The Rev. Patricia Ann Curtis Davenport made history when she assumed the office as the fifth bishop of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) on August 1, 2018. She is the first African-American woman to ever be elected bishop in the 4-million-member denomination.
By Amy V. Simmons
The gravitas of being the first African-American woman elected to lead within this majority White denomination is not lost on Bishop Patricia Ann Curtis Davenport, but she is up to the challenge.
“One of the things about being in this seat is that you’ve got to talk the talk and walk the walk,” she said. “I know this – as an African- American woman who sits in this seat in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, I’m under a microscope. Somebody is watching what I do. People listen to what I say. Therefore, I’m going to hold to [the fact that] I’m marked with the cross of Christ, and I am claimed, gathered and sent for the sake of the world, and I’m going to make a difference, because I have to give an account in the end.”
Prior to her election, Davenport served the synod as both director for evangelical mission and as assistant to the bishop. In addition to having served in many roles within the national church, she is also a lifetime member of the Philadelphia chapter of the African Descent Lutheran Association and is active with the Black Clergy of Philadelphia, Christians United Against Addictions, Metropolitan Christian Council and the Religious Leaders Council of Greater Philadelphia. She is also the founding pastor, developer and current member of the Spirit and Truth Worship Center in Yeadon.
Davenport received a Master of Divinity degree from the former Lutheran Theological Seminary of Philadelphia (now United Lutheran Seminary) and a Certificate in Black Church Concentration from the seminary’s Urban Theological Institute.
She is the widow of the late Joel Davenport, and has three adult children and seven grandchildren.
Bishop Davenport sat down with the SUN recently to discuss her vision for the church – a vision she views as only part of the larger vision shared by other dedicated members.
SUN: Most traditional denominations are experiencing falling membership rolls, church closings, etc. What is your vision for the Evangelical Lutheran Church going forward?
PD: One of the things that I am fully aware of is all of the decline and the bad news that is happening within that circle. One of my colleagues sent me a book called, “Appreciative Inquiry” which asks, ‘how do we look for the bright spots in the midst of everything that’s going on?’ It’s not that I am neglecting those things; I know that they were here before I got in this seat, and there will still be some of them while I’m in this seat.
However, we are choosing to look at the bright spots [like] where is the church growing? Where is the church impacting its community? Where are those spots that we can look at and point to for other communities of faith, so they too might see that this is not a hopeless situation, that God is at work? How do we creatively look at new ways or open ourselves to the Holy Spirit, where the Spirit is guiding and getting ourselves out of the way?
My fear is that we have bought into the lie that our churches are going to close by the year whatever. I choose to believe that we are “death and resurrection” people, and that where there is death, there is new life. So, where are those areas that we can look at and point to and say that there is light in the midst of darkness, that are going to cause people to pause and rethink about what God has done and what God is able to do?
SUN: What is the greatest challenge for traditional denominations in the age of the mega-church, non-denominational church and small, alternative group meetings?
PD: We [already] run the whole gamut of those. We have house churches and some smaller churches. [However], one of the things I’m coming to understand is leadership – leadership is key. I’ve always felt that the spirit of the leader falls on the people, so if we don’t address the leadership, we’re going to continue to be in the situation we’re in. when I say that, it’s not a judgement on the current leadership, it’s an encouragement for us to reread our ordination vows [which state] what we said we would do for the people of God, with the people of God.
Some of us have become complacent in where we are, and some of us have bought into the lie that ‘your church has three more years’ or ‘your church possibly has six more years, so what’s the push? Let’s just go ahead and wait this thing out’ instead of going back, reclaiming those vows and saying, ‘no, we’re going to seek God, and what God would have us to do to make a difference in this community.’ For me, it starts with a leader. When I say leadership, I focus on our rostered ministers, because of how we’re structured, but I’m one who’s a firm believer in the priesthood of all believers, so it’s all of us.
SUN: Do you have any new programs or initiatives planned for the region?
PD: My assistant to the bishop, Rev. Bradley Burke, is working on a couple of new initiatives with our New Jersey Synod…we’re working on faith innovations which ask, ‘how do we work with our rostered leaders and key members of the congregation to really help stir the spirit within them for the new thing. No more holding on to the standard ‘this has been working for us’, but what God has been calling us to do. We also have our house churches that we’re looking at. One of the things that we’ve come to find is that so many of the churches in the city disbanded. One of the questions [from the congregants of those churches] was, ‘Can we get rid of this huge building that we have and get a smaller building or a storefront, and then work our way up?’…[so we need] to be able to have conversations with them about how we creatively do ministry where all of the resources are not spent not on the church building, but the church that’s in us.
SUN: Say I’m a community member in search of spiritual connection and possibly a church home. I may or may not have had a religious affiliation before, but am anxious to be part of something larger than myself. Why should I consider the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America?
PD: For many reasons. First and foremost, we are a warm and welcoming denomination. I think what [initially] drew me to the church was our theology, that we are saved by grace through faith – I don’t have to “do” anything. The only thing I do is just show up – the work was already done on the Cross 2,000 years ago in Jesus Christ. [It is] a community of faith to which you would not only be welcome, but you would be able to find a sense of community and also be able to engage other communities of faith. We are [also] reconciled in Christ, which means receive our LBGTQ brothers and sisters; that is something we lift up proudly – we are open to all people. It’s a church based on relationship – our relationship with God, our relationship with Jesus and our relationship with one another.
To learn more about the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, visit their website at: https://ministrylink.org