“A good pastor just needs a four-wheel drive and skiff,” says the Rev. Shelley Wickstrom ’81, bishop of the Alaska Synod of the ELCA.
In fact, reaching all 32 of her congregations requires a bit more than that. When we caught up to Wickstrom by phone, she had just returned to her office in Anchorage – located near the airport – from five days in Shishmaref, a village that overlooks the Bering Strait far to the north and west.
“In Alaska, we don’t really talk about miles,” she said. “To get to Shishmaref from Anchorage, you take a jet to Nome, then a smaller plane, a nine-seater, to Shishmaref. Then you take a snowmachine to wherever you need to go in the village.”
So how far is that?
“That’s two flights away.”
Born in Montana, and raised and confirmed in a town in Washington called Opportunity, Wickstrom is comfortable in unspoiled environments, the rough-edged places to which people must bring their own sense of purpose, the desire to build something new and a capacity for harmony as they live and work together.
Alaska remains a land for groundbreakers. Last September, Wickstrom became the first female bishop there in the 25-year history of her job. She was also the first graduate of CLU to be elected bishop anywhere in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, followed just weeks later by James Hazelwood ’81, who rides his motorcycle around the New England Synod.
“I’m a pastor first, so that really is what frames my understanding of this role,” said Wickstrom. “I’ve been trying to listen deeply in this first year to get a sense of what a congregation and pastor’s true passions are, so that they can lead from that passion.”
Wickstrom followed her sister and brother to Alaska after graduating from CLU and called it home for the next 16 years. While attending Wartburg Theological Seminary in Iowa, she returned in summers to process salmon roe and had an internship in Seward, Alaska. Then, her first two calls as a pastor took her to Dillingham and North Pole from 1987 to 1997.
She tells us that the state’s tundra, forests, mountains, icy lakes and rivers occupy “an area that would stretch from Montana to Texas.” More precisely, it’s 663,300 square miles of mostly wilderness with a population just over 730,000.
Being a leader in such an environment, like just getting to work some days, requires a sense of adventure and a willingness to cooperate. Alaska has been the site of a powerful ecumenical conversation in recent years and a proving ground for a multi-denominational effort by Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodist and Episcopal churches (PLUME) that share pastors and jointly support mission work in remote areas of the state.
In many ways, Wickstrom’s time at Cal Lutheran as a double major in philosophy and religion presaged her work in Alaska.
“When I was at CLU, it was still a young school. We were still figuring out which traditions we wanted to have, creating a baseline for our legacy…,” she said. “It was marvelously refreshing. It gave me a sense that God is always at work, and that tradition is a resource, but not a recipe.”
On retreats and meetings outside of the classroom, Wickstrom remembers professors who had respect for “the wholeness of life,” she said. “I just really appreciated and admired their partnership, that willingness to share their own journey of faith.”
Now she tries to help others along the way, recognizing that faith journeys go to remote places. She observes that Mark Hanson, presiding bishop of the ELCA, “has talked about meeting many people who identify themselves as ‘of no faith’ or ‘anti-church,’ and realizing that he doesn’t believe in that God they are rejecting either, you know? So, we can’t have those conversations unless we’re bold enough to approach people and just talk to them, to know what concerns them.”
“It’s not a bait-and-switch, trying to convince people to come to church,” she said. “It’s about meeting human needs.”