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Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to install first female bishop

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Updated: October 30, 2013 6:27AM



Schisms are nothing new to churches.

And when the Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, the first woman elected to head the nearly 4-million-member Chicago-based Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, becomes presiding bishop Saturday, she’ll inherit a church still tending wounds from its 2009 decision to allow openly gay clergy — a move that contributed to the loss of nearly 600,000 members.

But Eaton, who supported the gay clergy decision, says the church learned from the experience and will move forward while addressing challenges that include staying relevant and building membership.

“We’ve learned it’s really clear we’re not all of one mind,” she said.

The question, Eaton said, is “how do we find ways to continue to love and talk to each other, to help the church be a model of how to have a civil discourse in a [political] culture that’s sort of winner take all, or if you don’t agree with me, you’re wrong, but not only are you wrong, you’re probably on the side of Satan.”

The church hasn’t figured out the answer but has learned “we’ve got to find a way to have deep disagreements but still see Christ in the other,” she said.

Eaton, 58, is a native of Cleveland. She was ordained in 1981 and first elected bishop of the ELCA Northeastern Ohio Synod in 2006. She holds a Master of Divinity degree from Harvard Divinity School.

Listening will be key to increase relevancy and build the church’s membership, she said, noting that she has been encouraging people in her synod to go outside the church and ask people what their communities need and what gives them hope “instead of us telling people what we think they need to know.”

Thinking outside the pew also will be important.

“Do we have to have services at 10 o’clock on Sunday morning?” Eaton said. “For a huge demographic, that doesn’t work. How do we say we’re going to be more creative about when we invite people to be part of worship?

“We have some congregations who have worship services in restaurants, at coffeehouses. Those creative approaches are things we have to try.”

In targeting younger members, she said, “It’s not just about talking about what we believe. They want to see justice combined with faith.”

Building diversity remains a challenge and will be a priority.

“We still have congregations who will not interview a woman to be a pastor, and we’ve been ordaining women as pastors in the ELCA since 1970,” she said. “We have folks who will not interview a person of color if it’s a predominantly white congregation. Those are some huge barriers.”

Only 23 percent of clergy in ELCA are women, according to the church’s website.

Eaton’s “presence will bring greater inclusivity,” said the Rev. April Ulring Larson, who was the first woman bishop in the ELCA.

Becoming a more diverse church is important because the country is more diverse and because “that’s God’s vision,” Eaton said.

Her focus on inclusiveness will address members who, because of their scriptural convictions, are opposed to the church’s homosexuality stance but decided to stay.

“This was a very costly decision for us,” she said. “Families were divided. Congregations were divided. It’s important to acknowledge the sacrifice of people who stayed even though they don’t agree with the decision. We need to make a space for them to have a voice.”

Asked if she plans to forge a relationship with the North American Lutheran Church, the group that formed out of the controversy, she said: “They’re our brothers and sisters. They’re always welcome. But the manner in which that denomination was formed caused a lot of pain for this church, and that’s not quickly forgotten.”

Humility is required of both sides, she said.

Representatives from the breakaway group did not return calls for comment.

“Her synod had a really tough time,” said the Rev. Wayne Miller, bishop of the ELCA’s Metropolitan Chicago Synod, who noted that the gay issue wasn’t a big deal in Chicago.

As synod bishop, Eaton spent a lot of time in church fellowship halls dealing with angry crowds, Miller said. “She was incredibly steadfast and faithful.”

Among her priorities will be helping the church live out key Lutheran themes.

“Our first and highest goal . . . is to be where there is suffering, where there is hurting,” Eaton said.

“We’re church first, church for the sake of the world,” she said. “Of course worship is primary and the thing we do. But if we’re just having our little conclaves and our own little congregations and say, ‘Well, too bad about everyone outside,’ we are completely missing the point.”

Email: Fknowles@suntimes.com

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