CUYAHOGA FALLS, Ohio Bishop Elizabeth A. Eaton kept her name on the ballot of candidates vying to lead the nation’s largest Lutheran denomination because she wanted to have a conversation about issues facing the church.
She never expected to be elected.
“This wasn’t supposed to happen. Now that it has, I know it is where God wants me to be. I’m not doing it alone. God is with me,” Eaton said. “It is my hope that God will work through me, as chief ecumenical officer of the denomination, to introduce the world to Lutherans.”
Eaton, who was installed in 2007 as the first woman to lead the Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio-based Northeastern Ohio Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, was elected in August and installed this month as the denomination’s first female presiding bishop.
The Rev. Marcus Miller will serve as interim bishop of the Synod. Retired and living in North Carolina, he had served the synod as bishop for 11 years before leaving in 2006 to become president of Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, S.C.
Eaton will leave for Chicago to begin serving as presiding bishop on Nov. 1, pastors and members throughout the synod are echoing the same sentiment.
Eaton said one of the things that she loves about the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is its value for diversity. As presiding bishop, she hopes to emphasize the need to be more intentional about listening to and hearing from the various voices that make up the more than 4 million-member denomination.
“We find our unity in Christ, and when the world sees that people can have disagreements and still come together to praise the one who unites us all, we have made a positive impact in the world,” Eaton said. “We proclaim law and gospel in a nation looking for accountability and grace at the same time. We offer a theology of the cross in a culture of glory. We have something wonderful to offer to the world, and we need to communicate that.”
The Rev. Bob Linsz, pastor at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Cuyahoga Falls, said her intelligence, enthusiasm, energy and compassion will serve the church well. “She has a desire to address issues that stand in the way of sharing the gospel to reach people for Christ. I’m going to miss her friendship, but it’s going to be good for the church.”
Eaton, a Cleveland native, was ordained in 1981 and began her ministry as pastor of All Saints Lutheran Church in the Columbus suburb of Worthington, Ohio. She also served one year as interim pastor at Good Hope Lutheran Church in Youngstown and as pastor of Messiah Lutheran Church in Ashtabula.
She received her undergraduate degree in music education from the College of Wooster and her master of divinity degree from Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass.
She met her husband, the Rev. Conrad Selnick, in divinity school. He is an Episcopal priest. The couple has been married for 29 years and has two grown daughters.
Among the denominational issues Eaton hopes to address via dialogue are making the ELCA more inclusive by expanding beyond its largely European base, engaging in an intentional conversation with those who remained in the ELCA despite disagreeing with the denomination’s decision to allow partnered gay clergy (a decision she supports), reclaiming the Lutheran voice in the general faith community and developing each local congregation into a mission station in its community.
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