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Bishop-elect Eager for Seattle Ministry

The Rev. Philip N. LaBelle mentions a consistent theme — the importance of relationships — when he speaks as Bishop-elect of the Diocese of Olympia.

“I’m excited about ministry in Olympia,” said LaBelle, who has served as the rector of St. Mark’s Church in Southborough, Massachusetts, since 2011. “People are hungry for authentic spirituality and truly experiencing the love of Jesus.”

“I believe in the importance of relationships,” he said. “I believe in the centrality of God being in relationship with us, and creating us so that we might be in relationships with others and with the natural world.”

He also sees his new vocation as one of dedication and service. “I want to embody the call to serve others, not to draw attention to myself with the vestments or miter. “That’s the call of Jesus, not to be served, but to serve others,” he said.

LaBelle has spent almost 20 years in clerical service. He was ordained to the diaconate in June 2004 and the priesthood in January 2005 by Bishop Gordon Scruton of the Diocese of Western Massachusetts. Before his years at St. Mark’s, he served as rector at Christ the King Church in Arvada, Colorado, and associate rector of St. Luke’s Parish in Darien, Connecticut.

LaBelle will finish his Doctor of Ministry degree at Fuller Theological Seminary in June. His research has been on Zimzum, a Jewish mystical concept meaning “contraction.” This is how LaBelle explains the concept on his website, The Rambling Priest: “Because God was everywhere all at once and since nothing else existed with God — including the nothingness — God needed to make space before God could create. So the Jewish mystics claim God withdrew from a space within Godself in order to create, forming a type of womb.”

He has used this idea to think about how people living busy lives can contract themselves and make space. LaBelle said that many people, especially among Christians he knows, do not heed the Fourth Commandment, to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy and do no work. “There’s a tendency to ignore being told to take a break,” he said.

He cofounded Neighbors for Peace with Dr. Safdar Medina, which hosted a community-wide Iftar dinner during Ramadan, as well as an interfaith Thanksgiving service. “Interfaith relationships are vitally important in our world, both in support of religious freedom but also to form a really deep connection — not to proselytize, but to develop friendship and learn from each other,” LaBelle said.

He mentioned his admiration for his Muslim friends who pray five times a day and his Jewish friends’ level of repentance on Yom Kippur. He has also served on the core team of Central MA Connections in Faith, which seeks to bring members of different religious traditions together.

LaBelle looks forward to supporting the work of the Rev. Canon Carla Robinson, the Diocese of Olympia’s canon for multicultural ministries and community transformation. “I want to build beloved community that reflects the amazing diversity that was dreamed up by God,” he said. “I want to come together and recognize past wrongs and deepen relationships.”

He particularly wants to work with and learn from Indigenous people and their connection with the land. He also hopes to further strengthen the diocese’s work on homelessness, particularly in urban environments. “I believe in living faithfully into the call to take care of those in need,” he said.

Care for the environment is also important to him. “It’s not a climate crisis, but an overconsumption crisis in the West. We need to repent and do repentance for that,” he said.

Seattle is the least religious metro area in the United States, but after over a decade in the third-least religious metro area of greater Boston, he does not see that as a problem. He spoke about the non-religious young people he met while walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain, and how he could see their desire for a spiritual life.

“People see the institutional church standing against things, not standing for the love of Jesus,” he said. He wants to bring that love to those who are yet to experience it. “God desires to be in relationship with us, God delights in us, and the call is to embrace Jesus and the way of love.

In a collective statement, the vestry of St. Mark’s, Southborough, said: “We are very excited for Phil. He has many wonderful gifts to bring to his new role as bishop. He clearly stood out as a candidate for us during our rector search 13 years ago, so of course he would stand out in Olympia’s search for a bishop. We wish him and his family the best, but we will miss them all very much.”

The Diocese of Olympia is in the western part of Washington, and Seattle is its see city. It has 90 congregations and 19,000 congregants. He was elected on the fourth ballot May 18 with 91 clerical votes and 119 lay votes, from a slate of four candidates. He will be consecrated and installed on September 14, pending consents of bishops and standing committees.

LaBelle will be Olympia’s ninth bishop, succeeding the Rt. Rev. Greg Rickel, who retired in 2022 after 15 years as bishop.

LaBelle attended seminary at Berkeley Divinity School at Yale University. He also has a master’s degree in rhetoric and composition from Northeastern University and a bachelor’s degree in English, with an additional concentration in theological studies from Gordon College. He and his wife, Dr. Melissa Tobey LaBelle, are parents to two young adults.

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