Pastor Linda Forsberg will say goodbye from First Evangelical Lutheran Church on Sunday
It’s been more than 26 years since Pastor Linda Forsberg first stepped into the pulpit at First Lutheran Church in East Greenwich. This Sunday, Feb. 5, she will celebrate her final service as pastor, shifting to a job at Salve Regina University as assistant director of retreats and discernment.
In a recent interview Forsberg said she hadn’t really been looking for a new job and had long imagined retiring from First Lutheran – a community she loves. But the Salve job combined her love of mentoring with her ability to plan special retreats. And, while it’s full time, the hours are regular, a dream for Forsberg at this point in her life. Not only has she logged more late-night ministry crisis calls over the years than she can count, but she has a husband with health issues with whom she wants to spend more time.
“I’ve been consistently working 85 hours a week,” said Forsberg. “The Salve job is 36 hours a week and is just five minutes from my home.”
Forsberg was perhaps an unconventional choice in 1996 to take over the reins of a long-established EG church with a history of male clergy.
“I have to say, this community took a risk on me. I’m this young, divorced, single mom with three children,” she recalled (the children were ages 10, 6, and 5). “At the end of my interview, they said, ‘Is there anything else you want us to know?’ I said, ‘Yes!’ There were all these portraits on the wall of these stern men, all these previous pastors. I’d be the first woman and I said, ‘This church has had many pastors but my kids will only ever have one mom. So, that’s got to come first, my family.”
She left the interview thinking they would never hire her. But they did. “They felt I had gifts that would help them grow as a community,” she said.
Still, as up front as Forsberg was, she was aghast when, on her first Sunday at First Lutheran as the new pastor, Providence Journal columnist (and former EG resident) Martha Smith ran an article about her. “The headline was, ‘Divorced Pastor … ‘ I was mortified!”
But she found the headline actually drew people to the church. “All these new people came and many of them were divorced,” Forsberg said. “They had read the article and decided to give me a chance.”
It turned out it was Forsberg’s gender, not her marital status, that was more of a stumbling block for some parishioners.
“Once you interview and they decide you are their person, then you preach before the whole congregation and the congregation votes,” she said. “I had 93 or 94 positives and 11 negative votes. I thought it was because I was divorced. It was not. It was because I was a woman.”
It was a surprise to her, since her gender was completely beyond her control.
“The divorce, I was partly responsible for that,” she acknowledged. “But I did nothing to be a woman. It’s how I came out. So I was like, hey, if that’s your reason…” Most of those who voted against Forsberg ended up leaving.
There was one rough spot during her tenure at First Lutheran and that was over her strong support and acceptance of the LGBTQ community.
“I was bold here,” Forsberg said. “I have to say I was bold in feeling that everyone should be included. So that ruffled some people and our flag ruffled some people.” She was referring to the rainbow flag that started flying at the church in 2004. A small group of members tried to get rid of Forsberg at that point. They were unsuccessful.
“I’ll tell you, I love our rainbow flag. And, we have gained so many people because of that rainbow flag. We just had a group of new members join and part of why they all joined was that flag. Some were gay and some weren’t. They believe in inclusion.”
Forsberg said she has been guided by none less than Martin Luther, founder of the Lutheran Church, in terms of taking stands. “Luther said to be bold. To sin boldly,” she said. One can easily see Luther approving of how Forsberg has conducted her ministry, pushing against the status quo sometimes.
After all, how many ministers – men or women – ride motorcycles?
Forsberg and her husband (she remarried many years ago) rode motorcycles for several years; they sold them after her husband developed Parkinson’s disease.
Forsberg has also been a guiding light behind Church Without Walls, an outdoor church service held Saturday afternoons in Burnside Park in downtown Providence, for several years. It’s a way to bring church to the people, especially some of society’s neediest people.
Across the U.S., mainline Christian churches are struggling with lower attendance these days. Forsberg said she wonders if it’s not a time to return to the example of the early church, where people met in homes, praying and eating together.
“I hold on to early Christianity as a model. Before cathedrals and buildings, people met in homes. People shared their faith, gathered in homes, sharing their stories and faith and a meal. Story and meal – word and sacrament, right?”
Forsberg understands that many people identify with a deep spirituality but do not belong to a church. Still, gathering as a community is essential, she said. “That communal piece is so important.”
And it’s something she will miss in her new role, along with ministering to multiple generations. Forsberg really settled into the role of pastor in East Greenwich. In fact, she is the longest serving church leader in town by more than a decade.
While she is excited about her new job, Forsberg is grateful for her years in East Greenwich.
“It’s been a beautiful journey, it really has.”
That 1996 “Divorced Pastor” article likely played a role in drawing the then Kathy Plain and Don Wilkinson to First Lutheran (two divorced, single parents themselves). Their wedding, in July of 1997, would be the first Pastor Linda officiated at First Lutheran. From that point forward, they were dedicated members, and remained so until they each departed for Heaven in 2017 and 2020, respectively. Pastor Linda presided over their memorial services at First Lutheran, too. To say Pastor Linda profoundly influenced and supported our family would be an understatement. Godspeed, Pastor Linda!
As a clergy colleague of Linda’s for the past ten years, I can say the entire East Greenwich community is losing a wonderful example of how one’s faith might shape one’s life. She inspired colleagues and community members to be more compassionate and considerate. She will be greatly missed!
Linda arrived in EG shortly before I did and we were clergy colleagues for twenty years. I loved her boldness in every aspect of her life. She has always been relentlessly honest in saying what she believes and clear in saying why she believes it. The motorcycle was a good symbol of her style both personally and professionally. You could look at her bike as say, “Yup, that’s Linda!”
God speed, Pastor Linda, as you take on new ministries and challenges. The interfaith community will miss your gifts and leadership!!
Good day. Your information is not correct in regards to Church Beyond The Walls. CBTW’s meets every Saturday, not Sunday. Please print a correction. Thank you, a member of Church Beyond The Walls since 2014.
Thanks for the correction. We will update the information.