Bishop Sikhwari talks about her path to becoming the first female leader of a Lutheran church in Africa
(LWI) - “If God is calling you, do not be resistant, do not shy away, because with God everything is possible.” Bishop Naledzani Josephine Sikhwari of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Southern Africa (ELCSA) speaks from the heart as she recalls how she tried to resist the call to embark on a journey that would lead her to become the first female bishop of a Lutheran church in Africa.
Born and raised in a village near Thohoyandou in the northern Limpopo province of South Africa, Sikhwari worked as a teacher for a couple of years after graduating from the University of Venda in the late 1980s. Despite growing internal and international protests, the apartheid regime was still firmly in control and the government was cracking down on church leaders who resisted its harsh racial segregation policies.
“I must confess, when I felt the call inside me, I said no, people are getting imprisoned so why should I become a pastor?” Sihkwari says. “Secondly, I come from a poor family and when I graduate, they expect me to go out to work to put food on the table.” Even though her church had opted to ordain women, there were few role models to inspire her, but she found support and encouragement from the church elders who persuaded her to lay her fears aside.
Tell me about your family and about your early years in the church?
I grew up in a family that did not go to church at all, but there was a teacher at my school who encouraged my brother and me to attend Sunday school. Eventually, through his support, I became a member of the church too. But it was a hard time with many pastors getting arrested and the church sometimes getting into very big trouble.
Who or what persuaded you to study theology despite all these problems?
Although I kept resisting the call, the pressure mounted inside me like a burning zeal. I talked about it with the elders in my church and they helped me to see that if God is really calling me, I should do away with my fear and trust that God will protect me.
I was aware that it wouldn’t be a smooth road and that there would be problems, but if God has been with Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, if God has been with Paul and Peter in prison, then surely God can be with me too. When God calls us, he doesn’t leave us alone, he goes with us into the deep waters, into the darkness and delivers us safely on the other side.
How did you persuade your parents who wanted you to work, rather than train for ministry?
I was expected to be the breadwinner as my father was no longer working. I am the first born in the family and my brother was working, but he had his own family to support.
When I told my parents I wished to train for ministry, they did not reply, they did not say anything. Fortunately, in our church, you have to spend a year before you start your training and so I prayed a rather naughty prayer to God saying: ‘If you are really calling me, you must convince my parents to let me do this.’
By September of that year, my parents were convinced. My father bought me a travel bag and my mother talked to me about starting my studies at the University of Kwazulu Natal – Pietemaritzburg. I was so happy they accepted my ministry. Unfortunately, my mother passed away before she could see me taking up any leadership positions, but my father, who died in 2021, was always so supportive of me.
In 2006, you became the first woman to be elected Dean of the Northern Diocesan Synod – what challenges did you face?
For my family, and for the church in general, it was such an achievement to have the first female dean in the whole of ELCSA. Our Circuit Council was very supportive and I was able to make my voice heard, to make suggestions and take initiatives.
What surprised me a bit was that I expected overwhelming support from the women, who make up the majority of people in the church. But some were a little suspicious of me and the changes I wanted to make. I think this is due to the patriarchal society we live in where women are still supposed to answer to the male leaders. Our church still hasn’t elected any woman as chairperson of the Circuits or as president of the Synod.
What are you doing to try and encourage other young women to follow in your footsteps?
Whenever I attend youth or young adult activities, or even in the church services, I always encourage these young women to see that the brains in our heads are the same as the brains in our young men’s heads. When they see me, they believe it is possible for them too and the number of women training for ministry is slowly growing.
Gender-based violence is a widespread problem for women in South Africa, isn’t it?
Yes, right now in South Africa, this kind of abuse has been declared a pandemic, with young girls being raped by those closest to them, their brothers or fathers, their uncles or neighbors. Often do not deal with the abuse because of the stereotypes which say that women can only pray, instead of also asking for help to take charge of their lives.
The church tries to help by offering support for the women and counselling for the men as well. We urge them to speak about their problems, to help them understand that there are alternatives to inflicting their anger on innocent people.
You spoke at the recent Africa Pre-Assembly about racism being ‘a wound in the Body of Christ’ - what does that mean in the South African context today?
We cannot claim to be the Body of Christ if we are not willing to come together to address common challenges. Like the theological training at Pietermaritzburg, where black and white students used to be together in the same housing, but now we are separated again and not even attending the same courses, so the gap deepens.
We started coming together for unity talks with our counterpart, the Northeastern Evangelical Lutheran Church in South Africa, to show that although we may differ by color, we do not have to be divided as Lutherans. When I met with their leader, he told me there are only a few families in some congregations, but the older generation especially wants to hold onto their language, their culture, their practices and they do not want to share around the table of the Lord, even if they can only have a Holy Communion service once a year.
How can you help to promote unity and reconciliation between these divided communities?
We have to look each other in the eye and try to understand the challenges each of us is facing. Most of our black congregations are in deeply rural areas where some people don’t speak English, let alone the German language. Yet the white pastors, when they finish studying, they go to Germany for a year and that is the language they use.
But we continue to meet and to engage and we are going to hold a convention to address these issues. We must understand that unity does not mean uniformity, but it means admitting our mistakes and understanding that we must come together as sisters and brothers, as children of the same God.
You will be attending the LWF Assembly in Krakow in September – what are your hopes for that global gathering?
When I went to the Pre-Assembly in Kenya, I was excited by what I experienced and the pledges of support I received from people from so many countries. It was a blessing to know that people in different places are praying for me as the first female bishop in Africa.
My expectation for Krakow is that I want to learn from other churches about how to support our women in ministry. I can learn what is happening in America or in Germany and understand what tactics and strategies they use so that I can come home and implement them here too. People in my church are very proud and praying that I can represent them properly, bringing back whatever I learn to share with them too.
The Lutheran World Federation is a global body that shares the work and love of Christ in the world. In this series, we profile church leaders and staff as they discuss topical issues and set out ideas for building peace and justice in the world, ensuring the churches and communion grow in witness and strength.