“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.