The Lutheran: For U.S. presidents the first 100 days are a chance to shape an agenda and begin steering things in a particular direction. Is this similar for the presiding bishop?
Eaton: Well, presidents spend two years campaigning with a whole staff developing their vision before they come into office. I wasn’t expecting this [role as presiding bishop]. As I said at the Churchwide Assembly, I just wanted to have a conversation! Part of that conversation has now turned into four emphases: We’re church first. We’re Lutheran. We’re church together. We’re church for the sake of the world.
What challenges have you seen more clearly since your election?
It’s the same as when I went from being a parish pastor to being a synodical bishop. You see things from the other side.
I love the imagery in 1 Corinthians 12, where Paul talks about the body of Christ. One part can’t say to the other, I don’t need you. In my own synod (Northeastern Ohio), congregations for a long time worked in isolation from or in competition with one another instead of saying, “We’re all in this together.” People would say “the synod” and get this look on their faces. But there’s an even greater disconnect between local congregations and what we do all together as the church in this country and around the world.
But bishops aren’t church bureaucrats, churchwide staff aren’t faceless and congregations aren’t a bunch of difficult people. Probably a lot of things contributed to the breakdown in trust, but I think it’s important for us to not try to ascribe motive to people when something happens. No one’s trying to make things difficult for other people. All of us, in the different ways we’ve been called, are trying to serve God by serving the church.
If you are doing ministry in Memphis, Tenn., you’re taking care of that part of theELCA’s ministry on behalf of someone in Nome, Alaska. We need to see how we are all connected: one church with more than 9,000 congregations, hundreds of institutions, 26 colleges and universities, and eight seminaries.
What kind of a leader do you see yourself as?
I hope I’m present. In the parish I was always in the thick of things. I never wanted to ask anyone to do something I wouldn’t do myself. I don’t sit down for long periods. But I try to really be with people.
Being presiding bishop seems like a job that could be isolating.
Oh, yes. I’m very blessed that I have family, friends, colleagues and a good spiritual director to keep me grounded. But it can be really isolating.
The Office of the Presiding Bishop, in this building and across the church, is held sometimes in artificially or unhelpfully high esteem. I’m just not used to that. I’m not tall enough or imposing enough. I want to honor the reverence that people have for it. But at the same time, I don’t want to believe the hype. It’s just me.
Have you felt a need to find your voice?
No. What you see is what you get.
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