What Happened in Pittsburgh?
On Wednesday of this week, over 900 people, nearly 60% of them attending their first Church Wide Assembly, came to Pittsburgh with the honest expectation, myself included, that we would re-elect Bishop Mark Hanson for a third term as Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. But, that did not occur. What happened?
On Wednesday we elected Bishop Elizabeth Eaton as the new Presiding Bishop, she is the Bishop of the Northeast Ohio Synod on a final ballot of 600 votes to 277 for Bishop Hanson.
I do believe that there were multiple forces at work here. The first is our North American preference for the new. There was a time when baseball coaches could stay with a team for decades, but the era of Walter Alliston, Tommy Lasorda, Joe McCarthy, Casey Stengell is no more. We tire of our US Presidents in their second term, regardless of political party. Some of what I was hearing in Pittsburgh reflected this view. In other words, it was not Mark Hanson in particular, he is well loved, it was the idea of a third term. As one person said to me, “I am a believer of allowing new leadership to regularly come forward.”
As the days unfolded and the ballot results were announced, there was a spirit of ‘something new’ in the air. This is hard to explain. There was no campaigning, no strategy, no back room deals. But, as the second ballot announced who had decided to stay on the ballot, the men stepped back, and the women did not. There were eleven male bishops in the first ballot. We all stepped back and removed our names from the ballot. We did this not for some planned strategy, but, candidly, none of us sensed a call to serve as Presiding Bishop. Yet, it seemed the Spirit was speaking to the women.
Elizabeth Eaton spoke with clarity and candor. Her sense of humor was evident. She spoke theologically, but in a way that was down to earth. She reached out, as is her style, to the broad diversity of our church. It became clear throughout the day, that Elizabeth was the right person for the call. In fact, the votes were revealed that she was the obvious choice. The election was not even close, she actually almost won on the fourth ballot. The Holy Spirit was speaking loud and clear.
I believe she will be a fine servant. She understands the landscape of life in our congregations and culture. Elizabeth is a strong leader, and I look forward to her serving as our Presiding Bishop.
Bishop Eaton is a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, and attended University Lutheran Church in Cambridge, MA for a period during her studies.