Deepening Faith Through Serving

Bishop Scott Johnson sat down with Synod Council members Elysia McGill and Tanny Akerson to discuss the different ways they’ve served the church. We hope you’ll enjoy their thoughts on the many ways they’ve served, and that you will consider how to serve and how to encourage others to serve.
(The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)

Bishop Scott Johnson: We asked you to think about some of the different ways that you’ve served. Elysia, what are some of the ways that you’ve served your local congregation?

Elysia McGill: Oh, goodness. I started off by teaching Sunday school, and then Pastor [Howard] Rasmussen kind of volun-told me that he would like me to be an assisting minister. From there I joined the choir and stepped up into some different roles. When our first female pastor was here, she had to be gone, and she said, “I think you’re capable of being in the pulpit. You have some talents and gifts.” Now I am a lay preacher in the church, and I’ve been leading while we’ve been in transition. I only have one Sunday left. You know, this is the longest that I’ve had to be in the pulpit. I call it practical discernment. I’ve done just about everything except play the organ at church.

BSJ: Okay. So when are you starting organ lessons?

EM: The state of Nebraska and Peru State College say that I can play the piano. That doesn’t mean I can play at church.

BSJ: Tanny, how about you? What are some of the ways you’ve served in your local congregation?

Tanny Akerson: You know that I can go way back, right?

BSJ: Yeah. We’re not looking for an exhaustive list.

TA: I know, but I think it’s kind of fun to think about. So, I started out as a Sunday school teacher and a VBS teacher and so on. I am also an organist and a keyboardist. I played for worship and have done that for years, ever since I was in high school. My husband and I led Faith Leader courses for several years when we first arrived in Bellevue. That was absolutely a passion of ours, and it was a marvelous thing to do. Today we’re no longer doing Faith Leader courses, but he leads the men’s Bible study, and I lead a women’s Bible study on Thursday afternoons and evenings. That’s been going for many, many years, and that’s delightful. I served as a worship director when we lived in Sydney when I stepped down from teaching. I also served as worship facilitator or coordinator here at Immanuel when Lowell Nelson was pastor here. I served on our worship board, I served on our faith formation board, et cetera.

BSJ: So thinking back to when each of you started serving local congregational ministries, how were you invited to serve in that way?

EM: I think the most personal one was when Pastor Stenson came and talked to me and said, “I want you to do this, and I think that you’d be really good at this.” It’s helped deepen my faith, being able to serve in that way.

BSJ: That’s a, a good, a good point. Elysia. Maybe I should have asked what was the best inviting experience you’ve had?

EM: But, you know, it is nice to think about both ways, because sometimes we just have expectations, especially for women: “Oh, you, you’re the pastor’s wife. You are going to do X, Y, and Z” or, “You are a young woman, you are going to do this, this, and this.” We really should stop and ask everybody, “Hey, what would you like to do?”

BSJ: Tanny. How about you? What’s an early inviting story and what’s a good inviting story?

TA: Well, an early inviting story for me was when I was in high school and in Luther League. My senior year, we didn’t have anybody stepping up to be the Luther League leader. So I was asked by a couple of the adults to do it. I think it was not a good idea when I look back on it, not because it turned out poorly, but I don’t think that asking a high school youth to lead high school youth is necessarily the best thing to do, but that’s what happened. My most favorite inviting story was at Holy Trinity in Sydney. I was an English teacher, which meant papers that just go from here to here, right? My daughter’s senior year, I had decided I did not want to teach because I didn’t want to spend every night of her last year in my house grading papers. So I stepped down from teaching, and at that time, I’d gone to a worship jubilee that the ELCA had held in Chicago and got all excited about worship. Pastor Schambach had talked to me about coming on board as the worship director. I just wasn’t sure what all that was gonna mean, and should I do that or not? I just told him that I just wish that God would, you know, that I’d see the writing on the wall. So I came home one day from wherever I was, and on my back porch wall on dot matrix computer paper was a banner that he had made and taped to the wall that said, “Tanny Akerson, get to Holy Trinity to be…”, well, I don’t know exactly how it was worded, but I had it written on my wall, so I accepted.

BSJ: That seems a little more aggressive than some might feel would be a good idea, but it obviously worked.

TA: Well, I’m glad I didn’t say, “I wish someone would hit me with a two by four and tell me!” That would’ve been aggressive, right?

BSJ: So, what have you learned about yourself through the experiences you’ve had in leadership in the church?

TA: That I can do it. I’m capable of doing it. I think a lot of what I’ve done has led me to really consider God’s call on my life, and not call in terms of vocation or in terms of even activity or whatever, but “Where’s my passion? What’s my thing?” You know, like [Frederick] Buechner’s, “Where the world’s great need and your great passion meet” kind of a thing. That’s been a growing edge for me to be considering all the time. I think it’s been a sense of being called to help people connect. So if it’s connecting through worship or if it’s connecting through music, or if it’s connecting through a Bible study, that’s been a wonderful thing for me to be discovering, and then what does that mean for the next step and the next. I’ve also learned a lot about how I can make a job into a monster, and that’s not good because it doesn’t share the wealth with other people. So not only do I get to help other people connect, but I get to connect with other people and invite them to be a part of the doing too, and not just, “I’ll do it, you follow” kind of a thing. Does that make sense?

BSJ: Yeah, absolutely. You said you could ask, “what’s your thing?” Has that changed over time, Tanny?

TA: Not that my thing has changed, just ways of doing my thing has changed, seeing different avenues for that.

BSJ: Okay, yeah. Elysia, I think you said that “I can do it,”…

EM: I can do it, but at the same time, it’s made me look deeper within myself and like Tanny said, I need to learn to say no, but I also need to learn to share and invite other people, and I’m not so good at that sometimes.

TA: Just to add a little bit more to that too, I’m an Enneagram 1, so that’s where part of my “I can do that and I’ll get it right” attitude comes from.

BSJ: Sure. For those that don’t know the Enneagram, which type is a 1 and what does it mean?

TA: Well, as far as the labels are concerned, the most common label used for 1 is The Perfectionist. I want to get it right and there’s a voice in me that says, “I can do it better. I can do it better, I can do it better. I made a mistake. I’ll fix that. I’ll get it better. I’ll fix it for you too.” But one of my other spiritual gifts is encouragement, and I love the avenues being able to put that to use.

BSJ: How about you, Elysia? Which Enneagram type are you?

EM: Hmm. I’m trying to remember. It’s been a while since I’ve like done my Enneagram. I tend to fly by the seat of my pants a lot, but underneath, I panic when things are not going the way they need to go, or the way I feel that they need to go.

BSJ: I’m a 7, The Enthusiast, which also can be translated as “easily distracted.”

TA: But also a lot of fun. I’m married to a seven. My son’s a seven.

BSJ: The fun thing about the Enneagram is it’s all about when you’re healthy and when you’re not healthy. It’s not a “this person should do this and this person should do this,” but more “things to watch out for that show you that you’re bridging into unhealthy ways of living out who you are” and that sort of thing.

We’ve talked about what you’ve learned about yourself, but, you’ve both served the wider church as well. Can you say a little bit about where you served in the “wider” church and what you’ve experienced there?

EM: Serving as the Synod Vice President has been kind of eye-opening for me. I always pray that when I’m trying to learn something new that God puts me in a place where I can learn very practically. I wanted to know more about what the Women of the ELCA did, and I thought I was getting appointed to a position, and I got thrown into a board member position, and now I am the President of the Nebraska Synodical Women’s Organization. Going to the Triennial Gathering and seeing what we do as all of the women together, it’s so inspiring. Knowing that what I’m doing in some small way is helping the bigger church and trying to get others to see that we are more than just St. Paul’s in Falls City: we are part of the Nebraska Synod, and that is part of the ELCA, which is part of the world. And then that’s going to be a bigger job for me to work on.

TA: I’ve done quite a few things in the Synod. This is my second go around on the Synod Council. The first time I served is when we transitioned from Bishop deFreese to Bishop Maas and now this time around it’s been kind of fun to be a part of that. I’ve been on the NLOM board a couple of times. I served as Synod Assembly co-chair with Pastor Brad Meyer. That was a hoot. I was part of the leadership development team at one time, eons ago, part of a worship team, I worked with the NLOM Gala, went through their chair and training chair, sponsorship chair thing. Yeah, lots of opportunities. One of the things that I have loved is that there’s always newness. There’s always something exciting. I read a lot of Richard Rohr, and he talks about how God is leading us to something better all the time. I think if you get involved, you see that that’s really true. We can cry about the fact that people aren’t showing up in the pews like they used to, but if you look at what’s happening that’s not in the pews, it is really exciting. I have loved watching our church grow and change and become, that “always being made new” is real. That excites me. I also think leading helps people learn that it’s not hierarchical, that we are the Synod, not “the Synod’s telling us what to do.” We are the Synod.

BSJ: Oh, if I could give you a megaphone to spread that message, that the Synod is all of us together. The ELCA is all of us together, too, which is a lovely way to segue a little more specifically: what else have you learned about the church through your service?

EM: Hmm. That we have faults and that God’s grace is there for you, for me, for all of us. I think one of the most painful things I’ve ever watched, but at the same time, one of the most beautiful things was at the 2022 Churchwide Assembly, when we apologized to the church in California. I had so many emotions, but it made me step back and remember that we are growing. We are people that learn and we grow, that we’re not all inherently bad people, and in order for us to grow and do more together, we have to be able to forgive one another. We have to be able to work together for a common good.

BSJ: Thank you for that, Elysia. I appreciate what you said. One of the things that I came to love the most when I was in seminary and really studied Lutheran theology for the first time was the way that Luther approached the eighth commandment about bearing false witness. Luther says it’s not enough to not tell lies, but the whole intent is to speak well of our neighbor, to defend them, and to interpret what they say in the kindest possible way. We’re supposed to listen to one another with grace, and it’s really hard to do that sometimes. How about you, Tanny? What have you learned about the wider church through your service?

TA: I’ve learned that I love that we are a church that does change and does grow and does allow for newness, that does have grace if we get it wrong: “Okay. That was a mistake.” We move on. I love that we’re always looking for ways to truly be the welcoming place. I mean, how do we welcome absolutely everybody, and not in a sense that “this is our theology, and either you grab onto it or we don’t want you.” It’s your space that’s truly your space for absolutely everybody. And you know, I don’t think we’re noisy enough. I think that’s where we fall short. I don’t think that we’re a noisy denomination, and I think we have to get a lot noisier. I think that we have the best noise; it just needs to get louder. How many different denominations are we in full communion with? We were part of the Tri-Faith Initiative that was happening in Omaha, we have mission congregations in Lakota and Sudanese and Latino communities: we’re not afraid of something new, and not afraid of something different. And we don’t see them as “them,” but learning how we see them as “us” is what excites me about the wider church.

BSJ: One of my best friends from seminary served in the same synod as me for our first calls, and I remember something he said when we were talking about ministry. He genuinely loved his church, so this was not bagging on them or anything, but he said “It’s frustrating to remind our church that just because we do something different doesn’t mean it has stay that way until Jesus comes back.” We can try something and if it works, we do it again. If it doesn’t, we can go back to the old way or we can try it another way, and keep experimenting. I think we’re getting better at that.

TA: I think so too.

BSJ: Not, you know, that we’re always succeeding, but we’re a work in progress. Thank you so much for the time. I’ve only got one more question: what gives you the most joy out of being a person who has served the church in the many different ways that both of you have served?

TA: You know, it’s kind of funny because I looked at those questions when you first sent them out, and I thought, “Wow, these can be hour long conversations, each one of them.” I honestly would have to say one of the things that’s given me the most joy is that I have seen my children and now my grandchildren also being very active in their congregations and in the life of faith. That certainly is the epitome of joy for a mama and a Mimi as I am. But I think also just being able to celebrate connections. Sometimes it’s connections obviously between God and an individual, but sometimes it’s connections between an individual and another individual or a group. I just experience that shared humanity and that shared faith, even if we’re in different places in our faith. And I’m a worship lover, so there’s so many times when worship has me in tears for lots of good reasons. You know, confession, a song, Pastor Paula’s sermon, whatever it might be.

EM: I love being able to see people together. When your kids are little, you always hope and pray that what you’re doing is enough. When our daughter went out on her own, just for her to say, “Mom, help me find a church,” you know, that was important in her faith life. Our kids down here didn’t go to camp, they didn’t go to LYON, she was a ball player and she missed Sundays, but it didn’t mean that she was any less of a person. But then, as an almost 25-year-old young lady, her faith is so important to her. She’s like, “Mom, help me find a church, because where I’m currently going with my friend is not good for me. It’s not healthy for me. I want a Lutheran Church. Help me find it.” This year she went with me to Triennial and she said, “This is what the women do?” And I said, “Yeah.” When we were in Minneapolis, it was 3000 of your closest sisters in Christ, and it was amazing to see that joy on her face and to know that I helped do that. You know, I did something right. I’ve done a lot of things wrong, but I’ve done something right. So…yeah. And now I’m a blubbering mess, so thank you.

BSJ: Well, we used that word “joy” in the question for a reason. “Joy” is different than “happy,” right? Joy is the sort of thing that can do that to you, right?

EM: It can,

BSJ: Anything else that the two of you would want to share? We’re building a ballot for Churchwide Assembly, for Synod Council, we will be nominating people for the ELCA Church Council from the Nebraska Synod. What’s anything you’d want to share with folks that are going to be reading this and thinking about who ought to be nominated?

EM: Don’t ever think that you are too young or too old to do something like this,

TA: And I would say don’t think that you’re too anything. I remember the first time that I was on Synod Council and at my first Synod council meeting, I thought, “Here’s these erudite pastors that are on the Council and these other people that know what’s going on, and…”

EM: You’re feeling stupid.

TA: Just why am I here? I would say that’s probably a very common experience for first time, especially lay people on Synod Council or other such endeavors. But you learn that everybody’s absolutely as human as you are, and every voice counts.

EM: Yeah. Everybody has something to bring to the table. Everybody. We need you.

TA: And if someone is seeing a gift in you, you need to at least acknowledge it, think about it, and pray about it.

BSJ: Tanny, you said earlier that we’re not the noisiest church, but we’ve got good noise. I might also add that if you see gifts in somebody else, if you think they would have something to contribute, you need to make some affirming noise. “Hey, you should think about this.” Not because we just need to fill a spot with a warm body, but because I think you have gifts that can be used in this place for this task, in this purpose. Over the weekend we had LYON Assembly, and one of the theme verses was the story of Esther. “Who knows, perhaps you have been put into this position for just such a time as this, for such a place as this.” I think the way that God works in the church is, you know, the right leader at the right time. And quite often then God also makes the leader the right leader at the right time, too.

EM: God doesn’t call the qualified; God qualifies the called.

BSJ: Well, thank you both, not, not just for the time today, but also for what you do as leaders in the Synod and as part of the work that we do together. I really appreciate you making the time for this conversation. It’s been good to be with you both.

TA: Well, thank you. Thank you for the invitation.

EM: Thank you!