Even in junior high school, Jacob “Jake” Owensby felt God tugging at his heart. But the special “calling” for his life unfolded slowly. His path led him from a professor of philosophy to becoming the 4th Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Louisiana.
As bishop, Owensby is the shepherd over a flock of 48 congregations with about 10,000 members throughout the state. “God is calling me to help each congregation to be God’s mercy, justice and reconciliation in their local community. I want to help them be the ‘hands and feet’ of Jesus right where they are,” says Owensby. His upbringing and struggles early on in life helped prepare him for a life of servitude and ministry, he notes.
Owensby, who was consecrated as the bishop in 2012, was born in South Carolina, but raised in Georgia. His mother, a German immigrant from Austria, came to America as a teenager through Ellis Island after World War II. She had been rescued by American troops from the Mauthausen concentration camp. His mother had been thrown into the Nazi concentration camp because she was “caught” listening to a British radio program. “Her mother, my grandma, was taken for slave labor in an underground tank factory in Linz while her father, my grandfather, who served in the German Austrian tank division on the western front was shipped to the east–which was basically a death sentence. But all three of them lived,” Owensby enthuses, adding that his mom’s parents traveled to America two years after she arrived.
Jake grew up hearing the horrors of his mother’s childhood. All of his mother’s friends were raped and mutilated, and her family’s home was destroyed by bombs during the war. His mother, Trudy, endured and eventually met and married Sam Owensby. “My dad was actually named James but they called him Sam after a local notorious outlaw because he acted up,” Owensby says with a smile. His dad ran away from home at age 15, lied about his age and joined the U.S. Navy. He became a frogman and anti-aircraft gunner who fought in the Pacific theater during WWII. Later, his dad worked in textile mills in the South.
Owensby was born with a cleft palate, a birth defect that distorted his speech. As a boy, he was often taunted. “I couldn’t pronounce S’s or J’s. Sometimes even adults were cruel. I was bullied. But it didn’t leave me bitter because I had a lot of friends and terrific teachers who took me under their wings and recognized something in me. They taught me how to write well, read carefully and think clearly,” Owensby recalls, thinking about the nuns and laymen who taught him in the Catholic and parochial schools he attended.
Though as a toddler Jake underwent surgery to partially correct his cleft palate, it was not until he was an adult in college that a second operation fully corrected the birth defect and gave him normal speech. But Owensby says he is thankful for the speech impediment because it allowed him to have the gift of compassion. “I feel nothing but gratitude. I have compassion for people who feel like they are on the outside and I have compassion for people who want to be understood,” he says, adding that he is grateful for the people God has put into his life.
Although raised Catholic, Jake knew even in the seventh-grade that he wanted a wife and family one day. “I felt like the priesthood was not right for me. As a Roman Catholic, being married and being a priest didn’t go together,” Owensby remarks, so he pursued philosophy in college.
It was during the time he was studying at Emory University that Jake met his future bride, Joy, who he says is his soul mate and the love of his life. Joy, who was raised Methodist, and Jake began dating and together decided to start attending an Episcopal church. Turns out, Owensby notes, that it was a decision where his footsteps were being led by God. The two were married in 1983. Before ordination, Jake earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from Emory University, where he also received a master’s and bachelor’s degree. He served on the philosophy faculty at Jacksonville University during graduate school.
The first year they were married, Jake and Joy lived in Germany, where he was a scholar in residence at Ruhr University while working on his doctoral dissertation. “We were as poor as church mice, but it was a wonderful year. In public, we would only speak German so we would get real good,” Owensby recalls, smiling.
The couple, who reside on Kincaid Lake in Alexandria, have three children: Andrew, who is a U.S. Navy corpsman who earned a Bronze Star with Valor in Afghanistan while deployed with the U.S. Marines; Meredith, who attends Louisiana State University at Alexandria; and Patrick, a student at Louisiana Tech University.
Owensby later graduated from St. Luke’s School of Theology at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. He was ordained to the diaconate and then to the priesthood in 1997 in the Diocese of Florida. Owensby served as the assistant rector for Christian Formation at St. Mark’s in Jacksonville until accepting a call to be the rector of St. Stephen’s in Huntsville, Alabama. In 2003, he became rector of Emmanuel Episcopal Church in metropolitan St. Louis, and served there until 2008 when he became the dean at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Shreveport. In July 2012, Owensby was elected the fourth Bishop of Western Louisiana.
Author of two books, Dilthey and the Narrative of History, and Connecting the Dots: A Hope-Inspired Life, Bishop Jake says being a “servant of the Lord” brings him fulfillment. “The meaning of my life is being able to serve somebody else. I am genuinely fed by doing good for others,” he explains. To that end, he has launched a servanthood ministry in his diocese, and in 2015, plans to start a congregation missional initiative that will provide grants to his parishioners to create ministries that will help people in their communities with a multitude of needs. “Nobody comes to Jesus on a roll; they come to him in need. We come to God bruised. It makes me feel alive to see someone down on their luck be surprised by the love we give them. We want to reach out to others with compassion and love,” Owensby adds.
To help get the word out, Bishop Jake frequently writes on his blog at pelicananglican.blogspot.com, is active on Facebook and Twitter, and has recorded numerous messages on Sound Cloud. For more information about Bishop Jake and the Diocese of Western Louisiana, visit www.diocesewla.org.