Bishop Elizabeth Eaton has a quick sense of humor, which is helpful because she often contends with an image of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America crafted by radio humorist Garrison Keillor, whose Lake Wobegon Lutheran Church is firmly rooted in quaint small town America and Scandinavian heritage.
Both of those are beautiful, said the woman just elected presiding bishop of the 4-million-member denomination. But an influx of Latino members is a bright spot in the otherwise declining ELCA. The congregation she led for 15 years in Ohio had crack houses for neighbors. Lutherans, she said, need to bring Jesus to whoever is living next door, using both old-time hospitality and newfangled social media.
"Just tell people to check us out. We're open Sundays," she quipped, then checked her words.
"We are also seeing that Sunday morning is a really bad time for many people. Maybe we have to be more flexible about making it possible for people to come."
Outreach is a critical issue in the ELCA, which has lost 1.2 million members since it was formed in a merger 25 years ago. Most of the loss was due to slow attrition in a denomination whose average member is eligible for Social Security. But 500,000 left in the two years after a 2009 decision to allow local option on partnered gay clergy.
In a speech Thursday morning Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson, whom Bishop Eaton will succeed in November, estimated that half of the ELCA's congregations are at a "crossroads" in terms of their future, in part because they aren't attracting and keeping young families.
Bishop Eaton, 58, is a Cleveland native who has been bishop of the Northeastern Ohio synod since 2006. She surged in balloting after becoming the only nominee to speak directly of the elephant in the living room, theological conservatives who have remained in the denomination despite opposition to its understanding of what the Bible says about sexual morality. She said she believed the decision to ordain partnered gay clergy was the right one, but that those who understood the Bible and tradition differently needed to have a voice in the denomination.
Congregations on all sides of such issues face similar challenges, she said. Some don't know how to reach beyond the people who are already there. Today people search for a new church on the Internet, so those without a website are invisible.
"I'm trying to help our congregations realize that," Bishop Eaton said.
About half the churches in her synod have websites.
"We have one with no indoor plumbing," she said. "The last really effective Lutheran use of new technology was the printing press. People don't look in the phone book any more. If you want people to find your congregation, you need a website."
During a news conference she suggested ways the church could use social media more effectively to promote a stronger Lutheran identity, including clever tweeting of Martin Luther's 1529 Small Catechism.
But technology or no technology, she said, the first thing that any church must do is seek God's power and guidance through prayer.
"We say we depend upon God," she said. "Now we are being tested to see if we really believe that. Are we engaged in prayer in this? Do we believe that if it's God's will to raise up a Lutheran witness to the gospel, then it's going to happen?"
She is open about her own reliance on a spiritual director, saying she wanted to make sure she practiced what she preached and didn't just go through the motions of being a bishop.
"You've heard of people who are spiritual but not religious? I would describe myself as religious but not spiritual," she said. Her goal, she said, is to learn to let go and let God work through her, which is what she believes congregations need to do as well.
The ELCA is already calling its congregations to be missionaries to their neighborhoods, but that doesn't mean acting as if the church has all the answers, she said.
"We need to go out and meet our neighbors and listen to them about what's going on in their lives. Tell us about the God you believe in or don't believe in," she said.
When her college-age nephew told her that he didn't believe in God, she asked him to describe the God he didn't believe in, she said. After listening to his description of a wrathful, anti-science, anti-intellectual deity, she told him, " 'I don't believe in that God either.' We got to the point where I was able to say this is the God I believe in, this is why Jesus makes sense in my life."
Her nephew hadn't been raised among people who believe in the sort of God he described, she said. It's a stereotype that arises from popular culture more than from the church. She said that one of her young adult daughters tells her own peers that they're intellectually lazy when they say things like that.
"She'll say 'You are letting that [view] seep in from the culture. That wasn't what you experienced growing up,' " Bishop Eaton said.
Messiah Lutheran Church in Ashtabula, where she served from 1991 to 2006, was originally so ethnically Swedish that worship in English didn't start until the 1930s. Yet, by the time she arrived, church members were marrying their black neighbors. Gay couples and their families began to attend. The congregation was welcoming. Now, she said, little black and Filipino children wear traditional Swedish costumes for the Santa Lucia festival at Christmas.
The congregation found ways to show its concern for the community that didn't resemble traditional evangelism. Shortly after gunmen killed 12 students, a teacher and themselves at Columbine High School in Colorado, "one of our women came to me and wouldn't leave my office until we organized a community meeting."
Church leaders brought first responders, local government officials, school administrators and business owners together to ask how they could prevent a similar tragedy.
"It turned out that none of the fire departments had building plans for the schools. After that they all did," Bishop Eaton said.
When churches make connections like that "you can invite somebody to church and they might not even be offended," she told the assembly before her election. "One of the most important keys is for us to see that we aren't bringing God out there. God is already out there, waiting for us to be ready to be touched by those we don't know yet."
Ann Rodgers: email@example.com or 412-263-1416. First Published August 19, 2013 4:00 AM