Tuesday night a Facebook post on the election for presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) asked the question "What does this mean?" Good question.What does it mean (or matter), a 25 year old Christian denomination was having an election. "What does this mean?"
My grandfather was in Cobo Hall in Detroit back in 1962. 25 years before the creation of the ELCA. He was there as Lutherans of Swedish, German, Finnish, Danish and other extractions came together to form the Lutheran Church in America. A decidedly eastern flavored denomination with its headquarters in New York City, my grandfather came from the West. He was an outsider. A lay pastor in the Augustana Synod by 1962 he served as the director of a charity for homeless men on skid row in Seattle, WA. And at that convention, in Cobo Hall, an "American" denomination was born.
The LCA was a decidedly ecumenical and "liberal" (do with that label what you like) denomination. In 1967 it ordained my father and just eight years after its founding it ordained the first female Lutheran pastor in Amerca (1970). The LCA followed that with the first female African American Pastor (1979), first Latina Lutheran pastor (1979), and first female Asian American Lutheran pastor (1982). The LCA also pushed, along with the AELC (a denomination formed out of a schism in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and led by the Rev. John Tietjen) for a merger of the Lutheran churches during the decade of the 1980s. This occurred in 1987. After 25 years of existence the LCA, AELC and the American Lutheran Church came together in Columbus, Ohio. The three bishops of the church symbolically pouring waters together into a single baptismal font. From this, the ELCA was born.
I was ten years old when "the merger" was all the talk. My sister attended the first ELCA National Youth Gathering in San Antonio in 1988 and I couldn't wait to wear my cowboy hat at Atlanta in 1994 to be sure everyone knew we were Texas Lutherans. Over the next decade and a half the ELCA changed. Numbers declined and gravity shifted. In 1988, the ten largest ELCA congregations were in the midwest. In 2012, the midwest is still dominates but the third largest sits in Irving, TX, just 15 miles from my house in Fort Worth, and its primary language of worship is Spanish.
Yet despite this change, growth, mergers and divisions something remained the same. The leaders in the pictures of the presiding Bishops. The men at Cobo Hall, Columbus, OH, Minneapolis (ALC in1960) and every assembly since were remarkably similar. Despite effort upon effort to increase the diversity of the denomination the reality was it remained largely white, middle class, relatively well educated. Our presiding Bishops were white men in their late 50's or 60's. Distinguished and learned.
After 25 years in 2013 there was to be another election for Presiding Bishop. The current Bishop, the Rev. Mark Hanson, stated that he would again stand for election after having served two terms (12 years). Bishop Hanson had served admirably in those years. Globally leading, reaching out to youth and continually calling the church to remember the marginalized in our communities. To be the church in the world. Many loved Bishop Hanson and were grateful. I am grateful. But there was a sense. Was anything really changing? Who were the new leaders? Where there any? What does this mean?
Yet by Monday night it became clear that something was happening. As my girls and I watched the assembly in worship on the live stream from our kitchen, we knew that there were new names being lifted up for Bishop. Pastors of the church, willing to stand for election as well to this role of leadership. And the faces attached to these names, did not match the faces of those pictures my grandfather would have recognized so well.
By Tuesday afternoon things were shifting and on Wednesday something amazing happened. The Holy Spirit acted. A graciously faithful servant of the Gospel, Rev. Mark Hanson, yielded as a new face filled the role of Presiding Bishop of our church. One cannot say enough about how solidly Bishop Hanson led us through the challenges of the first decade of this century. He is deserving of our deep gratitude and thanks and no doubt will receive many accolades and thanks. And hopefully, most of all, deserved Sabbath rest with Ione.
Wednesday, the Rev. Elizabeth Eaton (Bishop of NE Ohio) had been elected by the assembly. And while almost 1,000 people gathered in the assembly hall for this election over 2,500 watched on a live stream as the final tally was announced. No longer are assemblies restricted to Cobo Hall or Columbus, Minneapolis, or Pittsburgh. They play out around the world on the internet.
The next morning. My girl's mother, the Rev. Kendra Mohn (Voting member from the Northern Texas--Northern Louisiana Mission Area) was in the elevator. In walked Elizabeth Eaton, Bishop-elect of the ELCA. As they stepped off, Bishop Eaton was gracious enough to stand and take a picture.
In 1962 there were no clergy couples. In 1987 they were a VERY strange novelty. In 2013, two members of a clergy couple (Bishop Eaton is married to an Episcopalian Priest) met in an elevator and snap a picture. These are the new faces of Presiding Bishops. Faces my grandfather might find different but my girls recognize immediately. Faces of two pastors of the ELCA. One just elected to lead our hopefully increasingly motley denomination into an uncertain future. One getting her PhD in New Testament at TCU and serving as teaching Pastor at Trinity Lutheran-Fort Worth. My girls watch all this on the internet and their dad stays home, playing Lead Pastor at TLC and three decades later living into Mr. Mom, so their mom can do the work of the church.
What does this mean? My answer: God is still working on us. We have a future and we will live into it. In the Summer of 2015, Bishop Eaton will no doubt address the youth of the ELCA gathered for a national assembly. Where? Detroit, MI. In the Cobo Center (formerly Cobo Hall). We will be there with youth from Trinity-Fort Worth. With a youth director confirmed by the Rev. John Tietjen, the initial leader of the AELC, who served his final call there.
25 years. What does this mean? We have still much work to do. While we work on issues of gender we still deal with race, language and especially issues of age. We struggle to be the multiplying, growing evangelical body Jesus called us to be. To be relevant and relational in a post-Christendom era. However, as the new face of Bishop Eaton addresses those youth in two summers, I pray she will remember the words she quoted for us, words carried in the pocket of a Liberian pastor from NE Ohio, in her acceptance speech on Wednesday. I pray we will remember them. From Isaiah 43..."Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life. Do not fear, for I am with you."