Tuesday, August 20, 2013

It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and the Churchwide Assembly

I spent a good portion of last week wrapped up in an election process most of the rest of the world overlooked. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America held their church wide assembly in Pittsburg, and part of that assembly included the election of the presiding bishop of our 4 million member denomination.

Most of us anticipated that the current presiding bishop, Mark Hanson (pictured in the background of this photo applauding the installation of Eaton as bishop of the Northeastern Ohio synod in 2006), would be re-elected handily. Mark has been an amazing and faithful leader for the past twelve years. In addition to serving two terms as our presiding bishop, he spent a term serving as the president of the Lutheran World Federation. He is a classy, emotional, caring, energetic, full-orbed presence. He's the real deal.

But then there is our actual ecclesial ballot process. On the first ballot of the ELCA, any name can be written in. Without going into all the hairy details, on the first ballot a few dozen names emerged. Those nominees who released their names to go forward then appeared on the second ballot. Already, some front-runners were apparent. Bishop Hanson had a clear majority, but not enough votes to win on the first ballot.

On the second ballot, the field shrunk, and votes consolidated some. Bishop Hanson did not win, and Jessica Crist rose to a significant second place (she serves as bishop of the Montana synod). 

After this ballot, the remaining field of four were offered the opportunity to speak. At this point, it was three women and Mark Hanson. Elizabeth Eaton, who until this time had been at the bottom of the balloting but always with enough votes to stay in the running, jumped handily into the lead.

Watching the process to this point, you realize a couple of things. First, you realize that the Spirit really is at work in ecclesial ballots. It's mysterious, and you know some of what will happen, but you don't know everything.

Second, you realize that how people speak, how they respond to questions live and in person, matters. The assembly as a whole recognized something vital and clarifying in Elizabeth Eaton's responses. 

From there on out in the balloting process, it was kind of a done deal. The other great candidates are removed formally in subsequent ballots. On the fifth ballot, with just a vote for either Elizabeth Eaton or Mark Hanson, a clear and compelling majority voted for Elizabeth Eaton. And with that action of the assembly, she became the fourth bishop of the twenty-five year old denomination, the ELCA.

I have glowing things to say about every single one of our past presiding bishops. H. George Anderson was my college president at Luther College before becoming PB. Herbert Chilstrom is simply one of the great leaders in mainline Christianity.

I anticipate having much to celebrate in the leadership of Elizabeth Eaton, even if at this point I know much less about her other than the fact that she has served well as bishop in Ohio prior to her election as presiding bishop of the ELCA. I look forward to learning more.

The theme of the church wide assembly this year was: Always being made new (2 Corinthians 5:17). This also happens to be the theme for our denomination this year as we celebrate our 25th anniversary.

I don't think any of us thought this was the particular way our denomination would live out the theme. Even Elizabeth Eaton herself has said the intent was never for Mark Hanson not to be re-elected. The point was to host a conversation.

When the news did pick this story up, they focused on the fact that Elizabeth Eaton is a woman (see Nadia Bolz-Weber's column in Huffington Post, for example). And indeed, that is big news. It's wonderful that, like the Episcopal Church-USA, and increasing numbers of church communions worldwide, the ELCA has as role-models women in prominent positions of church leadership.

But the bigger news in the ELCA, from my perspective, is that our church just modeled what it looks like for a denomination to transition through leadership in a way completely devoid of factionalism, and led by the Holy Spirit. There's that famous line in Acts, "It seemed good to the Spirit and to us…" (Acts 15:28)

It seemed good to the Spirit, and to us (the ELCA) to honor and thank Mark Hanson for his twelve years of faithful service, AND to elect a new presiding bishop to lead us now, in a new day.

Watching the two of them interact and lead worship in the days after Bishop-Elect Eaton's election--that looked like the church to me.

The excitement in my heart, the tears in my eyes, that come even as I type this: That feels like Jesus Christ present, in and through this very earthy and real church body.

God's work, our hands, indeed.


Last night, for church council, I showed the following video. It made me even more thrilled to be a part of this church. I'm learning something new all the time about us as a denomination. Like the fact that we are helping give birth to a Lutheran church in Myanmar. Myanmar!


  1. amazing what happens when the words "always being made new" take on skin, bones and life! I really believe that Hanson's wonderful sermon "bones rattling" preaches on and certainly that word is doing things completely unexpected. Jesus really is ALIVE and doing NEW! yippee!

  2. I am celebrating the activity of the Holy Spirit and thank you for this post! "It seemed good..."

  3. Probably not best link to her blog.

  4. Does the church in Myanmar count as birthing a new denomination that you have suggested? ;)

  5. Good question. I don't know the whole story, but want to learn more.

  6. My take-away from this post. I had no idea I was older than the ELCA.

  7. I am trying to remember if anything was said about the merger when I was 15. I don't remember anything per se.

  8. I was fifteen years old when the ELCA was formed, and honestly I can't remember anyone in church or elsewhere talking about it. I don't think I even knew (and still don't know) what predecessor body my church was a part of. I think maybe ALC, but I don't know for sure.

    In any event, it was a velvet merger as far as I was concerned. Or maybe a fifteen year old just isn't attending to those kinds of things, even if he is a church nerd.

  9. A couple of good interviews have been conducted these past few days. Here's one: http://www.post-gazette.com/stories/news/us/new-lutheran-bishop-elizabeth-eaton-focuses-on-gospel-699867/