When Susan Jennifer Briner was installed Saturday as bishop of the Southwestern Texas Synod, or division, of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America it was the second of two life-changing surprises she’s experienced.
The first? Having her 15-year career in software development riven when she felt called by the Holy Spirit to become a Lutheran pastor.
“I was completely surprised,” she told the Rivard Report about that transition which occurred in the late 1990s. “I thought, there’s just no way that this can be. I ended up confessing this feeling to a few people I trusted and they all said, ‘Oh, I can totally see that.’”
She was just as flabbergasted when she was elected to be the first woman bishop in Southwestern Texas or any other synod in the southern region of the ELCA. The service of installation numbered 500, including members and clergy of other denominations, so was staged in the massive University United Methodist Church in north San Antonio.
The ELCA has 65 synods and is distinct from the Missouri Synod and others who are fundamentalist and do not ordain women. With more than 3.7 million congregants, the ECLA is one of the largest Christian denominations in the United States. The Southwestern Texas Synod has 130 congregations encompassing San Antonio, Austin, Corpus Christi, and McAllen.
While the title of bishop connotes austerity, Briner herself is small and bright-eyed with tight red curls and an easy laugh. Her laughter was hearty when asked if her election as bishop in May had knocked her out of her socks. She knew she had been pre-nominated, but so were others.
Less than a week into her tenure, she refers to herself as Bishop Sue.
“You go in the beginning of just one weekend and don’t know what’s going to happen by the end,” she said. “So it was a whirlwind for sure.”
Briner’s election as first female bishop of Southwestern Texas is part of a record-breaking six ELCA synods electing women bishops this year. Elizabeth A. Eaton, the presiding bishop who conducted Briner’s installation, also made history in 2013 when she became the first female to lead the denomination.
While Briner has said the influx of ordained women in the Lutheran Church shows God is at work, it also shows history being made. Martin Luther’s dispute of Roman Catholic practices brought about, as author Brad S. Gregory wrote in Rebel in the Ranks, “new ideas, practices, and institutions [that] became the foundations for the modern world.” Since 2009, the Lutheran Church began allowing gays and lesbians in committed relationships to be ordained, and it began marrying gay and lesbian couples when same-sex marriage was legalized in 2015, Briner said. Ordination of women began earlier, in the ‘70s as well as in other Protestant denominations throughout the 20th century.
“Some of it is evolution,” she said, citing inclusion of all people, “which means our leadership needs to reflect that kind of ever-evolving inclusivity.”
For her personally, “it’s pretty exciting, pretty big in terms of both the responsibility to do it well as well as the awe of taking so long to get us here.”
Briner grew up in Ottawa and then New London, Canada before moving to Miami midway through high school.
“It was quite a culture shock,” she said.
Though her parents were spiritual, they belonged to different denominations that at the time only served communion to members of their own church. Their solution was to stay home. Briner said she had an active prayer life growing up, and in college became an Episcopalian after going to church with her roommate at Duke University.
“I was confirmed in the Episcopal Church, I joined the choir, I joined the vestry, I did a lot of things,” she said. “So, I’m the reverse of kids who were active in church and stopped going when they were adults.”
After graduating from Duke in 1984 with a degree in computer science, Briner developed software and did product management for a telecommunications company in Durham, N.C. for 15 years, and also married. She and her husband, from whom she now is divorced, became so active in their Episcopal church, “we got kind of burned out,” she said, and began to visit other churches.
“There was a Lutheran church around the corner from us, so we visited and became friends with the young pastor and his wife,” she said. “The liturgy is almost identical [to the Episcopalian liturgy], so we joined the Lutheran church and never looked back.”
Her call to the clergy occurred in the Dallas area where she had been transferred to for work. Ever involved with church life, she served on a committee to select an associate pastor and began to have dreams at night about becoming one herself.
“The Holy Spirit was telling me, ‘You gotta go do this,’” she said.
In 2003, Briner received a master of divinity degree from Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, S.C., and became associate, and later senior, pastor at a church outside Charleston. Though perfectly happy there, she answered the call to become associate bishop of the Southwestern Texas Synod in 2012. The work was more administrative than ministry, so she likes that as bishop she now has 130 parishes where she can preach and teach.
Though the Lutheran Church is considered the “whitest” in the United States, she said, she intends as bishop to diversify.
“Here in Texas, a lot of the predominant theology, I find, is one of judgment and exclusion,” Briner said. “I would want people to feel like they are always welcome in the Lutheran Church, that particularly for those who have been marginalized, our doors are open and we don’t even want to wait for them to come. We will go to them.”