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Small Episcopal worshiping community in Methow relies on members


Shannon Polson sings during a service.  Courtesy of the Polsons

Since moving three years ago with her husband Peter and sons Sam and Jude to 20 acres near Winthrop, speaker, author and veteran Shannon Polson has helped start a small worshiping community, Methow Episcopal.

She and Peter, both cradle Episcopalians, found no nearby progressive, liturgical church when they settled in the Methow Valley, adding to the 6,000 residents. 

Like other professionals settling in the Methow to be close to nature and outdoor activities, the Polsons are interested in social services, and love arts and athletics. For 10 years, the Polsons came to the Methow Valley from Seattle to hike, backcountry ski and cross-country ski.

For Ash Wednesday 2015, they put an ad in the Methow Valley News announcing a 5 p.m. service at the Mazama Community Center, an old school house at the head of Methow Trails.

They took ashes from the fire pit at the Mazama Nordic Ski Trainhead.  No one came, so they and their sons, then two and five, held a service following the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer.

They continued to meet and list services in the paper.  Two or three new people came every Sunday.  Six months later, to accommodate others living further down the valley, they began renting space at the Friendship Alliance Church, 809 Highway 20 in Winthrop, for $7.50 an evening.

Now 45 people from Mazama, Winthrop, Twisp, Carlton and the Methow Valley gather there or in homes at 5 p.m., Sundays—with an average of 15 to 25 on a Sunday. Methow Episcopal is a Bishop’s Chapel with the Episcopal Diocese of Spokane.

As a volunteer group, all help make the fellowship work.

For their liturgy, they use the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, a resource called “Enriching Our Liturgy” and the New Zealand Book of Common Prayer.

Their music is a mix of traditional and contemporary music.  One music leader, a former Catholic, incorporates music from a Catholic hymnal and a pianist plays from the Episcopal hymnal.

Each service includes a simple agape meal, and when a priest comes—retired Bishop Cabbell Tennis, Stanalee Wright from St. Ann’s in Omak, Marilyn Wilder from Oroville or recently Bishop Gretchen Rehberg— they celebrate the Eucharist.

Using Google Docs, which Peter manages, participants sign up to read, give the message or take on other fellowship tasks.

A steering committee—rather than a vestry—meets quarterly to make decisions about worship, fellowship, education and mission.  Still, overseeing the work of the fellowship is more than they initially expected.

“I had asked Peter, what’s so different about sitting around and reading from the prayer book and inviting a few friends to do that with us?” Shannon remembered, laughing. “We’ve taken on a much bigger commitment, but’s it’s also an incredible gift to our family and, I hope, the community.”

Shannon, who grew up in St. Mary’s Episcopal in Anchorage, Alaska, and graduated in 1993 from Duke University in English, art history and ROTC, served eight years in the Army in Alabama, North Carolina, Bosnia, Arizona, Korea, Kuwait and Texas.  She met Peter at Tuck Business School at Dartmouth.  They earned master’s degrees in business in 2003.

For a few years after graduate school, she left the Episcopal church, but “I never doubted the existence of God.  I only doubted the definition some people seemed to have of God,” she said.

Peter, who grew up in Seattle, graduated in environmental studies in 1995 from Middlebury College in Vermont.  He worked with technology in investment banking in New York City for several years before joining a startup business in Seattle before going to Tuck.

After marrying, they lived 10 years in Seattle, where Shannon worked with Guidant Corporation and Microsoft.  Peter started Tiller Money. Shannon left Microsoft to do a master’s in fine arts (MFA) at Seattle Pacific University.

Before earning her degree in 2012, Shannon published a memoir, North of Hope.  It’s the story of her trip to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Northeast Alaska following in the footsteps of her father and stepmother, who were killed by a grizzly bear while kayaking there in 2005. 

Shannon and her father loved the wilderness and classical music, so she weaves Mozart’s Requiem into the book, in an intricate tapestry as a requiem for those who have gone before. 

“There is beauty in music and in the wilderness of the remote place they were killed,” she said. 

She doesn’t believe in resolution, but recalls reading that “loss and pain stretch the heart so we can hold more beauty and love. It’s never okay.”

Shannon is now working on a memoir of her time in the military and a book on leadership of women in the military.  She also writes essays, poetry and short stories. To earn a living, she travels two to three times a month to speak on leadership for corporations, associations and organizations.

“I urge storytelling and connecting to a core purpose before leading others.  A leader needs not only to listen first but also to cut out extraneous noise,” she said.  “A leader needs courage to own a team’s successes and failures.”

 Eventually, she plans to write more about the natural world.

She and Peter coordinate their times away so one is in the Methow Valley with the boys.  Peter goes two to three days a month to the Tiller Money headquarters in Seattle and works mostly virtually to help individuals and small businesses track spending.

The Methow Valley drew the Polsons because “it’s a quiet, beautiful place to be active outdoors—hiking, backpacking, back-country and Nordic skiing.

Ideologically/politically, Shannon said the mix between liberal and conservative folks reminds her of her upbringing in Alaska.

“In a small community, we need to accommodate all ideas,” she said. “Groups like the Methow Conservancy work to protect lands, taking into consideration both ranchers/agriculture and environmental concerns,” she said.

Bishop Rehberg recently told her a church can talk of staying out of politics, but “politics happens when people live in community.”

“When I was young, I thought the church should not be involved in politics, but the Gospel is clear that we are to care for the poor, the outsiders and those who are less advantaged,” she said.  “We have neighbors all around us. We need to be involved as stewards of what we are given in creation, and to reach out to those in need. If that takes on a political tone, then it is part of living the Gospel.”

The chapel tithes its offerings to Room One and bought winter coats for high school students.  They hope to adopt a family to help with resume writing, job training and other needs.  Individuals are involved with the food bank and school.

“Faith is important to me in difficult times and joyful times.  I feel God’s presence and guidance and seek to follow Jesus’ example,” Shannon said.

The Polsons wanted a local faith community to give their sons Sam, 7, and Jude, 4, a foundation to experience faith in a community with worship and fellowship.

“We also work to live our faith, not just pray and talk about it at home,” she said. “We call ourselves desert seekers.  We want children and all people who are seeking to feel welcome.”

Shannon gives the message about twice a month, and a priest does it once a month. Others give it once or twice a year.

At one point, Shannon began a master’s of divinity degree part-time at Seattle University, but decided to pursue the MFA instead.

When asked about any plans or calling, she said, “I believe God uses all of us regardless of pedigrees.  We are all leaders, called to be in fellowship.  I’m open to how that call may evolve,” she said.

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