A Nursery for Ambition?

This article also appears at Patheos.com


by Frederick Schmidt


In a report from the meeting at the House of Bishops for The Episcopal Church, Bishop Dan Martins notes that the bishops are considering creating a pool of prospective candidates for the episcopacy.

[Editor’s Note: The proposal is actually from the Task Force on Episcopacy, created by a 2015 General Convention resolution which was under discussion at the recently concluded House of Bishops meeting.]

As Martins describes it, this pool of would-be bishops would be a list of prospects who are vetted ahead of time, and dioceses electing a new bishop would be encouraged to use that list.  Martins also infers that dioceses choosing to look beyond the list provided them would run the risk of failing to receive approval for their bishop-elect.


As a priest and a theologian, I view this development with a considerable amount of dismay and I hope that – after further reflection – the House will abandon their plans to create a pool of candidates in this fashion.


There are several reasons for my misgivings:


One, in our polity, a call to the episcopacy (like a calling to the diaconate or the priesthood) requires a process of discernment with the prayerful help and wisdom of the church.  It is difficult to imagine how this might be done in a vacuum, on a church-wide basis, without a parish or a diocese to cooperate in the process.


Two, because – more often than not — our bishops are called to provide leadership for a single diocese, the early stages of discernment are narrowed with the creation of a list of this kind.  The life and history of a diocese should shape the process from the beginning.


Three, historically our denomination and our tradition have been misled in the selection process from time to time by electing bishops who were “born to the purple,” either because of familial or social connections.  While a pool of candidates might be chosen on other grounds, this proposal will inevitably re-create that dynamic, if not formalize a system that has not always served the church well.


Four, it is difficult to imagine a list of this kind that is not driven by ideology or ambition.  Martins article does explain how or by whom these candidates would be identified, but one can imagine a whole new series of informal behaviors designed to get one’s name on the list.


Five, the proposal disenfranchises the laity and most of the clergy at one level, by pre-judging who might be considered.  Historically, some of the church’s strongest and most notable bishops were not on anyone’s list and often the best of them have been elected to that office against their own instincts or has pulled them into the office from relative obscurity.  One can imagine that the appeal of the proposal being considered by the bishops is the notion that this process will eliminate political machination from the selection of bishops.  However, what it does, in fact, is simply move those machinations to another playing field or venue, where there is even less opportunity for public scrutiny.


Creating another smoke-filled room or a nursery for ambition in the church is a profound theological and spiritual mistake.



The Rev’d Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt is the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation, Director, The Rueben P. Job Institute for Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL

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  1. Jay Croft

    I wonder what percentage of ordained persons are going to try to get on that list “just in case God calls me.”

  2. John McCann

    Seems like sort of an “insiders club” more political than spiritual, sounds too secular, like climbing the corporate ladder, running for office, rather than “answering a call”. Feel so blessed in the Diocese of New York to have such outstanding Bishops! Andrew, Allen, and Mary are the “real deal”.

  3. Brent Norris

    “An approved pool?” I am thinking that a lot of dioceses might like to have a bishop who isn’t exactly of the same cloth as those who are already in that House.

    • Patricia Templeton

      I’m with you, Brent!

  4. Michael Hopkins

    How utterly horrible. A nursery for ambition indeed.

  5. Ann Fontaine

    What a terrible idea. More control from the “controllers”

  6. Some questions:
    – Who decides on who’s in? Who has a say?
    – What are the criteria?
    – Can someone later on be voted off the island, so to speak?
    – Would the list be public or private? Okay, trick question since nothing stays private for long these days. What does that do to a priest who finds out he/she is on the list? How does that affect his/her relationship with the rest of the church?

  7. Vicki Smith

    This is a really bad idea, smacking of the old boys club even if it isn’t all boys.

  8. Jay Croft

    Betcha from now on, the ordination to the priesthood rite will include an automatic sign-up for this list.

    Maybe it will have an opt-out box, which will be available but seldom used.

  9. John Merchant

    This proposal would appear to be another gesture to treat the calling of a bishop like the “head hunting” process for a corporation. Frankly, I find it inappropriate for dioceses to permit priests to “apply for the position,” as some have done. The Holy Spirit, given her freedom, will “direct and rule the hearts” of members of nominating committees and the electors gathered in council when the sacred process is performed prayerfully, carefully, and mindfully with only as much attention to the “business” matters as is needed for budgetary and legal satisfaction. God’s people, laity and clergy together, of each diocese rightfully choose their new bishops and have done so remarkably well for centuries without being required to “fish only in the waters of the House of Bishops.”

  10. John McCann

    This entire process seems very problematic. It is entirely subjective, there seem to be no real measureble standards. It could be implemented very capriciously: based on no quantifiable criteria. A bishop could say “no” to a man with a beard, if he didnt like beards. Given the expense of a Seminary education, the increasing lack of jobs and opportunities, I am thankful that I am too old, and happy to be in the laity where I can freely express my views and opinions. No thanks! This sounds like a terrible idea.

  11. Jim Jordan

    Seems to me that the Committee would serve the Church better by considering the qualities Dioceses should seek in nominees. I imagine that for any given Diocese, there are two sets of qualifications: (1) the qualifications that apply to every Bishop in the Episcopal Church (maybe segregated as to Ordinary vs Suffragan) and (2) qualifications that make a Bishop likely to succeed in the given Diocese (considering, for example the prevailing cultures).

  12. Pat handloss

    Not a good idea on many levels.

  13. David Allen

    If this were to be implemented, there should be multiple lists;
    1) These pre-candidates should only be called at this time as bishops sufragan (could use a bit more experience leading large organizations)

    2) These pre-candidates are cleared to serve as bishops co-adjutor (need a few rough edges buffed off)

    3) These pre-candidates are qualified for immediate consecration as bishops ordinary (the cream of the crop, ready to hit the ground running)

    And then we can recognize their pre-vetting in their new titles so that we will all be aware that they are on “the list”;
    The Revd Pre-candidate Suffrangan Jon White.
    The Revd Canon Pre-candidate Co-adjutor Andrew Garns
    The Revd Pre-candidate Ordinary Rosalind Hughes

  14. Steve Lane

    Just a note that the idea came from the Task Force on the Episcopate, not the House of Bishops. The report was made by members of the Task Force. And I think it is not yet a proposal.

    • David Allen

      Isn’t that what the 2nd paragraph states?

  15. The Pastoral Epistles have some pretty good advice that the Church – as well as the present Task Force – have chosen to ignore. We might not need Title IV if we had taken the scriptures seriously, if not literally.

  16. Rachel Taber-Hamilton

    List? I don’t need no stinkin’ list! I’d kick ass in purple.

    • Alan Christensen

      People always compliment me when I wear my purple shirt. Makes me wonder if I missed my calling–although that would be a terrible reason to make someone a bishop.

      This proposal sounds way too top-down to me. Does the Holy Spirit still have a say?

  17. Michael Thorne

    I know a wonderful cathedral dean who serves faithfully in a cold corner of the country. He’s probably a capable pointy hat prospect. If there was a pre vetted list of apostolic candidates propective dioceses would have a better chance of knowing about his gifts.

  18. Thom Forde

    No doubt the discernment process needs an over haul. This is not progress.

  19. Philip B. Spivey

    Hark! “Seeking willing and guileless food-tasters for the 1st Annual Primates-in-Waiting Ball.”

    No experience necessary. Career advancement limited.” 🙁

  20. The Rt. Rev'd William O. Gregg, Eastern Oregon VI, resigned

    As usual, Dr. Schmidt provides a thoughtful and insightful consideration of an idea that invites us to further, serious, and thoughtful thinking and conversation. I very much agree with his points about why this idea from the Task Force on the Episcopate is extremely problematic, at best. I also note the emotionality of the reactions the idea evokes as an indicator of why this is not a good direction to take. I would also hope that the Task Force is capable of producing and will produce solid, thoughtful, substantive ideas for all of us to consider as we think and pray about the theology and practice of the episcopacy in The Episcopal Church now and going forward. We need and deserve nothing less.

  21. John Rabb

    Once again the church shows that it can totally over learn. This is a very bad idea, but reflective of how we see an issue, in this case that no all processes work as we wish, and so we have to go to an extreme. Then we only create a worse situation. Let dioceses elect bishops – based only on what the canons state, have proper vetting and stop this crazy “fix it” mentality. Trust the Holy Spirit!

  22. Vernon Sheldon-Witter

    I cannot see any advantage in this at all. Where is room for the moving of the Holy Spirit in Episcopal Matters. Limiting access to the Episcopacy would be a patent denial of the very working of God in the choice of a Bishop of a Diocese. Frankly it is Un-Episcopalian (if such a term can be used) to place a prospective candidates list. This is Mans interference in Godly matters.

  23. Jeff Cox

    You cannot have it both ways. People want more XXXXXXXX group of Bishops. They are never on the “list.” You create a list of XXXXXXXX group of people. Now, people do not want a list.

  24. Tom Little

    Here is the pertinent Resolved clause from the 20125 General Convention Resolution (D004) that established the Task Force on the Episcopacy:

    Resolved, That the Task Force will propose to the 79th General Convention a new process for discernment, nomination, formation, search, election, and transition of bishops in The Episcopal Church including, but not limited to: the roles and responsibilities of the Office of Pastoral Development; the selection of, roles and responsibilities of Transition Consultants; how adjoining dioceses may aid and inform the discernment of a diocese in transition; and any required Constitutional and Canonical changes necessary;

    The Task Force has been trying to discern how dioceses would like more and better resources and assistance at each stage of the processes they go through in the discernment and election process. And since bishops are bishops for the whole Church, we have been considering a broader perspective on the issues and concerns.

    The Task Force is committed to preparing a balanced but likely, in some respects, provocative report to the next General Convention, to prompt deep and careful thinking and reflection, for the good of the Church.

    Tom Little, Secretary of the Task Force

  25. Stephen Voysey

    Very bad idea, and I trust the vast majority of sitting bishops will not be persuaded to establish such a list…the “optics” do not reflect a theology of call. I’ll trust in the surprising gusts of the Holy Spirit at work, thanks very much!

  26. Jeremy Bates

    If memory serves, the Church of England is considering something similar. Pre-clearance seems to be the fashion.

  27. TJ (Thomas) McMahon

    Sounds rather like an excuse to convert the task force into a standing committee on episcopal candidate selection. Strikes me that this is a way to guarantee that, regardless of your stance on theological or social issues, you will be disappointed in the slate of candidates. And rather than a diocese determining its own “profile” and inviting nominations that fit the profile, there will be a “profile” of episcopacy, and dioceses will be expected to mold themselves to it.

  28. Bill Moorhead

    Dr. Schmidt is absolutely right. This is an appalling idea. In the midst of Lent, when many of us are delighting in the hagiographies of Lenten Madness, we should note how many of the great episcopal saints of our tradition were selected as bishops unexpectedly and often against their wills. (The Holy Spirit, yes?) Yes, of course candidates for episcopal election need to be well vetted. But that’s the electing diocese’s job. A “pre-approved” list is, among its many flaws, simple laziness.

  29. Jeremy Bates

    Isn’t the deeper problem the likelihood that any “pre-approved” list will become a way to control bishop nominations centrally?

  30. An awful suggestion for all of the reasons mentioned. I can see a repository where those previously vetted and then not elected might be available for search committees. However, that’s as far as I’d wade into this swamp before it was drained.

  31. David Johnson

    This is awful. The Church has elected some wonderful Bishops in the past, not relying on such management of the pool (An extreme example: Fabian of Rome). However, never underestimate the power of a bad idea endorsed by a group of influential individuals (another extreme example: the Wannsee Conference).

    I like to think that a vibrant combination of call and discernment should be essential elements of ANY search process. Perhaps there would be a male or female Fabian who would emerge out of the fog of “process.”

    This idea is an example, I think, that our efforts to avoid descent into chaos may actually accelerate or exacerbate that descent.

    Thank heavens I am retired.

  32. Brian Thom

    Bishop Martins did infer in his blog that dioceses not using the vetted list may risk canonical approval of their choice. This is his implication; no such possibility was stated or implied by the Task Force presenters.

    The Task Force, made up of six lay members, three priests or deacons, and only three bishops, is the body bringing forth the required response to D004 GC 2015. D004 was approved by both Houses of GC 2015.

    Please see Tom Little’s post above. Let’s see what the Task Force’s Blue Book report actually suggests.

  33. Next, a pre-approved list of laity qualified to be priests or deacons? And why not simply let the Presiding Bishop and Chair of the House of Deputies pick from the list? I have an inkling, whatever method is used, the ratio of great to mediocre to poor bishops will remain about the same.

  34. Anne Bay

    I grew up in the Episcopal Church and it has gone through many changes through the years. I realise that this idea may seem like a good one to some. I am not very active any more -compared to what I was- so am not on the “in” of current church goings on so to speak. When I was young, the selection of candidates for Bishop was considered a “big deal” and a special time for the candidates and the diocese that needed a new bishop. To make a list of easily approvable candidates seems to be a very general category for something that the particular diocese may want/need. Each diocese is unique, with its location, economics, population, history, and other specific interests. So how is having a pre-approved list going to meet those needs? Many candidates are nominated from the diocese in need. Would this list preclude nominating local priests, deans, and other diocesan clergy and focus more on the list or on looking to outside clergy for nomination?– even clergy outside of the U.S.?– I would be interested in who is making these pre-approved lists and what their backgrounds are and are they clergy or laity? Every Episcopalian I have met have their own ideas of what the church needs, so each person who is requested to have in put has their own ideas of what constitutes being qualified for bishop. This is tricky territory. I will be interested to see how this task force is able to put their proposal into effect and work with each other on this task. My concern is that the needs of the parishes that make up the diocese receive proper attention as what would work best for them. Each diocese needs to have a working rapport among the clergy as well as the laity.Thankfully the Episcopal Church in the U.S. has moved forward with regards to LGBT, women clergy, including bishops, respect and compassion for refugees, Transgender, Native American issues and care, and women’s rights to their personal issues and care, and others too many to name here. So I hope the task force going forward with this idea of making up a list of possible candidates for bishop will keep these in mind -we need to go forward and keep the church moving forward. I’m not sure how this task force will be able to gather all the information in their examination of clergy and put it in a workable entity. I think more information to clarify how this would work is needed. My mother once said the Episcopal Church encourages to use your brain, and I hope that is the case with this.

  35. Henry Galganowicz

    This sounds like an enshrinement of the cookie-cutter approach on the highest levels. As some have been wont to say, the disciples wouldn’t make it today.

  36. JC Fisher

    Am I the ONLY one here who flinched at “As Martins describes it”? [Talk about someone w/ an agenda!]

    I’d like to hear *directly* from those behind the proposal.

    • JC…there is no agenda in that phrase. It is a simple acknowledgement that the analysis is based upon Martins’s description. Otherwise, the point of view — both theological and spiritual is explicit. I’d be delighted to hear from others who were at the meeting that Bishop Martins misunderstood the proposal. If not, my concerns remain as described above.

  37. Peter Faass

    So much for the work of the Holy Spirit within the Body of Christ when we seek a new bishop. Who needs her anyway? (snark!)

  38. Janis Johnson

    In my seminary class of 2006, there were already those who planned to become bishops…not from call but from career. The purple shirt syndrome was and is real. Establishing such a pre-approved list simply establishes and “elite” group versus being open to the freshness of the Spirit in call. Such a group shows that it is, as has been stated, a “good old boys’ and girls’ club,” leaving the Spirit out of it. We are about call, not career. We are about discernment, not a dossier. What a bad, bad, bad idea. No wonder we are in such decline.

  39. John McCann

    Janis Johnson: your observations, after a long 25 year “vacation” from the church, has led me back to a strong, Anglo-Catholic and isocial justice centered faith. I had never felt the “call” but quickly saw, exactly what you are taling about. The Church is not about “spirit” and “call”. It is simply a mirror of the secular corporate world, of currying favor with the “right People” making sure one is noticed by the little “insiders” clubs, and careerists. I simply see no difference, except in the external packaging with a few exceptions, of people who seem to exhude the “Holy Spirit”. But so many others are just stepping stones to a “career” ladder in the church, Nothing holy about it. So a pre-selected pool of candidates, isn’t even based on any criteria other than favoritism, and being the “teachers pet”. I am happy to serve God in the laity, with the flexibility to speak up. Under this plan, there would be likely no Bishop Paul Moores, or no Desmond Tutu’s who not only fought against apartheid, but was opposed to the State of Israel (which supported the apartheid regime), and came out in favor of women’s ordination, and opposed to homophobia, xenophobia, and racism. “Candidates” in this proposed “pre elected” group, would likely be intimidated to rock the boat, to speak out, and would want to align themselves with the power structure of the cburch. Which does not seem very “Christian”.

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