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Southern Ohio Bishop-Elect’s Church Roots Go Deep

By Kirk Petersen

Kristin Uffelman, a future priest, felt her first call to the pulpit at the age of 3.

“My first memory is of being in midnight Mass, with my grandparents and parents at St. John’s Church, in Milwaukie, Oregon,” said the woman now known as the Rev. Kristin Uffelman White. “My grandmother loved to tell the story. And I have pieces of images of it. Somewhere in that liturgy, I got out of the pew and went up to the pulpit while the rector was preaching his midnight Mass sermon. And, and he picked me up and held me for the rest of his time preaching, and then set me back down at the end of the sermon and I went back to the pew.”

This was before everybody had a camera on their cell phone. “There’s no picture of it, unfortunately,” she said. “But I have images of that time, I have images of him and of the candles and the service, and of getting back to my pew.”

Over the next few decades, she developed memories at many other Episcopal churches in at least five states. After nine years in parish ministry in Illinois, she has served since 2018 as canon to the ordinary for congregational development and leadership in the Diocese of Indianapolis.

On September 30, she was elected to be the 10th Bishop of Southern Ohio. Assuming she receives the necessary consents from a majority of diocesan bishops and standing committees, she will be consecrated in Columbus on February 17, 2024.

White and her two younger sisters were all born in Anchorage, Alaska, where her parents lived for nine years during the Alaska Pipeline migration of the 1970s. (The memorable midnight Mass occurred on a Christmas trip home to Milwaukie, a suburb of Portland.) The family moved back to Oregon and eventually settled in Prineville, a town of about 10,000 on the edge of the vast East Oregon desert.

St. Andrew’s, Prineville, Oregon | Google Maps

She grew up in St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church of Prineville, where her dad has served as the priest since 1996. It’s a tiny church — pre-pandemic average Sunday attendance of about 20 — but with a long-time loyal membership. When White’s father stood up at announcements earlier this year to say his daughter had been nominated to run for Bishop of Southern Ohio, Mrs. Van Voorhees stood up to say she had been White’s sixth-grade teacher. “And Mrs. Berger stood up and said, she sang in my girls choir in middle school,” White said.

White’s father, Stephen Uffelman, had been ordained at St. Andrew’s, and her parents had both served there as wardens. When Bishop Rustin Kimsey had church visitations in the area, he would stay with them overnight to take the pressure off from the two-hour trip to The Dalles. White remembered the bishop sharing with her about his experience at the Lambeth Conference of 1988, when she was 16 or 17. “That’s the first kind of clear sense that I had a call to the priesthood,” she said.

White paused in her Zoom conversation with TLC to check her text messages, then confirmed that she had gotten permission from Bishop of Eastern Oregon Patrick Bell to preach on October 15, her birthday, at St. Andrew’s. She was visibly moved by the prospect.

Despite the momentum toward ordained ministry throughout her childhood, White first spent nine years teaching high school writing. “And I have experienced that as very preparatory for my work in ministry, in a multitude of ways, both in order to organize thoughts and be clear about the purpose before us,” she said. She started a program where upper-class students would mentor new freshmen throughout the school year — sort of like formation for high school. The experience taught her how to “help lower the threshold to welcome folks in, and help them be incorporated into the life of the body,” she said.

When asked why she didn’t go straight into ministry, she said simply, “I wasn’t ready.” Fresh out of high school, she discovered a bit of a rebellious streak when she started studying toward an associate’s degree at Cottey College in Nevada, Missouri. “My great rebellion was going to be sleeping in on Sunday mornings. And I made it three weeks. And I felt like the liturgy was oxygen,” she said. “So the church has just always always been my home.”

She and her husband John White met at Western Oregon University, where she obtained a bachelor’s degree. She began to feel called to ministry again after the birth of their daughter, Katherine Grace, who was extremely premature — about 27 weeks. Bishop Kimsey visited her in the neonatal intensive care unit. She developed a close circle of friends at St. Timothy’s in Salem. One day while attending an ordination, “I couldn’t not see it. I had a profound experience of God’s presence and call to ordained ministry. And I didn’t know how it would work,” she said.

The way it worked was, John left a “wonderful job” as local construction coordinator at Habitat for Humanity in August 2006. They sold their house, and “packed up our our 8-year-old and our dog and moved across the country” to what was then Seabury-Western Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois, a northern suburb of Chicago. (John White now works as an electrician, a role that likely will be transportable when the couple moves again, to Cincinnati.)

Kristin White was the student representative to Seabury’s board in February 2008 when the board “declared financial exigency and voted to release all professors from tenure,” she said. She was able to finish her master of divinity degree on campus, but “it was a it was a time of significant institutional change.” Some vestige of Seabury lives on today as part of Bexley Seabury, a “seminary beyond walls” that offers online degrees from the second floor of Chicago Theological Seminary in Chicago.

White has been a strong proponent of the Seattle-based Congress for Congregational Development since she took her first course in 2016. CCD provides a “vocabulary of faith and [provides] leaders both lay and ordained with very practical ways of building the body of Christ.”

“And I’m excited about that in the context of southern Ohio,” she added, citing “the history that they told in their profile about Bishop Henry Wise Hobson, after the floods in 1937, using the proceeds from the sale of St. Paul’s Cathedral to buy an Airstream trailer and travel around the river country and minister to people whose lives have been devastated in the floods.” She said it was a story of “a bishop who was with them at a time and in a way that they so needed.”

White was elected on the third ballot. The other candidates were:

  • The Rev. Canon Whitney Rice, canon for evangelism and discipleship development, Diocese of Missouri
  • The Rev. Dr. José Rodríguez, rector and vicar of the Episcopal Churches of Christ the King and Jesús de Nazaret, Orlando, Florida
  • The Rev. Canon Stephanie Spellers, canon to the presiding bishop for evangelism, reconciliation and creation care
  • The Rev. Dr. Elaine Ellis Thomas, rector of All Saints, Hoboken, New Jersey.

The Diocese of Southern Ohio was established in 1875 in Cincinnati, which was and is home to a candle and soap maker called Procter & Gamble. The diocese shares the state with the Cleveland-based Diocese of Ohio.

Southern Ohio is a midsize diocese that is remarkably affluent, thanks to Jane Procter, wife of the co-founder’s grandson, who bequeathed 30,000 shares of P&G stock in 1953. The William Cooper Procter Memorial Fund today is worth about $68 million, and provides more of the diocese’s budget than the assessments on 71 congregations.

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