she will take on her biggest assignment yet when she is installed as the sixth bishop of the Grand Canyon Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America at a 10 a.m. service Saturday, Sept. 8, at Shepherd of the Valley Church in Phoenix.
It’s no small job. She’ll be responsible for overseeing 89 congregations serving 44,000 members spread across Arizona, southern Nevada and St. George, Utah. At the same time, she’ll have to stay in touch with 64 other bishops across the country who also oversee synods, which are similar to dioceses in other Christian churches.
One of 48 pastors nominated for the position at the synod’s 31st annual assembly, Hutterer, 63, was elected on the fifth round of voting at the synod’s 31st annual assembly of 107 pastors, two deacons and 196 lay people in June.
The ELCA is the seventh largest religious body in the U.S. and the nation’s largest Lutheran denomination.
Her election came seemingly light years from her days as an eighth-grader in Minnesota who wanted to become a pastor but found society and her personal circumstances working against her.
“I liked the welcoming atmosphere” of her church and admired the pastor’s work in creating that environment, she recalled.
Back then, however, women were not considered for the ministry and her family couldn’t afford college.
But while her religious aspirations were temporarily blunted, her executive drive wasn’t. When she graduated from high school, she ended up starting two businesses – a residential and commercial cleaning service and a dessert business.
“I cleaned,” she said of a business that eventually employed 17 people. But she didn’t bake, instead selling desserts made by a friend.
Hutterer later became an insurance broker, a job that required her to travel almost constantly and became so wearying that she began taking classes at Augsburg University in Minneapolis – which affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Even as a student, her administrative skills came to the attention of the university, which made her Augsburg’s coordinator of the Nobel Peace Prize Forum.
“They wanted to give the winners of the Nobel Peace Prize more visibility,” she explained.
Co-hosted by colleges of Norwegian and Lutheran heritage in the Upper Midwest, the forum has evolved into one of only three programs officially associated with the Norwegian Nobel Institute.
When Hutterer graduated in 1999 with a degree in communications, it was right alongside her daughter, who was getting her degree in psychology at the same time.
Hutterer was ordained a Minister of Word and Sacrament in 2004 after earning her master of divinity degree from Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota.
She first took on the assignment of pastor in Illinois and had the unenviable task of having to relocate the congregation from the church where it had met for a long time.
Having successfully managed that assignment over three years, she became not only the executive director but the entire staff of Faith in the City, a consortium of Lutheran organizations in Minneapolis that joined forces to offer help on everything from healthcare to education to financing.
After four years in that position, she began looking in 2012 for a new challenge within the church and was presented with three choices.
She chose the Lutheran Social Services of the Southwest and became its chief development officer – and an Ahwatukee resident.
Lutheran Social Services is a nonprofit agency, affiliated with ELCA and recognized by the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, that provides an array of social services to the aged, disabled, families in need and immigrants.
“I love sharing stories of how God’s love is expressed through Lutheran Social Services programs and ministry partners,” she once said of her job with the agency. “I get to invite people into partnership for this critical and inspiring work that changes lives.”
She also became a member of the board of the Spirit in the Desert Retreat Center in Carefree, described on its website as “a place where people of all backgrounds, religious or non-religious, can experience renewal, reconciliation, healing and transformation.”
She had attended an executive retreat in 2009 at the center, and was moved by its serenity.
“The setting was God’s beautiful High Sonoran Desert, and I experienced warm and welcoming hospitality,” she was quoted as saying. “I had meaningful conversations with interesting people from across the country, who were focused, as was I, on reflection and personal renewal. I loved it. The whole experience was so special it felt holy.”
She expects to continue on the center’s board, noting, “Our world is difficult for many and brutally traumatic for some. I am confident Spirit in the Desert Retreat Center will continue to be a place of renewal and healing for thousands from all over the world.”
As she begins her new job, Hutterer expects to be spending a lot of time on the road, visiting congregations big and small, some in remote reaches of Arizona and Nevada.
The congregations in the Grand Canyon Synod are broken into nine clusters, each overseen by a pastor who has volunteered to serve as a dean.
No longer are women kept out of leadership positions in the ELCA. Women have been ordained for 45 years and now make up 40 percent of all pastors in the church. Hutterer also is one of six new female bishops elected this year in the ELCA, bringing the total number of female bishops to 13.
Asked about her goals for her new job – besides having a reliable GPS – she replied that her first is improved communications.
“My first aspiration is communication that builds trust among pastors, people who are in the faith communities and the wider church. A deeper sense of trust will foster conversations that can build bridges and lead us to into a new future,” she said.
Citing the steady decline in church attendance in America and the demographic changes roiling America, Hutterer knows she faces a big task but feels the church needs to meet that change head-on.
“The world is changing and we must be prepared for that,” she said. “Martin Luther didn’t want to leave the Catholic Church; he wanted it to change it.”
And that leads to her second goal.
“My second aspiration to foster an atmosphere of trust so that we can be open to the new thing God is doing,” she said. And that, she added, “most likely isn’t going to look like the way we are doing church today.”