St. Paul Pioneer Press, 12 Aug 2001

St. Paul Bishop Elected to Lead Lutherans



Mark S. Hanson recalls standing in the registration line nearly 30 years ago at a teacher's college in New York when he said to himself: I can't do this.

He had finished seminary but didn't plan to become a pastor. Yet he questioned whether becoming a teacher was right. His family had encouraged Hanson, a pastor's son, to follow in his father's footsteps. .

Hanson left the registration line and took a step toward the vocation he had resisted much of his life.

On Saturday, the St. Paul bishop took perhaps his largest and most important step when he was elected presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the nation's largest Lutheran body. He won in a 533-499 vote over Bishop Donald J. McCoid of Pittsburgh.

Hanson, 54, will start his six-year term Nov. 1 in Chicago, replacing Bishop H. George Anderson.

"I don't view this as an election that I won but a call I received," Hanson said, speaking in a telephone interview from the Indiana Convention Center. "There is great gratitude with it; also a sense of great humility. I have no illusions that this isn't going to be a very challenging call. There are many issues that seem very difficult right now for our church."

Hanson said his biggest challenge will be to make sure the church stays focused on God's mission while tending to differences in the church. Conflicts are a sign of health, said Hanson, who explained that he is bothered only when that conflict is addressed in ways that are mean-spirited. The challenge is to define the church in terms of a shared mission, not on issues of disagreement, he said.

Agreement on issues

"In St. Paul there are three issues we agree on: We need to raise up a new generation of leaders, we need to share our faith with others, and we need to find a way to end poverty," Hanson said.

One of those issues came to the forefront in St. Paul earlier this summer when Hanson censured the St. Paul-Reformation Lutheran Church for ordaining Anita Hill, a lesbian pastor in a committed relationship. Hanson could have taken a stricter stance by removing the church from the ELCA, which prohibits the ordination of noncelibate gays and lesbians.

Hanson's St. Paul synod, along with other synods, petitioned the assembly to allow ordination of actively gay and lesbian clergy. The assembly has discussed the topic but hadn't voted as of Saturday.

Hanson wouldn't comment when asked about his personal opinion about gay clergy, stating that he needs to speak for the church's position.

"I have always sought to make sure gay and lesbian people are welcome in our churches," Hanson said. The church needs to examine whether its attitudes and actions get in the way of gay and lesbian people hearing the gospel, he said.

Hill described Hanson as a person of great integrity. "I am delighted on behalf of the whole church that someone who has such a commitment to bringing about unity in Christ in the midst of diversity has been elected as our presiding bishop," said Hill, who is attending the assembly.

'Real sensitivity' to those who disagree

Hanson is known for being willing to engage in difficult conversations about controversial topics, said Harvey Leuning, associate pastor at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in St. Paul.

"He has a real sensitivity to people who may see things differently," Leuning said. "He is willing to make them feel that they are a part of the conversation."

One of those controversial topics is Hanson's support of a unity pact with the Episcopal Church. The pact, which went into effect in January, calls for sharing of clergy, sacraments and ministries without merger.

The church also needs to reach out to diverse populations, Hanson said.

"We have to find more and more ways to build relationships with new immigrants in our communities and communities of color,'' he said.

The son of a pastor, Hanson grew up in the St. Anthony Park neighborhood of St. Paul and attended Minnehaha Academy. He holds degrees from Augsburg College, the Union Theological Seminary in New York City and Harvard Divinity School.

Hanson was ordained in 1974 and has served as a pastor at churches in Minneapolis and Edina. He became a bishop in 1995 and is the vice chair of the ELCA Conference of Bishops.

Hanson's wife, Ione, is the director of social work at Children's Hospitals in St. Paul and Minneapolis. They have six children and one grandchild.

When Hanson moves to Chicago to begin serving his term as presiding bishop, St. Paul leaders say, they will miss the man they describe as a collaborative and courageous person.

"I think of him as just an incredible leader. He is a person who is both visionary but cares deeply about people," said Janet Thompson, vice president of the St. Paul Area Synod. "He has transformed the life of the St. Paul Area Synod, focusing on mission and what 119 congregations can do together that none of us can do alone. I think he has taken risks to accomplish some of those goals."


Biographical facts


Age: 54

Home: Grew up in St. Paul; now lives in Minneapolis.

Education: Minnehaha Academy, Augsburg College, Union Theological Seminary in New York, Luther Seminary, Harvard Divinity School. Ordained in 1974.

Churches served as pastor: University Lutheran Church of Hope, Minneapolis; Edina Community Lutheran Church; Prince of Glory Lutheran Church, Minneapolis.

Bishop: First elected in 1995; elected to a second term this spring.

Family: Wife, Ione; six children; one grandchild.