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A confident reconciler
Nevadans laud Jefferts Schori’s pastoral and leadership skills


9/1/2006

Dick Schori
IN THE COCKPIT
“She’s the person you want flying the plane” -- the Rev. Britt Olsen speaking of Schori (above).   (Dick Schori)

 
Dick Schori
COFFEE HOUR
Janny Pescio (in hat) and Joy Marsh, her sister and United Thank Offering chair, join the bishop for coffee during a visit at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in Ely, Nev., in July.   (Dick Schori)
“We need to get busy about healing the world. That’s what we’ve been called to do. We need to stop focusing on our internal conflicts. The mission of the church is the centerpiece.”

Katharine Jefferts Schori doesn’t mince words. The woman about to take over leadership of the Episcopal Church is direct and definite, full of purpose and passion. Yet, even in tense situations, she speaks softly, listens intently and makes no attempt to control the discussion, or the decisions to be made. Her respect for colleagues, is evident; her confidence in their abilities firm.

It takes no time at all observing our new presiding bishop-elect to understand why Nevadans value her so highly and will miss her so much. They praise her intelligence, her courage, her compassion. They credit her with transforming their diocese. They express certainty, not just hope, that Jefferts Schori will be the reconciler the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion need at this moment.

You be the judge

Five days after her election, Jefferts Schori wrote a letter “To the People of Nevada” reassuring them that the diocese was strong, the leadership able. She predicted a smooth transition and said, “I am enormously excited about the health of this Diocese and things happening right now… God is doing a good thing in Nevada!”

Now, as she moves into her national and international ministry, that faith and confidence in God’s action and her own abilities remains as clear and definite as ever. In an interview with Episcopal Life last month in the Diocese of Nevada, Jefferts Schori described how she hoped to bring the mission of the church back to center stage.

“I’ll paint big pictures for people in the way that you can with sermons and statements. It becomes a matter of saying ‘Where does the rubber hit the road? How do baptismal vows get lived out? What can you do in your own particular life that will make a difference? What will begin to build the reign of God?’ When people get vision of that and that it is possible – and the Millennium Development Goals are a remarkable framework for that – it will change the world.”

Her confidence is compelling. “People begin to get a sense that their piece of that is incredibly important… that they have some responsibility. I think that’s what we are about. We convert people one person at a time. We change the world one person at a time.”
And how will she deal with the primates, some of whom will be openly hostile? “Person-to-person, I can build relationships with almost anybody who is willing to be in conversation. That is the strategy. It’s a human kind of strategy. You know, most people find it very hard to be rude face-to-face. And once you do that [meet face-to-face], almost anything is possible.”

She is a risk-taker. She took one with her first sermon after election at General Convention when she referred to “Jesus our mother,” although she said some of the reaction – both angry and accusatory – surprised her. She said she hadn’t meant to be provocative, but was using a phrase others, including Julian of Norwich and Anselm of Canterbury, used frequently.

“It fit the text… that gospel has those shocking words about the blood of the cross and I was looking for a way to talk about that in its reality of bringing new life… I’ve used that image here in the diocese, though I think I probably have unpacked it a little more. It really was a surprise that it is that shocking to people who apparently don’t know the tradition.”

That reaction added to her conviction that teaching should be a significant part of her work. “There’s some teaching to do about the diversity of our tradition and the breadth of our tradition. I think that’s got to be a major priority… and not filtered through one person’s mouth or eyes. This is what the church has held as normative over the centuries. Not just this one strand of our tradition; our tradition is far richer than that.”

Reconciliation, as expected, is also her priority, one she hopes to help the church pursue “in a far more intentional way.” She points to the New Commandment Task Force, an Episcopal group that promotes reconciliation, and its work in Los Angeles. She plans to meet with the leader of that effort, the Rev. Brian Cox, in September.

Just who is she?

As most know by now, Jefferts Schori, 52, is a Ph.D’d scientist, pilot and former research oceanographer with the National Marine Fisheries Service from the Pacific Northwest. Before being elected in Nevada, she served in two parishes in Oregon and taught in the religious studies department of Oregon State University. She serves on the board of the Church Divinity School of the Pacific, the advisory board of CREDO (a clergy reflection, education, discernment opportunity), the House of Bishops’ peer coaching program, the General Board of Examining Chaplains, the Board for Church Deployment, the Court of Review of a Trial of a Bishop and three committees within the House of Bishops.

What many may not know is that Jefferts Schori was born Roman Catholic and didn’t join the Episcopal Church until 1963 at the age of 9, that as a professor at OSU, her students’ evaluations of her were “off the charts,” that she relishes back-packing trips and takes one long one with her husband every year, that she loves to cook and often prefers cooking to dinners out, that she drives a 1998 Honda Accord (she also has a 2004 model – she keeps one in Las Vegas, the other in Reno),  that her favorite scripture is Isaiah 61 (she repeatedly quotes that prophet’s vision of the reign of God), that she watches “zero” television but reads voraciously.

“There are amazon.com packages arriving all the time,” says her husband Dick Schori, retired theoretical mathematician, former rock climber and life-long Episcopalian. He drives a 2004 Prius (and an ’82 Volvo wagon), continues to teach, has documented much of the Diocese of Nevada in photographs and occasionally watches TV movies. He says his wife may watch one with him “once every three months.”  She reads “everything” he says, especially theology and religious periodicals. She likes National Geographic.
He also says of her:  “She’s fearless.” It was her adventurous spirit that originally attracted him.

Making a list, checking it twice

Last year, when the presiding bishop’s nominating committee set about investigating candidates, the Rev. Canon Robert Nelson, canon to the ordinary, was the first person called.

“Being an engineer by training, I organized on a piece of paper all the things I wanted to say.” The caller told Nelson the questions would take no more than 20 minutes. An hour and a half later, Nelson got to the end of his list. “He was going to hear all of the things I wanted him to hear. I said to Katharine afterwards, ‘I don’t know whether I blew your chances or not’.”

Obviously not. Here are a few of the subheads on Nelson’s list: Lives the gospel; pushes spiritual directors; wonderful preacher; very pastoral; called for open forums; toughness; anti-racism; accountability; evangelism: works with other denominations, opens new churches; high energy; very creative; very smart; logical; she listens.”

Nelson’s list sounds much like that ticked off by Bishop Chilton Knudsen of Maine during a press briefing after the election. Challenged by a reporter from a conservative publication who declared herself “shocked” that someone with limited experience and small diocese background could be elected, Knudsen replied: “Katharine is dynamic, creative and bold and faithful to the gospel.

We see in her centeredness, prayerfulness, a groundedness and courage that I believe has made it clear that she is a faithful and holy woman. Her intelligence, her capacity to articulate and her ability to speak pastorally to people on every side of every issue are qualities that make her, I believe, the first choice of many of us.” Knudsen also pointed to Jefferts Schori’s reconciling work among the bishops themselves as an important qualifier.

It’s all about character

“It is easy for a leader -- common for a leader like a bishop -- to get in there and manipulate things,” Nelson said. “Katharine has not done that. She has called each group [Standing Committee, Commission on Ministry, Diocesan Council] and made them perform, recognize their own responsibilities and fulfill those responsibilities. The result of that is, she’s going to leave us, and those bodies are going to be able to survive.”

It doesn’t take long to see how that’s happened. Episcopal Life visited the diocese recently to sit in on a Standing Committee meeting, attend an ordination, visit with parishioners in large and small congregations, and get a sense of the woman about to take over the top position.

The Standing Committee meeting demonstrated that Katharine Jefferts Schori can take a bit of teasing.  Her departure from Nevada after just five years as bishop, earns her constant jabs. Jill Beasley, chair of the committee, takes advantage of every opportunity to remind her of what must be done “again” because the bishop is moving on to larger pastures.

Such needling delights the committee members. All joined in the fun of ribbing the bishop. Jefferts Schori, blushing and sheepish, covered her face with a handful of documents at one point as the group chuckled in good humor, their affection evident. Their total lack of tension with her, and with each other, was clear throughout a meeting that ran all day and involved a heavy agenda about the committee’s soon-to-be increased responsibilities.



Jill Beasley

  

That ease has apparently not always been present. Before Jefferts Schori arrived in 2001, “we were screaming at each other,” Beasley said. “We didn’t know how to agree to disagree with any kind of grace and style, so we just tended to shout louder.”

That stopped. “Not right away, but over a little bit of time, just with her presence, with who she is… asking us to work on reconciliation and consensus and hearing, not talking.”



Jim Kelly

  

 

Dick Stufflebeam

  

“We were really a pretty dysfunctional diocese when she came,” said the Rev. Jim Kelly, committee member from St. Patrick’s Church, Lake Tahoe. “It is night and day in the difference between where we are now and where we were just five years ago.”
 
Dick Stufflebeam of St. Paul’s Church, Sparks, an Internal Revenue agent on the committee, has more praise: “She’s been wonderful to work with --- identifying weaknesses, helping grow the leadership, developing people --  and without hidden agendas. She has so many skills. She can demand the important things from you without making you feel that you are being demanded of. She makes you feel responsible. She’s just a wonderful person.”

And she doesn’t stand on ceremony. When the air conditioning ceased working during the committee’s July meeting (Las Vegas registered 110 degrees that day), the group had to move into another space. As members dawdled and chatted, gathered belongings, bottles of water and basically treated the move as break time, the bishop quietly carried eight chairs into the new meeting space.

Nor did Jefferts Schori choose as her office the largest room in the diocesan suite. Situated at the end of a corridor next to a closet-sized room housing fridge, microwave, coffee pots and postage machine, her office appears to be about 10 feet by 10 feet. It is punctuated with pictures, icons, a wall of books and one chair for one guest.



Barbara Lewis

  

 

Robert Nelson

  

 

The bishop is “a very compassionate person,” said Barbara Lewis, diocesan secretary and office manager. “When I was sick, she was there at the hospital as soon as I woke up. She’s caring. She listens to you. And she appreciates everything you do. She will continually thank you.”

Nelson agrees. “Katharine is very pastoral. There’s a great calmness and pastoral nature. But on the other hand, she is one of the toughest people in terms of boundaries. You get to a boundary of anything and she is very rigid. There is little gray.”

Nelson, a locally trained priest who served as chair of the Commission on Ministry in the years before Jefferts Schori came to Nevada, has observed the bishop respond in a number of difficult situations. “When we have confronted boundary issues with clergy members, it is very clear that there’s no good ol’ boy or good ol’ girl or whatever. It’s right or wrong and if it’s wrong, we are going to change it. That’s very clear up front. But she does that in a very pastoral way.”

Nelson describes those meetings as being “really hard.” “I have seen Katharine in that pastoral-but-firm mode many times. She does that very well.” He added, “Since Katharine has been here we have set a very high bar for ethical behavior … We are recognized for it nationally.”

And she’s accessible. Having an instrument trained pilot as bishop meant parishioners in Nevada had a lot of contact. Whether she will have the same time and flexibility in her new role is still an unknown. In Nevada, parishioners appreciated her accessibility.

“Katharine [made] it a point to visit everybody, meet with everybody,” said Sandra Hudgens, lay reader at St. Paul’s Church in Virginia City. “She knows people’s names. She knows everybody,” said Hudgens, explaining that it feels entirely natural to call the bishop by her first name.

“She’s inspired us,” Hudgens said. “We’ve all been called to do things that we probably thought we would never do… She gives people a sense of confidence in themselves.”



JoAnn Roberts
Armstead

  

JoAnn Roberts Armstead, founder and president of the Union of Black Episcopalians in Nevada, lists a series of “firsts” occurring under the bishop’s leadership.  “Several of us have traveled to Kenya, year after year, strengthening our relationships in the Anglican Communion. People of color established the first Anti-Racism Task Force in Nevada. I feel honored to be the first black deputy elected in the diocese.

I am the first black secretary to convention to be appointed in this diocese. Bishop Katharine even brought the first and only black rector, no longer with us, to Nevada. A few of us worked hard to break barriers and that is why we love and identify with her.” Even in the smallest parishes in the diocese, people feel the impact of the bishop they are about to lose.



Robert Miller

  

“In all my life and work, I have seen very few like Bishop Katharine, “ said the Rev. Robert Miller, an evangelical preacher of another denomination who serves as organist at St. Paul’s, Virginia City. “[She] is completely unself-assuming, not egotistical, works for the greater good, honors each and every person, listens with great respect and pays attention to what people have to say, their problems and issues. It is an astounding gift of God that she has been given to our diocese.”

For the Rev. Jeff Paul of St. Peter’s in Carson City, it’s her “galvanizing reconciling presence” that makes her so valuable to the diocese. “It’s not even anything she does, it’s just who she is.” Evidence of that reconciling presence was on display during a Standing Committee discussion of responses to a new diocesan initiative. Several committee members reported vociferous, negative reactions to their presentation.

“It’s an opportunity to build a relationship,” responded Jefferts Schori. “There is a grain of truth [in the response]. We need to hear and to learn what that is.” Perhaps they “feel like outsiders,” she said. “We need to be aware of that.”  She encouraged committee members to call the individuals, saying they wanted to know more about how they felt. “Offer to get together for coffee…build a relationship” she suggested. For Nevada, the investiture on Nov. 4th will be bittersweet. Many plan to make the trip. Many more will wish Jefferts Schori well from afar.

“I cried when I heard she was elected,” the Rev. William R. Millsap of Reno said at the reception following his ordination. “Yet, at the same time, if God had asked me ‘What does the world need?? Who could be sent?’ I could not think of anyone better than Katharine.”



Lucy Bouldin

  

A guest at Millsap’s reception, Lucy Bouldin of Trinity Church, Reno, pretended belligerence when asked about Jefferts Schori. She scolded: “I love her. I’m going to miss her. She had no business leaving us!” Hand on hip and with jaw thrust forward, Bouldin glared but couldn’t hold the pose. The smile spread right across her face.

In her sermon at that ordination, Jefferts Schori provided a clue about how she will lead our church over the next nine years. She might have been describing her own aspirations when she said “We call ordained priests to be icons of reconciliation. To be for us people to model, people who urge us to bring wholeness to the world… Their job is to encourage, to urge and pester and educate and prompt the rest of us to get out there to do the hard work in the world, the concrete work of reconciliation.”