Bishop Elizabeth Eaton of Cleveland speaks during an August news conference after being elected the first female presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
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The presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, or ELCA, is Ohioan Elizabeth Eaton, who moved to Chicago to take office at the beginning of the year. She works for the larger community, but her roots are strong. When asked if she had words specifically for Toledoans, she said, “What I'm really concerned about are those people in Toledo, some of them root for Michigan. I want to say to my brothers and sisters in Toledo, don't go to the dark side, come back, come back to Ohio State.”
State team loyalty aside (she was educated at Wooster College and Harvard Divinity School), Bishop Eaton works for inclusion. When she was campaigning for election as presiding bishop at the Lutherans' Churchwide Assembly in Pittsburgh in August 2013—she was bishop of the Northeast Ohio Synod—she addressed division in the Church. “The decision we took in 2009 to say that if called by God and if having the gifts to serve, partnered gay people can serve, I think that was the right decision, but there are a lot of folks in this Church who have remained in the ELCA, are very faithful, and they don't think that's the right decision," she said. "I said they need to have a chance, they need to feel that they are equally part of this Church.... We've got wonderful faithful folks who on the basis of their confessional and theological and scriptural understanding say that they don't see how this is possible, but they've decided to stay in the Church.
Bishop Eaton drew a parallel that “folks who are working for full inclusion stayed in this church for decades while being publicly called, not by us but in some sectors, an abomination. Their courage and faithfulness we're recognizing, but also the faithfulness of those who disagree. I think that's important. That's the Lutheran way; we can have disagreements on really, really, really important things just so long as we don't disagree on the cross of Christianity.”
With the name Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, “We want to tell people about this good news in Jesus.”
“We dont disengage from the world,” Bishop Eaton said, “and I think it makes it a lot clearer for those who are of different Christian denominations, different world religions, and those of no religion. If we are clear about who we are, I think it makes it a lot easier for us to engage with other folks and for them to engage with us.”
There are Lutheran church bodies that disagree with the ELCA and present obstacles to common worship, such as the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, but they are still in relationship. The Missouri Synod “does not recognize the ordination of women,” Bishop Eaton said, “but, for example, we've worked with them through Lutheran World Relief in the Philippines. You've got some parent and their little child's out in the rain because a hurricane's devastated their house, they don't really care about any arguments between Lutherans. They really don't care, and we shouldn't, either, at that point.”
The work of the Church, Bishop Eaton said, is not so much saving souls. “That's God's work, and if God loves God's creation, you're part of God's creation; you're going to be loved.” But there is work to do with others, missional work.
“Every one of our synods—we have 65 synods—has at least one global companion,” Bishop Eaton said. “We partner with them and they take the lead in that. We're not like the great white uncle perpetrating good works on unsuspecting natives. Their churches say, 'We need you to partner with us.' … When we've had floods over here, our companion synods in places like Tanzania or Kenya or places in Asia, they will send grant money to us to help our congregations here.” Bishop Eaton said that the Church is growing in the southern hemisphere, most Lutherans are no longer European, and there's a strong consciousness that the world is changing. “We are fully the Church,” she said. “We have folks from the global south who are missionaries in this country now.”
In Chicago, Bishop Eaton will not be away from all of her family. Her husband, the Rev. Conrad Selnick, is an Episcopal priest who left his position as rector of St. Christopher's-by-the-River in Gates Mills, Ohio, in January to be vice president for advancement and church relations for the Bexley Seabury Episcopal seminaries, with an office on the sixth floor of the Lutheran Center, where Bishop Eaton works on the 11th floor. Her older daughter is also in Chicago with her husband a graduate student at the University of Illinois Chicago. Her younger daughter lives with her boyfriend in Cleveland.
With changes in church relations, a Lutheran bishop-Episcopal priest marriage has little religious division. The two faiths are in full communion, which means ministers can serve in each other's churches, the military chaplains train together, and they work on social advocacy together. “We're doing a lot of joint mission planning together,” Bishop Eaton said, “particularly with Latino ministry starts.” She has met with the Lutheran and Episcopalian leaders in the U.S. and Canada, “and the four of us are seeing how we can work together for mission not just to preserve numbers but how can we work together in North America. There's a lot of exciting stuff.”
Would these close relations lead to a merger of the two churches? “I dont know if organic merger would ever be something,” Bishop Eaton said. “In the near term, I don't see that happening. There would be a lot of constitutional provisions and they've got canon law and all this kind of stuff. But could we find some creative way where we each would stay our own denomination but really more closely, more intentionally, more visibly share a lot more of our ministries? I think that's something we'd all be willing to talk about.”
One more question had to be asked. With the presiding bishop the ultimate authority, in a way, in the church, what's the deal with green bean casserole at potluck dinners?
“Oh, geez, I'm not supposed to talk about that anymore,” Bishop Eaton said. “That's a caricature of northern central European, you know, Garrison Keeler [of the NPR show A Prairie Home Companion]. This is what we eat, so you can find it at a lot of potlucks.” She gave an example of a church staff member who is a lifelong Lutheran, but her Puerto Rican heritage doesn't include the dish. “In the Garrison Keillor understanding of what Lutherans are like, that's not who we are, and we have a need to understand that's not who we are anymore.”
But she also said, “Anything that has cream of mushroom soup as an ingredient is probably something that we can do.” Look for variety—and a mushroom or two—on Bishop Eaton's plate at the many church dinners she'll attend as presiding bishop.