Presiding Bishop-elect tells ordained women to dream big dreams, live with hope

Leadership principles include courage, risk, curiosity and sense of interconnection
October 2, 2006

Presiding Bishop-elect Katharine Jefferts Schori October 2 told a historic gathering of ordained Episcopal women part of her story and connected it to the way she thinks about leadership.

The text for the gathering is the stories of their lives and the stories of those whom they represent, said Jefferts Schori, as the first speaker at the "Imagine: Claiming & Empowering Ordained Women's Leadership" conference, which runs until October 6 at the Kanuga Conference Center in Hendersonville, North Carolina.

It is the first Episcopal Church-wide gathering of ordained women in the 30 years since women were admitted to the orders of priest and bishop. Many of those attending had their costs paid for by their bishops. Ordained women from Europe and Uganda are part of the group.

In addition to receiving coaching about leadership, the participants are being asked to imagine the kind of church they want to lead.

Jefferts Schori told approximately 200 women that her parents encouraged her intellectual curiosity and never had a pre-determined idea of what a girl could and could not do. As a child, Jefferts Schori's curiosity took the form of building a crystal radio set and learning to work in a darkroom when she was six years old. It later meant taking both bugle and harp lessons, as well as learning to fly and to scuba dive.

She credited a Roman Catholic convent school in Seattle, run by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart, with giving her a distinct sense of the holy. While they were rigorous teachers who graded the students on their diction and deportment, as well as their grammar and their mathematics, they also taught their pupils to play. On every major feast day, Jefferts Schori recalled, the students came to school, changed into their gym suits and played all day.

She called that formation an "ordered freedom" that gave her a very different sense of the holy. She said she has since realized that a balance between work and play, an honoring of creation, had a very Anglican feel to it. She and her parents converted to the Episcopal Church while she was young.

Jefferts Schori told the group that she encountered scientists in graduate school who were "wrestling with mystery" and those encounters encouraged her to do the same with her faith. After 15 years preparing for a career in oceanography, Jefferts Schori said, she discovered that her opportunities in the profession were limited. The realization began a "dark night of the soul" during which three people in her parish asked her if she'd ever considered becoming a priest. "Not in my wildest imaginings," she replied.

The timing was not right for her to pursue ordination, she said, but she began to study religion and other models of ministry while exploring her faith more deeply. Jefferts Schori described being asked to preach at Morning Prayer on a Sunday on the brink of the first Gulf War, when all the clergy of her parish were at the diocesan convention. The reaction to her sermon convinced her that she should pursue ordination and she began seminary that fall.

The requirements of oceanographic study taught her lessons about looking at the world. Oceanographers, she explained, can't study squid or fish in isolation; they have to study interconnected systems. They must study aspects of the animals' environment such as the water and its chemistry and circulation, the atmosphere above the ocean and the geology below it.

"Human communities are no different," Jefferts Schori said. One has to explore how the members interact with each other, with their environment and with others outside the community in order to comprehend the community.

"We can't simply translate our experience here into a system over here and assume it works," she said. "I think that's part of the trouble with the Anglican Communion right now."

We can't assume that everything will be the same "from this day to the ages of ages," she said.

"I think God's still at work. I think God's still creating, and our ability to hold that lightly and to be willing to see newness and possibility, I think that's what God's calling us to," she said. "Curiosity, that willingness to look at and value the diversity of creation, to be able to discover the image of God in somebody who offends you, I think that's godly work."

Curiosity is one of the six principles Jefferts Schori said are essential for leadership. Leaders need to be curious about both new things and things that might seem to be routine, she said. Leaders need to be curious about "even the ones who frighten us or threaten us." Such curiosity opens up remarkable possibility, she said.

She began her list with courage. While physical courage is good and has always been considered a monastic way of developing other types of courage, she said leaders must also have the courage to get out of their own way and "to give ministry away."

Leaders have to be willing to take risks. "When you have risked and failed enough times, eventually you learn from it," she said, calling that the essence of wisdom.

Being curious and willing to question things "has to do with being dissatisfied with the conventional wisdom. We've always done it this way. Why? Why? Does that make it good? Is there some other possibility we can be wrestling with or discovering?" she suggested asking.

Leaders must be able to be creative or playful, which allows them to hold their positions lightly and to think "outside the box." Jefferts Schori said that, for women, operating in a wholly male environment can often shut down that needed playfulness. By contrast, some people say that creation is "God's playful response to possibility."

The interconnectedness of all things is a principle that leaders have to recognize and honor, she said. Everyone must understand that they are part of a larger whole, and are "a creature embedded in creation, understanding all of creation as made by God and therefore to be honored and not exploited."

"We can't say that this part over here doesn't like God or that person over there doesn't. If God created all that is, then God's image has to be imbedded in it somewhere and it's our job to find it," she said. "We're interconnected as part of the Body of Christ and we understand that no part is more important than another, no part can be ignored or blocked without loss to the whole."

"I think above all it means living with hope," she said. "The kingdom of God may be glimpsed here and there, but we're not there yet in its fullness and, therefore, there's more to discover, there's more to hope for, more to look for, more to wonder about."

Lastly, leaders must have the ability to "dream the big dream," she said. "Leaders have to be people who are willing to send out a vision of what's possible. The great visions of Isaiah are there because they've inspired people for 3,000 years. What could the human community be like if we all lived with Jesus' calling? Something rather different than what we experience most of the time."

All the while, leaders have to "keep focused on the essentials," she said. "Dreaming the big dream -- and what do we need to get there? We need not to be distracted by this little tempest over here. What's essential? Where are we really going?"

During an off-the-record question-and-answer session, Jefferts Schori and the other participants discussed a number of issues, including the church's voice in the world; theology, the world's and the church's reaction to her election; the make-up of the House of Bishops; how the church needs to change in light of society's changing demographics; and perceived inequities in the church's pension system for both clergy and the laity.