You may have heard of Katharine Jefferts Schori. It was pretty big news last year when she became the first woman elected to lead a major Christian congregation in the world, the 2.3 million-member U.S. Episcopalian Church. A few hundred years ago, the election of a woman to lead the church would have split nations down the middle and set armies battling one another for a decade or two. Here and now it merely started a vehement protest.
To deal with the commotion, Jefferts Schori did what she always does to battle stress: She went to the airport and flew her Cessna 172 Skyhawk for a couple of hours.
"It's a consuming activity," she says. "It's relaxing in the sense that you're doing something completely different from what you're doing the rest of the time."
Schori got into flying early — her father, Keith Jefferts, became a pilot in the U.S. Navy toward the end of the Korean War. He owned an Aeronca, then a Bellanca, then a Cessna 195, and now a de Havilland Beaver, which he used to take the family on vacation.
"Flying was simply part of the world I lived in when I was growing up," Jefferts Schori says. "We flew across the country when I was a kid several summers running, and even the bumpy ride over the Rockies and accompanying airsickness didn't keep me from thinking this was a pretty neat way to see the world." When she asked her dad if she could take lessons, he said, sure, as long as she passed the written first. And she did. She earned her private pilot certificate in 1972, when she was still a sophomore at Stanford University.
After being elected bishop of Nevada in 2001, Jefferts Schori really put her certificate to work. Each weekend she attended service at one of the state's 37 congregations, a few of which are located in fairly remote regions. "Every community with a church has an airstrip," she explains. "Nevada's vast geography makes it a lot easier and a whole lot more fun flying than being on the road."
Like many pilots, she's had a couple of close calls. "I've seen a couple of airplanes get closer than I prefer, and the weather is exciting occasionally," she says, but adds, "I also recall flying through the mountains with a rainbow ahead of me that circled behind me." That's almost a religious experience.
As the twenty-sixth presiding bishop of the 400-year-old church, Jefferts Schori doesn't expect to do much flying on her own. The last presiding bishop flew quite a bit, of course, but on airlines. "I hope I'll be able to do some [general aviation flying], but probably not as much as I have been," she says.