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Bishop Lorna Halaas Imagines the Future of Seminary and the Church


5d55e4a870628.image-2Born on the prairie of western North Dakota, Bishop Lorna Halaas (’08) grew up in a family of storytellers. She was raised in Lutheran churches and recounts that her faith community was central to her life. One special lay leader—Mrs. Kurth—inspired her to consider ministry as a possibility, even before women could be ordained in her denomination.

She recalls, “We had women who served on church staff who did faith formation, who did youth ministry, but I particularly remember a woman who served almost as a pastor. She taught Sunday school, confirmation, and oversaw the Christmas program.” As a young woman, Lorna said to herself, “I want to be Mrs. Kurth when I grow up.”

Like many women called to ministry, Lorna’s vocational path was not without obstacles. “When I was a kid,” she shares, “women in the Lutheran tradition were not ordained and could not serve as pastors. That was a little over 50 years ago.” Lorna graduated from Concordia College in Moorhead, MN, in 1979, just nine years after the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) began ordaining women. For many years, she served as a director of Christian education in large congregations in Minot, North Dakota, and Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and also for the ELCA’s publishing ministry, Augsburg Fortress.

So how did a Lutheran end up at United? She surprised herself: “I didn’t know much about United—I knew they had a good Women’s Studies program, and I knew they were very ecumenical and diverse.” While still considering her options, Lorna attended an event at United. The experience was transformative. “I felt like a kid,” proclaiming, “I have found my spot!”

Lorna benefited tremendously from the instruction she received from United’s faculty, particularly Professor Emeritus Dr. Eleazar Fernandez and Distinguished Professor Emeritus Rev. Dr. Wilson Yates. She also prized the diversity of students. Citing interreligious and ecumenical partnerships she found at United, Lorna valued the ability to relate across differences through the power of
stories. “I was the Lutheran; other students were Southern Baptist, Presbyterian, United Methodist, Muslim, Jewish, along with those from other Christian denominations. We had the most wonderful conversations.”

For her, United’s interreligious and ecumenical learning environment felt right. “This is what the world was like... ‘This is my story, now tell me your story, and we will find common ground here in one another’s story.’” Lorna graduated from United in 2008 with an MDiv.

In the years following graduation, Lorna served as a pastor in congregations in North Dakota and Iowa. In 2019, she was elected to serve a six-year term as Bishop of the Western Iowa Synod ELCA, overseeing 116 congregations. In keeping with her imaginative family—and, no doubt, the creativity intrinsic to United’s ethos—Lorna centers divine imagination in her view of the world. “If you ask the synod staff who work with me, they will say, ‘She is always asking us about our passion, what we’re
curious about, and what might God be imagining for the church today.’”

In 2025, Lorna will be up for reelection as Bishop. She believes, however, “it’s time for younger leaders... There are new voices, new ideas.” While many may view the future of congregational ministry warily, Lorna is looking with courage to what lies ahead.

Present-day seminarians are preparing to serve a world with unique challenges not often faced by the generations of ministers who came before them. “I see pastors being equipped differently; I see people going to seminary not to do it all, but to preach, teach, and to equip lay people to go beyond the doors of the church and to be the church on the streets, in the shelters; wherever they may go, there God is.” We give thanks for Lorna’s humble, imaginative witness as a friend and alum of United.


Nathanial Green

Nathanial Green is United's director of marketing and communications.

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