After 16 years leading the Episcopal Diocese of Spokane, this spring Bishop James Waggoner will pass the crozier to the Rev. Gretchen Rehberg.
Rehberg, 52, will be the first female bishop in the diocese’s 52-year history, although she says her gender is irrelevant. She’s simply been elected as the ninth bishop of the diocese she grew up in, she said.
“My family all lives here, this is where I’m called to be,” she said. “I’m really looking forward to getting to know the community better and the people better.”
She grew up on a small farm in Pullman, where her mother still lives, and has family scattered throughout Eastern Washington.
Waggoner said Rehberg’s love and familiarity with the area is part of what makes her the right choice to be the diocese’s next bishop.
“She knows the people and the culture, and she really has a passion not only for congregations and ministry, but for the mission of the church, and she’s been doing it here in this diocese,” he said.
Rehberg serves as rector of the Episcopal Church of the Nativity in Lewiston. She’s been at the church 11 years and said the decision to leave the congregation wasn’t easy.
“The hardest choices are always between goods,” she said. “But I felt it was important to offer myself to the diocese.”
She felt a similar call in the late 1990s. Rehberg, who has a doctorate in chemistry, was a professor of organic chemistry at Bucknell University when she began to feel a pull toward ministry.
“I loved being a chemistry professor and I loved my life, but it didn’t feel quite right. Something was missing; something was wrong,” she said.
She prayed about it and felt priesthood was the answer.
She left her tenured position to purse a Master of Divinity degree from General Theological Seminary, and later a Doctor of Ministry degree from Wesley Theological Seminary.
Rehberg said she views ministry through the lenses of teaching and science.
“Both science and theology get things wrong at times,” she said. “They’re both beautiful disciplines to help us better understand creation; they’re two beautiful ways of seeing God’s reality.”
Inquiring is a key part of Rehberg’s philosophy. She said raising questions, and together seeking solutions, is something Christians should do.
In her first year as bishop, which will begin in March, she said she wants to examine how the diocese’s 40 congregations, which span Eastern Washington and North Idaho, can follow Jesus together.
“We’re called to be creative, compelling witnesses to Jesus Christ in the Inland Northwest,” she said. “And, it’s together – so this tiny church in Bonners Ferry, the cathedral in Spokane, the church in Richland – we’re all together in the pursuit of following Jesus. How are we doing this in ways that are appropriate in 2017? How are we witnessing the love of God?”
The Rev. Mary Beth Rivetti, president of the Standing Committee, which oversees the bishop search, election and ordination, said Rehberg’s vision complements the mission of the Spokane Diocese.
“As rector of Nativity in Lewiston, and as canon for regional mission in the southeast region of the diocese, she stresses the importance of Christian discipleship – what it means to follow Jesus, what that looks like in our lives, and how we individually and corporately bring that vision into the world,” Rivetti said.
Rehberg said part of living out Jesus’ message includes housing the homeless, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and visiting prisoners. She added that one doesn’t have to be Episcopalian to work with the diocese in doing this.
“As a scientist and theologian I believe we’re fundamentally connected,” she said. “We know through science we’re made for connectivity, we’re intimately connected to one another. To forget or deny that, we’re not authentic to who we are.”
And, she added, refusing this connectivity is part of what problematically separates the “us vs. them.”
And that separation can often lead to violence, she said.
Rehberg, who served as a volunteer EMT and firefighter for more than 20 years, was in New York City on Sept. 11 and volunteered on the hazmat team at ground zero. She now suffers a lung disease triggered from it, she said.
“It was life-changing in multiple ways. I’d never before experienced what I believe to be true hell,” she said, adding that violent retaliation is never the answer. “It’s a hell I personally do not want inflicted on anyone.”
She carries the experience with her still and tries to help with global issues from wherever she can.
“I can’t solve the refugee crisis from Syria, but I have to do what I can here, by asking deep questions,” she said, adding that she also wants to probe local issues, like homelessness in Spokane. “I think we live in a time when the words of the church and the words of Jesus are essential. However they’re heard, they need to be heard, and I look forward to helping in that work.”
Rehberg is slated to be ordained as bishop in March at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist. The Most Rev. Michael B. Curry, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, is expected to preside.