A few months back the Rev. Frank Wade of the Diocese of Washington wrote a column on the qualifications voters should be look for and the questions they should be asking themselves when they select a bishop.
We all affirm that our bishop must be a leader but what many of us are actually looking for is a chauffeur, someone in the driver’s seat who goes where we tell them to take us. We reasonably look for someone who seems to want what we want with the implication that they will do what we would do in order to achieve it.
It is reasonable for people to want a leader who looks, thinks, feels or has experienced life as they have. This inevitably leads us to look for someone identified with the same subset of the church or culture that defines us. This is often enhanced by the desire to “make a statement” by electing someone who defies increasingly outdated stereotypes. Championing a person for these reasons puts us in the unreasonable position of urging everyone in our subset to support them because subsets matter and everyone else to support them because subsets do not matter.
Since all bishops must carry the common burdens of our humanity, they do some things better than others. Unlike the next life where we are told we will “go from strength to strength,” electing conventions have a tendency to try to go from weakness to strength by seeking someone who does well what their predecessors did poorly or not at all. It is a reasonable but unwise course. Our next bishop will be building on the past but the sole arena of their episcopate will be the future. It is best to ask what skills that future is likely to require rather than the attributes we wished we had in the past.
I attended an electing convention ten days ago, and my diocese will be choosing Bishop John Bryson Chane's successor next year, so this issue is much on my mind. I am particularly interested in Wade's third point, which is that diocese sometimes elect in reaction to the incumbent. I don't think that will happen in Washington, but I will be disappointed if we end up erring on the side of safety or make what some might call a "pastoral" choice--a description which, in my experience, is often applied to a bishop whose schedule is consumed by the affairs of insecure clergy and problem parishes.
What other pitfalls should dioceses be aware of as they look for a new bishop?