Seeking a shepherd

Volunteers play key role in choosing bishop candidates
October 31, 2003

Media coverage of this summer's General Convention focused the harsh lights of celebrity -- at least for a week -- on how Episcopalians choose bishops. The process normally is not so surrounded by media scrutiny, but it is always an important step for a diocese.

The men and women elected influence the ministries, direction and relationships within a diocese like no one else. Choosing the candidates who will stand for these elections may be the most important task taken on by volunteers in the church. So it is not surprising that bishops' elections captivate Episcopalians who love both the church and representative democracy.

The road to an election and consecration can be, on occasion, a bit bumpy. A search committee might fail to include a local candidate and find the diocese rebels. A nominating committee may stumble, miss a red flag it should have seen, and find the result costly, emotionally and financially. Slates presented may be less than diverse and raise the ire of women and minority members of a diocese or of evangelicals who feel they are being excluded because of their theology. (See related stories below).

Yet, despite the occasional pitfalls, the Episcopal Church always has elected its bishops rather than relying on the church bureaucracy to appoint them as the Church of England does. To become a bishop in this country, a priest must win over a search committee and then win a simple majority of both clergy and lay deputies on the same ballot.

Changing process

Sometimes an election requires many ballots: The Diocese of West Tennessee elected Don Johnson on the 15th ballot in March 2001, and the Diocese of Eau Claire chose Keith Whitmore on the 12th ballot in October 1998.

A process once restricted mostly to a diocese and the parishes of priests who agreed to stand for election is now conducted on a national (and sometimes international) stage. Search and nominating committees hold many private meetings, especially when reviewing nominees' names and deciding who will be on the final ballot. But those committees also use the Internet to recruit nominees, to announce slates, to publicize lengthy question-and-answer discussions and to post election results.

When the Diocese of Kansas elected its next bishop in July, it offered streaming video of the electing convention. When the Diocese of Massachusetts sought a new suffragan bishop in April 2002, it made candidates available for spontaneous questions and answers through an Internet "webabout" (a play on the phrase "walkabout," in which candidates travel together throughout a diocese before an election, holding discussions with electing deputies and other Episcopalians).

For Episcopalians who realize how much influence a bishop has on a diocese's long-term direction, monitoring bishops' elections becomes a way of monitoring the church's identity month by month. Louie Crew, founder of Integrity and a member of the church's Executive Council, devotes a section of his extensive website to announcing bishops' retirements and elections (newark.rutgers. edu/~lcrew/elections/index.html). A diocese's candidates sometimes show up on the well-connected Crew's website before appearing on the diocesan website itself.

Bishops-elect represent the end of an extensive and time-consuming process. As bishop of the Episcopal Office of Pastoral Development, F. Clayton Matthews becomes involved, at a sitting bishop's invitation, when dioceses want guidance in seeking their next bishop. "I'm here by invitation to give advice -- not to tell you how to do it," Matthews says when he arrives in a diocese to consult with a nominating committee.

In working with dioceses, Matthews reviews church canons, protocol, forming committees, selecting nominees and handling nominations by petition. He advises nominating committees to put forward between three to five and four to six candidates. He receives copies of all background checks on nominees and studies them for any warning signs about alcoholism, sexual transgressions, crimes or other impediments to ministry as a bishop.

Though some dioceses choose to work on a tighter schedule -- the Diocese of Texas elected Rayford High Jr. as a suffragan bishop within five months -- Matthews recommends allowing 18 months from the call for a new bishop until the consecration.

Further, Matthews helps committees show sensitivity toward nominees who are not elected. Since Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold appointed Matthews in 1998, nominees have told him that it's impossible to avoid being emotionally invested in their possible election. Some dioceses have become so focused on celebrating a new bishop that they forget the other priests who made themselves vulnerable and stood for election.

For instance, nominees' names sometimes disappear from websites as soon as a winner emerges. "Within seconds, it's as if they don't exist," Matthews said.

Matthews advises transition committees to leave their election websites intact for a time and to give each nominee a gift of appreciation. He counsels all nominees before and after election day to help them face their feelings of elation or disappointment.

Screening people in

How do search and nomination committees do their work? How do they start from a number as high as 151 (in New Hampshire) and work their way down to three to five nominees? In interviews with Episcopal Life, committee members in the dioceses of Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Texas repeatedly cited the importance of diocesan profiles. Based on surveys of clergy and laity, a profile describes how a diocese understands itself and what it seeks in its next bishop.

Through reading clergy profiles, interviewing candidates by conference call, visiting candidates in their home parishes and having candidates visit the diocese, committees strive to find the candidates who best match what the diocese has said it seeks in a new bishop.

In Iowa, for instance, committee members said a nominee should be "firmly rooted in a faith in Jesus Christ," a skillful administrator, enjoy ministering directly with children, have a passion for evangelism and "pastorally appreciate a dynamic range of ideas and opinions" on such issues as the place of gay and lesbian people in the church.

In New Jersey, the committee set forth its vision in many crisply written sentences: "We need someone who is comfortable with diversity and is able to work with -- and enjoy --our multicultural mix." "We'd like to see tangible evidence of a deep spiritual commitment, whether that's reflected through a formal rule of life or through other disciplines." "Our bishop should be honorable, open, honest and transparent in his or her dealings with the world."

"It wasn't as if we were seeking a great preacher, a great fund-raiser or a great counselor," New Jersey search committee chairman John Ward said. Committee members were, however, seeking a bishop who would honor promises made during the election, and they discouraged diocesan clergy and laity from hosting private receptions for any one candidate.

In the Diocese Florida, the committee sought a pastor to the clergy, someone who upholds the episcopal vows of guarding the faith and unity of the church and doesn't waffle on the identity of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. "We didn't want an older person because we didn't want the trauma and expense of another election" only a few years later, said Jean Marani, a member of Florida's search committee.

The New Hampshire committee saw its task as spiritual discernment rather than personnel management, said co-chair David P. Jones, rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Concord. Following advice from consultant Gay Jennings, formerly canon to the ordinary in the Diocese of Ohio, the committee chose to stress who it would move forward in the process rather than who it would eliminate. "Every step along the way, we looked for reasons to screen people in," Jones said.

Even with a commitment to decision by unanimity and screening people in, however, thinning the slate required hard work. "We had at least one, if not two, meetings of loving mud-wrestling," Jones said. "I'm the product of a Billy Graham crusade, but I've never had a spiritual experience like the one I had in being part of this search process."

The Rev. Warren Frelund, a deacon at St. John's Episcopal Church in Mason City, Iowa, reported similar experiences in leading Iowa's committee, which chose to call itself a discernment committee.

Like their counterparts in New Hampshire, members of Iowa's discernment committee stressed who would move forward in the process rather than who would be eliminated. The Iowa committee relied on "the God Question" ("God, who are you calling to lead this diocese as bishop?") and a "Guiding Principle" ("The Diocese of Iowa seeks a bishop who is a spiritually authentic leader who has demonstrated the ability to empower the ministry of all the baptized").

Frelund was especially pleased by the God Question, which emerged from a subcommittee. "I think it gave us almost a sense of security," he said. "The search did not feel so overwhelming."

While still a layman, Frelund had led a search for a priest 16 years ago. He said he found Iowa's bishop search far more fulfilling. "This was more open, more spiritual -- almost a conversation with the Holy Spirit," he said. "We opened ourselves to be led by the Spirit, even by looking at names."

"As the committee would look at names, a consensus would emerge that this candidate really matches well with the diocese," Frelund said. "We had to remind ourselves that it's not our job to pick the next bishop of Iowa. It's our job to provide three to five candidates to the standing committee."

The Texas way

The dioceses of Texas and West Texas approach their elections differently than other dioceses do. Diocesan canons require that only delegates to the council may nominate candidates -- and that at least three delegates support any nominee.

The resulting slates are not as limited as one might expect. When Texas Episcopalians elected Don Wimberly to succeed Claude Payne as bishop, he was one of seven candidates. In West Texas, 12 "potential nominees" (including two women) appeared on the diocesan website in preparation for the electing convention on Oct. 11. Delegates would decide on election day which people to accept as nominees.

"The clergy of West Texas are a healthy family," said Bishop James Folts. "We honor one another enough to call a bishop from among us. I just grieve when I read lists of nominees and there is no name from within the diocese. That is an indictment of the clergy family in a diocese."

West Texas does not rely on a nominating committee, and it forsakes the typical walkabout, in which candidates spend a few days traveling through a diocese, meeting fellow Episcopalians and describing what sort of bishop they would be. Folts calls it "the showing of the prize steers."

The diocese recognizes that a bishop's election is political, but it strives to keep the process from being politicized, Folts said. "We do not speak of candidates. We do not speak of winning and losing."

The Rev. Canon Kevin E. Martin was one of the seven candidates in the Diocese of Texas, and he has been in four elections during his 22 years as a priest. (He also is a potential nominee in West Texas.) Martin is director of Vital Church Ministries at Christ Episcopal Church in Plano, Texas, and served as canon for congregational development for the Diocese of Texas for 10 years.

In two essays he's written for his Vital Church Ministries newsletter, Martin provides sharp criticism of how dioceses choose their nominees for bishop. Martin concedes in the articles that he doesn't expect dioceses to change their processes, but he believes those processes are not serving the church well.

"They're going from nominating committees to bishop selection committees," Martin told Episcopal Life. "The task of the nominating committee should be to see that the diocese has at least five candidates who are qualified."

Martin said he believes that nominating committees function too much like parish-level search committees, that the search process is too drawn out, that committees ask intrusive questions (such as, "How do you and your wife maintain your relationship?") and that the process does not favor the sometimes eccentric personalities of leaders.

"I don't think they go after leaders, but people who have proven track records of preventing turmoil in their parishes," Martin said. "What do we have in the House of Bishops now? People who think that their most important job is to run the diocese."

Martin's criticisms are not persuasive to Bishop Matthews, who called them too broad. Overly large slates grow unwieldy during background checks and walkabouts, he said.

Even so, Martin yearns for the process as it functioned before 1970, when committees did background checks on nominated candidates rather than narrowing the field of candidates.

Historian Robert Prichard of Virginia Theological Seminary said he believes that search and nominating committees emerged as an effort at bringing more democracy to bishops' elections. The church, he said, was trying to move away from small groups of influential people determining who would be nominated as bishop.

"Maybe it's a different set of people doing the sorting," Prichard said, "but you still have a small group of people making the decision."