Meet the Woman Who Will Lead Evangelical Lutherans: ‘Religious but Not Spiritual’

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ELCA News Service

Change has come to one of America’s largest Christian denominations. Last week the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) elected its first female presiding bishop, the church’s top office. Bishop Elizabeth Eaton won in a surprise 600-287 landslide at the denomination’s triennial Churchwide Assembly in Pittsburgh. A 4 million-member denomination with nearly 10,000 congregations, the ELCA is twice as large as the Episcopal Church, which elected its first female presiding bishop seven years ago. Like most mainline denominations, however, the ELCA faces a membership decline — accelerated by its 2009 decision to allow openly gay pastors. Since then, half a million members have left the denomination.

Eaton, 58, is a Cleveland native and graduate of Harvard Divinity School and the College of Wooster. Her husband, the Rev. Conrad Selnick, is an Episcopal priest. Eaton will be installed on Oct. 5, possibly at Rockefeller Chapel in Chicago’s Hyde Park, and her first day in office will be Nov. 1. TIME caught up with Eaton shortly after her election. “I’m kind of stunned,” she says of her win. She opens up about gay clergy, spiritual direction and, in true Lutheran fashion, Jell-O.

Many people might not know what makes the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America unique. How would you explain the denomination?

If people even know what a Lutheran is, most people are stuck on the lovely homespun caricature developed by Garrison Keillor in Prairie Home Companion and Lake Wobegon and all that. We often have parodies of ourselves where we say that all we do is eat different kinds of Jell-O and green-bean casserole. That is no longer true about us. Our growing edges in this church are African national congregations and Latino congregations, which is bringing a whole new wonderful flavor to the Lutheran potluck, theologically and culturally.

What does the election of a woman mean for the ELCA and for the broader Christian community in America?

People tell me that they think it is pretty tremendous; I can’t figure it out — it is just me, for heaven’s sake. Our current presiding bishop, Mark Hanson, has really for 12 years tried to have our church embody full inclusion of all people, that there is not just one body type for Lutheranism. I think when we arrived at this point, this week was the culmination of his work of saying, “Yes, everyone has gifts to serve.” So that for me would be one of the most important things that has happened. 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.

What are the biggest challenges facing the ELCA today?

Like all Christian denominations in this country, all of us are seeing either a decline or a plateauing [of membership], so I think the increasing secularization is kind of a shock for a lot of our folks. We no longer have a place of privilege in the culture. I’m old enough to remember public-service announcements from President Eisenhower telling us all to go to the church or synagogue of our choice. Those days are over. The world has changed. I mean, stores used to be closed on Sundays — can you imagine? This was before there was soccer in America. Now all of that is gone. So how can we readjust and re-engage as missionaries again? We have to figure this out. It is entirely possible. The Roman Empire was not saying to Christians, “Oh, sure, take Sunday off,” those first few centuries. So not having a privilege place in society, that might be good for us.

You support the decision to allow partnered gay clergy, but you also believe that the church should make room for people who don’t. Why?

Lutherans have a history of living with paradox. There are some things that are nonnegotiable for us. But there are other things that it is possible for people who love Jesus holding the same faith together, can have very strong, very sharp disagreements, but it does not have to lead to disunity. Things like marriage or the ordering of government or certain political positions, we can and we do disagree, but we agree on the cross.

We want to be a place that says we can disagree on things that are vitally important but still listen to each other and see in the other a brother or sister in Christ, and more importantly, someone for whom Christ died.

I hear you have a spiritual director. What is your process of spiritual direction, and how has it shaped you?

There are people now who are spiritual and not religious. I would characterize myself as religious but not spiritual. I am a faithful person, but taking a closer look at my relationship with God in a more intentional way was something that gave me the willies sometimes. So I thought, By golly, if I really believe what I preach, then I can’t do this on my own. If everyone of us depends utterly on God, maybe I need to start finding a way to have a discussion about that with God, and I thought, I might need someone to help me dial into the God frequency.

In our synod we have seven spiritual directors who are specially trained and certified for their particular ministry, so I contacted one of the women and she said, “O.K. I want to be clear: I am not a psychologist, I am not a therapist, all I am is someone who can be your companion while you are having your conversation with God, and I will eavesdrop on your conversation and help you to stay honest in that.” We have been doing that for the past year or so, and it has made a huge difference.

Who are your theological influences?

Saint Paul, Martin Luther, Walter Brueggemann.

Saint Paul — who sounds to me not like one of those people I’d like to hang out with very much, he sounds like one of those really intense overachievers — he finally realized that under his own steam he couldn’t do it. That has been a theme for me over the past year and a half, trying to power through under my own steam and realizing that that is silly. If we believe and trust in God then that is always available to us, so just letting go. Paul does that in sentences with no punctuation that go on for paragraphs, but that is a rough calculation of his justification by grace through faith.

Martin Luther — wonderful, earthy. I obviously think he got a lot of things right in helping to make some of the themes of theology accessible to a lot of people, particularly if you read his Small Catechism, if you take a look at his explanation of the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread,” when he talks not just about food, but a good government and a good name and having employment.

And Brueggemann just so captures the majesty of God but always in the sense that God is always opening possibilities.

What passages of Scripture have meant the most to you?

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, basically. 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.

59 comments
ElizabethCooper
ElizabethCooper

As a complete Polytheist I can only wish her well in her path of service and growth.

Splittgerber
Splittgerber

Sorry, I should have written, "SOME of these comments . . . ."   :)

Splittgerber
Splittgerber

I'm a "cave man" at this, but my, my, how illuminating, albeit not enlightened are these comments!  Anyhow, all the best to the ELCA and Bishop Eaton.  And for those who disagree . . . I'll agree to disagree :)  P.S.  It is true that the strident ones know less and fear more that those who can be civil, regardless of beliefs.  But I digress.  I like the new Bishop's comments; very civil, indeed.  Oops, there I go, again :)

LeRoyMeyer
LeRoyMeyer

It is amazing to me, after reading some of the comments, why so many non-believers & outright athiests spend their time logging on to this site!  Good Luck Elizabeth Eaton, I predict you will be a great leader & leave years from now with a record as one of our best Bishops.

EricThorson
EricThorson

Just a word to the atheists trolling this thread -

While I might agree wholeheartedly with your critique of fundamentalist religion, the stereotypes you speak in tell me that you don't know anything about a church like the ELCA, or what a seminary-educated Bishop like Elizabeth Eaton might be like.  You need to become more educated before you speak.

ChrisVCorliss
ChrisVCorliss

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.

pablogavavlio
pablogavavlio

I just find it astonishing (and as a human, somewhat embarrassing) that in 2013 there are still people who believe that there are invisible supernatural spirits who have magical, abilities to control processes in the natural world.

Human civilization is currently in its true dark ages and cannot emerge until it reaches the (astonishingly obvious) "enlightenment" that there are no supernatural powers whether Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, Wikkan, Rastafarian, Greek, Norse or (dare I say) Spaghetti Monsterous. 

Jesus H. Christ (he said in jest), when will people realize that nothing fails like prayer and that an hour spent praying to an invisible, non-existent, supernatural "spirit" is an hour that could have been spent helping a fellow human (or non-human) in need?

bojimbo26
bojimbo26

Definition of spiritual please ?

jmac
jmac

" . . . the increasing secularization is kind of a shock for a lot of our folks.  We no longer have a place of privilege in the culture."

Well, when you expect people to swallow a virgin birth and a body that mysteriously disappears to mean that God sent this person to absolve us of sin - maybe it's your message that has a problem?   Maybe there's a God, he gave us a brain, and he expects us to use it.   Maybe your history hurts a little also?  Why should you have a place of privilege when your pushing a religion instead of doing the right thing?  

"Stores used to be closed on Sunday.  Can you imagine?  This was before there was soccer in America."  LOL.   Is soccer the problem?   The problem for churches  is we're no longer isolated in small towns where you were ostracized if you didn't believe.    It's still happening in small towns in America.   The bottom line is I can be just as good a person, or in some cases a better person, than someone who believes in a God and pushes a certain religion - and my belief (or lack of) shouldn't be a "shock" to those who have pushed their religion on me and my government since birth.  


roknsteve
roknsteve

"Religious but not spiritual."  That's the whole problem.  No heart.

jmac
jmac

How can we "reengage as missionaries again?"  

Perhaps that's the problem?   Perhaps Jesus didn't want you to be missionaries (and push whatever 'true' church you believe in).  Perhaps he merely wanted you to practice what he preached?   if the churches did that, people might want to hang out there on Sunday.  

musimatician
musimatician

@pablogavavlioI am "a believer" who finds the supernatural hard to believe in.  When I stress over believing in the unbelievable, I then contemplate my own consciousness.  That I am me and not anyone else before me or after me.  I am so real to me, but why do I have my own consciousness different from anyone else's before, after or with me?  That, in itself is something that I have difficulty explaining, but yet cannot deny.  So, I cannot ignore the possibility of the supernatural.  At the risk of their own lives, 11 apostles of Jesus set off on a mission teaching that Jesus died, was resurrected and ascended into heaven (whatever/wherever that is).  I can understand one disillusioned schizophrenic going off and doing that, but 11 in close connection at the same time and believing/teaching the same thing at the risk of their lives?  That I have difficulties understanding as well.  Islam and Buddhism are based on the insights of an individual for each.  One can always claim,  rightly or wrongly that they were disillusioned individuals, but it is more difficult to say that 11 apostles of Jesus  taught the same disillusionment at the risk of their lives.  So, I am not ready to give up believing in Jesus as the only begotten Son of God and Anointed One either.  Then look at light.  The speed of sound, relative to me, depends on my motion relative to the sound source (thus sirens sound higher in pitch when approaching their source and lower in pitch when moving away).  But the speed of light relative to myself is always the same no matter how fast I approach the source or how fast I move away from it.  That I also don't understand.  If that wasn't measurable, it would be understood to be supernatural.

tealsheep
tealsheep

@pablogavavlio "If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences" - The Thomas Theorum

Basically, i think therefore I am. Religion is a social construct that is very real to many people. You don't believe in it, but it's presence and the effects of it are still very real in your life because you have reacted to it. 

You believe that they should be physically helping others instead of praying, but who have you helped while you were trolling the internet?

You must put in the effort before you can expect others to follow. 

jdbyers
jdbyers

@pablogavavlio It is a shame that you live your life with nothing to look forward to.  God is great and through him, all things are possible.  How else can this beauty around us exist?  


Cyssi
Cyssi

@pablogavavlio As a neutral observer I've long noticed that while 'believers' don't seem to have a problem with Atheists, Atheists seem to go out of their way to be ugly and patronizing to believers. I don't necessarily believe anything exists after this world but I don't  feel the need to attack a whole population of people who do. Have some respect and maybe you'll get some back. 

PaulDirks
PaulDirks

@pablogavavlio Reality is a funny thing. You can assert that God doesn't exist and you would be exactly as correct if you were to assert that the value of a 100 dollar bill doesn't exist. You can assert all you want but you can't fight the power of human consensus.

roknsteve
roknsteve

@pablogavavlio I think we're in a time loop because the same things keep happening over and over no matter how high the civilization is developed.

musimatician
musimatician

@jmac  The ELCA  lacks the "pushiness" on the whole (with some exceptions I am sure) that you are charging the new bishop with.  I am "a believer" who finds the supernatural hard to believe in.  By the way, historically, Christianity developed centers in major cities.  When I stress over believing in the unbelievable, I then contemplate my own consciousness.  That I am me and not anyone else before me or after me.  I am so real to me, but why do I have my own consciousness different from anyone else's before, after or with me?  That, in itself is something that I have difficulty explaining, but yet cannot deny.  So, I cannot ignore the possibility of the supernatural.  At the risk of their own lives, 11 apostles of Jesus set off on a mission teaching that Jesus died, was resurrected and ascended into heaven (whatever/wherever that is).  I can understand one disillusioned schizophrenic going off and doing that, but 11 in close connection at the same time and believing/teaching the same thing at the risk of their lives?  That I have difficulties understanding as well.  Islam and Buddhism are based on the insights of an individual for each.  One can always claim,  rightly or wrongly that they were disillusioned individuals, but it is more difficult to say that 11 apostles of Jesus  taught the same disillusionment at the risk of their lives.  So, I am not ready to give up believing in Jesus as the only begotten Son of God and Anointed One either.  Then look at light.  The speed of sound, relative to me, depends on my motion relative to the sound source (thus sirens sound higher in pitch when approaching their source and lower in pitch when moving away).  But the speed of light relative to myself is always the same no matter how fast I approach the source or how fast I move away from it.  That I also don't understand.  If that wasn't measurable, it would be understood to be supernatural.  The bottom line is you can be just as good a person, or in some cases a better person that a professed Christian.  Christianity has a duo approach, the objective of "being good" while addressing the "bad" through changing our attitude toward the bad and receiving forgiveness at the highest level.  So,Christianity isn't about balancing our "good" with our "bad", but rather a growing in the "good" while addressing our "bad", regardless of what the balance of our "good" and "bad" is.


Read more: http://swampland.time.com/2013/08/18/meet-the-woman-who-will-lead-evangelical-lutherans-religious-but-not-spiritual/#ixzz2cj849479

Read more: http://swampland.time.com/2013/08/18/meet-the-woman-who-will-lead-evangelical-lutherans-religious-but-not-spiritual/#ixzz2cj35c03R

JeffreyD.Marsh
JeffreyD.Marsh

The ELCA is not in the habit of "push[ing]...religion on [you] and [your] government." You may have this particular denomination confused with more theologically "conservative" groups.

mandycat
mandycat

@jmac  Pushed their religion on us and our government, while at the same time mooching off the taxpaying public.  

GraceNotes
GraceNotes

@roknsteve Since you have no faith in anything but yourself, I would suggest that you refrain from making further negative comments about those of us who do believe in God, or a higher power.  Your inner devil is not becoming.

musimatician
musimatician

@jmac Jesus said: "Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them all that I have commanded you and, lo, I will be with you always until the end of the age."  So, if we practiced what he preached, we still would have to be "missionaries".   Sorry.  However, we really must practice what he preached as well as being missionaries.  And being missionaries does not mean being "pushy".  It just means telling others (in word and deed) what we believe.  It is wrong to believe conversions can be "pushed" on others, or that we must "push" our culture on others.

fingerprints
fingerprints

@jmac I think a lot of people see 'Evangelical' in ELCA and associate it with the conservative 'evangelical' tradition in the United States, a tradition that doesn't at all describe the ELCA theologically or culturally. The ELCA tends to pivot theologically on grace and in practice more on the idea of social justice than it does on the notion that all non-believers are doomed to eternal damnation. I grew up in the denomination (in the Southeast, no less!) and church was actually where I went to *find* other progressives, rather than a place where I felt I had to tow a conservative party line. The ELCA in more liberal areas tends to be still more progressive (look up the Lutheran church in Berkeley, for example).

'Missionary' work generally focuses on ministering rather than converting- which sounds like it's in line with what you would consider closer to the Christian ideal. 

I think what the Bishop is trying to say, in a nutshell, is that times have changed. People shouldn't be shocked by the decline in numbers and wring their hands and wish for things to become 'how they were'. Rather, they should take things as they are and focus on how we work/what we have to offer within present culture. 


 [Full disclosure: I no longer attend with any regularity. Occasionally I'll wander in to a service though and think I should go more- not from any religious feeling, but rather because the sermons are like a shot in the arm- I always leave feeling re-energized, ready to try to direct my life toward still more grace, still more compassion, still more love.]

TonyYarusso
TonyYarusso

@jmac Jesus actually specifically ordered his disciples to go out and be missionaries (Matthew 28:16-20).  The Good News wouldn't have much effect if nobody was spreading it.  Certainly that is done with actions at least as much as words, however.

jmac
jmac

@Cyssi @pablogavavlio Atheists wouldn't have a problem with religion (any religion) if that religion didn't take over a political party and involve it's God and morals into other people lives.  You can't claim to be a Party of God and then whine if someone wonders about your intelligence when the discussion of religion comes up.  

It's difficult to have respect for anyone who choses a religion that claims it's the True religion, that it's God is the true God and if you don't believe in that God then you're not saved.    Why would any rational human being want to believe in a religion that dooms all those who don't believe that particular religion? Religion is a choice.   It says something about you if you make that choice.  

Mark_Knox
Mark_Knox

@Cyssi @pablogavavlio That is true, Cyssi.  Most Atheists that I see posting on these boards are as adamant about cramming their beliefs down everyone else's throats as the Christian evangelicals they whine about. Civil discourse is out the window when you believe you are superior to whoever you are talking to (or in most cases just baiting).

bojimbo26
bojimbo26

Wrong answer , please try again .

jmac
jmac

@JeffreyD.Marsh    I did miss her last statement on not having a privileged place in society "might be  good for us."   I hesitate on giving her kudos as she used the word "might".  Of course it's a good thing religion (any religion) doesn't have a place of privilege in our government.   

Push.  Missionaries push.  It's the nature of the beast.   She says she's "religious but not spiritual."   It sounds like she works for a corporation and wants to keep her job.  

roknsteve
roknsteve

@GraceNotes @roknsteve So you're another one of those mind and heart readers?  Yet you divide your belief between a positive higher power and a negative devil?  A house divided, hmm..... 

jmac
jmac

@fingerprints @jmacThe ELCA believes in the Athanasian Creed:   Jesus Chris is true God; Whoever wants to be saved should above all cling to the catholic faith; Whoever does not guard it whole and inviolable will doubtless perish eternally.  

In a nutshell - It's the true church with the "true" God and if you don't believe in it you're doomed.   That's the bottom line.  

How Christian of you.  


jmac
jmac

@TonyYarusso @jmac Says who?  Which translation?  Which pious male translating  which 4th century scroll?  The King James version of the bible?  That one edited and translated so a king and a Parliament would approve?  

Would Jesus be an evangelical Lutheran today?   A Mormon?  A Buddhist?  God-forbid - a Baptist?  You can be a missionary without a church.   He just might have preferred that.   

notsacredh
notsacredh

@roknsteve, sometimes the little head over rules the big head too. I curse blood flow.

roknsteve
roknsteve

@bojimbo26 Man are you lost.  There's nothing spiritual in the clinical description you just stated.  The heart is the center of a human and the source of all wisdom.  The inner master...   

notsacredh
notsacredh

I would argue that the spiritual can't exist without the physical, but then again, until a few minutes ago, I didn't know that M. Night Shyamalan wrote Stuart Little either.

bojimbo26
bojimbo26

Getting there . Humans and animals are made of 2 things , physical and spirit . Spirit can live without the physical , but the physical cannot live without the spirit .

notsacredh
notsacredh

An intangible aspect of our inner being that would vary from individual to individual. Connected to the morality of the one as well as to the morality of the whole. A connection that can't be observed, proven or denied.

bojimbo26
bojimbo26

Try again . 3rd time lucky ?

fingerprints
fingerprints

@jmac @fingerprints It is true that on one Sunday out of the church year, the Athanasian Creed (usually the punchline of a joke because of its length) is sometimes recited. The Nicene and Apostles Creeds are the ones which are used in normal services. The Athanasian creed is retained as a statement not of 'who is saved and who is damned', but rather as a statement of belief in a triune deity and that the father/the son/the holy spirit are one. 

Ironically enough, certain, uh... fringe... spectators are critical of the church's 'move towards Universalism'. [For a laugh: http://www.exposingtheelca.com/on-universal-salvation.html

For a lay-person's brief explanation on a closer version of the church's actual theology: http://lutheranforums.com/blog/2010/08/18/does-the-elca-believe-in-universalism/

Regardless, I'm unsure how that contradicts anything I said above, which concerns how the ELCA generally *acts* as a body. The ELCA is simply not a conservative denomination. There *are* conservative Lutheran bodies in the U.S. - the Missouri Synod, for example. A simple compare and contrast reveals that most of the beliefs I think people knee-jerk associate with 'evangelical' (Biblical inerrancy, for example, or male headship, etc, etc) are actually properties of those synods. 

I think probably the most revealing statement by the Bishop above is not one you highlighted:

"Lutherans have a history of living with paradox."

It's not a theological system which favours black/white, either/or kind of thinking, saved/damned, us/them sort of thinking. If you can't deal with grey areas, you won't be comfortable. If you can... you probably still won't. 

Just to be clear - I have no wish to change your views on any sort of religious topic. I find that kind of discourse pointless and unnecessary. And, as stated above, I'm not even practicing myself anymore. But, I do know the denomination fairly well and you just seem to be having the same reaction I find myself having whenever I hear the words fundamentalist, traditional, or evangelical (when that last word is not followed by Lutheran Church in America). I understand that reaction, so I thought I'd try to provide a little bit of clarification. :)

JonathonStruve
JonathonStruve

@jmac @TonyYarusso I would suggest that you are hung up on the "Evangelical" part of the ELCA.  I'd suggest you do some research about where the denomination stands.  Oh, and by the way, Matthew 28 in ALL translations and the original Greek, EVERY version commissions the disciples to "go and make disciples of all nations."  Matthew 5, where Jesus recruits his first disciples, he says that if they follow him, he will make them "fishers of men" (also standard translation, though some translations use "people" instead of men, which I think just sounds funny "fish for people" - even if it is explicitly inclusive).  The way in which we go about this mission is often disagreed upon, but if we follow the example of Christ, he gained followers by serving others, by teaching, and by reaching out to the outcast, the rejected, and the afflicted first.  That's probably not a bad strategy.  Serving God by serving others out of love and compassion AND with humility (not arrogance - there are many admonitions to do your good deeds in secret and without boasting and to be a servant rather than a master) is the mission of the church in the World.

TonyYarusso
TonyYarusso

The Great Commission doesn't say to "establish a church"; it says to go and make disciples extending a tradition that already existed and teach those new disciples what Jesus had taught, which itself was a reiteration of the much older scriptures and lessons of numerous prophets before.  As for political parties and government, I get the feeling you're not familiar with the ELCA at all.

jmac
jmac

@JeffreyD.Marsh @jmac @TonyYarusso You can believe those ancient texts if you want.  Written by many men and the opinion of many men.    Or you can believe the biblical historian who said Jesus wasn't interested in establishing a church. 

You can believe whatever you want.  As long as you don't use a political party or a government to try to enforce your views or morals based on your religion, I'm all for it.