Voters at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's 2013 Churchwide Assembly in Pittsburgh have elected the first female leader of the mainline Protestant denomination.
The Reverend Elizabeth Eaton, bishop of the Northeastern Ohio Synod, was elected ELCA Presiding Bishop with 600 votes, beating out incumbent Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson, who got 287.
"We are a church that is overwhelmingly European in a culture that is increasingly pluralistic," said Eaton in remarks delivered Wednesday following the election. "We need to welcome the gifts of those who come from different places, that is a conversation we need to have as a church."
Judy Hoshek, deaconess with the Northeastern Ohio Synod and assistant to Bishop Eaton, told The Christian Post that the ELCA "elected a faithful servant of the gospel as its new presiding bishop."
"She emphasizes cherishing our traditions and not getting stuck in them…She values creative endeavors to reach out to those outside the walls of our congregations with the good news of God's love for the world in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ," said Hoshek.
"The Northeastern Ohio Synod will miss her compassionate, engaging, cross-centered [personality] even as we give thanks that our whole church will now benefit from her guidance."
The vote over who would become the Presiding Bishop was part of the week-long biennial ELCA Churchwide Assembly at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh.
In addition to Eaton and incumbent Hanson, other candidates for the position included the Rev. Jessica Crist, bishop of the ELCA Montana Synod and chair of the ELCA Conference of Bishops; the Rev. Michael Rinehart, bishop of the ELCA Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod; and the Rev. Jon Anderson, bishop of the ELCA Southwestern Minnesota Synod.
The first ballot results for the Presiding Bishop election were announced Tuesday. To have an election with the first ballot, one needed to get 75 percent of the vote. No candidate did.
By Wednesday, ELCA voting members were on the fifth ballot, having gradually reduced the number of nominees to incumbent Hanson and Eaton.
The winner had to receive about 50 percent of the ballots cast, which amounted to 445 votes out of 889 voting members present. Eaton received 600 votes and Hanson 287.
Paul Ulring, retired ELCA pastor and moderator of the evangelical group Lutheran CORE, told The Christian Post that for some it was "a surprise that Bishop Hanson was not re-elected."
"Her election marks a big change in ELCA leadership as any transition from Bishop Hanson would. It is a very significant time for this change, too," said Ulring.
"We wish Bishop Eaton well and hope that our work can have connection and cooperation as much as possible."
Eaton's election sparked much support from social media. On Twitter, individuals expressed their happiness with the vote while using the hashtag #elcacwa.
"#ELCACWA ...and I am ASTONISHED at the Spirit's work through the assembly's election of Elizabeth Eaton. God is just plain AWESOME," tweeted John Heidgerd @TodaysDisciple.
"All kinds of excited for our new ELCA Bishop, Elizabeth Eaton! I'm so proud to be lutheran! #elcacwa #lutherangirl #churchnerd," posted the Twitter handle @Katie_Rose93
"Thank you @bishophanson for your great leadership and may God guide Bishop Eaton - now captain of the ship @ELCA in the sea/mission #elcacwa," reads a tweet from Emily Rueber.
In a blog entry from Linda Post Bushkofsky of the group Women of the ELCA, the vote was declared a "history-making, Spirit-infused election" and beneficial in other respects.
"To respond to the needs facing the church and society in the 21st century, a collaborative leadership style is needed, and studies show that women more naturally use this form of leadership," wrote Bushkofsky.
As with other mainline denominations, the ELCA leadership has become increasingly pro-LGBT regarding their ecclesiastical policies.
In 2009, the ELCA voted to amend its rules to allow gay ordination. The controversial decision led hundreds of congregations to sever their ties with the church.
In June, the ELCA's Southwest California Synod elected the denomination's first openly gay bishop, the Rev. R. Guy Erwin.
By many accounts, it is believed Eaton will be a moderate Presiding Bishop, maintaining the positions of the ELCA while still reaching out to the Lutheran body's conservative wing.
Judy Hoshek told CP that while bishop of the Northeastern Ohio Synod Rev. Eaton "steered the synod through the aftermath of our church's 2009 assembly decision to open our leadership roster to gay and lesbian people in committed same-gender relationships."
Steve Shipman, director of Lutheran CORE, told CP that he was optimistic regarding relations between Eaton and the more conservative theological wing of ELCA.
"I am gratified by her willingness to address the reality of dissension and her express promise to reach out to those of us who disagree with some directions of the ELCA," said Shipman.
"I hope Lutheran CORE can work with her to help her keep that promise. She seems to be honest and forthright and to say what she means simply and clearly."
The Rev. Elizabeth Eaton will begin her six year term as Presiding Bishop of the ELCA on November 1.
The theme for the 2013 ELCA Churchwide Assembly is "Always Being Made New," which was taken from 2 Corinthians 5:17.