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After Resisting a Collar, She’s in Line for a Miter

When she preached her first sermon as a senior in high school, someone told her she should become a priest. “And I said, ‘No, I’m going to be a teacher,’ because I knew I wanted to be a teacher since I was, like, third grade.”

When she preached again as a senior in college, someone told her she should become a priest. “I said, ‘No, I’m going to be a teacher.’”

When she was a teacher, God told her she should become a priest, and she finally relented.

Then, after 20 years of parish ministry in Chicago, the Diocese of Rochester told her she should become a bishop. The Rev. Kara Wagner Sherer was elected February 24 from a slate of three women on the fifth ballot. Assuming she receives the required consent of a majority of bishops and standing committees, she will be consecrated July 13 and seated in September as the ninth Bishop of Rochester.

The woman born as Kara Wagner has been Episcopalian all her life, but she’s been exposed to a variety of faith traditions. When she was growing up in Marshall, Minnesota (current population 13,000), “My parents wanted me to have a Christian education, so I went to Catholic school from first to eighth grade.” After public high school came St. Olaf College, a Lutheran school in Northfield, Minnesota (21,000).

Along the way she married an organist named John Sherer, and in the early 1990s the couple moved to New York City so he could get a doctorate in music at Julliard. “Last place on Earth I thought I would want to live, coming from a small town,” Wagner Sherer said with a laugh. She taught third grade at St. Hilda’s and St. Hugh’s Episcopal School in Manhattan.

Then she added another denominational notch to her belt when John landed a prestigious gig in a slightly smaller city: Chicago. He has been organist and director of music since 1996 at Fourth Church, one of the largest Presbyterian churches in the country. Wagner Sherer worked as a social service intern at Fourth Church until she went back to a Catholic school — this time as a teacher, at Sacred Heart Schools, where she taught fifth grade and later served as the campus minister.

Wait a minute — a female minister at a Catholic school? “It’s not a diocesan school, so they had a little more freedom there,” and maybe 30 percent of the students were not Catholic, she said. Besides, “It turned out that the head of the middle school was a secret Episcopalian, she had been raised Catholic.” The couple later sent their own two daughters to Sacred Heart.

When she left Sacred Heart to attend what was then Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, she encountered some jealously from her Catholic friends. “Oh, you get to do that. … That’ll never happen in our church. And I say, God has a long timeline,” she said. She’s been rector of St. John’s Episcopal in Chicago since 2005.

Having done small towns and huge cities, Wagner Sherer’s now going to split the difference in Rochester, which has a bit more than 200,000 people. “I had never been to Rochester until I went for an interview” for bishop, she said. “When somebody said it’s the last city in the East Coast and the first city in the Midwest, that kind of spoke to my heart.” She’s never lived in a place with hills before. Her husband, who has five degrees and has played around the world, is exploring various options.

The Diocese of Rochester is one of six dioceses in the state of New York, with about 6,500 parishioners in 41 congregations. Many of the congregations are small, but Wagner Sherer knows from small churches.  “I think Americans today, and those under 40 in particular, are drawn to our churches because we do small churches well, and people are yearning for community. Our ancient traditions, music, and worship feed their souls. They like our progressive theology, but more than that they see Episcopalians doing what Jesus did — healing, feeding, welcoming the outcast, casting out demons (such as hatred, judgment, and violence). Walking the talk.”

The eighth Bishop of Rochester, Prince Singh, currently is the subject of two Title IV disciplinary cases: one for allegedly abusive treatment of his sons and ex-wife, and one for unspecified “improper behavior” filed by Singh’s former canon to the ordinary in Rochester. Since Singh left Rochester in 2022, the diocese has been led on a provisional basis by the retired Bishop of Maine, Stephen T. Lane — who formerly was canon to the ordinary in Rochester.

“I only know what’s in the public record” about Singh’s tenure in Rochester, Wagner Sherer said, while praising Lane for beginning a healing process. “There are people that are ready to move on and others who are not. And so I think my role will be a lot of listening and supporting, but supporting people who are in very different places,” she said.

TLC always asks bishops-elect for a quirky fact that readers will not learn anywhere else. “I love to dance,” Wagner Sherer said. The Diocese of Chicago holds a dance party as part of its annual conventions, and she and another priest always vie for the metaphorical award of “last priest on the dance floor.” She was a ballet dancer as a high school student and young adult, and “I’ve recently started ballet classes again. And that’s been a good spiritual discipline for me, as well as a wonderful exercise, but just fun,” she said. She thinks the increased stamina and flexibility will come in handy for a bishop.

The other candidates were:

  • The Rev. Rachel Taber-Hamilton, rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Everett, Washington, and vice president of the House of Deputies; and
  • The Rev. Lauren R. Holder, canon for community and education of Cathedral of St. Philip in Atlanta.

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