(RNS) What started as just another church assembly turned into a historic one for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, as members elected the Rev. Elizabeth Eaton the denomination’s first female presiding bishop.
Eaton will take over from Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson, who will step down after 12 years of overseeing the ELCA, one of the country’s largest denominations.
“I’m still in a state of shock,” Eaton said on Thursday (Aug. 15). “We wanted to open up a conversation, and as I said to the assembly, it looks like the conversation got out of hand.”
Eaton argued that incumbent Hanson paved the way for her election on Wednesday (Aug. 14). “The election of the woman to the office of presiding bishop is a fulfillment of his ministry of making this church a welcoming place,” she said.
It was under Hanson’s leadership that the denomination voted in 2009 to allow openly gay and lesbian clergy. And in June, Lutherans elected the denomination’s first gay bishop.
“It was a costly decision for our denomination,” Eaton said. The ELCA, which has lost members nearly every year since its founding in 1987, saw the biggest drop when it lost nearly half a million members in 2010 and 2011, as many conservatives upset with the decision to allow gay clergy defected to a new denomination, the North American Lutheran Church.
“We’ve thrived on paradox, that’s always been part of Lutheran history,” said Eaton, who received 600 votes against incumbent Hanson’s 287.
Eaton, who supported the denomination’s decision, said it’s important to include those who disagree.
“We can disagree on decisions as long as we agree on the cross,” she said. “My goal is to make sure we make room for the possibility that people disagree, that they are fully Lutheran, fully valued and fully part of this denomination.”
“Do I have a killer app or program that’s going to change turnaround in six years? No, I don’t,” said Eaton, who has led the more 77,000-member Northeastern Ohio Synod since 2007. “I see a sense that we have to be missionaries again.”
Even with the recent defections, the ELCA remains the largest of the Lutheran denominations in the United States, with 4 million members.
“We’ll watch to see if the actions of this bishop changes in any commitment to scriptural values,” said David Wendel, assistant to the bishop for ministry and ecumenism in the rebel NALC, who attended the assembly as an ecumenical guest. “We’re certainly hopeful that the ELCA might move back to a more centrist position in a scriptural stance, but a new election of a presiding bishop doesn’t indicate a change in the direction of the ELCA.”
There were murmurings among bishops who wanted to see the first presiding bishop of color or a woman, said April Ulring Larson, the first women bishop in the ELCA. It was somewhat awkward, she said, when Hanson ran for a third term.
“I don’t think any of us expected the outcome,” she said. “The women were less organized. I think it was the men who were thinking it’s time for a new leader.”
Among those on the ballot was the Rev. Barbara Lundblad, a professor of preaching at Union Theological Seminary in New York, who is now married to her longtime lesbian partner. Lundblad, who didn’t attend the assembly, removed herself from consideration, saying she didn’t feel called.
“I don’t know anyone who went into an assembly saying ‘Boy we’re going to elect a woman this time.’” Lundblad said, noting this year as the denomination’s 25th anniversary. “People had a lot of respect for Mark, but I think they felt in this anniversary year, they needed new leadership.”
Eaton is relatively unknown across the denomination, Lundblad said, but she responded well as she addressed the assembly.
“She was honest about the need to work hard to heal divisions that remain,” Lundblad said. “She’s funny and she comes across as being very real, very authentic.”
Eaton could bring a fresh face to the denomination and to the role of presiding bishop, Lundblad said.
“It knocks our assumptions about quintessential bishops,” Lundblad said. “Anytime you say a leader of a church breaks down stereotypes, it breaks down stereotypes across the church about what a Christian looks like.”
Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, who in 2006 became the first woman to lead a church in the worldwide Anglican Communion, praised Eaton’s election in a statement on Thursday.
“There are excellent foundations already in our common work, and I expect further growth as we seek to serve God’s mission as ministers of justice and healers of the breach,” Schori said.
The denominations share a full communion agreement that allows shared clergy and joint ministry. A native of Cleveland and a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, Eaton is married to the Rev. Conrad Selnick, an Episcopal priest, and they have two adult daughters, Rebeckah and Susannah.
Noting other changes in church leadership this year, including the elections of Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and Pope Francis, Eaton said hers was a little different.
“This was just like the papal election,” Eaton said jokingly. “No, we don’t do it in secret. It’s all out in the open. And we had a conference room. It’s a lovely conference room, but there are no frescoes. Michelangelo didn’t paint anything.”