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The Rev. Margaret Gatter Payne '68 finds following God's plan brings higher rewards
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Believe it or not: One of the reasons she went to Muhlenberg was to meet a man. A preacher man, to be exact. She wanted to be a pastor's wife. So, while enjoying her studies and reaping the benefits of her education, she was also on the lookout for a pre-seminary student. Despite dating several, she didn't fall in love, and it seemed her plan was not meant to be. So, she left for India on a Fulbright scholarship.

Believe it or not: She met her husband in India while he was serving in the Peace Corps. But, he wasn't a pastor, either. This time, however, she did fall in love. But when she said, "I must marry a pastor," he said, "Maybe you should attend the seminary and pursue your ministry."

Believe it: The Rev. Margaret Gatter Payne '68 did just that.

She married her husband, John, in 1969 and began her studies in 1970. This past June, she made history as she was named bishop of the New England Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the first woman elected to lead the Lutheran community in the New England states.

"It is an incredible honor and came as quite a surprise to me," Payne said. "It's certainly nothing I aspired to become, but it feels like I'm doing what I was made to do. Part of spiritual growth is finding out how God wants to shape us and following that even when it contradicts the plans we make for ourselves."

Raised in a German-immigrant, Lutheran family in Philadelphia, Payne said her parents were very involved in the church. Her mother was her first mentor in faith and stressed to Payne that God has a plan for each of our lives.

"Our job is to figure out the plan," she said. "From the age of 16, I was sure I was to be a pastor's wife. At the time, that and being a Sunday school teacher were the only options for women to serve in the church. Things certainly have changed since then."

Payne oversees the more than 75,000 members in 196 congregations within the New England states and a segment of upstate New York. The New England Synod is one of the 65 synods in the ELCA, the largest of the three major Lutheran bodies with more than 5 million members across the nation.

In the Lutheran church, the role of bishop is not seen as a hierarchic promotion or elevation. As the chief administrator of the synod, she manages the financial and organizational aspects of making all the units function properly.

"I'm still a pastor, but I've been called to a specialized ministry," she explained.

"Now, my calling is to serve as pastor to the 300 pastors within the synod and help them in their efforts to not only provide worshipers with the weekly experience of spiritual refueling but to provide leadership in issues of peace and justice and empower their members to do the same."

Since her installation in September, she has been traveling throughout the synod, meeting pastors and their congregations, learning more about the needs of church members and sharing her goals, including her primary objective to strengthen the churches themselves and their public role.

"My overall goal is to increase the public witness of Lutherans in New England, who make up less than one percent of this region's population," Payne said. "We're focusing on how we can change lives in New England, especially those facing poverty and injustice. Like the Biblical images of salt and yeast, it takes only a small amount to change the whole mass. Bit by bit, that's how the church is strengthened.

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