Jefferts Schori shares personal faith journey at Vespers


Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori

Mary Lee Talbot | Staff Writer

The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori shared some of her faith journey at the 5 p.m. Vespers Service Sunday. Ruth Becker, registrar at the United Church of Christ denominational houses, served as liturgist, and Janet Miller provided accompaniment on the piano.

Born in Pensacola, Fla., while her father was in the Navy, Jefferts Schori grew up outside of Seattle until she was 9 years old.

“My mother’s family was Irish, and they came to America during the potato famine,” Jefferts Schori said. “My great-grandmother homesteaded in Montana after her husband died. My father’s family came from Sweden and were Lutheran loggers and fishers. My parents met in college and my father became Roman Catholic.

“I started school at the convent of the Dames of the Sacred Heart and we began French on the first day. It was a kind of ordered freedom,” she said. “On feast days, we would put on our gym suits and play all day. It was fun to see the nuns running around kicking a ball in their habits. Worship was engaging, a form of incarnate worship. Each Lent, we would get a plaster sheep, and if we did well that day, the lamb advanced up a staircase toward a statue of the Virgin Mary.”

Mass was still in Latin, and Jefferts Schori described worship as a “cast of thousands of anonymous people.” She also noted that being outdoors and backpacking was a formative part of her life.

When she was 9 years old, her family moved to New Jersey, where her father worked for Bell Labs.

“I went to a public school, and the first day, the teacher was missing from the room because someone had put a smoke bomb under her car. What a difference!” she said.

Her family started going to an Episcopal church.

“It was an intimate, worshipping community,” she said. “The rector and his wife became family friends and went on vacations with us. When the rector brought an Italian friend over to paint frescos of the apostles in the church, Peter ended up looking like the vicar. The assistant rector worked with the youth group and took us into Greenwich Village to a church in the round and we learned ‘Lord of the Dance.’”

“Where the church was not helpful,” she said, “was with questions of faith and science. Then in 1968, after the ‘Pueblo Incident’ (a U.S. navy ship captured by North Korea and held the crew for almost a year), my father was recalled to active duty, and I hardly saw him for a year. The reality of mortality and war was with me every day.”

To help ease the anxiety, Jefferts Schori’s mother sent her to a French camp in Maine.

“It was a real community, and I stayed in touch with some of those friends for many years,” she said.

As she began to look at college, she weighed her love of language and literature against her love of science and the ocean, and in 1969, she went to Stanford University.

“It was a time of experiment, and I went a long way from home,” Jefferts Schori said. “I learned to scuba dive and to fly a plane. I had to make a decision between medicine and marine biology. While at Stanford, I looked into the Canterbury Club, the Episcopal campus ministry but became involved with the Lutheran Campus ministry after my roommate took me to some events. My best time was in the middle of the night, sitting in the campus chapel. They probably don’t let you do that anymore, but it was a good place for me.”

She went to Oregon State University for graduate work and decided to concentrate on squids and octopuses in the Pacific Ocean. In her second year of study, a childhood friend died in a plane accident.

“I was struggling with his death and reading the philosophy of science in my classes,” Jefferts Schori said. “Those discussions led me back to the church to explore my faith in an adult way. I found a community that challenged me.”

She completed her Ph.D., met and married her husband and had a daughter, who will be 30 years old this month.

“At the time, there were no jobs in Oregon in my field, and I knew I would spend more of my time writing grant proposals than doing research,” Jefferts Schori said. “Three people asked me if I had thought of being a priest. I did some discernment work, my husband was horrified, and I decided the timing was not right, so I started a local Habitat for Humanity chapter, taught religious studies at the university and other things, “ she said.

About five years later, the new priest in her parish asked her to preach in his absence. She said yes, and that experience propelled her into seminary.

“I was offered three part-time positions when I finished and one was with my home parish, so I took that,” she said. “I taught part-time and worked as a hospice chaplain and was involved in the diocese. I was very interested in what we call baptismal ministry, that we affirm the ministry of all people. We used to think that clergy would do everything, but all baptized people are called to ministry in the world.”

She had a sabbatical after six years at the church and used the time to visit congregations and talk with them about baptismal ministry. She was in Sparks, Nev., and at the end of one visit, a man said to her that her visit was “like what a bishop does in a parish visit. Could he put her name in for their election process?” Jefferts Schori said.

“I laughed, it made no sense, I was terrified, and then I was surprised to sense a call to that ministry. It was a diocese that needed reconciliation,” she said.

“After three or four years, my fellow bishops asked about the Presiding Bishop position,” she added. “Something happened. I learned to say yes to things that seem silly or impossible.”

She ended her talk with a discussion of leadership. She asserted that leadership is about change and being an agent of transformation.

“Leadership has to do with courage, vulnerability, telling the truth, discipline and creativity,” she said. “It is also about curiosity, looking for connections, building teams, looking for the cosmic dreams that guide our journey when the world looks dark. The word is in an unhappy place, yet God created us with hope and creativity, within families, communities and nations. We need to look at religion and science, religion and economics. You are a leader, and you will change the world.”