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Stephen J. Lee, Forum News Service, Published August 14 2013

ELCA elects first female leader

PITTSBURGH - The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America elected its first female presiding bishop Wednesday to oversee the nation’s largest Lutheran denomination.

The Rev. Elizabeth A. Eaton, bishop of the ELCA’s Northeastern Ohio Synod, was elected at the biennial churchwide assembly in Pittsburgh, in a decisive turnback of the incumbent bishop, the Rev. Mark Hanson, who had helmed the Chicago-based church since 2001.

Elected on the fifth ballot, Eaton received 600 votes and Hanson 287, according to a news release on the ELCA’s website; 445 votes were needed of the 889 cast.

“We are a church that is overwhelmingly European in a culture that is increasingly pluralistic,” Eaton told the assembly. “We need to welcome the gifts of those who come from different places, that is a conversation we need to have as a church.”

Before becoming a bishop of one of the ELCA’s 65 regional synods, Eaton served as pastor in Ohio. She has a Master of Divinity degree from Harvard Divinity School.

She is married to the Rev. Conrad Selnick, an Episcopal priest.

According to the Religion News Service, Eaton’s election surprised many because Hanson had been expected to win a third six-year term.

Eaton, like Hanson, is seen as a moderate within the ELCA, supporting the 2009 decision to allow partnered gay clergy while “allowing room for churches to disagree,” the RNS reported.

Since being formed in 1988 in a merger of two main Lutheran churches, the ELCA has seen its membership fall from about 5 million to about 4 million, with the decrease accelerated since the controversial 2009 decision to allow gay clergy to marry.

The more conservative Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod has about 2.4 million members.

The ELCA is the largest denomination in eastern North Dakota and northwest Minnesota, where its membership represents about 27 percent of the population.