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Kristen Kuempel will be installed as Lutheran synod’s next bishop


Bishop Kristen Kuempel served First Lutheran in Kennewick.

Kristen Kuempel, whose ministry at First Lutheran Church in Kennewick included engaging in difficult conversations, involving young families and thinking outside the box, is stepping into a new adventure in ministry in September.

She will be installed as the Bishop of the Eastern Washington Idaho Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America at 2 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 16, at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, 316 E 24th Ave.

The national ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton will preside over the service, which includes a joint choir singing an anthem written for the installation by Twin Cities hymn writer David Haas.

The anthem, “What Can I Leave Behind,” is on what it means to take up the cross and follow Christ.

Kristen has been preparing for becoming bishop since she was elected in May at the Synod Assembly.  She has been meeting people in the synod.

Previously she served two years as the at-large clergy representative on the Synod Council and served on planning and program committees for Lutherhaven.

“I discerned my call to ministry at Lutherhaven in 1996.  I was a camper, then a counselor, then spent a year on staff and now I’m a parent of two campers—daughters Linnea, 13, and Sarah, 10,” said Kristen.

Born in Spokane, she earned a bachelor’s degree in 1998 in developmental psychology at Eastern Washington University.  She met her husband, Matthew, at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn, where they graduated in 2002.

For three years, she served three small-town Kansas congregations in the Central States Synod, while her husband served two congregations in the next county.

Kristen went “on leave from call,” not serving a church, while Matthew completed a doctoral degree at Luther Seminary. In 2007, they moved to Richland, where he was Benton County Jail chaplain.

In 2009, she began serving First Lutheran in Kennewick, and Matthew became associate area director for Lutheran Community Services in Tri-Cities.

Because her role as bishop will involve travel and because of Matthew’s work and their daughters’ schooling, Kristen will work out of an office in her home in Kennewick. 

She plans to come on a regular basis to be at the synod office, which will stay in Spokane.

Kristen said her ministry at First Lutheran gave her gifts that will help her as bishop.

“The greatest asset of that church is its people.  Over the years, we learned to have difficult conversations in which people felt heard because members were caring and respectful.  They were invested in their relationships with each other,” she said.

One conversation occurred in the year after Washington passed the law to permit same sex marriage.

A long-time member asked if she would perform a wedding for him and his partner in the church.  The church took time over a year to engage in conversations and eventually decided to allow same sex marriages in the sanctuary.

“We lost a few people, but most who disagreed stayed because of the caring relationships they had,” she said.

In the ELCA, decisions about same-sex marriage are made by local congregations, not the national church.

Kristen said about half of the 150 people attending First Lutheran, which was founded in 1904, are under the age of 50.

“Many people think having young families is a silver bullet to solving a church’s problems, but young families have different giving and attendance patterns than older families,” she said. “They give and come less.”

Having young families and children in worship means there is the murmur of “kid noise,” or a child may stand beside the pastor during communion.

“We stopped having children’s church, so children could be in worship,” she said.

A group works with the director of children, youth and family ministries to make worship interactive, rather than giving children “church bags” with coloring and quiet activities.  Instead, they seek to involve children—using a felt communion set or having a scavenger hunt to look for a dove in the stained glass window.

While numbers at Sunday School before worship are low, there may be two to 25 children in worship. 

Kristen’s version of a children’s sermon was a mystery box.  She would give a child a scripture and the shoebox ask the child to bring something about the scripture.  One did a clay diorama of Jesus walking on the water. 

She also would ask the children how God was with them during the week.

First Lutheran taught Kristen “the blessing that comes from mutual consolation of the saints.” Members comforted and challenged her. She, as  pastor, comforted and challenged them.

“We challenged each other honestly from relationships of love and respect, so challenge was an opportunity for greater ministry together,” she said.

Kristen urges mainline churches to step out and try new things.

First Lutheran did that by joining in the national ELCA Day of Service, “Our God’s Work, Our Hands,” the second weekend of September.  They joined with three ELCA congregations and Pasco Lutheran Latino Ministry.

Members sorted food with Second Harvest, put together school kits, and made layettes and quilts for Lutheran World Relief (LWR), and  helped with painting and maintenance for LCS.  They closed the day with a joint bilingual service in a park.

“We stepped out to work together,” she said.

As Kristen has been stepping into her new ministry as bishop, she said, “I am taking the next step in confidence, believing that God’s Word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.”

In the synod’s discerning process that was part of calling a new bishop, Kristen heard that congregations want to be more in relationship with each other as Lutherans and with the synod.

She plans to use social media and technology to connect congregations, rather than jumping in a car to drive eight hours.

She will serve 92 congregations and three outdoor ministry sites from the Cascades to the eastern Idaho border, plus three congregations in Wyoming. The three outdoor ministry sites are Lutherhaven, Luther Heights near Sun Valley and Holden Village.

Kristen believes outdoor ministries and campus ministries are important ways to lift up new leadership and build relationships in the church.

Outdoor ministry was formative for her, and campus ministry was formative for her husband.

“Economic realities have hit both ministries hard, so we will explore how to support them,” she said.  “God calls us not to survive but to thrive.

“God gives us all we need even if we may not think it looks like enough, but with God, it is abundant.  We need to look at what we have as plenty to do what God needs.  We tend to go into a scarcity mode, but God has blessed us abundantly,” said Kristen, who said she will foster synod and ecumenical relationships, because “the more we cooperate and work together, the more abundance we find.”

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