Emmanuel and The Episcopal Church have been part of the Mercer Island community since 1909, but they have never had a female rector.
That was, until this summer. The Rev. Elizabeth Riley was hired after a unanimous vote of both the Rector Search Committee and the Vestry, and her first Sunday was July 22.
Riley said she is “thrilled” to join the Emmanuel family and be embedded in the community. She said she’s enjoyed meeting members of the church, especially multigenerational Island families.
“I’ll see kids, their parents and both sets of grandparents sitting in one pew together,” she said. “It feels like a place that’s built for families and a wonderful place to raise mine.”
Her husband Scott is a doctoral student in English literature and she has two daughters — Eleanor, who is almost 3, and Amelia, who is 8 and a half months old.
“The entire family is involved [in the church],” Riley said. “This isn’t like other jobs. Not everybody brings their family to work with them!”
Emmanuel “captured” Riley and her family during the search process, though Riley shared in her first sermon that she was convinced she wasn’t going to get the job, “because [she] was really pregnant.” The search committee held its process until Riley returned from maternity leave.
Riley and her family are renting a house on Mercer Island until Emmanuel’s rectory has completed construction, which will likely be in the spring.
“I’m honored to be the first tenant, but it’s not my house; it’s the church’s,” she said. “I want to build a legacy that will live after me, but it’s about the needs of the community, not the priest.”
She said that the Mercer Island community has been “incredibly warm and welcoming,” and that Emmanuel “feels like family already.” The church is planning a fall kickoff celebration and meet and greet on Sept. 9, which will be free and open to the community.
Riley said she is excited to get to know the community and meet other faith leaders. She said she’s had great mentors who have given her the tools and training needed to bring about her vision in the church, though she said she’s not exactly sure what it is yet.
“It’s still developing, and the process doesn’t involve just me. It’s us as a community, coming together,” she said. “The work of a church is the work of a community. It’s not a top-down vision.”
Riley also said she appreciates Emmanuel’s connections with community groups that share its campus, including Patti’s Play Center, Emmanuel Day School and Youth Theatre Northwest (YTN), to name a few. Her daughter Eleanor has taken classes at YTN and will attend Emmanuel Day School.
In a way, moving to the Pacific Northwest feels like coming home for Riley, who was born in Wasilla, Alaska and spent most of her formative years in Anchorage. She said she found the Episcopal Church in middle school and felt her calling to the priesthood at age 15. She moved to the Bay Area to attend college at Saint Mary’s College of California, where she studied theology and English.
After receiving her bachelor’s degree, she attended seminary at Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley. She received a master of divinity and was then ordained to the priesthood by the Diocese of Alaska. Her last position was as associate rector at Trinity Episcopal Church in Menlo Park, California, where she oversaw outreach, justice work, pastoral care, young adult and newcomer ministry for five years.
Riley also serves as a board member of Young Clergy Women International, overseeing fundraising and development, and loves photography, baking and quilting. As a family, the Rileys love playing music together, exploring nature and spending time with their extended family, some of whom live in the area.