The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America cast a historic vote Wednesday, electing its first female presiding bishop of the denomination who defeated Minnesota incumbent Mark Hanson.
The Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, currently a Lutheran synod bishop in Ohio, replaces Hanson, who has been the presiding bishop for the past 12 years. Hanson previously served as bishop of the St. Paul Area Synod and has been pastor at three Twin Cities area congregations.
The denomination’s representatives, who are meeting in assembly this week in Pittsburgh, elected Eaton on the fifth ballot. She received 600 votes to Hanson’s 287.
Minnesota has nearly 800,000 ELCA members, more than any other state. Nationwide, the ELCA has nearly 4.2 million members and is the largest Lutheran denomination in the U.S.
The historically white faith group has sought to diversify its ranks in recent years and has encouraged churches to appoint people of non-European ancestries to leadership positions. In 2012, Minneapolis-area Lutherans cast a historic vote, electing the first female bishop — the Rev. Ann Svennungsen — to lead the nation’s largest Lutheran synod.
Eaton was one of three female finalists for the presiding bishop position and made note of the denomination’s efforts to become more diverse in an address to the assembly following her election.
“We are a church that is overwhelmingly European in a culture that is increasingly pluralistic,” Eaton told the assembly. “We need to welcome the gifts of those who come from different places, that is a conversation we need to have as a church.”
Eaton, bishop of the ELCA Northeastern Ohio Synod, will serve a six-year term as presiding bishop beginning in November.
During his tenure as presiding bishop, Hanson led the denomination through a tumultuous period when the faith group changed its policy to allow for those openly gay and lesbian in committed relationships to serve as clergy. Since that controversial policy change in 2009, some 600 congregations nationwide have left the denomination.
Hanson was widely expected to win a third term. There is no term limit for presiding bishop, and Hanson would have been the first in the ELCA’s 25-year history to serve three terms.
Hanson said in a phone interview that he views Eaton’s win as an indication that church members are seeking out more diverse leaders.
“I don’t take this has a rejection of how I’ve led the church,” he added. “I think it’s a statement about wanting to move on into the future of the church. I’ve been absolutely blessed to lead this church through an amazing period of its history. What’s next, I’ve not begun to ponder.”
One thing he does know: Hanson plans to move from Chicago, where the ELCA is headquartered, back to Minneapolis to be near his children and grandchildren who live here. And he doesn’t plan on retiring anytime soon.
“That word [retirement] doesn’t compute with my self image,” he quipped.