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Largest Lutheran group elects first female leader

PITTSBURGH — The nation’s largest Lutheran group elected its first woman as presiding bishop on Wednesday.

The Rev. Elizabeth Eaton was chosen as head of the liberal-leaning Evangelical Lutheran Church in America during its national legislative meeting in Pittsburgh. Eaton won on the fifth ballot with 600 votes, defeating the incumbent, the Rev. Mark Hanson, who is finishing his second six-year term. Hanson received 287 votes.

Eaton, a bishop from the northeastern Ohio district, is taking over leadership of the more than 4 million-member denomination at a time of major transition. In 2009, the denomination cleared the way for openly gay and lesbian ordination, causing losses in a church that, like some Protestant groups, had already been losing members for years. The Chicago-based denomination has trimmed jobs and restructured while redirecting resources into evangelization, especially to Latinos and other groups.

Eaton, at a news conference after she was elected, urged Lutherans to be welcoming to newcomers in their churches. She insisted the denomination could stay unified despite differences over what the Bible says about same-sex relationships.

“We’re not defined by that single issue,” Eaton said. “We don’t agree on everything in this church, but we do agree on the cross of Christ, and we do agree we’re going to stick together to have that conversation.”

Eaton, a Cleveland native, is bishop of the Northeastern Ohio Synod. She’s a graduate of Harvard Divinity School and the College of Wooster. Her husband is an Episcopal priest, and they have two daughters.

Eaton said she wept during morning worship Wednesday. The balloting had begun the day before, indicating she had a chance to win.

“This is a huge change for me, for my staff, for my family, for my church,” she said. “My mother — everyone in her retirement center now knows she is the mother of the presiding bishop elect.”

Hanson, in brief remarks to reporters, congratulated Eaton and expressed confidence in her leadership.

“This call process was a call process for new leadership,” Hanson said. “In our history we have never looked back. We have always looked ahead.”



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