By Elliott Wright
October 9, 2019 | ATLANTA

Norma J. Kehrberg, a long-time United Methodist missionary and the first woman to lead the United Methodist Committee on Relief, died on Oct. 6, 2019, following a long illness. She was 81 years old and lived in Hawaii in retirement.

She spent almost 25 years as a missionary in Nepal, and from 1984 to 1991, was head of the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), the relief and development agency of The United Methodist Church and a part of the General Board of Global Ministries. She is thought to be the first woman to hold such a position among Protestant denominations.

Norma Kehrberg in Nepal, 1995. PHOTO: GLENN MADDY 

Her service in Nepal, then a Hindu kingdom, was primarily in education and literacy programs and fell into two blocks. A first segment of more than a decade began in 1967 and the second was from 1991 to 2001. Most of her work related to the United Mission to Nepal, an ecumenical ministry engaged in health, education, and rural and industrial development. Her last assignment was as director of education for the United Mission. She was noted for non-formal education programs for women, and she founded the YWCA in Nepal.

“Norma Kehrberg embodied the embracing spirit of Christian mission,” said Thomas Kemper, chief executive of Global Ministries. “She was truly remarkable. As missionary, teacher, relief executive, and volunteer; as local church member and General Conference participant, she shared God’s love and promoted mercy and justice.

“Norma believed in and practiced ecumenical Christian faith and mission. Her openness to other communions equipped her for partnerships through the United Mission to Nepal and UMCOR. All effective relief efforts involve collaboration.”

After retirement, Kehrberg continued to be involved in The United Methodist Church on several levels, from her home congregation, Harris United Methodist Church on Oahu, to jurisdictional and general conferences. She was three times a delegate from the California-Pacific Annual Conference to Western jurisdictional conferences and an alternate to several general conferences. After leaving Nepal at the end of 2001, she served two short interims as a local pastor on Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands.

“Norma was a sheer joy for her local church, district and annual conference,” said Bishop Grant J. Hagiya of the California-Pacific Conference. “Dedicated, prophetic and a born leader, Norma provided such wonderful contributions to our conference, and we will all miss her greatly. May the joys of heaven be hers!”

Kehrberg also remained active in retirement in the United Methodist Missionary Association, a role recalled by Bishop Roy I. Sano, retired from the California-Pacific Conference, in a tribute: “A brilliant woman, with a vast range of outreach through her faith and a deeply warm Christian in personal relationships, she boosted me along in my faith and vocational journey with personal interactions and some assignments she gave me.”

Kemper recalled Kehrberg’s pastoral sense. “As a retired missionary, Norma was constantly inquiring about the welfare of active mission personnel and Global Ministries’ staff. I received many personal notes of encouragement from her.”

In describing herself in a missionary letter to friends, Ms. Kehrberg wrote, “My role is to participate in the world, fulfilling the commandments and teachings of Christ through witness and action.”

Kehrberg was raised and attended high school in Plymouth County, Iowa, and in 2005 was inducted into the county Hall of Fame. She earned degrees at Westmar College in Iowa, the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and the University of Hawaii. Before entering mission service in 1967, she taught music in public schools in Iowa and Nebraska.

“Norma held broad interests in people and issues,” Kemper said. “She loved to recount stories about her interactions with families in Himalayan villages and she was also at home with scholars doing studies on the influence of religion on social structures and personal attitudes.”

One of her books is “The Cross in the Land of the Khukuri,” a “khukuri” being a kind of knife closely associated with certain Nepalese cultures. The work traces the formation of an indigenous Nepalese Christianity true to the gospel and to its cultural identity. Another book, “Love in Action,” covers the first 50 years of the now 80-year-old UMCOR. She also authored many articles.

Kehrberg is survived by three brothers, Charles, Donald and Robert. The date for a memorial service will be announced later.

Elliott Wright is the information consultant for Global Ministries.