In 2015 General Convention created a Task Force on the Episcopacy. Some of the Task Force’s ideas were presented at the recently concluded House of Bishops meeting. Among ideas offered were the creation of a list of pre-vetted candidates for election to bishop. Frederick Schmidt offered an opinion piece, A Nursery for Ambition, outlining ways he thought such a list was a bad idea. The overwhelming response here at the Cafe and elsewhere has been a loud rejection of the idea. In this essay, Andrew Gerns offers another way of looking at how we select bishops that might be improved with a potential for discernment prior to entering into the election process.
by Andrew Gerns
Do we want a formed and prepared episcopate?
Dr. Frederick Schmidt’s reaction to the interim report of the Task Force on the Episcopate at this week’s House of Bishops meeting seems be to that only people previously vetted by a select group would be considered for the episcopate—giving way to the sin of excess ambition; and that this process might both diminish the role of the laity in the councils of the church thereby hindering the work of the Holy Spirit.
His concern is about excess ambition.
My concern is about having healthy, competent people prepared for episcopal ministry.
In our country, we have a bias that the Holy Spirit can only work through democratic processes and that somehow committees or closed rooms inherently stifle the action of God. In fact, from the selection of the first apostle to replace Judas (drawn by straws in a closed committee of eleven men), through the middle ages, down to the present, there have been a variety of ways that the Church has chosen to listen for the Spirit in the selections of its leaders. Some of these have been in open councils but most of the time it has taken place in smoke- (incense?) filled rooms.
The second question is that people are assuming we are being asked to select our nominees only from a group of pre-selected people. Besides the fact that right now Diocesan Conventions do precisely that…the pre-selection coming from Search and Nominating Committees that already vet and select a slate of nominees that is rarely deviated from on the floor…I think this misses the point.
We don’t have a “preferment” process as in the Church of England. Instead, we elect people to be our Bishops in conventions. We vet these nominees through a modified executive search followed by an inherently political process when the final group of nominees is put before a convention for an election.
Here’s the rub: when we are selecting a Bishop we are both choosing a future leader for a given diocese and we are discerning if a person is called to a specific ordained office and ministry within the Church.
When a person presents her or himself to the church for ordination to the diaconate or the priesthood, the process usually takes two to four years (often more!). They must be recommended by their priest and parish vestry. They must go through a formal discernment process. They are medically and psychologically screened. They are recommended by their seminaries (or place of study), reviewed by a Commission on the Ministry and a Diocesan Bishop. They receive a lengthy period of education. And many of the elements are repeated more than once as they move through Postulancy and Candidacy.
But, generally speaking, what we do not do is discern a person’s call to be a priest or deacon while at the same interviewing them to be the Rector of a parish, which is precisely what we are doing in a typical episcopal election. We are not only asking if this person called to be a Bishop, we are asking if this person is called to be our Bishop.
And we don’t wait until after their ordinations of deacons and priests before we start their formation process, which is precisely what we do with our Bishops!
Furthermore, we don’t ordain deacons and priests who protest that they don’t want, deserve, or need the call. Yet if a person owns a call to episcopacy, we are suspicious. Humility before God is a good thing, especially in light of any call to any lifelong vocation. But false humility clouds thinking and impedes conversation.
What do we ask of a future Bishop in the selection process? They write some essays. They are interviewed alone and in groups. They are background checked. They are also checked out physically and psychologically. If they are nominated, they are introduced to groups of laity and clergy, and they are voted on in a Convention. After that, a majority of the Standing Committees and Bishops ratify the election.
While this process is very intense, it is not formation-in-discernment which is typical of deacons and priests, or even future members of most religious communities and orders.
We provide no special schooling, no particular training, and no peer supervision for those who are discerning a call to the episcopacy (while new bishops do receive mentoring and training, this is after they start their new ministry). In fact, to even say out loud that a person is discerning such a call is to risk the accusation of prideful ambition. Our unspoken ideal is that all of our potential bishops are running away from the call, hiding among the geese, as Ambrose did. The result is that we don’t give permission for the church to weigh the viability of a call until we get to the point of an election and as soon as it is known that person might be interested in pursuing such a call they must be sure that they don’t appear to really want it.
So, with these unspoken assumptions in play, it is perhaps inevitable that many new bishops are surprised that the kind of authority that they carry is completely different than what they may have experienced in their previous ministries. This authority may go to their head or it may overwhelm, but it will be new. They may be unprepared that they will largely be doing this ministry in solitude; yes, with support of clergy and Standing Committee and the rest, but alone. The assumption that a diocesan bishop has huge discretionary authority usually crashes into the reality that most of the authority is played out through influence and relationship, often exercised in a diocese that is brand new to them.
While the question of excess ambition is something that nominees, Standing and Search Committees and electors must face, I think the real question is preparation and formation. It seems to me that what really gets in the way of the work of the Spirit is not how we select people for the Episcopacy but how we prepare people for the office. We encourage people with certain gifts to consider the diaconate or the priesthood (or at least we should) but do we encourage people to consider a call the episcopacy—even if such a call never materializes? If a person does take part in that discernment how are they received; are they derided as an ambitious ladder climber or are they nurtured and formed as people putting themselves forward to serve the Church?
How do we prepare persons for the kind of leadership that is required of Bishops? Who schools them on the wise use of canonical authority? Who supervises them when this new role calls up unexpected internal questions, doubts, fears, uncertainties which is surely a normal part of taking on this new office? How does one cope with the feeling that one might be drinking from a fire hose? How do we assist our new bishops to their new role while preserving (and hopefully deepening) their life of prayer?
Just as a good commission on ministry and seminary can never fully prepare an ordinand for life in the parish, some kind of formation process for potential bishops could not fully prepare anyone for the reality of the episcopacy. But it might help. If a process that can assist future Bishops and Diocesan communities for the nuances (and traps) of this new ministry, and if a way can be found for those who are called to discern for the episcopacy to do that before they end up on a nominating slate, let alone sitting in a cathedra, then I think that this would serve the whole church, making for both healthier bishops and dioceses.
The Rev Andrew Gerns is Rector of Trinity Episcopal church in Easton, PA and was a candidate for bishop of Northern Indiana