"The church has been here for 2000 years, and it will be for a long time to come. My call is to do what I can at this time."
Payne is only the third woman in the country to be named bishop since the ordination of women began in the Lutheran Church in 1970. She is the first woman in the last five years of annual elections to be chosen.
"Like all servant ministers, I bring my individual gifts and skills to the responsibilities of a bishop," she said. "Being a woman in this role is similar to what women face in any other profession in terms of acceptance and the glass ceiling. In the church, however, resistance is part of the patriarchal institution and the prevalence of using the male pronoun for God. I sympathize with the resistance some people have with women leaders in the church; however, I bring who I am to the job and have found that once a relationship is established, gender means very little. For whatever reason, I have been called to this position, and I have to be who God wants me to be."
Becoming a bishop was not part of Payne's plan. In fact, when she started pursuing her studies in theology, even ordination was not a certainty.
"I wanted to study, but I knew I wanted a family," she said. "I studied part time because I was never in a hurry to become a pastor, and I really enjoyed my time with my four children."
It took Payne 14 years to complete her studies and internships–including four years the family spent in Africa while John started a bank–during which the call to ordination grew stronger. She was ordained in 1984 and served as a parish pastor at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in New Jersey for seven years. She then was the assistant to the Bishop of the New Jersey Synod for seven years. Once the children were all in college, her husband took early retirement from his banking career, she resigned from her position, and they moved to Shelburne, Mass., to run a family Black Angus farm and forestry operation.
"I struggled with all of these situations in trying to decide if they were right," she said. "But, if I practiced what I preached, I had to be attentive to clues about God's plan along the way and be open to change." One choice that was easy to make was the decision to attend Muhlenberg College. Only one other person in the family at that point had attended college, her cousin, the Rev. David Krewson '60.
"The philosophy was, if you're going to college, you're going to Muhlenberg," she said. "It was a great experience. Because Muhlenberg was a church college, part of its mission was to consider each student as an individual and important person. They cared for us and supported us. I still believe that no education process is complete without the spiritual component."
Payne said that what she took from Muhlenberg into her ministry, aside from the speaking and writing skills that have been critical to her pastoral role, was the sense of how people grow in an atmosphere of caring and support.
"You can't just throw people into a situation and expect them to thrive," she said. "In a very influential way, Muhlenberg acted as a ministry to me, and now I try to pass along what I learned to others." Her ministry encompasses confronting the challenges the church faces in today's society, including focusing on how to equip people to live as Christians in such a diverse, pluralistic society.
"It is a great challenge and opportunity to learn from one another's faiths while continuing to claim and clarify our own religious identities," she said. "In addition, there is a battle for the soul in our culture, and we need to teach people how to break free from the bondage of consumerism that has become so prevalent. The church offers a counter culture, and what we're saying is that by having less, we're not denying ourselves; we're breaking free from the burden of feeling that life is found in materialism and money.
"Believe it or not, without such constraints, life can be freer, simpler and happier," she said.
Coming from the Rev. Margaret Payne, that, you can believe.
with an honorary degree at Commencement in May.