A couple weeks ago I spent the several days following my vacation glued to my computer watching the live video feed of the Church-wide Assembly taking place in Pittsburgh, PA. This gathering of bishops, pastors, staff and lay-people takes place every two years and is the venue for the national church to make crucial decisions about policy, social statements, and to hold elections for the offices of the national church. This year it was the elections that held my interest, particularly the election of our presiding bishop, the leader of our national denomination of more than 4 Million Lutherans.
Most of those present, in person and online, expected the current presiding bishop, Mark Hanson, would be re-elected easily. Bishop Hanson has been an amazing and faithful leader of our church for the past twelve years, and his warm and gracious presence has been a comfort to our church during some difficult and complicated years. The reality, however, is that when at the start of the process God was asked to be present and guide the decision making of those gathered to vote, the Holy Spirit was there and, as it turns out, had other plans.
The election process took five ballots before a decision was reached. On the first ballot any name can be written in and, though dozens of names were written in, the current presiding bishop was the clear front-runner, receiving the majority of votes on that ballot. On the second ballot the field shrunk substantially after some candidates removed themselves from consideration and by the end of that ballot, we were left with four remaining. It was at this time that the candidates were asked some questions that had been previously submitted by the assembly and it was at this time that the winds began to change.
At this point Elizabeth Eaton (bishop of the North-Eastern Ohio synod), who until this time had been at the bottom of the balloting but always with enough votes to stay in the running, jumped handily into the lead. This was due, at least in part, to her presence during the question and answer time in which she demonstrated her intelligence, her abilities as a leader, her humility and even her sense of humor. She was also the only nominee to speak directly of the elephant in the room, theological conservatives who have remained in the denomination despite opposition to its understanding of what the Bible says about sexual morality. Though Bishop Eaton believed the decision to ordain people in same-sex monogamous relationships to be the right one, she also believes that we can’t allow this marginalize those who struggle with this issue and believes that all people need to have a voice in the denomination.
From there on out in the balloting process, it was kind of a done deal. The other great candidates were removed formally in subsequent ballots. On the fifth ballot, with just a vote for either Elizabeth Eaton or Mark Hanson, a clear and compelling majority voted for Elizabeth Eaton. And with that action of the assembly, she became the fourth bishop of the ELCA, and the first woman to hold that office.
Though many have expressed their surprise at the results of the election, including now Bishop-elect Eaton, it seems that the Spirit was moving in that place and that the right person was chosen for the job. After the election the Bishop-elect was given an opportunity to address the assembly and spoke of her feelings of shock that she was standing there. She also spoke beautifully about the leadership offered by Bishop Hanson for the last twelve years, and gave thanks for his wonderful years of service, a feeling that was echoed in the room by the standing ovation that he received. After the applause had quieted, Bishop-elect Eaton spoke about the future of our denomination. She said that the ELCA is already calling its congregations to be missionaries to their neighborhoods, but that doesn't mean acting as if the church has all the answers."We need to go out and meet our neighbors and listen to them about what's going on in their lives. Tell us about the God you believe in or don't believe in," she said. Finally she said that "One of the most important keys is for us to see that we aren't bringing God out there. God is already out there, waiting for us to be ready to be touched by those we don't know yet."
The theme of the church-wide assembly this year was “Always being made new” (2 Corinthians 5:17), which is also the theme of our denomination this year as we celebrate its 25th Anniversary. After this election I couldn’t help but think how appropriate that theme was, not just because we have a new presiding bishop, but because we are continuing to listen to the ways in which God is leading and guiding us, and continuing to be surprised not only by where we end up, but by the joy that we find in those unexpected places. May we too continue to listen for God’s voice in each of our lives and in the life of our community and may we realize that through the love and grace of God, we too are always being made new.
May the grace and peace of Christ be with you all,