Change for the ELCA?
August 19, 2013 8:42 AM   Subscribe

Last week, in a surprise vote, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) elected its first female presiding bishop, Elizabeth Eaton.

Eaton's election comes during a time of declining enrollment in the church nationwide. Half a million members left the church after a 2009 decision that allowed partnered gay clergy to lead its churches. This decision was previously covered here on MeFi in this thread.
posted by DRoll (15 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
More accurately, Eaton is the ELCA's first presiding bishop, who is the head of the church.
posted by Etrigan at 8:52 AM on August 19, 2013

[Added "presiding" to post for clarity.]
posted by cortex at 9:00 AM on August 19, 2013

Good for them.
posted by MartinWisse at 9:11 AM on August 19, 2013

Sadly, this is news.

Even more sadly, there are faiths that aren't this civilized yet.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:13 AM on August 19, 2013

To put that half-million number in context, here are their membership statistics:

4,059,785 Baptized members (2011)
3,444,021 Confirmed members (2009)
2,439,494 Confirmed members took communion in the last two years (2008)
258,376 Unconfirmed members took communion in the last two years(2008)
2,499,877 Voting members (2008)
posted by cosmic.osmo at 10:14 AM on August 19, 2013

“We are an overwhelmingly European American church in a culture that is increasingly becoming more pluralistic, and we need to find ways to get out of the way, those of us who are in this position of privilege, to welcome the gifts of those who have come from other places, or other cultures, or who have different histories or different colors of skin. That’s a conversation we must have as a church.” -- Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, Presiding Bishop
posted by MonkeyToes at 10:35 AM on August 19, 2013 [5 favorites]

I'm atheist and have a distaste for most religious groups, but I've always felt pretty okay having been raised in the ELCA faith. Glad to hear they're progressing and not regressing.
posted by InsanePenguin at 11:24 AM on August 19, 2013

Yes! I was raised in the ELCA church and I while I don't practice now, I still carry with me the values of tolerance, stewardship for the earth, and open-mindedness that I learned even in a small-town congregation. Good for them!
posted by Coffeemate at 11:28 AM on August 19, 2013

Your description is a bit misleading. According to this link, the surprise seems to be that they were expecting the incumbent to win, not that they thought a woman could not win.
posted by ILuvMath at 12:09 PM on August 19, 2013

the surprise seems to be that they were expecting the incumbent to win
To add to this sentiment, it's worth noting that the three top non-incumbent "candidates" were all women.
posted by novelgazer at 1:11 PM on August 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yes! I was raised in the ELCA church and I while I don't practice now, I still carry with me the values of tolerance, stewardship for the earth, and open-mindedness that I learned even in a small-town congregation. Good for them!

Me too, but I was pretty disheartened when my home church went through a number of serious discussions about leaving the synod after they started allowing openly gay pastors. Luckily the complexity of withdrawing (or their own laziness) beat out their personal bigotry.
posted by graventy at 2:17 PM on August 19, 2013

This was suppose to be a very boring churchwide assembly. Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson was running as a very popular incumbent. Generally, he's considered a superb pastor and we were proud that he was willing to not run away from having to cut staff and programs from our home office. He's was never a perfect presiding bishop but he is one of the most pleasant, kind, considerate, and thoughtful persons I have ever met. He was suppose to win. There was no organizing against him. There was some rumbling, sure. The only conversation I heard before the assembly was that some of the larger ELCA congregations were trying to get Peter Marty, a popular Lutheran pastor, to run. But that wasn't serious. No male candidate, really, wanted to run against Bishop Hanson since everyone assumed Mark Hanson would win. There were only two reporters from non-religious organizations there (and only because the bishop convinced the Gazette to show up). There was no hint that this (and a bunch of other interesting things) would happen. We were going to gather, have some convention food, sing a few hymns, network, and go home. But when the theme of your convention is "Always being made new", well, sometimes unexpected things happen.

I was there as a voting member from the Metropolitan New York Synod. There was 952 voting members registered and present. We came from 65 regional bodies (we call them synods) all over the US and Caribbean. On the first day of the assembly, we received the first ecclesiastical ballot. This ballot is weird because it is just a blank space. There are no choices, you just write a name in the boxes. The only requirement is that the individual be ordained in the ELCA. So, I did what everyone else did: I joked about putting my own name in and then put the name of Mark Hanson. I turned my form in, the assembly day ended, and I headed off to dinner, worship, and the bar (all typical Lutheran sacraments). But it was at the bar that everything got interesting. Since the assembly was paperless, we were all given iPads to use. The results from the election were pushed out with 122 names on the list. Most just had 1 vote. But in the top 10, there were 5 women. Mark Hanson had a vast lead with 440 votes but Bishop Jessica Crist (from Montana) was number 2. The second ballot was going to take place the next day consisting of the names of anyone who did not pull themselves off the ballot.

At the start of the second ballot, we went from 122 names to 9. As I stared at the second ballot, I changed my vote. I knew that third ballot was when we'd actually hear candidates speak. The first and second ballot are just pieces of paper. There is no public campaigning or question answering. On the third ballot, the top seven names would be able to fill out their biographical information and answer some questions. So I changed my vote. I wanted to hear everyone speak. I still expected Mark Hanson to win (everyone did) but hearing the candidates speak...that was important for me. And my plan worked. Mark Hanson was still at the top of the third ballot but he was one of seven. Jessica Crist and Eaton had moved up the ranks. Out of the top seven, 4 were women (with 1 being in a committed same sex relationship). Three individuals who were not present refused to answer any questions or fill out the paperwork (they did not want to be Presiding Bishop). So, on the third ballot, it was Mark Hanson and three women bishops.

So, with no organizing, no push, and no "rah rah women" or "rah rah men" going on, we had a third ballot with one man and three women on it. All are highly qualified. All well thought of, solidly Lutheran, with good experience and education. They were all solid candidates. And, even now, everyone still felt Mark Hanson would win - but there was a sense that something in the air was changing. Could Mark Hanson not be our presiding bishop anymore? That, in many ways, was going to be as surprising as a woman being elected as presiding bishop. We moved on to questions and answers. And this is where Bishop Eaton excelled.

When Bishop Eaton spoke, she was funny. Her answers were short and to the point. She seemed to be having fun up there. Although the Gazette claims that she was well thought of because Bishop Eaton mentioned the social conservatives who were still in the church, I think that's a poor analysis of what actually was going on. The energy in the room changed when she spoke because she, firstly, kept referencing her (and our collective) Lutheran identity. Of all the candidates, she was the one who spoke the most about being honest and not being afraid of our Lutheran distinctiveness. No need to hide that under a bushel! She was the one who seemed to be more "rah rah" Luthearns than the other candidates but not in a negative way. She was calling us to know who we are so we could fully engage with our ecumenical and interfaith partners. And it is that context that really framed her words. She talked about being Lutheran and trying new things. And her questions were not about selling herself. No one really knew who she was before we saw her speak at the podium. She felt no need to introduce herself. Instead, she showed who she was in her answers that were always pointing to the future. And she was the only person, when asked which theologian would she have a beer with, she named a youth in her delegation. She seemed very authentic, real, and honest. After the third ballot, she was the top vote getter. With the top three candidates, it was Eaton, Hanson, and Crist. The fourth ballot brought us down to Eaton and Hanson with Eaton being elected on the fifth. It was an exciting three days for us.

The day after she was elected, I snuck into our noonday worship late. She did too. I saw her sitting mostly by herself. I, of course, snuck over and sat right next to her (I was busy working with some youth on making some noise of our own and wanted to let her know what was coming up). She was, obviously, a little shell shocked. But when I introduced myself, told her what we were doing (and received her slight support), she was gracious and funny. She wasn't elected because she named the one elephant in the Lutheran room. She was elected because she named all of them (don't get me started on how I feel the churchwide assembly kept refusing to have an honest discussion on race), was funny, gracious, authentic, and solidly Lutheran. We were blessed to have an amazing set of candidates to look at by the time we got to the third ballot. She was the one we were suppose to call. She'll be installed in early October and her first day in the office is November 1st. I'm looking forward to it.
posted by Stynxno at 5:37 PM on August 19, 2013 [17 favorites]

Shoot. I just realized I had a minor typo. On the second ballot, we went from 122 names to 49 (not 9).
posted by Stynxno at 7:56 PM on August 19, 2013

I'm an active member of the ELCA (or at least as active as a 20-something who spends her time doing other things can be) and have always liked the ELCA as a whole. My church has had a female pastor for as long as my family's attended church and at least in my experience gender has never been a hindrance in my congregation.

In fact, despite my home church's demographics being about what you would expect (older folks who tend to be more socially conservative) my church has always been pretty progressive and what few members of the greater organization I have met have always been really progressive and as Stynxno pointed out, more focused on Lutherans as a community than politics.
posted by KernalM at 8:57 PM on August 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Stynxo, thanks for the inside baseball; it's a really helpful perspective.
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:10 AM on August 20, 2013

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