For the first time in its 11-year history, The Pacific Northwest Region of the Ecumenical Catholic Community has elected a bishop.
The Rev. Tom Altepeter of St. Clare Ecumenical Catholic Community, a church he once described as “a homeless shelter for homeless Catholics,” was selected as the first bishop-elect for the region on Sept. 28 and will be the sixth regional bishop in the ECC.
Unlike bishops in the Roman Catholic Church, whose role is to implement all decisions made in Rome, bishops within the ECC work directly with congregations to solve issues at the local level.
“It is the vision and intention of the ECC to function in a non-hierarchical manner, with decisions made by the people who will be most immediately impacted by the consequences of the decision,” Altepeter wrote in a manuscript about the bishop’s role in the Ecumenical Catholic Communion.
The ECC instead implements a servant-leader model in which the laity, priests and bishops all have a say in the decision-making process.
Altepeter’s new responsibilities will include covering six communities across Washington, Oregon and Idaho. He says his primary goal is to establish more Ecumenical Catholic Communities in the region.
“It’s a big responsibility that I’ve never done before and that can be uncomfortable,” Altepeter said. “But I feel I am more than willing to do what I need to do.”
Jim Murphy, a representative for St. Clare on the Regional Discernment Committee, shares Altepeter’s desire for growth within the ECC.
“The reality is we’re a small church, but I believe we are really offering an opportunity for people to be Catholic who feel alienated in one way or another from the Roman Church,” Murphy said. “Having a bishop will greatly facilitate the process of welcoming people and whole communities into our communion.”
Despite the recognition for growth, not everyone supported the idea of selecting a bishop when it was first introduced.
“Not everybody was happy. Most of the community comes from a Roman Catholic background,” Murphy said. “ ‘Bishop’ and ‘dioceses’ are loaded words and, for the most part, negative. So, there were concerns about this.”
Terri McKenzie, member of St. Clare since August 2012, was always supportive of the idea.
“I recognized the need for us to be connected beyond ourselves, and that’s critical, so the decision to be a part of a dioceses made absolute logical sense to me,” McKenzie said.
Despite conflicting opinions about the need for a bishop, the community was able to find common ground in his election through open discussion.
Linda Kobe-Smith, a two-year member of St. Clare, said everyone in the community had the opportunity to voice their concerns. They were able to come to a consensus because everyone in the community felt as if they had been heard, she said.
Altepeter originally planned on becoming a Roman Catholic priest, but he took issue with celibacy. He left the seminary and pursued a Ph.D. in psychology at St. Louis University. Altepeter found the Ecumenical Catholic Community a better fit for him than Roman Catholicism because of the community’s openness toward the LGBTQ community and ordination of both women and married men, he said.
Many people believe his background in psychology will provide him the necessary tools for his new role as bishop.
“He has the skills of someone in that profession. He listens very well and makes sure he understands people. He’s very careful about communication with people and really understands how people are different,” said ECC Presiding Bishop Frank Krebs, pastor of Sts. Clare and Francis in St. Louis.
Altepeter will be ordained Jan. 23 in Spokane.
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