National Lutheran News

Always being made new … again and again

ELCA churchwide assembly delegates select Ohio bishop to be presiding bishop

ELCA Vice President Carlos Pena (right) asks questions of the final four candidates for presiding bishop — the Rev. Jessica Crist, Bishop of Montana; Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson; the Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, Bishop of Northeastern Ohio; and the Rev. Ann Svennungsen, Bishop of the Minneapolis Area Synod. Photo credit: Clarance Smith

As Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) voting members celebrated “Always Being Made New” at the church body’s biennial churchwide assembly, they lived up to that promise by electing a new presiding bishop and a new secretary. The Rev. Elizabeth Eaton was selected presiding bishop on the fifth ballot over the Rev. Mark Hanson, a two-term incumbent. The presiding bishop is the primary elected official of the ELCA.

In a separate vote, the Rev. William Chris Boerger was elected secretary of the ELCA. David Swartling, a layperson who has served in that position for six years, did not seek re-election. Boerger, retired bishop of the Northwest Washington Synod, defeated the Rev. Michael Cooper-White, president of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, on the fifth ballot.

The election of Eaton surprised most delegates, including Eaton. Speaking to the assembly after her victory was announced, Eaton said, “I just wanted there to be a conversation [during the election process]. I didn’t think it would get this far out of hand.”

Speaking to the fact that she is the first woman elected presiding bishop of the ELCA, she said, “People used to say to me, ‘You don’t seem to be strident like the other women.’ I would respond, ‘I don’t have to be because they were the pioneers.’”

Hanson had led in the election on the first two ballots, with Eaton jumping into the lead after presentations by the final four candidates. She had 345 votes to Hanson’s 271. Bishop Jessica Crist of the Montana Synod had 171, and Bishop Ann Svennungsen of the Minneapolis Area Synod had 130.

Presiding Bishop-elect Elizabeth Eaton answers questions from the assembly before the election. Metro Lutheran photo: Bob Hulteen

“I just wanted there to be a conversation. I didn’t think it would get this far out of hand.”

Throughout her presentations before the assembly, Eaton stressed the need to rebuild relationships of trust for the three expressions of the church — the congregation, the synod, and churchwide.

Still, the election had very little conflict or negative statements about other candidates under consideration. Eaton said, “This is not a conversation; we all love and respect each other.”

‘What does this mean?’

Reaction to the change in leadership was varied, although most voting members stressed their appreciation of Mark Hanson. “Overall, this vote was not a rejection of Mark Hanson,” explained the Rev. Kyle Sidlo, senior pastor of Saron Lutheran Church in Big Lake, Minnesota. “We heard [Elizabeth Eaton] and suddenly something new seemed possible.”

Peter Larsen, a member of Nokomis Heights Lutheran Church, Minneapolis, reflected, “Bishop Hanson has been a strong leader for the church, and while we appreciate his service, it is time for not just a new leader, but a very different leader, to take the reins as presiding bishop.”

Bishop John Brodasky of the North American Lutheran Church (NALC) was a recognized observer and ecumenical guest at the assembly. Fresh on the heels of NALC’s own convention in Pittsburgh, Brodasky said, “I have just arrived, and so haven’t had the opportunity to hear many comments. But I heard ‘accountability’ stressed both in Mark’s comments and Liz’s words. They stressed the need to be accountable for the past while moving forward into the future.”

Citing differences between the NALC and ELCA conventions, Brodasky said “None of the speakers [at the ELCA assembly] have discussed the authority and use of scriptures; it’s not even been touched.” Thus, he said, it was not clear how Eaton’s leadership would differ from Hanson’s.

Bishop Ann Svennungsen, Minneapolis Area Synod, addressed the 2013 Churchwide Assembly in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, as part of the election process for presiding bishop for the next six years. Photo credit: Clarance Smith

The Rev. David Wendel, assistant to the bishop for the NALC added, “There is not much potential of working together, as the relationships are [currently] so strained.”

Assembly observers offered comments via Facebook. The Rev. Lura N. Groen, Grace Lutheran Church (ELCA), Houston, Texas, said, ““It occurs to me that we have practically no models for something like this [election], a community lovingly discerning that one leader has completed their call, while still holding that leader in great respect and love, and another leader is called, without being reactionary to the first. I see it as a sign of great health that it is possible.”

“I watched about 1,000 people in Pittsburgh at the churchwide assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America faithfully elect Elizabeth Eaton, a woman, to be the presiding bishop, the leader of the largest Lutheran denomination in America,” wrote the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber on her blog, “Sarcastic Lutheran.” “She succeeds the faithful and fiercely gracious leadership of Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson.”

She continued, “I know that the big story is that a woman was elected, but what is equally remarkable is that the excitement about the new bishop was only matched by the affection for the out-going bishop.” In the report of the Presiding Bishop, Hanson was interrupted seven times with long standing ovations.

Not just a bishop’s election

In other convention business, “The Church and Criminal Justice: Hearing the Cries,” a social statement on criminal justice, was overwhelmingly supported, far surpassing the required two-thirds vote for a social statement.

The statement’s task force was formed “in response to concerns expressed from ELCA synods about the alarmingly high incarceration rates in the United States,” said Cynthia Osbourne, task force chair. Implementing resolutions on criminal justice, giving congregations suggestions for action, were also passed.

More than 61 percent of the assembly participants were lay people. Of the clergy present, 41 percent were women. Over 16 percent of paticipants were under 30 years old, and more than 12 percent were persons of color or with a first language other than English.

The 2013 ELCA Churchwide Assembly was held at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh August 12-17. There were 952 voting members approved through election during assemblies of the church body’s 65 synods.

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