Support the Café

Search our Site

A Nursery for Ambition?

A Nursery for Ambition?

This article also appears at


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


Café Comments?

Our comment policy requires that you use your real first and last names and provide an email address (your email will not be published). Comments that use non-PG rated language, include personal attacks, that are not provable as fact or that we deem in any way to be counter to our mission of fostering respectful dialogue will not be posted.

Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
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”.

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.

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!)

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.

Frederick Schmidt

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.

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.

Support the Café
Past Posts

The Episcopal Café seeks to be an independent voice, reporting and reflecting on the Episcopal Church and the Anglican tradition.  The Café is not a platform of advocacy, but it does aim to tell the story of the church from the perspective of Progressive Christianity.  Our collective sympathy, as the Café, lies with the project of widening the circle of inclusion within the church and empowering all the baptized for the role to which they have been called as followers of Christ.

The opinions expressed at the Café are those of individual contributors, and, unless otherwise noted, should not be interpreted as official statements of a parish, diocese or other organization. The art and articles that appear here remain the property of their creators.

All Content  © 2017 Episcopal Café