Transforming Engagement: the Podcast

Christ & Cascadia with Rev. Melissa Skelton | Podcast Season 06, Episode 03

As we continue our conversation about the distinctiveness of ministry in the Cascadia region, we’re joined by Rev. Melissa Skelton. Currently serving as the Bishop Provisional in the Diocese of Olympia, Melissa shares her journey from the East Coast to the Cascadia region, offering a wealth of insights into the distinct cultural and environmental differences she encountered along the way.

In this episode, you’ll:

Join us as we discuss new possibilities for ministry and community engagement in the Cascadia region and beyond.

Listener Resources: 

About our guest:

The Most Reverend Melissa Skelton is the Bishop Provisional in the Episcopal Diocese of Olympia. The diocese voted to place itself under the authority of Bishop Skelton at the Diocese of Olympia’s 2022 Diocesan Convention.

Bishop Skelton has deep ties to the Diocese of Olympia, previously serving as the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Seattle and as the Canon for Congregational Development and Leadership for the Diocese of Olympia. During this time, she developed and launched the College for Congregational Development, which continues to this day and is currently hosted by eight dioceses across the Episcopal Church. In 2013, Bishop Skelton was elected 9th Bishop of the Diocese of New Westminster, The Anglican Church of Canada. In 2018, she was elected Metropolitan of the Ecclesiastical Province of British Columbia and Yukon, making her the first woman in the Anglican Church of Canada to hold the position of Archbishop.

Before her time in the Diocese of Olympia, Bishop Skelton served as rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Castine, Maine, while also serving as the Executive Director of a land trust. Prior to this, she was Vice President for Consumer Products and Community Engagement at Tom’s of Maine, Vice President for Administration at The General Theological Seminary, and Brand Manager at The Proctor & Gamble Company. While at General Seminary, she served as the Director of the College for Bishops.

Bishop Skelton holds an MA in English from the University of South Carolina, an MBA from the University of Chicago, and an M.Div. from Virginia Theological Seminary. Additionally, she completed a certificate in Organization Development at the NTL Institute for Applied Behavioral Science. After retiring from the Anglican Church of Canada, Bishop Skelton returned to the Diocese of Olympia to serve as Assisting Bishop. She is married to the Rev. Eric Stroo, a mental health counselor and a deacon in the Episcopal Church. Between them they have three children and five grandchildren.

Episode Transcript

Kate: Welcome to Transforming Engagement: The Podcast, where we have conversations about service that serves the higher good and a common good. Today I’m talking with the Reverend Melissa Skelton. Melissa, welcome.

Melissa: Thanks so much for having me

Kate: As always. So good to be with you. I wanted to give you reins to introduce yourself and maybe through the lens of how did you come to the Cascadia region and what’s been your experience here?

Melissa: So I’m currently what’s called the Bishop Provisional in the Diocese of Olympia, and that is Western Washington from the Canadian border to Oregon and the islands out there. And before that I was bishop and then Archbishop in the diocese of New Westminster. And as part of being Archbishop, the metropolitan of British Columbia and Yukon, I came to the West Coast to the Cascadia region from actually serving in a small coastal community in Maine where I was director of a church and also the executive director of a land trusts and also a consultant. Prior to that I’d been in Manhattan, many different places in the East coast. I’m originally from the American South, so I took a role as a director of a then kind of struggling congregation in Seattle right near the Space Needle that has kind of beautiful worship style. And from there I was immersed in this thing we call Cascadia.

Kate: We’ll go into the ministry pieces of it in a minute, but I’m curious, just from a broad level, you could not have come further from tip of New England into Cascadia. What were the things that struck you as distinct about this region or what surprised you in contrast culturally just in the water, in the air as you moved here?

Melissa: Yeah, so I was just thinking about this. So I’ll say something obvious. The light is different here. And I mean that in oh so many ways the light that for those of us who are sighted, it’s a different way of seeing the world. I would say to live next to mountains as high, oceans as fierce, rivers, as wide as we do here in the West is a transforming of the sensibility. So the sense of scale that we have also just simply it not being the East Coast where we like to believe that things started, things were already here in all art of the country with indigenous peoples, but then that’s Robert Davidson behind me. The sense of establishment of this is the way we do things was quite different for me out here in the West. I felt like I’d actually fallen off the face of the US. I’d actually felt that way for a while. Like, gosh, they have no idea what we’re up to out here. And of course that has all kinds of implications for what can be created out here and to be in Seattle where so much has been created with was a great inspiration to me. It kind of gives space and then again, that whole thing of being nestled or planted in a world of where I’m at a different human scale for me feels acute out here. In contrast to the topography and the geography,

Kate: I have never, I think we talk about Cascadia distinctives a lot as our love for nature, and so that nature comes out that way, but that’s still a very human oriented way to frame it. I’ve never thought of it as, oh, we have a different sense of scale that feels so much truer and actually it situates us in something larger than us rather than being about our love and appreciation of nature. It makes the more holistic view.

Melissa: We were out walking the other day and I said, oh, oh look, the mountain is out. I said, oh no, no. Look, the volcano’s out. It’s just a whole different sense of just being on the earth than the East Coast. East Coast seems quite pastoral, quite predictable. I know it’s not anymore. Now they’re getting a taste, but that’s not here. It’s wild. It’s wild. Yeah. So it evokes a different thing from us as human being.

Kate: Yeah, totally. That also makes me think, I was on the East Coast recently and I was just training between cities and it was wild to me. If you live in New York or Boston or even up to Portland, Maine, you can be in another city on a train in an hour. Whereas here I live in Seattle and it’s three and a half hours to get to Portland or to Vancouver, and those are our closest major city options. There’s part of that scale and wildness is even in the way that we’ve established where our metro hubs are.

Melissa: Absolutely.

Kate: So you had said in your introduction a bit that the East Coast doesn’t really know what we’re doing out here. What other, and I think that’s a sense of scale. What other ways?

Melissa: We’re unsupervised. We’re unsupervised

Kate: And we like it that way. 

Melissa: People are like, whoa, order. And then it’s like, whoa, wait a minute.

Kate: Yeah. Does that show up in other, yeah. Where does that show up for you?

Melissa: Yeah, well I mean it has shown up in the church so that the creation, so when I came out here as director of a parish, I got on a diocese staff, the creation of a training program that’s now throughout the US, but I really felt like no one was watching except our little ecclesial enclave, which is again western Washington and kind of given the free reign to create that. And it just took, it’s now been around 15 plus years and it’s sort of like the rest of the church. I’m like, “oh, this is good. I think we might adopt this.” But with a fair amount along the way, I shouldn’t say fair a little suspicion because of its West Coast origin. It actually is a bigger story because it drew from many things that were in the east as well because I’ve been in those places.

But there’s just a sort of suspicion, “can anything good come out of Seattle? Or can anything usable?” The narrative is our situation in the East is so different, how can anything useful come out of Seattle? And the same was true when that same training program went across the border to British Columbia. So well, we just need to see if anything from the US will be applicable here. And at the end of the training session people stood up and gave testimonials then yes, it is. There were some language differences, but yes, it is applicable. So yeah, creativity or the room to create is one of the virtues to me of being here.

Kate: And there’s I think a readiness for trying new social structures, new ways of thinking, having left behind the more attached to a tradition kind of way of the East. I’m struck by the suspicion of things coming out of Seattle, now the West in part because so often those same denominations, same institutions that are located, I mean most of the main lines, most denominations are headquartered somewhere on the East Coast, somewhere East Coast or South, and they’re frequently creating resources that they ship out to all of their member regents, congregations with an expectation that this will be useful everywhere. And we often have a very, those things often aren’t useful for us, don’t address or acknowledge the context that’s specific to ministry out here. So it’s interesting that suspicion is in some levels working both ways, but also the lack of awareness that that ministry is so contextual and needs to be looked at in a smaller scale.

Melissa: There’s even the thing about when meetings occur across East Coast, West Coast, they’re 6:00 AM for us, it’s just never taken into consideration even the discussion of what we might do going forward. It’s rare that someone or when announcements are made, we’re going to come back at one o’clock and it’s like not my time. It’s just these little tiny things and it all kind of adds up to me for an incredible opportunity for collegiality among those in Cascadia. Invention, confirmation, the sharing of what we’re doing, that part’s inspiring to me. We just can’t keep looking in the direction of the East to affirm, to fund to, that’s a very touchy issue. A lot of the funding stuff is out that way. My big, the thing that delighted me so much is creating some out of enough, and this at least is related to my Maine, M-A-I-N-E experience where people delight in creating something for very little. I think the same, that same kind of spirit can be out here as well, at least in the church context.

Kate: How do some of those distinctives between regions change the way that you have led your ministries or that you guide others through their ministries? How has that ministerial identity different here compared to other expressions of church?

Melissa: I mean, I’ve only got my own experience to draw on, but I guess for me, I had a greater, this is working in a congregation. I had a greater sense of sort of watching where the spirit led. It wasn’t so contained within some basic assumptions about how church would be. And to be clear, I was leading a congregation that one, it needed to grow, needed to serve its neighborhood, needed to raise money, all that traditional stuff. This was not an innovative community, but I think the spirit with which I and the other leaders work really was committed to: let’s follow where whatever we mean by the spirit is leading. And so I don’t know that I would’ve felt that same permission and traditional churches I’d been a part of out in the East. I just don’t know that I would’ve, I think I really, it’s a bit, I experienced it being a bit more in the ether here a bit. The way the light looked out here, it just felt like for me it was all possibility. And that to me is some of what we as people in this part of the world need to continue to foster because I think those that do that can follow the lead, those that don’t are a bit doomed to just repeat the form in not as successful a way of what they think churches that we got from the east. Yeah. So I feel like to me, the best clergy doing work in congregations out here, they have a bit of the artist. I mean they’ve got a bit of watching where it’s leading, where the world is leading us and they’ve got a bit of that and they’re not so sure and certain they’re not trying to get it all settled. And in that respect, they would have done better in the pandemic than some other places. It sounds kind of a bit more indefinable. I wish I could be more concrete about the spirit I’m talking about. That’s what I received from being out here. I don’t think I invented it. I received it from being out here and I think that’s where I see it, the kind of clergy and lay leaders that can really do well here.

Kate: I think I am latching onto that artist as a metaphor for ministry because I think clergy in a more traditional sense, it’s very much a role that you play and it’s sometimes quite a rigid role. And for it to instead be as artist, I love it in part even you’re using your metaphor of light and the light being different. I’m like, oh, it’s such an artist thing to say, but not necessarily even pastor as we certainly know the pastors who are bringing painting and drawing into their sermons, but the pastor who let the form of community and gathering be their art form. I think that’s a useful metaphor for me about what’s different here is that it is an experimentation and innovation, an openness to how else might this look? What else is life giving? And there’s a more active pursuit there.

Melissa: I think it is. At the same time, just so I wouldn’t be being dishonest about this, there’s the thing about the every day. The showing up, doing the hard work of meeting people where they are assisting in the knitting that God does with people together as a community, working on sermons, working on meetings so that the voice of the spirit can arise, ordering paper clips. It’s all the different things that have to happen on a daily basis can be perceived as drudgery, but it’s held within this more open, curious, experimenting, what’s going to happen next under God’s guidance kind of spirit.

Kate: Which also every book on creativity, mine are usually about writing that I’ve ever read from Anne Lamott to Austin Kleon to every interview they talk about the kind of drudgery of having to get yourself to your chair and deactivate your wifi and do the drudgery of putting words in a page or the drudgery of ordering paper clips

Melissa: As No, that’s exactly right. You can’t have the creative emerge if you don’t sit yourself down and wherever that context is.

Kate: And whatever the canvas looks like.

Melissa: That’s right.

Kate: I want to pivot our conversation a bit from I think about the East to West divide. The other divide that we often think about in this continent is the North/South, the US Canada border, particularly for Cascadia. And I think part of what we’re claiming with focus on Cascadia is that there are more similarities between British Columbia, Washington, Oregon than the human constructed abstraction of a line in the border would have us think, I’m curious if some of your thoughts, what holds in the West Coast identity between British Columbia and the US portions of the Cascadia region?

Melissa: Yeah, I think that same East Coast or in some sense in Canada, East Coast and central Canada versus the West, because of course Toronto is not on the East Coast in Canada. New York City is in US. So that same sort of sense of we are two different worlds. We are two different churches. The geography, the topography, the fierceness of nature is similar across the two countries. So just like the US, Canada has that sense of divide, the sense that we in the West are living a different life. So that’s quite similar. The differences would be that there are two different countries and they have two different ways of coming at things. And this is probably, I’m overly emphasizing this because the US deeply influences Canada much more than the other way around. Deeply influences Canada. People in the US sneeze, people in Canada catch it. That’s what they said. So we talked about this before Kate, but so the sense of competition of individualism in the US is very strong, very, very strong. And the sense of cooperation in Canada is very strong. They need each other. I would say that’s what I’ve come to believe, that they need each other, that sometimes cooperation cannot lead to the best idea. We can hold hands as we are thinking and sometimes competition can really kill a better thing that can occur as we work it together. So I did not understand the differences in the two until I went to Canada, and this is part of the American arrogance and I’m applying that to me that we sort of, oh yeah, they sort of speak our language. We’ve heard that they do trench over the, but essentially they are just our Northern neighbor who is ourselves only, not as sophisticated maybe we would think. And it’s quite different in that regard. And then the relationship Canada is more disestablished across the board in terms of churches than the US. So there’s not a place like the American South that’s still where there’s still a social expectation that people will go to church. Now I may be mischaracterizing some parts of Canada that I don’t know of. And then the other thing is of course the role of Indigenous people in Canada and Indigenous spirituality and awareness is a big thing in Canada that we do not as yet have it’s fully developed here. So that’s another really big piece.

Kate: My next question was going to be what would you hope that we learned from each other? But I feel like you just touched on some of those. 

Melissa: Yeah, I do. I think Canadians have learned, learned from, or they would characterize Americans as sort of more brash, more, all of that. And I don’t know, I don’t know about, I think it does our character and who we are seeps in into them. I’ve not heard a lot of people in Canada sitting around reflecting on what is the good thing we learned from the American people. I’ve learned a lot and I do believe there’s huge potential for the US to learn from Canada. And we would have to be curious about that. We would have to be something other than, oh, I just love Canada. We’d have to actually own our own ignorance and go to school. And those of us who’ve lived there for a number of years, we went to school on it, whether we knew we needed to or not and whether we wanted to or not.

Kate: What are some, so Christ Cascadia is quite focused on innovative models of ministry, the ways of gathering and of being the church that are still becoming and responsive to the culture and the context. Are there any innovative models of ministry that you’re particularly excited about that you see emerging?

Melissa: Well, and I’m going to reference ones actually from Canada because of my role here in this diocese as an interim person, for me, I, I’ve not been able to support some innovative kinds of weight of ministry in the way that I would normally do. So most of my experience comes from British Columbia. 

Kate: Beautiful. Could be part of our learning.

Melissa: I’ll mention too, and the issue of how they actually do funding was a thing that I helped to work on, and one is St. Hildegard Sanctuary. So St. Hildegard Sanctuary was begun by somebody with a very big interest in art and also in trauma, informed everything from her own personal experience, her own families. And both of these are actually one initiated by a woman, another initiated by a non-binary person. So St. Hildegard Sanctuary, which is now situated at the cathedral in Vancouver, was meant to be a kind of smaller arts infused and trauma sensitive liturgical community. And it was situated in a congregation because it was starting from nothing. I got to write the first check for art supplies. That was my congregation when no one, this was a person dreaming it up. So she was dreaming it up without a lot of support. It’s at beautiful stage where you just need about 1500 bucks and you can get something, you talk somebody into fostering, into hosting it without it costing you anything. And Melanie went through ups and downs on this and now it’s situated as part of the cathedral. And it just appealed to a particular group of people who, for whom art was a language that could be embraced and could be expanded. Their experience of the spiritual and which liturgy could be, which is essentially an Episcopal liturgy could be reshaped to be trauma informed, which that’s quite a thing. The other is another person, an nonbinary person who began a community called Salal and Cedar. And did I get to write one of the first shakes? I think I said, alright, I supported it and it was a part of the Wild Church movement, so it was not within inside doors. It kind of moved around. Parishes could sponsor their, and again, a particular liturgy that was informed by Indigenous perspectives and this closeness or proximity to big nature. Both of these liturgies were written were just great by the way. And I authorized them. I authorized their use throughout the classes immediately and also it happened outdoors. So again, a small community of people who had a very egalitarian understanding of how they worked with their clergy person and they did a lot of advocacy related to the Nashville world as a part of what they did too. So a little bit social justice, a kind of harder edge on that and to include the clergy person saying, I will let you know when I get a rest. So thank you very much. Yeah, also over on Vancouver Island, there’s a kind of semi monastic community that’s done really well and I knew the or person who got that started, and so it just felt like a little bit more from my perspective, experimentation around these alternative communities that are still held together by a very ordered liturgy, a bit of a rule of life and with an arts component and in this case something, a dimension with Sala and Cedar about the natural world

Kate: And hearing, so we’ve talked before about some of the fundamentals of the congregation, the things the congregation has to do well regardless of where they’re located. And I’m hearing that these are both innovative expressions and doing those fundamentals well. Would you share a little bit about those fundamentals, the things that congregations need to be doing and considering regardless of?

Melissa: Yeah, I mean I continue to hear and to know of congregations that do the fundamentals well that are thriving. Small, medium, large. And these would be care taken about what happens on Sunday morning. Of course, I’m coming from an Episcopal Salish Anglican Church of Canada perspective, so well done liturgy that has a kind of beauty and order, but space as in silence from time to time. So, well-crafted, well ordered, well done liturgy, outstanding preaching. There’s just nothing can take the place about standing preaching when people visit. That’s what they’re looking for, often. People who can clergy and lay leaders who can assist God in continually knitting and knitting community life together. Being curious about people’s lives, really, you could call it pastoral ministry with the aim of a system that is knit together well, that is not actually dependent on a clergy person, but in which people know and hang out with each other. Fostering the ability to pray in many different forms, excellent formation. It doesn’t have to happen all the time and doesn’t just have to happen with one particular congregation. Some of it’s these fundamentals that, and powered by a discernment about where are we going, how do we listen to the Spirit, through the voices of God and the voices of other people to figure out what’s the next step in our development and training of people to be good creation developers. When you got all that, you got everything.

Kate: It’s interesting, even as you’re saying some of these, I’m putting them into my very seminary categories of liturgy, preaching, pastoral care, prayer formation, discipleship. But when I say it that way, I hear it through the very set lens like, well, this is what liturgy looks like. This is what preaching looks like. And so there’s both the fundamentals are something familiar, but then to try to break our mental models to allow ourselves to play with them and say, maybe my sermon doesn’t have to be 10 minutes behind a pulpit and could take a different form that would be meaningful for me and for other people present. I think that’s the term that…

Melissa: And all Kate is we know as we work together this or in service of a real textured identity, congregations that are generic, there’s not a reason for people to choose that life to throw in with people, to have a textured, articulated identity in Christ that these things flow out of and that relationship and initiative in the community flows out of. I don’t believe that just being in the community is the kind of answer for congregational thriving. It is an important piece of it, but the whole thing of identity is really an important piece of it that these things serve. You don’t just do all formation, you do formation. That assists for us to form Christians in a particular way, in a particular community, so.  

Kate: Which then shows up in that community presence in a particular way too, because we all know churches that are active in our communities in ways that we wish that they weren’t, and that is a direct result of the way that they have been formed inside their communities and then they take it out. So there’s certainly a conversation between congregation and community that I think we’re naming and circling around. Well, as I’m watching our time and as our concluding question, I wanted to ask you, because our gathering is entirely about bringing our questions and finding people who are asking similar questions and experimenting together. What questions do you have in this season of life that you’re living into or that you’re hoping to find other people who are asking similar questions?

Melissa: It ranges from theological to personal. I mean, I’ve talked so much about congregations and discerning what’s next personally for me, and I’m a person who is now, I’ll be on my second retirement soon. It’s what’s next because I believe that at every aging stage, God has something that is wanting to come into being through us, through our experience, our bodies, through… So I just like, wow, what’s it going to be now? And in what way might it be a truly new thing? That’s my hope in my prayers. It’s a truly new thing. Theologically, the questions that I keep asking is are the following is main, well I guess one, which is: how does our theology hold what we’re experiencing in the world right now and where violence continues to happen, where institutions seem shaky and where our own government in this country is in a bit of chaos. It’s always one version of that or another, just how does our theology encompass that? And then how does our theology encompass what’s happening with the Earth? I’m reading and rereading Deep Incarnation and that’s been a great comfort to me to see a theology that’s attempting to embrace many of these questions that I’m raising. But I feel like I’m back at 101 to tell you the truth. Back at 101, I am trying to figure out where my experience, where my understanding of God is with all these things and I return to the fundamentals often, but that doesn’t mean it is an easy question for me or an easy journey right now.

Kate: Well, thank you for inviting us into some of the questions. Even as I hear that maybe your second retirement might also not stick, there’s a bit of a setting up for, we’ll keep in touch and look forward to hearing about how you answer that question with your life and what’s next for you and hope to find intersections with what we’re doing here.

Melissa: Thank you. You’re the best, Kate.

Kate: Thank you.