Ask leaders in the Diocese of Nevada to describe Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, and almost all of them will say, right off the bat: “She’s a reconciler.” Then they will tell you how much Nevada needed reconciling. The woman who has led that diocese – 5.974 souls, 35 congregations -- for the past five years came as a real surprise at first.
“The woman hasn’t got that much experience, for crying out loud,” says Jill Beasley, president of the Standing Committee. “She didn’t have that much when the Diocese of Nevada called her. I thought when I heard her name, ‘No way in the world.’ She hadn’t even been rector of a church.” Yet, says Beasley with pointed emphasis, “she was by far the most popular. By far.”
Jefferts Schori, 51, a Ph.D’d scientist, pilot and former research oceanographer with the National Marine Fisheries Service from the nation’s Pacific Northwest, seemed an unlikely choice for what had become a very divided, desert diocese with only half a dozen seminary-trained priests. She had served two congregations-- one as assistant rector and the other as priest-in-charge -- and taught in the religious studies department of Oregon State University before her consecration in 2001.
Since then, her experience and service to the church have been extensive. Jefferts Schori serves on the board of the Church Divinity School of the Pacific, the advisory board of CREDO, the House of Bishops’ peer coaching program, the General Board of Examining Chaplains, the Board for Church Deployment and the Court of Review of a Trial of a Bishop. In addition, she serves on three House of Bishops committees – Pastoral Development, Racism and Planning – and is on the Episcopal visitor team for the Community of the Holy Spirit.
According to leaders of Nevada’s Standing Committee, Commission on Ministry and Union of Black Episcopalians, among others, Jefferts Schori has refocused Nevada’s congregations on mission and on links with the wider Anglican Communion, instituted an innovative plan for training locally ordained clergy, established mission districts and enhanced communication between North and South, Nevada’s great divide.
The first woman to be nominated for presiding bishop thinks a lot about communication and conflict resolution. The author of “When Conflict and Hope Abound” for Vestry Papers and “Building Bridges/Widening Circles” for Sermons that Work XI was appointed last year to the Special Commission on the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. That 14-member, carefully selected group was charged with preparing the way for General Convention to respond to the controversy roiling the communion -- the consecration of Gene Robinson and the blessing of same-gender unions – especially as addressed in the Windsor Report.
Jefferts Schori doesn’t want to see the church diminish its commitment to either the Communion or the Anglican Consultative Council. “We have to take every opportunity that God sets in front of us to define ourselves and yet continue to engage the rest of the communion.”
She isn’t sure the Episcopal Church is accomplishing that. “At times we cringe before clarity out of fear of political incorrectness or being misunderstood as neo-colonial. We cannot engage in authentic dialogue and reconciliation until we are clear about who we are, what we believe and why … The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion are going to survive if we manage to work together at healing the world.”
That objective is a primary focus for Jefferts Schori.
“I have a passion for mission, for the ways we can help to create a world that looks more like God’s dream – a world where the hungry are fed, the ill are healed, the naked clothed, the homeless housed, all have meaningful work, and no one goes to war any more.” She points to new efforts in Nevada, especially in Las Vegas, a city “full of immigrants from around the globe.”
“We’re doing a much better job of seeing and responding to the people around us … We have an African Christian Fellowship which is primarily East African immigrants, many of them Kenyan … We’ve got two Filipino congregations.”
Involvement with three dioceses in Kenya brings “enormous blessing to us,” she says. “We helped to build a medical clinic in the Diocese of Machakos … we’re beginning work with Mt. Kenya South to build an orphanage especially for AIDS orphans. ... We continue to send people back and forth and stretch each other.”
JoAnn Roberts Armstead, president and founder of the local Union of Black Episcopalians, agrees. She credits Jefferts Schori with “broadening the perspective” of the diocese. “We are going places. We are now going to Africa. We are going to Australia. It’s exposure she brings to this diocese.” Others say she’s brought healing.
The Rev. Christine Leavitt recalls how Jefferts Schori interacted with her Las Vegas congregation. “People reacted quite a bit to Gene Robinson becoming bishop, and she took lots of time with people who were having struggles with that. She did, actually, an excellent job with a couple of people in our parish who were just literally ready to walk out the door.”
Bill Scott, senior warden of Trinity Church in Reno, calls her a unifier, a consensus builder. “She has no favorites. Everybody is equal in her eyes, and everybody is important,” he says. “She’s got a backbone of steel,” says Beasley. “She’s probably the smartest person I know.”
Beasley credits Jefferts Schori with reconciling the people in the diocese. “There is not that hateful kind of ‘us versus them,’ ‘we’re better than you.’ She’s really leveled the playing field … I can’t even tell you how she’s done it except by making everybody as important as another person.”
The Rev. Britt Olson, former rector of St. Paul’s Church in Sparks and now canon for evangelism in the Diocese of El Camino Real, says the bishop brought stability. “She is very calm. She is the one you want flying the plane.”
Yet it is not all smooth flying. There is no long-range plan in place for Nevada, complains the Rev. Massey Gentry, former long-time rector of Christ Church, Las Vegas, and that is a problem. “Las Vegas is the fastest growing city in the nation. Nevada is one of the fastest growing states.” Yet, he says, “to be fair to Bishop Katharine, she pretty much had to start from scratch.”
Last October, in a keynote address to the convention of the Diocese of Northwest Texas, Jefferts Schori spoke about challenges and responsibility. “Community ministry,” she said, “assumes that each baptized person is a leader … working toward the transformation of a part of this world into something more like the kingdom of God … It becomes challenging when we realize that mutual accountability is expected, that each of us owes the community some accounting for the gifts we have been given and how they are being used.”
She has made such accounting real in Nevada, according to the Rev. Jeff Paul, chair of the Commission on Ministry and rector of St. Peter’s Church, Carson City. “She has created a culture of accountability in our life together, from top to bottom, from Standing Committee right on down to the parochial level. It revolves around reporting in, checking in with each other around ministry covenants, letters of agreement.”
When asked about challenges facing the Episcopal Church, Jefferts Schori declares, “The church needs to be reoriented towards mission … We need to be building sanctuaries in the streets, literally and figuratively. We need to be reaching out to the people who are outside the churches for whatever reason and learn to speak the good news there.”
The bishop is straightforward when asked about the controversy over sexuality issues -- ordination and same-gender blessings. “My sense is that gay and lesbian people are created in the image of God, and we need to recognize that and make place for everyone to share their gifts in whatever way the church and God are calling them to use those gifts. I don’t think that one’s sexual orientation is a bar to ordination.”
And how would she help reconcile those in the church who disagree?
“Reconciliation happens as human beings engage each other face to face … I think it is when we work together on mission that we begin to discover that some of these issues are not the central issues of our faith. We need to continue to listen to the experience of all sorts of people. That is clearly something that has not happened well across this church, let alone across the communion.”
Jefferts Schori is married to Richard Miles Schori, a retired theoretical mathematician. Their daughter, Katharine Johanna, 24, is a second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force, a pilot like her mother.
And just why did Katharine Jefferts Schori want to be a pilot?
“It was something I wanted to do since I was a child … something that my father did from the time before I was born. There is something absolutely awesome -- in the very strict sense of that word -- about being aloft … It’s an ineffable experience, fits into my need to continually connect with creation and the creator.”