Lutherans take surprise step in electing female presiding bishop

Lutherans elected the Rev. Elizabeth Eaton to be its first female presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. She is married to the Rev. Conrad Selnick (left), an Episcopal priest. Photo courtesy of ELCA News Service.

(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.”

Lutherans elected the Rev. Elizabeth Eaton to be its first female presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. She is married to the Rev. Conrad Selnick (left), an Episcopal priest. Photo courtesy of ELCA News Service.

Lutherans elected the Rev. Elizabeth Eaton to be its first female presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. She is married to the Rev. Conrad Selnick (left), an Episcopal priest. Photo courtesy of ELCA News Service.

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.”

About the author

Sarah Pulliam Bailey

Sarah Pulliam Bailey is a national correspondent for RNS, covering how faith intersects with politics, culture and other news. She previously served as online editor for Christianity Today where she remains an editor-at-large.


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  • Hmm.. What translation of 1 Timothy 2 and Romans 1 are they using in the ELCA??? Because what they are doing as far as I can tell, are rejecting Scripture with boldness. We should keep the ELCA in prayer, especially the congregant members of it’s Churches.

  • Every radical decision the ECLA has made had made things worse, not better. Is there no wise person who can see this and perhaps change course?

  • Not to mention, women bishops don’t have a history of doing good for their churches. See Jefferts “Heretic Buffoon” Schori.

  • Worse for whom, Dr. Collier? Worse how? Change course, you say (by change course, I assume you mean an about face, taking the church back in the direction from which she has come). Maybe, just maybe, you’re dead wrong and the wise people HAVE spoken and this IS the change that the brave people of God dare to make.

  • The ELCA is to be congratulated. They’re doing their best to bring Christianity into the 20th century. Who knows, the 21st century could be next!

  • Has anyone that is still in the ELCA questioned the need to ignore sound doctrine for all these “changes”?
    A very dangerous path… and this is why I plea all to pray for them. If the 20th century does not want to accept God’s word, there is nothing we can do. We deliver the word to those we can, and let the Holy Spirit do the rest. Do not feel troubled if attendance in the Church low, and do not be boastful if attendance is high. It is better to feed a few sheep good food, than to feed many sheep poison.

    “23 And someone said to him, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” And he said to them, 24“Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. 25When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’ then he will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ 26Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.’ 27But he will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!’ – Luke 13 (ESV)

    Your friend in Christ… Peace be with you.


  • She doesn’t even have the same last name as her husband. That’s another attack against the Biblical family. I don’t care if they do this, they just shouldn’t call it “Christian.” It goes against the pattern of what God’s Word says to do. To say it’s a Christian church is false advertising. When the Word of God is not followed, and not the final authority, anything can, and will happen. Luther would be shocked that his name is associated with this.

  • Congratulations from Anglican sister and priest! I am thrilled with the outcome of this election as it is an outward and visible sign that our faith communities
    are upholding the leadership of women. The transition will not be easy, as can be seen from many of the the comments in this blog. Let us remember that
    it was women who accompanied Jesus to the cross and first witnessed the Resurrection. Misogyny and sexism have no place in Christian communities.

  • This comes to no surprise… The ELCA will likely reject this verse too:

    “3 For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, 4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.”

  • So many of the radical changes some Protestant churches are embracing are right out of the NY Times playbook that it reminds me of a passage in the great Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor’s novel “Wise Blood.” In it a self-serving preacher, Onnie Jay Holy, eager to convince the world that his preachments are up-to-date, pontificates: ” This church is up-to-date! When you’re in this church you can know there is nothing or nobody ahead of you, nobody knows nothing you don’t know, all the cards are on the table, friends and that’s a fack [sic]!”
    Sadly, passion for being “up-to-date” at the expense of Tradition and the Bible is virtually a cult in some quarters.

  • As an ordained, forty year experienced parish pastor in the ELCA, I commend the church for respecting great church leadership enough to NOT consider gender a reason to disqualify a person for leadership of the denomination I have been a part of for nearly sixty five years. Persons casting stones and castigating this church must remember that Jesus spoke most strongly against divorce, yet in hypocritical fashion people cast their disdain for sound experienced qualified leadership while embracing their own church members and church leaders who have divorced, or God-forbid remarried. Take a look in a mirror, and say honestly, “Forgive me Lord, for I too have sinned”. And then, immediately leave your church because Jesus says so. Nonsense. “Let he is who is without guilt cast the first stone.” Better still…don’t cast stones but pray the ELCA may find new ways to reach out to people. New wine in old wineskins is tough to do, and we have been old wineskins a long time, too long in my humble opinion. If you truly believe your negative doctrine, then go preach it, but don’t tear down another fellowship, that is entertaining a new vision. Go preach your gospel the way you see it, and we’ll see where and how the Holy Spirit does his work to bring on the advancement of God’s kingdom. By the way, if you don’t believe in women leading in the Church, then study holy writ: the Judge Debra, Priscilla, Phoebe, Mary Magdalene, Johanna, Mary mother of our Lord, to name a few were essential to the Early Church. These were leaders, yes, and more. I am a conservative Lutheran from WELS background. I saw the horrors of all-male-only leadership in the Church, and it wasn’t pretty. Instead of putting up a stink, I joined the LCA after college, and became one of her pastors. I am so very pleased I did, and thank the Lord of Life for giving me the opportunity to share ministry with thousands of people and friends over the lifetime. May the same be true of all who are called to share Jesus Christ with others in a world that is mostly in darkness (John 1-12). Take note: there are Four Gospels, and each tells the story of Jesus’ ministry quite differently. The Early Church Fathers knew that and allowed all four gospels to stand together. Hmm, so you tell me which Gospel is ‘right and perfect’, or are the Early Fathers reminding us of an essential truth we have forgotten? Please explain this one, if you can.

  • Rejecting Scripture, eh? Even a “conservative” Lutheran theologian by the name of Carl E. Braaten, who despite lamenting a number of things within the ELCA since its inception in 1988, has this to say on the matter. I quote from his book, “Because Of Christ: Memoirs of a Lutheran Theologian”, under the subheading ‘Feminist Theology’ in the 10th chapter entitled ‘Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, 1968-1991….

    “In 1972 [It was actually 1971] I wrote an article entitled ‘”Untimely Reflections on Women’s Liberation.'” My intention was to affirm the movement for the equality of women in marriage and family life, in society and the life of the nation, as well as in the ordering of the church and its ministry. From the moment the question of the ordination of women arose, I became a vocal supporter. Many conservative Lutherans, particularly in the Missouri and Wisconsin Synods, oppose women’s ordination and profess to do so on biblical grounds. After all, Paul (or, rather, the author of 1 Timothy 2:12) said: ‘”I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.'” Should not that settle the matter? Apparently not; women do in fact teach in the church schools of the Missouri Synod and in that capacity exercise authority over men. If they were silent, they could not teach, and if they exercised no authority, they could not give a grade. Even a few in the ELCA opine that it was a mistake for Lutheran churches to affirm equal opportunity for women in the ordained ministry. They claim that it damages ecumenical relationships,say, with Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox. To that I counter that we should not be willing to pay any price to please our ecumenical partners. No Lutheran can believe in unity at all costs. THE THEOLOGICAL ARGUMENTS ADVANCED BY CHURCHES THAT DENY ORDINATION TO WOMEN ARE UNCONVINCING; I HAVE EXAMINED THEM ALL. [Emphasis mine]. We will take our stand using the words of Luther: ‘”Unless we are proved to be wrong by the testimony of Scripture or reasons, we will not renounce or retract what we have done in good conscience.'” (pg. 108)

    If it wasn’t folks from the theological right throwing around charges of “liberalism” or “heresy” (in certain cases rightly so, but typical fodder for those opposed to change), Mr. Braaten got a lump or two from those at the other end of the theological spectrum. I’m not going to quote it but in the next paragraph below my citation above and into page 109, he mentions Rosemary Radford Ruether as taking umbrage to a number of things pertaining to “…sex, marriage, and family.” in that same article. And so it goes!

  • “She doesn’t even have the same last name as her husband.That’s another attack against the Biblical family.”

    Wow! Just when I thought there wasn’t anything new under the sun…

    Sharpen the pitchforks! Carve the wooden stakes to a razor’s edge! Stoke the fires to a 1000 degrees Fahrenheit! Raise the guillotine!

    Come on sludge-X (with a name like that I have to wonder), are you kidding us or what!?

  • Bravo Jim! I want to elaborate a bit further on what you said regarding divorce and remarriage. Isn’t it funny, ironic, and just downright HYPOCRITICAL of our brothers & sisters in Christ who stop up their ears and turn a blind eye to such a thing? And yet they will pounce on women’s ordination, gender-inclusive translations of the Bible (e.g., NRSV, TNIV, etc.)…and especially the issue of male and female homo-eroticism. The latter is the most pernicious because they love to pontificate with ‘Scripture says’, but somehow don’t seem to say the same with similar force when it comes to the issue of divorce & remarriage. My own views on any of these issues is neither here nor there. Like you I’m merely pointing how the left hands of our brothers & sisters in Christ don’t seem to know (or more precisely *don’t* want to know) what their right hands are doing.

    Unless I didn’t spend enough time looking around on the Internet, but I’m reminded of what fellow Lutheran Martin E. Marty wrote back in ’97 & ’98 respectively in his M.E.M.O. column within THE CHRISTIAN CENTURY. In a nutshell it was basically what I outlined above towards the end. At any rate, I have those very issues and here are their titles if anyone wants to search them out (or perhaps visit a college or university and search their databases): “Hard Texts, The Whole Gospel” (October 29, 1997) & “Hard Texts Revisited” (March 4, 1998). I thought the archives section of THE CHRISTIAN CENTURY website might have them but it doesn’t look like it.

  • LCMS doesn’t turn a blind eye on it, but at the same time, it’s probably something not taught/discussed openly in the church.
    Perhaps it’s something that is discussed during the Marriage Counseling for the couple prior to their marriage.
    (… on a side note, weddings might be a thing of the past for the churches that still uphold that a man would be married to a woman (Matt. 19:5-6) …)

    Q: How is divorce viewed in the LCMS?
    A: The LCMS believes that divorce is contrary to God’s original design and intention for marriage. While divorce can be justified scripturally in certain situations (adultery or desertion), it is always preferable for couples to forgive and work toward healing and strengthening their marriage. Because no two situations are alike, LCMS pastors deal on a case-by-case basis with members (or potential members) who are wrestling with the issue of (past or present) divorce. The Commission on Theology and Church Relations of the LCMS has prepared a report called Divorce and Remarriage which discusses the Bible passages and theological principles underlying the Synod’s
    perspective on this issue.
    Usage: We urge you to contact an LCMS pastor in your area for more in-depth discussion.
    Published by: LCMS Church Information Center

    in regards to clegy (pastors): (Bottom of Page 29)