Erika Breddin stands in the pews at St. Ansgar Church in Waterloo

It has taken time, but Erika Breddin ’94 is finally comfortable in both her personal and professional lives. She and her wife, Melissa Breddin, have two daughters, Adriana and Jasmyn, who are thriving at Cedar Falls High School. Breddin was recently installed as the pastor at St. Ansgar Lutheran Church and serves as a contract pastor at Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church, both in Waterloo, though she is a full member of the United Church of Christ. 

Breddin grew up in the Lutheran faith, the oldest child of Lutheran missionaries in Papua New Guinea, but her relationship with the church has been tested through the years for myriad reasons. She felt called to church work early on, but the church was a difficult place for her to be; Breddin was assigned male at birth and lived in that identity for much of her life. She is transgender.

While still hiding her truth from others and suppressing her gender dysphoria (the discomfort or distress one can feel when their gender identity differs from their sex assigned at birth), Breddin married her first wife and enrolled in courses at Wartburg Theological Seminary in 1999. As part of her studies, she spent an inspiring year at the Augustana Hochschule, a theological seminary in Neuendettelsau, Germany. She had just completed her third year of seminary when her divorce caused her to be outed to the church. The ELCA was still nearly 15 years away from publicly recognizing same-sex relationships and allowing the ordination of LGBTQIA+ clergy. Though she was forced to leave seminary, she never lost her faith.

“I still felt the church was my place to be, but I wasn’t positive that the ELCA was the right place for me,” she said.

So she stepped away. She found work she enjoyed as a goldsmith and eventually rejoined church life as a member of the United Church of Christ in Cedar Falls with the intent of “sitting in the pew and singing in the choir.” And she did, for a while, until other church leaders started noticing her love for liturgy and people and her gifts for pastoral ministry.

After nearly five years of nudging, Breddin accepted the UCC’s invitation to step into a leadership role. One month later, she was preaching her first sermon. She was ordained in the United Church of Christ, and for six years, Breddin served Saint Paul’s United Church of Christ in rural Cedar Falls. She moved to Stuebenville, Ohio, for four years to serve at Zion United Church of Christ, where she helped the church implement support groups, increased community visibility, and grew membership for the first time in 25 years.

It’s also where she finally embraced who she was. Though she was coming into her own, she still felt there was something missing. Breddin had never been able to finish earning a graduate degree from Wartburg Theological Seminary.

“I felt that while I was pastoring, the fact that I didn’t have a master’s degree was a perceived deficit from the congregations when they were looking at me as a potential pastor,” she said.

A chance meeting with a former seminary professor, the Rev. Dr. Norma Cook Everist, provided the boost she needed to once again face that challenge. In 2019, Everist “took it upon herself to write about what she saw as a miscarriage of justice,” Breddin explained. Everist, then an emerita faculty member, pleaded Breddin’s case at the seminary, and eventually she was granted admission. In 2021, Breddin graduated with a Master of Arts in religion.

It was about the same time that Breddin was contacted about a possible opportunity at St. Ansgar Lutheran Church.

“I was serving at Ripley United Church of Christ in Traer and had assumed I would just keep doing what I was doing. When St. Ansgar’s current contract pastor asked me if I would consider a contract position at St. Ansgar, my first question was ‘Would they be willing to consider me?’” she said.
“I preached my trial sermon on Pentecost and began serving there in July 2021.”

Though she also has taken on additional pastoral duties at Zion Lutheran, she isn’t yet ready to consider a full return to the Lutheran fold. For now, she’s happy with her “dual citizenship” in the UCC and Lutheran churches.

She has other concerns about the ELCA, too. Despite the 2009 proclamation that provided her and other LGBTQIA+ individuals a path to ordination and the 2013 resolution encouraging all ELCA synods, congregations, and members to support legislation that prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, Breddin says overall the organization still has a long way to go.

“There are pockets where there is change, but the reality is still that a lot of LGBTQ candidates wait years longer for a call and when they receive calls, they often aren’t full time or they are offered the position because the congregation feels they have no other options,” she said. “It took a long time for the church to fully recognize the equality of women in ministry and for the congregations to really live into that as well.”

For now, at least, Breddin believes she has found a few of those churches that not only talk the talk but walk the walk. There have been some struggles along the way, but things are moving in the right direction. Despite presiding over 20 funerals in the last two years, attendance at weekly services is up by about 15, which doesn’t seem like much until accounting for the uphill battle churches have faced following the pandemic. 

And she still loves the work she is doing, spending Sunday mornings with her congregation.

“I love liturgy. I love the story the liturgy tells. I love crafting and preaching a good sermon. The core component of my ministry
is joy; I want people to know that faith is joyful and that church should be filled with joy,” she said. “We are serious about our worship, but we don’t take ourselves seriously. My congregation now sees how deep my faith is and my love of God, but they also see me being a complete and total goof. But they always know that I love the church, and I care about them.

“I have tried to do other things, but I have never been fulfilled. There are other pastors who are better than me, but this is what God wants me to do, and because of that, I have been blessed with the opportunity to serve amazing people and congregations over the years. And every church I have been with has grown, both in numbers and in their understanding of the world around them.
I never go out of my way to try and make my churches LGBTQ-friendly, but I help make them fully who they are and who they were meant to be. If that means being LGBTQ-affirming and growing in their welcoming of others, even better.”