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.