The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) recently elected two women, one to head the denomination and another to shepherd Lutherans here in New Jersey.
The Rev. Elizabeth A. Eaton was elected as Presiding Bishop of the ELCA last month. She was elected on the fifth ballot at the 2013 ELCA Churchwide Assembly meeting in Pittsburgh, Pa. Of the 889 votes cast, 445 votes were needed for an election. Eaton received 600 votes and the Rev. Mark S. Hanson, ELCA presiding bishop for the past 12 years, received 287. Bishop Eaton is the first female to be elected as a presiding bishop of the ELCA. The ELCA is one of the largest Christian denominations in the United States, with more than 4 million members in nearly 10,000 congregations across the 50 states and in the Caribbean region.
The ELCA’s roots are to be found in the writings and teachings of the German reformer, Martin Luther.
In addition to fulfilling the role of a bishop in the Lutheran Church, preacher, teacher and administrator of the sacraments, the presiding bishop also serves as president and chief executive officer of the corporation and oversees the staff, budget and overall administration of the church. The presiding bishop chairs the biennial Churchwide Assembly and oversees the Conference of Bishops and the Cabinet of Executives. The presiding bishop is also the chief ecumenical officer of the church and provides leadership and care for the bishops of the synods (dioceses).
Bishop Eaton is the fourth presiding bishop of the ELCA. She will serve a six-year term.
Presiding Bishop Eaton was born in Cleveland in 1955. She earned a Master of Divinity degree from Harvard Divinity School. She was ordained in 1981 in Ohio, where she served as pastor of Messiah Lutheran Church. She was elected bishop of the ELCA Northeastern Ohio Synod in 2006.
Bishop Eaton’s husband is the Rev. T. Conrad Selnick, an Episcopal priest. They are parents of two adult children, Rebeckah and Susannah.
According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Bishop Eaton is “considered a moderate who supported the denomination’s decision to allow partnered gay clergy while allowing room for churches to disagree.”
“We are a church that is overwhelmingly European in a culture that is increasingly pluralistic. We need to welcome the gifts of those who come from different places, that is a conversation we need to have as a church,” Eaton told the assembly shortly after the election.
When asked of the historical nature of her election she responded, “Yes, everyone has gifts to serve. When we say everyone is welcome and that God’s gifts have been poured out on everyone, as it says in Joel, that it can also be poured out on someone who happens to be female from Ohio.”
When asked what her favorite Scripture passage is, she responded, “In John, the resurrection story, where Mary Magdalene has gone to the tomb, just expecting death because that is how life works – you are born, you are raised, you go on some diets and you die. There is Mary Magdalene going to the tomb expecting to see Jesus dead and her hopes dead and she looks around and in her grief she does not recognize Jesus until he speaks her name. And to me that is so important because I believe that in baptism our name has been spoken by Jesus and that is how we are able to recognize him and see that he recognizes us.”
Another historic appointment in the ELCA is the election of the new bishop right here in New Jersey to be installed this week, Bishop Tracie L. Bartholomew. She is the first female bishop of the ELCA to serve in New Jersey.
Bishop Bartholomew is a native New Jerseyan who was born in Somers Point, being baptized and confirmed at Grace Lutheran, Somers Point. She graduated from James Madison University and Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary. She was ordained in 1989 and has served three Lutheran congregations, Abiding Presence, Ewing, N.J., being the last. She also served as Assistant to the Bishop in the N.J. Synod and has been serving in that role until her election in June.
Bishop Bartholomew is married to the Rev. B. Daniel Whitener, Jr., pastor of Abiding Presence Lutheran Church. They have two adult children, Olivia and Ethan.
Women now head two of the largest and most prominent Protestant denominations in the United States, the ELCA with Bishop Eaton and the Episcopal Church, with the Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori.
Father Joseph D. Wallace is coordinator, Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, Diocese of Camden.