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Bishop Turnover: An Unusually High Rate?

Bishop Turnover: An Unusually High Rate?

The Café has covered its fair share of news about episcopal transitions this year. There have been so many, it seems like more than the “usual” number. Our friends at ENS have picked up on this, too. In an article they ran yesterday, they noted that just in the month of November, there were five dioceses engaged in some stage of transition. That number has already ticked upward slightly.

“The flurry of activity has continued into December, with Western Kansas consecrating a new bishop and Northern California releasing its slate of nominees. With dozens of dioceses embarking on or completing bishop transitions over the past 18 months, the frequency of searches has raised concerns that a limited pool of candidates is being depleted. Diocesan search committees tend to dismiss suggestions that they are competing with each other for applicants, though some dioceses have been open in pointing to what they said is a challenging landscape for bishop searches.

“Do such developments point to a moment of crisis for the Episcopal Church?

“In general, no. Each diocese searching for a new bishop faces a unique set of circumstances, and ‘the pool of candidates really is a function of the vision and mission of that diocese,’ said Bishop Todd Ousley, who assists dioceses with bishop searches as head of the church’s Office of Pastoral Development. He downplayed the bishop turnover rate as a barrier to successful searches.

“’There’s an ebb and a flow that is really, I think, a factor of the average [bishop] tenure, which is eight and a half years,’ Ousley said. At that rate, bishop seats would open up in a dozen of the church’s 110 dioceses each year, so he doesn’t think the recent trend is unusual.

And while some dioceses struggle to find available bishop candidates who are the right fit, the churchwide turnover has boosted the gender and racial diversity in the House of Bishops. Six female bishops have been added to the house’s roster or elected by their dioceses since July, including three African-American women.”

The last available State of the Clergy Report, produced by the Pension Fund in 2012, noted that ordinations were down by 26 percent across the board, and that the retirement rate outstripped new ordinations by a whopping 43 percent. It would not be a surprise if what’s happening among the bishops now continues the trend observed in these numbers.

And in more transition news, the Diocese of Virginia announced today that it is discontinuing its search for a Bishop Provisional. From the Standing Committee’s letter:

“After numerous conversations with leaders in our Diocese and the Presiding Bishop’s Office, and with prayerful consideration of what is in the best interests of our Diocese at this time, the Standing Committee unanimously voted on December 6, 2018, to end the process for the selection of a Bishop Provisional.

“The Standing Committee enthusiastically supports Bishop Susan E. Goff continuing to serve as the Ecclesiastical Authority of the Diocese of Virginia until such time as our next Bishop Diocesan is elected and consecrated. We have every confidence that Bishop Goff will effectively and creatively lead us during this time.

“At every stage of the process, the Standing Committee has made decisions and conducted its work grounded in prayer and examining all known options.  Throughout this process, realities have changed. We have felt the Holy Spirit moving with us and sustaining us throughout.”

The full text of the letter is available on the diocesan website. Bishop Goff has served as Suffragan since she was consecrated on July 28, 2012.


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Now add Holly Hollerith in So Va. He was four years behind me in seminary, and I doubt is much north of 60. Retiring after 10 years. Not to be too negative about TEC, but are some people just getting out since the future is going to be/is such a challenge? The demographics are now dire.

Christopher Seitz

I have seen the budget numbers in some diocese, and bishops can make 250K per year! Maybe they do well enough to cash in and move on. TEC is certainly in a transitional period where many bets are off. That surely makes the ‘long view’ difficult.

Tom Downs

My question: Why only 8.5 years? When it comes to priests, conventional wisdom used to say that you were doing your best work between your 7th and 12th year in a given pastorate. Should not something similar apply to bishops? Admittedly some few are asked to “retire” much earlier, but are they pulling the average down that much? Have I just been lucky to serve under bishops who lasted much longer than 8.5 years? Or is there something different about the role of bishop at this time that encourages them to quit early? My small diocese has budgeted $100,000 for each transition (not counting the cost of a provisional bishop); short tenured bishops are a serious burden. I suspect we have more of a problem than we are willing to admit.

Eric Bonetti

Good point, Tom. My suspicion, too, is that bishops have a longer learning curve that do parish clergy, for dioceses are, by definition, more complex, with many more moving parts. Yes, priests who stay too long can be a huge problem for individual parishes, but not staying long enough can be equally problematic. My gut instinct, purely intuitive and not based on empirical evidence, is that bishops probably start doing their best work in year 12 or so.

Other thoughts?

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