The largest Lutheran denomination in America has made history by electing the Rev. Elizabeth A. Eaton, aged 58, as its first female presiding bishop.
Eaton received 600 votes of the 887 votes cast at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's general assembly in Pittsburgh on August 14.
"The sense of the assembly was that a new leader was needed for new challenges," Rev. Jeffrey Louden, pastor of St. Matthew's Lutheran Church in Taylorsville told the Salt Lake Tribune newspaper. "We didn't elect her because she was a woman, but because of her ability to lead."
Eaton bested current Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson, who has been serving in the post for 12 years, but under whose leadership membership has ebbed recently after the ELCA's decision to admit openly gay clergy.
The day after her victory, Eaton said, "I'm still in a state of shock. We wanted to open up a conversation, and as I said to the assembly, it looks like the conversation got out of hand," Religion News Service (RNS) reported.
Hanson was expected to win re-election. Eaton, who is considered a moderate, credited him for creating an environment in which choosing a female presiding bishop became possible.
"The election of a woman to the office of presiding bishop is a fulfillment of his ministry of making this church a welcoming place," she said.
The ELCA had voted to allow gay clergy in 2009 and elected its first gay bishop in June, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
As a result of the decision to admit gays to their pastoral ranks, the denomination lost 647 congregations.
"We lost less than 10 percent, but it's still painful because these are our brothers and sisters," said Eaton, who supported the vote.
Many conservatives unhappy with the decision left to form a new denomination, the North American Lutheran Church.
Overall, 500,000 people have left the ELCA to schism since the church gave permission to ordain and install gay pastors four years ago.
As of 2010, the denomination had 4.2 million baptized members.
"My goal is to make sure we make room for the possibility that people disagree, that they are fully Lutheran, fully valued and fully part of this denomination," RNS quoted Eaton as saying.
Eaton is a native of Cleveland, Ohio. She earned a bachelor's degree in music education from the College of Wooster before attending Harvard Divinity School.
She has been bishop of the Synod of Northeastern Ohio since 2006, and was the pastor of Messiah Lutheran Church in Ashtabula, Ohio, for 15 years before that.
Eaton is married to Rev. Conrad Selnick, an Episcopal priest.
According to the Episcopal News Service, the ELCA and the U.S. Episcopal Church have had a full communion relationship known as Called to Common Mission.
The denominations are seeking to find ways to combine their efforts in missions, disaster relief, and planting new ministries. In addition, they desire to have joint congregations and shared personnel.
The Episcopal Church also has a female presiding bishop, Katherine Jefferts Schori.
"There are excellent foundations already in our common work, and I expect further growth as we seek to serve God's mission as ministers of justice and healers of the breach," said Jefferts Schori.
"I anticipate a journey of mutual discovery of the gifts God so richly bestows on our two Churches, particularly in new contexts and populations. May God bless the journey and may God bless the pastoral leadership of Bishop Eaton."