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Photo: -cr-2008 Episcopal Life Online
Extended Online Version
Katharine Jefferts Schori has touched many lives, and given the unassuming way she’s acquired her leadership positions in the church, one might say it was her destiny. While enjoying a successful career as an oceanographer, she had a fellow Episcopal Church member ask if she’d ever thought of becoming a priest. Then another. And finally another. “It was a shocking enough experience that I paid attention,” Jefferts Schori says.
Some years later, while on sabbatical, she traveled the Western states, and one of her many stops happened to be St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Sparks. Again she found herself answering to fate, this time by way of a St. Paul’s priest, who asked Jefferts Schori if she could enter her name into the search for the next Bishop of Nevada. Jefferts Schori agreed, was elected, and what followed was a nearly six-year tour of the Silver State in which she developed a sincere respect for Nevada’s land and people. Now, as Presiding Bishop of the United States, Jefferts Schori travels the world and plans to visit more than 100 dioceses of the Episcopal Church in the U.S. and 15 other countries.
Born in 1954 in Pensacola, Florida, Jefferts Schori grew up in the Seattle area, spent a few years in New Jersey, got a degree at Stanford University, and went on to earn her master’s and doctorate from Oregon State University. The practicing pilot served as Bishop of Nevada from 2001 to 2006, and she and her husband own a home in Henderson. She spoke with Nevada Magazine in October.
Q Explain more about the process that led to your tenure as Bishop of Nevada.
A I was a priest serving in the diocese of Oregon. I had a sabbatical, and I was interviewing congregations that were engaged in the particular way of being church called “total ministry,” and I visited St. Paul’s in Sparks. When I left, the priest there said to me, “What you’ve done here is a lot like what a bishop does. Can I put your name into the search process?” I laughed. I thought it was totally absurd. I left and drove the rest of the way across Nevada in a snowstorm and through Wyoming and Colorado, and the idea didn’t let go of me. When I finally got home, I said, “This doesn’t make any sense, but yes, you can put my name in.”
Q What are the Bishop of Nevada’s main responsibilities?
A The Bishop of Nevada is responsible for the [state’s] 37 congregations of the Episcopal Church, seeing that effective and appropriate ministry is going on in all communities, starting new congregations, and challenging people to pay attention to the needs of their neighbors, locally and farther away. The Bishop also has a responsibility to the larger church to participate in its government.
Q You lived in Las Vegas during your five-year term?
A Yes, my main residence was in Las Vegas because the main office for the diocese is [there], but there’s also a satellite office in Reno. The diocese of Nevada also includes one congregation in Bullhead City, Arizona.
Q What do you like most about Las Vegas and Reno?
A I like the whole state. The people are wonderful, the scenery is spectacular, there are lots of challenges, and people in Nevada—in my experience—engage those challenges in really creative ways. I fell in love with the desert.
Q What challenges do you speak of?
A All the way from the rate of population growth in Las Vegas to the challenges of keeping a tiny congregation going in the most rural parts of Nevada. [Another challenge is] the diversity in the state, given its exceedingly urbanized south and another large urban center around Reno—but the rest of the state is pretty empty. There are many small communities, and there are Episcopal Churches in many of them that have been there since they were boomtowns. The Episcopal Church is often the only mainline representative still there, and we took that really seriously.
Q What are your main responsibilities in your current role as Presiding Bishop?
A My responsibilities are to all 110 dioceses of the Episcopal Church—nearly 100 of them in the United States. Then, in places like Taiwan, Micronesia, Honduras, Ecuador, Venezuela, Columbia, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and a group of churches in Europe. I’m the chief pastor, and I hope to visit each diocese of the church by the time my term has ended after nine years.
Q What are some of your favorite places outside the U.S.?
A Going to Quito [Ecuador] is a remarkable experience—at 9,500 feet above sea level. The church there is vibrant and thoroughly engaged with ministry with the immigrants and migrants in that community. Also, the Church of Honduras is growing like crazy and has a lot to teach the Anglo part of the church in the U.S.
Q How did you become a pilot?
A I come from a family of pilots. My father and grandfather were both pilots, and so was my mother. My father’s still an active pilot. It was something I grew up with, and I got my license when I was in college. But I didn’t use it until I came to Nevada and quickly learned that flying an airplane would be a great asset in getting around because [the state’s] so big.
Q Do you have any interesting stories about trying to land a plane in Nevada?
A Actually, there’s an airstrip in each one of the communities that has an Episcopal Church. Interesting experiences? Landing in high winds. No close calls, but certainly a heightened awareness, if you will.
Q As you were flying over Nevada, are there any memorable sights that stick in your mind?
A It’s an incredible experience to get that perspective. A couple things: In parts of the desert you can see where there’s water under the surface because of where the vegetation grows. There’s no water on the surface, but you can see where it must be. You can also see where there’s been significant water movement in the desert, simply because of the different-colored rock. You can trace red rock for miles downstream from where it’s been washed off of peaks. It’s really amazing.
Q Your daughter is a captain in the Air Force. Do you ever fly together?
A No, we haven’t had that opportunity.
Q How did your experience as an oceanographer shape you?
A [I learned] to not come into a situation with assumptions about what I’m going to find; also a willingness to make a hypothesis and test it and to change my mind if I find reason to.
Q Tell us more about your transition from an oceanographer into priesthood.
A I’m still fishing (laughs), just for a different kind of fish. Three people in my congregation asked me within about two weeks if I’d ever thought about being a priest. Basically, it took me five years to say yes. It was a long process of discernment.