Bishop of Kansas finds true calling helping to lead Episcopal Church
On the Rev. Dean Elliott Wolfe’s hand sits a gold ring with a large, purple stone.
Once at a youth soccer game in Lawrence, that ring caught the eye and imagination of a little boy. The boy was quickly disappointed when he learned the ring was worn by the ninth bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Kansas, not a Super Bowl champion.
Most Episcopal bishops have similar stories of humbleness, Wolfe said.
At a coffee shop near Coffeyville, a waitress inquired about a large gold cross hanging from Wolfe’s neck. Wolfe had just moved from Texas, where apparently even a pectoral cross is bigger.
“Now that is some kind of cross,” the waitress said, to which Wolfe responded he was the Episcopal bishop of Kansas.
“Well la dee da,” she replied and then yelled to the cook in the back, “Hey, Frank, his holiness wants his hamburger medium-rare!”
He told that story from the pulpit of the Washington National Cathedral when a delegation from Kansas traveled to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Episcopal Dioceses of Kansas.
Wolfe, who lives in Lawrence with his wife, Ellen, has been the bishop of Kansas since 2003. It is a position that oversees 46 congregations, two campus ministry centers, two social services agencies, a parochial school and the Kansas School for Ministry.
Wolfe is also vice president of the House of Bishops. In other words, he is the Joe Biden of the Episcopal Church. He serves directly under Katharine Jefferts Schori, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church of the United States. Her election made history in 2006 because she was the first woman to lead an Anglican national church.
Wolfe’s roles have him traveling throughout Kansas and the world.
“It’s a joy to do this work,” he said.
He’s been to a bombed-out hospital in the Gaza Strip and a garden party at Buckingham Palace hosted by the Queen of England. He’s stood on the equator in Ecuador and proceeded down the aisle at Canterbury Cathedral. He has presided over the 100th anniversary celebration of the Episcopal Church in Zambia, which was also attended by the country’s president and his machine gun-toting entourage. He has visited quaint churches in the hamlets of Wales and Northern Ireland.
In Kansas, he puts between 30,000 miles and 40,000 miles each year on his Chevy Tahoe. As part of the church’s canon, Wolfe has to visit each congregation once every three years. He tries to visit them all in almost half that time.
“One of his greatest attributes is his energy,” said Larry Bingham, a Johnson County resident who was chairman of the search committee that brought Wolfe to Kansas.
‘Exactly what we needed’
Wolfe’s religious calling began at a young age. He grew up in a suburb of Dayton, Ohio, and was raised in the Church of the Brethren. During his high school years, the pastor of the congregation recognized Wolfe’s talents — he was student body president, on the speech team and active in the youth group — as ones that would translate well in the world of ministry.
By 16, Wolfe was a licensed minister, giving sermons once a year and leading Bible studies. By his junior year of college, he was handed his own congregation. It was a small one, about 60 to 80 people, but his services were broadcast on the local radio station.
While Wolfe attended Miami University of Ohio, he took so many religion courses that it earned him a second major. And it was there that he was introduced to the Episcopal Church.
“I was very interested in the Episcopalian history of heart and mind,” Wolfe said. “I felt it was very intellectual, which was very appealing to a college student.”
After college he worked in business but stayed active in the Episcopal Church as a lay person and senior warden.
At age 31, Wolfe made the decision to attend seminary at the Virginia Theological Seminary. Between seminary and his position as the bishop of Kansas, Wolfe served at a congregation in Berkeley, Calif., as associate rector for community life at the historic Trinity Church in Boston and as vice rector for Saint Michael and All Angels Church in Dallas, one of the largest Episcopal churches in the country.
In 2003, Wolfe became the bishop of Kansas. Wolfe, who is now 53, was appointed at a young age and without having been the lead pastor of a church. But he had effectively been the chief operating officer of what was at that time the largest Episcopal Church in the country.
“He was young at the time he came in, but he has just turned out to be exactly what we needed,” Bingham said.
When Wolfe was given the position, Bingham recommended Lawrence as a great place to raise a family. Wolfe would later come to agree.
In Lawrence, Wolfe’s son William attended Bishop Seabury Academy, where he played football. William is now in his first year at Sewanee: The University of the South, and his parents are adjusting to life as empty-nesters.
Wolfe sits on the board of trustees at Bishop Seabury and helped the school, which has students of various faiths, develop an Episcopal identity, said Don Schawang, head of school.
“He is just one of the most kind, thoughtful and encouraging people I have ever met,” Schawang said. “And he is just a sense of strength and stability.”
When he’s not traveling or behind the pulpit, Wolfe enjoys writing poetry, being outdoors and collecting old prayer books. Of all the characters in the Bible, Wolfe most sympathizes with the Apostle Paul, largely because of the letters Paul would write to encourage congregations in faraway lands.
“He was wanting them to stay engaged, steadfast and to remind the community to care for the poorest of people,” Wolfe said.
At meetings, Wolfe is the first to offer solutions and the last to leave, Bingham said.
“He grasps a situation, internalizes it immediately and comes up with visionary stuff,” Bingham said of Wolfe.
Throughout his career, Wolfe has seen a lot of his work as that of bridge builder. His church is one that embraces diversity, welcoming unwed mothers, divorced people, gays, lesbians and transgenders.
“That kind of inclusivity is very much at the core of the gospel,” Wolfe said. “We don’t ask what would Jesus do; we look at what he did.”
The church is growing in Haiti, Ecuador and among Hispanic communities in the United States. Within the Kansas diocese, Wolfe said, more than $1 million has been raised for medical care in Kenya. There is also a program in Wichita to help refugees from Myanmar.
Shortly after arriving to Kansas, Bingham said, Wolfe was able to reach a friendly settlement with a church that left because of differing views on homosexuality.
“He is excellent at reconciliation,” Bingham said.
His work extends beyond bridging difference between suburban Johnson County and southwest Kansas to the Archbishop of England and the churches in culturally conservative Africa.
“He’s done a lot of great work here in Kansas, nationally and internationally,” Bingham said.
No different from many other religious groups, the Episcopal Church has had to find ways to thrive in a world that is politically polarized, in rough economic times and declining in church membership.
Of all those challenges, Wolfe said the most pressing is introducing the next generation to the Christian faith.
“In a time when the culture is yelling, the church is whispering,” Wolfe said.