CUYAHOGA FALLS, Ohio — Bishop Elizabeth A. Eaton decided not to withdraw her name from a ballot of candidates vying to lead the nation’s largest Lutheran denomination because she wanted to have a conversation about issues facing the church.
She never expected to be elected to the post.
“This wasn’t supposed to happen. Now that it has, I know it is where God wants me to be. I’m not doing it alone. God is with me,” Bishop Eaton said. “It is my hope that God will work through me, as chief ecumenical officer of the denomination, to introduce the world to Lutherans.”
Bishop Eaton, who was installed in 2007 as the first woman to lead the Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio-based Northeastern Ohio Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, was elected in August and installed earlier this month as the denomination’s first female presiding bishop.
As Bishop Eaton prepares to leave for Chicago to begin serving as presiding bishop Friday, pastors and members throughout the local synod are echoing the same sentiment.
“The refrain has been ‘we hate to see you go but it’s good for the church.’ We are truly happy for her, but we will miss her presence in northeastern Ohio,” said the Rev. Jean Hansen, pastor of Faith Lutheran. “She will be a wonderful leader of our denomination and a positive face for Christianity, in general. She is very fair and very empathetic. She is forthright and willing to share her point of view; but, at the same time, she is able to hear other points of view.”
Bishop Eaton said one of the things that she loves about the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is its value for diversity. As presiding bishop, she hopes to emphasize the need to be more intentional about listening to and hearing from the various voices that make up the more than 4 million-member denomination.
“We find our unity in Christ, and when the world sees that people can have disagreements and still come together to praise the one who unites us all, we have made a positive impact in the world,” Bishop Eaton said. “We proclaim law and gospel in a nation looking for accountability and grace at the same time. We offer a theology of the cross in a culture of glory. We have something wonderful to offer to the world, and we need to communicate that.”
The Rev. Bob Linsz, pastor at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Cuyahoga Falls, said he believes Bishop Eaton is the perfect person to lead the denomination. He said her intelligence, enthusiasm, energy and compassion will serve the church well.
“As bishop of the synod, she started a process called Journey Forward to develop each congregation into a mission station to become effective in ministering in their community,” the Rev. Linsz said. “She has a desire to address issues that stand in the way of sharing the gospel to reach people for Christ. I’m going to miss her friendship, but it’s going to be good for the church.”
Bishop Eaton, a Cleveland native, was ordained in 1981 and began her ministry as pastor of All Saints Lutheran Church in the Columbus suburb of Worthington, Ohio. She also served one year as interim pastor at Good Hope Lutheran Church in Youngstown and as pastor of Messiah Lutheran Church in Ashtabula.
She received her undergraduate degree in music education from the College of Wooster and her master of divinity degree from Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass.
She met her husband, the Rev. Conrad Selnick, in divinity school. He is an Episcopal priest and pastor at St. Christopher’s-by-the-River in Gates Mills, Ohio. The couple has been married for 29 years and has two grown daughters.
In the wake of Bishop Eaton’s election to the national post, the couple is trying to determine what her six-year term will mean for them personally. They are in the midst of discerning the answers to several questions, like whether both should relocate to Chicago and whether they should keep their home in Ashtabula County.
“We are facing questions that a lot of two-career couples have to answer, but it’s exciting. We know that everything is going to work out because we know that she is in the right place at the right time,” the Rev. Selnick said. “When the church elected her as presiding bishop, it affirmed what I already knew: that she is an immensely competent and faithful leader. Eventually, we will sort out all of the unknowns.”
The Rev. Selnick, for the time being, will continue to serve the congregation that he has led for the past 10 years. Bishop Eaton initially will reside with their elder daughter and son-in-law in Chicago.Eaton said. “I am going to miss Ohio. I am a Buckeye through and through,” she said.
Among the denominational issues Bishop Eaton hopes to address via dialogue are making the ELCA more inclusive by expanding beyond its largely European base, engaging in an intentional conversation with those who remained in the ELCA despite disagreeing with the denomination’s decision to allow partnered gay clergy (a decision she supports), reclaiming the Lutheran voice in the general faith community, and developing each local congregation into a mission station in its community.
Bishop Eaton replaces Bishop Mark S. Hanson, who had served as ELCA presiding bishop since 2001.