Survey on bishop elections shows high regard for processes, areas to improve

July 5, 2009

A survey examining the processes by which new bishops were elected and seated over a six-year period shows that people involved had high regard in general for the experience and a number of suggestions for improvement, according to a preliminary summary report issued July 3.

The decadal survey, evaluating election and transition processes held between 2002 and 2008, was conducted by the Episcopal Church’s College for Bishops and the Office for Pastoral Development at the Church Center in New York.

"Overall the results of the survey are quite optimistic about the state of the current processes and offer a range of excellent suggestions for improving them,” said the Rev. Paula Nesbitt, visiting associate professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who directed the survey and analyzed the results.

Eleven different groups, from candidates and spouses to search committees and diocesan staff, were contacted in November 2008 and asked to complete the survey. By mid-January 2009, 54 percent (a statistically significant sample) had responded.

The preliminary report's executive summary states that the step taken with the most detrimental effect was the moratorium on further elections. This resulted "in a loss of momentum and high turnover within committees and in candidates."

(The moratorium refers to a March 2005 decision by the House of Bishops to halt consents to bishop elections until the 2006 General Convention in response to the 2004 Windsor Report.)

Areas cited for improvement include discussion of compensation packages with candidates, more effectively working with those nominated by petition as well as by committee, and clarifying the roles of various committees involved in the search and transition.

"From a pastoral perspective, the process appears to be well-balanced between spiritual discernment and hiring practices," the summary report says. There was high regard for the role of chaplain to a search committee as well as the use of assigned "shepherds" for nominees.

What was missing and considered much needed were "practices for better transition and appropriate closure at the end of committee work, as well as for nominees who are not elected," the summary said.

Bishop of Atlanta J. Neil Alexander, president of the College for Bishops, said: "It is important from time to time to step back and look at the processes we use to elect leaders at every level of the church, and this is no less true of our bishops. While the research shows there are a number of places we can improve our election processes, overall they seem to be working and offering to the church desirable results."

Bishop F. Clayton Matthews, bishop of the Office of Pastoral Development, managing director of the College for Bishops and convener of the task force that organized the survey, said he believes the results will continue to be "an invaluable resource for evaluation, resource development and recommended improvements for several years to come."

Alexander said he expects the task force to issue in about a year a follow-up report that could make some recommendations for changes in the bishop election and transition processes.