Tag Archives: Elizabeth Eaton

REFLECTIONS ON “OF COURSE” REGARDING BISHOP EATON’S INSTALLATION by Donna Runge, final year M.Div., with comments from across the globe

‘Of course’ — Reflections on the Elizabeth Eaton installation

My first reaction to Norma Cook Everist’s article in the “Living Lutheran” on Bishop Elizabeth Eaton’s installation as Presiding Bishop of the ELCA was the journey that has brought the ELCA to this historic and significant moment in time.  As I read the story the second time through, Norma’s words and reflections took on a deeper meaning for me.  As a woman and as a final year seminary student I paused and took time to reflect on my own journey of faith towards ordination.

The first steps for me began when the ELCA was yet a dream.  It was in 1963 and I was a seventh grade student attending a fall confirmation retreat.  I remember the inside of the church and the pew I was sitting in with many of the other students.  Our intern pastor was standing on the chancel floor in front of us by the communion rail and talking with us about listening to God’s voice and answering God’s call to ministry.  Intern Hullett told us that God had spoken to him as a teenager; and that God might also be talking to one or more of us during this retreat.  As he ended his discussion, Intern Hullett asked if any of us felt God’s calling, and if so, he would like to pray with us about it.  As I sat in that pew, I felt a voice calling me.  I wanted to go up to talk with him.  Instead, I felt confused, and scared, glued to my seat in the pew – praying God would show me what to do.

It was a time when there were no women pastors in the Lutheran Church in America.   There were no role models for me to follow in my church body.  In fact, when I found the courage to talk with my pastor about becoming a pastor, he laughed at me and said, “Are you crazy?  This is not a job for a woman.  Only men become pastors.”  I felt alone, without strength, without courage, and without support from anyone to go forward.  This view was further reinforced by my sophomore English teacher when she gave me a failing grade on my term paper.   The assignment had been to write on what career path we would take after completing high school.  I had written on becoming a pastor.  The teacher’s rationale for failing me was that becoming a pastor was not considered a viable career for a woman at that time.  I was then sent to our high school guidance counselor and told to consider the more appropriate careers of teacher, nurse, secretary, or wife and mother.

How the world has changed.  How I have changed.  The seeds of God’s calling which were planted over forty years have grown, matured, and blossomed.  That young girl is no longer confused and scared.  That young woman has walked out in faith.  Today I have found the strength and courage to answer God’s calling to Word and sacrament ministry.   Today I have found those role models and a support system that were lacking so many years ago.  Today I have a pastor who believes in me, encourages me, supports me, and mentors me as I travel on the journey God placed in my heart so many years ago.

“Of Course,” doors have been opened.  Hearts have been changed.  Women are now embraced as they begin seminary.  “Of Course” there is still work to do.  As I remember the paths along my journey, I appreciate the “Of Course” moments along the way and embrace my final year of seminary, anticipating my ordination next year.

Donna Runge, final year M.Div.

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People from across the country and from as far away as Jamaica, South Africa and Australia responded on facebook and by e-mail to the “Living Lutheran” article. Here are a few of their comments:

While the decades roll on, I look forward to the day when even those opposed to the ordination of women in the Lutheran Church of Australia will look at each other and say, “Of course.”

Tanya Wittwer, Adelaide, Australia, WTS graduate

Leigh Newton also wrote from Australia: Thanks so much Norma. Yes, this is significant across the world. Some of us are far behind. We have been functioning in fear for so long. I used your article as inspiration this afternoon for our congregation’s motion on calling suitably qualified women or men when we need to call pastors. “Can’t you wait just a few more years?”  The motion was carried, 21 to 7! Significant in a church that doesn’t ordain women. Let’s see what this means for the broader church down the road.

Leigh Newton,  Adelaide, Australia

I loved the article!  Of course, of course I did! I had no idea all of the pain women must have gone through to pave the way for future women of the church.  I had no idea at all and I appreciate you sharing it with everyone.

Terese Touvelle, 2nd year WTS diaconal ministry student

Paula wrote: The Spirit of God, RUAH, herself was present though out the millennium, bringing wisdom (Sophia) and Shekinah (glory) to each corner of our world and lives, Of Course! Thank you for being in the vanguard with us from our corner of Lutheranism (LCMS) to the ecumenical and interfaith days to which we now proclaim the Gospel that God has said, “Yes, I love you all, always.”

Rev. Paula Hepola Anderson, WTS graduate

This past weekend I performed a wedding for one of my college roommates, and yesterday I had to take the marriage license to the post office. The clerk saw the envelope and congratulated me on my marriage. I explained that I did not get married but instead that I was the pastor at the wedding. My heart dropped just a little as I saw the look on the clerk’s face, not fully understanding what I had tried to explain.

“Of course…” “Of course…”  Your words reminded me of the long way we have to go, but yet how far we have come and that gender does not define the Good News proclaimed from my own lips or anyone’s lips.

Rev. Shannon Arnold, WTS graduate

I just read your article about the installation. I cried while reading it. For the first time in my life, I’ve been experiencing what it is to be a “woman” in ministry. A man stopped me on the street because he had never seen a woman in a collar before, and he had “questions.” Another man purposely neglected asking me to participate in a community event as a religious leader because I was a woman. I’ve always shrugged my shoulders and said, “I’ve never been treated differently than anyone else,” whenever anyone has asked me about my being in ministry, but I forget that the very act of being asked that question is telling. I am newly inspired and energized by the article.

Jen Dahle, WTS Intern

I remember when I wanted to be a Lutheran minister years ago.  I was told, “Women aren’t ministers.” And before that I was told, “Girls aren’t altar boys.” Your extremely important narrative about the history of women in the Lutheran church brought chills to my skin.  I remember.  Let us not forget the sisters who went before.”

Rebecca Crystal, Unitarian Universalist Seminarian

From South Africa: [My wife] Solveig printed out your piece, “Of course,” and I read it slowly—grinning and often at the point of tears, not sure nor really caring whether they were tears of joy or sorrow. And all the way through, your words pulled up memories of Connie Kleingartner.  She was one of our first. We saw her move from tentative decisions about whether she should really try to do “regular” ministry or perhaps a “special ministry,”. . .  to her decision to be part of Wartburg’s first House of Studies in Denver. . . [Connie was ordained in 1977 and served in many places, including as a professor at LSTC] to the news of her battle with cancer, to the quiet report of her death. For us, an unforgettable part of the larger narrative.

Rev. Dr. Peter Kjeseth, WTS professor emeritus, and “Dean of Women Students” at Wartburg in the early 1970’s

TOWARDS FULL PARTNERSHIP: ELIZABETH EATON ELECTED PRESIDING BISHOP OF ELCA by Norma Cook Everist, WTS Professor of Church and Ministry

In January, 1990, The Persistent Voice began publication. At that time, just two years after the formation of the “New” Lutheran church in January of 1988, there were no women Lutheran bishops. Through the years, The Persistent Voice traced the progress not only of the full inclusion of women in public ministry but also towards the full partnership of women and men in the church. (PV Mission Statement for many years)

The ELCA saw a fulfillment of that mission statement August 14, 2013 at the biennial churchwide assembly with the presence together of Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson and Presiding Bishop Elect Elizabeth Eaton after her election and in their statements immediately following and when Bishop Hanson introduced Bishop Eaton at her news conference later that day.

Wartburg is represented at the churchwide assembly by President Stan Olson, faculty member Prof. Sam Giere and by a significant number of students who are voting members as well as by alumni and friends.  President Olson immediately informed the Wartburg community electronically of the election: “Pr. Elizabeth Eaton, Bishop of the Northeastern Ohio Synod, is the Presiding Bishop Elect for the ELCA. Let us give thanks for her servant leadership to come and give thanks for the servant leadership of Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson.”

Elected on the fifth ballot, Eaton received 600 votes, Hanson 287; 445 votes were needed of the 889 cast. Dr. Giere commented: “The final ballot went decidedly in her favor (approx. 2/3) It hasn’t gone unobserved among us at the seminary representatives’ table that the theme ‘Always Being Made New’ is being blown into reality by the Spirit.  In her acceptance she acknowledged the witness and work of those women who came before her including in particular April Ulring Larson as the first female bishop in the ELCA. . . . It is important to note the image of the assembly’s work since the preparation for the third ballot when candidates began to address the gathering: three women and one man.  Not to suggest that all things are equal in this church, but there is a profound symbolism in the final four candidates for presiding bishop standing together with the names Ann, Mark, Jessica, and Elizabeth.  Last (for now) but not least, ELCA vice-president, Carlos Peña, announced the election of our new presiding bishop.”

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

Prior to becoming a bishop. Eaton served as pastor in Ohio. She has a M.Div. degree from Harvard Divinity School.

When The Persistent Voice began publishing in 1990, the ELCA was celebrating the 20th anniversary of the ordination of women in the ELCA and predecessor bodies. Representational principles adopted at the time the ELCA began in 1988 (25 years ago) assured equal representation of women and men on boards and commissions and at synodical and churchwide assemblies, changing the nature of such gatherings tremendously. But the conference of bishops began as an all-male group.

Things had already changed at Wartburg Seminary. In the first issue of The Persistent Voice there was an article about Professor Elizabeth Leeper being installed as Assistant Professor of Church History, bringing the number of women professors at Wartburg to four (the other three being Norma Cook Everist, Anne Marie Neuchterlein, and Patti Jung), plus two more serving as instructors in biblical language (May Persaud and Cindy Smith).

Spring 1992 The Persistent Voice (PV): “Marie Jesper, 47-year-old minister in Hamburg, Germany has become the first woman ever elected a Lutheran bishop. When she was consecrated as spiritual leader of the 950,000 Lutherans who make up 60% of the population of Hamburg and more than 90% of the Protestants, she said, “I read and interpret the Bible with my experience as a woman. I want to be a sister among sisters and brothers.”

Summer 1992 PV: “Bishop-Elect April Ulring Larson will be installed October 11 in LaCrosse, WI, as bishop of the LaCrosse Area Synod of the ELCA. Rev. Larson, a 1977 graduate of Wartburg Seminary, was elected June 12 on the fifth ballot, the first woman elected bishop in the ELCA.” PV: “She will bring to the office a quiet wisdom, compassion and ability to listen. She has a strong commitment to justice and good skills in helping congregations resolve conflict.”

Summer 1995 PV: “The Rev. Andrea DeGroot-Nesdahl will be installed as bishop of the South Dakota Synod of the ELCA Sept. 24 on the campus of Augustana College. She was elected June 2 on the third ballot. In a phone interview she said, ‘God has worked such a miracle in my heart and life by this experience.’” Although she had been a candidate in Western North Dakota before, this was the first time South Dakota had a woman as a candidate. She is a 1977 graduate of Wartburg Seminary.

One might have thought the rate of change would then increase; however according to The Lutheran (August 2013) from 1988-2012, the total number of female bishops among all the 65 synods over the 25 years had been only 12.

Spring, 2008 PV covered the story of the election of Rev. Susan Johnson as the new National Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC), September 29, 2007, in Winnipeg. Because two of the five synodical bishops at that time were women, that brought the total to ½ male and ½ female. Bishop Johnson said in an interview with PV, “I think we take a fair amount of pride in that accomplishment.  Does it mean we have conquered all gender issues? No, but it’s a visible witness to people that we are committed to full equality in the church.”

(One thing National Bishop Johnson and Bishop Eaton have in common, besides their gender? Susan was a high school music teacher before she entered seminary and Elizabeth’s undergraduate degree is in music education.)

At the press conference, following the churchwide election August 14 Bishop Hanson introduced Bishop Eaton as “My Colleague,” and Bishop Eaton said that all of Bishop Hanson’s work toward making the ELCA a more inclusive church had led to this moment of her election. She gave thanks for his leadership over the past 12 tumultuous years in the ELCA, referring in part to the 2009 churchwide decision on sexuality, noting also that no bishop resigned after that decision.

Bishop Eaton emphasized that the ELCA is a place where people hear the Gospel, “upon which we can all agree,” which has made this an inclusive church.

Ann Rogers of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette asked, “During your remarks you stated the importance of including the voices of those who had difficulty with 2009 decisions. How do you propose going about this?” Bp. Eaton: “This is one of the geniuses of the Lutheran movement—we thrive on paradox. As long as we agree on the cross of Christ, we can live together. If people believe they are being heard and there is a place for them, we will be OK.”

She was questioned by another reporter about the relationship going forward with the two break-away new Lutheran church groups. (NALC and LCMC) Bishop Eaton responded, “In baptism we are brothers and sisters in Christ,” but added that much work will need to be done before we can have a dialog because there has been much pain. “We will do what we can through God’s grace.”

With wisdom and wit, Bishop Eaton gave brief, clear answers to the questions of reporters both in the room in Pittsburgh and connected on the web. A reporter from the Chicago Tribune, who had covered the papal election, posed a question relating Eaton’s election to the election of the new pope in Rome, asking if she had a “room of tears” as the new pope had. Eaton said with a slight smile on her face, “Oh, this was just like that.”  She went on, “We have nothing like that, no frescoes. I did weep at worship this morning.” The reporter had asked about her family. Bishop Eaton noted the presence of her husband, the Rev. Conrad Selnick, an Episcopalian priest, and spoke of their two daughters, now in their 20’s.

Asked what she thought the ELCA would look like in 5 or 6 years, she answered, “God only knows,” adding that we need to make space for those coming in while continuing to honor our heritage. She ended the press conference eloquently speaking about the need for the distinctive voice of the ELCA and Lutheranism in the current American religious landscape, not to be subsumed under Christian Protestantism or deism or the religion of popular culture, but a faith of the cross and resurrection in which true joy and freedom can be found.