When she was studying at the University of Kansas, The Rev. Cathleen Chittenden Bascom heard a calling to the ministry — a surprise, since her family wasn’t especially “churched.”
Now, she’s the 10th Bishop-Elect of the Episcopal Diocese of Kansas and the first woman to earn that position in its entire history.
Emporia falls under her jurisdiction and she plans to spend time in town, as she last week.
While there, she took time to tell The Gazette her story — how she went from a college student just learning to pray to a member of the clergy to a bishop over the past 28 years or so.
She has claimed numerous firsts over her career — this position as bishop is just one of them. The first church she served was in the Diocese of Chicago, in 1990.
“I got called to the North Shore, which is kind of a wealthy part of Chicago,” Bascom said. “Very lively, wonderful church. But I was definitely their first woman.”
There were several obstinate male members who balked at the presence of a woman leader in their church.
One of the most difficult aspects for her was serving communion, when she and the man who had hired her would both serve bread at the altar rail. There were at least three males who, if they somehow found themselves in her line, would shift into the other one.
“They would move over,” she said. “They would not receive communion from me, and that was hard.”
One of them, a working class guy, eventually came around after she proved herself to him by holding her own doing manual labor at the church garage sale.
Another warmed up to Bascom after he got to know her.
“He just came to know my story — that it was about prayer,” she said. “He just thought that all women wanted — were here for — simply feminism and liberation and that it wasn’t a spiritual thing … If I was doing that, I’d go be an attorney and make a whole lot more money than this. This is not why I’m in this work. God called me.”
Once he overcame his confusion on this subject, he came around and became willing to receive communion from Bascom.
The other never changed in the three and a half years she was there.
Dealing with stubborn fellow humans wasn’t the only challenge that arose. In most places she served, there had never been a need for a maternity policy.
“Nobody had ever had a baby as a pastor,” Bascom said.
Largely, however, she feels she has been warmly welcomed in her churches.
Her diocese in Iowa was already accustomed to having women in the leadership when Bascom arrived on the scene.
In Kansas, she said, there have been plenty of women leaders in government such as former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and current Gov. Laura Kelly.
Bascom expects some will balk, nonetheless.
“Somebody did say — she had to confess to me — that she still had a hard time, until recently, with women clergy even though she’d been a big woman banker,” she said. “There may still be people getting used to it.”
Bascom is as ready as she can be for the challenges that will come her way.
“If you have God and good people, then you are ready,” she said. “But you in your person aren’t always ready for any challenge, I don’t think.”
Bascom had been in Kansas twice before now, once as a student and once as a member of the clergy, serving in Manhattan and Topeka. Bascom is familiar with Emporia. She spent time here on occasion between 1993 and 2001, when she served as a minister.
Most recently, she served within the Diocese of Iowa.
There, she taught at Waldorf University as an Assistant Professor of Religion and Philosophy and served as dean of the Cathedral Church of St. Paul in Des Moines.
Now she’s back in Kansas.
She has an interest in the Tallgrass Prairie, she said.
“(I) kind of fell in love with it when I was in Manhattan and learned about the Flint Hills, which I know you all share in Emporia not that far away,” Bascom said. “In Iowa, there’s only 1/1000 of the Tallgrass Prairie left.”
She said people in Iowa have shown a great interest in restoring the prairie, which sparked within her an interest in urban prairies, farms returning to prairie land and similar conservation efforts.
“So, when the Kansas bishop retired and they needed somebody, I was in prayer about it and the combination of loving the people and the different kinds of environments here and my love of prairie — (I) kind of said, ‘Why don’t I be open?’” Bascom said.
She discussed the matter with her husband. She was writing a book about prayer and prairie, she said, and teaching at her college. The time wasn’t right, Bascom felt.
About year and a half later, though, someone messaged her through Facebook, saying there were two other candidates for bishop.
“I felt moved — like, ‘Oh my goodness, here it comes back around again, and I think I should,’” Bascom said.
All the candidates were women, she said, for the first time in history going clear back to the Church of England.
“That was a pretty big deal for us,” she said.
Bascom recalls traveling the state with them on a bus, talking to members of their possible future diocese, speaking on a nightly basis.
“They were both wonderful women,” she recalls of her fellow candidates.
Bascom learned Oct. 19 that she had been elected.
The Rev. Marc McDonald of St. Andrew’s Episcopal was among the clergy who helped vote Bascom into her position.
“The other candidates were great candidates, but as I read through the materials of all three candidates, what I saw surface — for me — was someone who really loved Jesus,” he said.
This love showed its face in the other candidates’ materials in other ways, he said, but he was especially struck by Bascom’s pastoralness and passion.
“I just felt like she was the best fit and what we needed at this time in the Diocese of Kansas,” McDonald said. “So that’s why she got my vote.”
She will be ordained and consecrated as Bishop March 2 at Grace Cathedral in Topeka by Bishop Michael Curry, whom Bascom said preached at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.
Throughout her reign as bishop, Bascom will be in Emporia periodically.
“I am committed to being with every church — companioning every church in our diocese — which isn’t huge, but it’s 44 churches and 11,000 Episcopalians,” she said.
She toured Emporia during her most recent stay and enjoyed seeing the changes that had taken place downtown since her last visit.
“It’s just good to be here,” Bascom said
During her visits, she intends to do regular walkabouts and learn from the people here.
“I really care about the communities in which our churches are,” she said. “What’s going on with the people, what are they needing, what does the good news look like and what little piece can Episcopalians be playing?”