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Grace Lutheran Church's progressive pastor

Sarah Stadler helps put a unqiue spin at this Downtown Phoenix church


Grace Lutheran Church's progressive pastor

Sarah Stadler helps put a unqiue spin at this Downtown Phoenix church

Leading the Grace Lutheran Church in the heart of the desert, let alone being a pastor at all, was not a part of the plan for Pastor Sarah Stadler. However, God seemed to have another idea. 

Growing up in northern Minnesota, Stadler lived in a very religious household. Because her father was a pastor, Stadler’s family never missed a Sunday service and often spent their free time around the church. 

With a smile, Stadler explained that no one was surprised when she became a pastor herself. This may have surprised Stadler’s younger self. At age 15, she went through confirmation and had to write an essay on what that meant to her. 

“I said very specifically in that essay that I would never be a leader in organized religion because I did not believe that organized religion was necessary in the world, which is very funny to me now,” Stadler said. 

Only around 27% of pastors in the Lutheran religion are female, according to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America’s 2017 study. At 15, Stadler only knew of one female pastor in her community. She also noticed the way those around her talked about God almost solely in a masculine sense. 

Her concern regarding the sexism present in the religion at that age translated to her college years, when she attended Luther College in Decorah, Iowa and the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, where she majored in both music and religion. 

“When I was in college, I was really interested in the theological ideas and entered the process to become a pastor in a time when I really disliked the church and was very concerned about the ways that the church had contributed to suffering in the world,” Stadler said. 

After completing the process, Stadler served as associate pastor at St. Peter Lutheran Church in Denver, Iowa for four years. She said when she realized God was calling her elsewhere, she filled and sent out piles of paperwork to all the bishops in the Western United States — the only exclusion being Arizona. 

With concerns about water resources and the sustainability of living in a desert, Stadler actively avoided applying anywhere in Arizona. Attending a Mobility Conference, a meeting for pastors seeking to relocate, a bishop from Grace Lutheran Church spoke to Stadler, trying to convince her to give the desert a chance. She reluctantly applied, and avoided doing so for two weeks. The day after Grace Lutheran received her paperwork, she got a call and started as a pastor there in November 2010. 

With grace as its theological center, the church, which is part of the Evangelical Lutherans of America, focuses on how people can come together to impact the community around them. 

“I wanted to be a part of a church that gave life to a community instead of bringing judgement or something destructive to a community,” Stadler said. “People, when they come into our community, especially when they are not Christian … pretty universally, people have said to me ‘I feel so welcome here.’” 

Grace Lutheran Church is almost completely anti-church in the traditionally evangelical sense. Because Grace Lutheran practices progressive lutheranism, it ordains women and members of the LGBT+ community. Members of the church also read the Bible with historical context and welcome critique and questions

With nearly 10 years at Grace Lutheran, Stadler has had quite a few community projects under her belt. Every Sunday, the church serves approximately 200 to 300 plates of pancakes to the homeless. On Mondays, members distribute feminine hygiene products to women in need, and Wednesdays they host a free meal and church-related activity night, where members may study the Bible or host a story circle.

The church also hosts Grace Buddies, where foster families can drop off their children and take a break from the stress of fostering. Additionally, they run a booth at PRIDE and are a part of the Council of Religious Advisers for ASU. 

One of the most notable ways Grace Lutheran Church has impacted Phoenix, however, is its partnership with the Trunk Space. The south wing of the church became available after a family planning clinic, run by ASU’s nursing program, vacated. 

Trunk Space, a popular DIY music venue in Phoenix, was looking to relocate at the same time. After some demolition, renovation and the addition of the Trunk Space staple nerd monster mural, Grace Lutheran Church started to feel more like home for the music venue, and it has been for nearly three years. 

With a love for music, specifically classical composers like Beethoven and hip-hop artists like Bamboo and Dead Prez, Stadler was ecstatic when Trunk Space moved in. 

“It is really great that people feel welcome in a church space, especially those who don’t go to church, and I’m really glad that Trunk Space is here for that reason," Stadler said. "Especially with younger folks, there is a view that we (the church) are judgemental people, and there’s a reason people think that — so I see this as a way of healing that."

Reach the reporter at and follow @SaraWindom on Twitter. 

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