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Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Eastern Washington-Idaho Synod installs its first female bishop

The Rev. Kristen Kuempel will be installed as bishop of the Eastern Washington-Idaho Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. (KIMBERLY TESKE FETROW / KIMBERLY TESKE FETROW)

Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Eastern Washington-Idaho Synod installs its first female bishop

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By Tracy Simmons

The Rev. Kristen Kuempel spends a lot of time on Facebook.

She posts inspirational memes, notes on how people can contribute to area wildfire relief and, recently, reminders about Saturday.

That’s when throngs of clergy, parishioners and Presiding Bishop Elizabeth A. Eaton will assemble at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church to install her as the next bishop of the Eastern Washington-Idaho Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Kuempel will be the synod’s first female bishop.

With more than 90 churches spread throughout the 769 miles between Chelan to Jackson, Wyoming, Kuempel said technology is key to creating and maintaining community. She uses her Facebook page to connect congregations and to be available to them.

“Congregations want to know they’re not alone … It’s not First Lutheran Church of Ephrata all alone trying to do this in the world, but all churches in Eastern Washington and Idaho. We’re all working on the same goals,” she said.

One of those goals, Kuempel said, is to work with congregations to try new things and take risks in order to grow and move in a new direction.

With the mainline church in decline – down nationally by 5 million from 2007 – Kuempel said congregations need to be willing to get outside the church walls and into communities and talk to people about their church experience.

“The church isn’t broken for us, so we need to get out there and find people for whom the church is broken and say ‘How can we fix it?,’ and in some cases ask for forgiveness,” she said.

Kuempel said church leaders in the synod are energized at the church’s potential, rather than afraid, which is one reason why she was moved to answer the call to bishop.

“I like wondering what the church will look like in 20 years,” she said.

The Rev. Eric Dull, pastor of St. Mark’s, headed up the election committee and said Kuempel’s optimism and energy were factors in selecting her.

“She’s a hopeful person and that became clear in the process,” he said. “People seemed to rally behind her and it became clear that she was the one called for this time and place.”

He said the committee also felt that Kuempel’s age, 42, could be a way to bridge gaps between the generations and she could provide a sense of belonging for both older and younger Lutherans.

Originally from Spokane, Kuempel has served as lead pastor of First Lutheran Church of Kennewick since 2010. She has a degree in developmental psychology from Eastern Washington University, though she jokes she never used the degree since she went straight to the seminary after undergraduate school. She attended Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, and has worked with congregations in Minnesota, North Dakota and Kansas.

She plans to work from the Tri-Cities where her husband, Matthew, works as the assistant area director of Lutheran Community Services. They have two young daughters.

Though the bishop’s office has been traditionally located in Spokane, Dull said the Tri-Cities is more central to the synod and emphasized Kuempel’s plan to use technology more efficiently.

Kuempel will be replacing Bishop Martin Wells, who led the synod for 18 years.

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Tracy Simmons

About Tracy Simmons

Tracy Simmons is an award winning journalist specializing in religion reporting, digital entrepreneurship and social journalism. In her 13 years on the religion beat, Simmons has tucked a notepad in her pocket and found some of her favorite stories aboard cargo ships in New Jersey, on a police chase in Albuquerque, in dusty Texas church bell towers, on the streets of New York and in tent cities in Haiti.
Simmons has worked as a multimedia journalist for newspapers across New Mexico, Texas and Connecticut. Currently she serves as the executive director of SpokaneFAVS.com, a digital journalism start-up covering religion news and commentary in Spokane, Wash. She also writes for The Spokesman-Review and for the Religion News Service.

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