By LINDA M. LINONIS
Though she will be known as the first female presiding bishop in the history of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Bishop Elizabeth A. Eaton said she looks forward to a time when the “first female whatever” is not part of the description.
“My parents raised me to believe that anything was possible and gender wasn’t a determining factor,” she said. “I don’t think it’s a big deal.”
Her election Aug. 14 during the ELCA Churchwide Assembly in Pittsburgh to the leadership position “came as a surprise.” Bishop Eaton said the meeting is a “public way to figure out God’s will for us.” After four ballots, she received 600 of 889 votes cast. She currently serves the Northeastern Ohio Synod.
She believes “it was time for a change” and no reflection of Bishop Mark S. Hanson, current presiding bishop who is “highly regarded.” He held the position 12 years; the terms are six years.
Bishop Eaton will be installed Oct. 5 in Rockford Chapel at the University of Chicago.
The ELCA has more than 4 million members in nearly 10,000 congregations in the 50 states and Caribbean. The ELCA’s beliefs are based on the writings of reformer Martin Luther, dating to the 1600s. The organization itself is the merging of the Lutheran Church of America, American Lutheran Church and Assocation of Evangelical Lutheran Churches. The 25th anniversary is this year features the theme, “Always Being Made New,” which comes from Scripture.
Her “to do” list has various priorities, the 58-year-old bishop said. “To remember we’re a church and not a corporation. Our work is worshipping God. We need to be quiet and listen to God’s word,” she said.
The bishop said Lutherans have a distinct view of their relationship with God. “Grace is given by God; we don’t earn it,” she said.
Bishop Eaton emphasized that Lutherans “are a church together and can’t operate as individuals.” “We’re strong and effective together,” she said.
The bishop said the ELCA embraces the European heritage of many members, it also must welcome new members with diverse backgrounds from Asia, South America and Africa.
“That’s where the Lutheran church is growing the fastest.”