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Feudal lords OR servants of the servants of God?

Feudal lords OR servants of the servants of God?



The episcopacy, like many aspects of Episcopalian life, is rooted in scripture, tradition, and reason. However, what now exists in The Episcopal Church (TEC) is an unbalanced three-legged stool, or, more precisely, order of ministry.


The Book of Common Prayer and canons summarize TEC’s theology of the episcopacy. In the Book of Common Prayer, bishops at their consecration are enjoined to walk in the apostles’ footsteps and then instructed:

You are called to guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the Church; to celebrate and to provide for the administration of the sacraments of the New Covenant; to ordain priests and deacons and to join in ordaining bishops; and to be in all things a faithful pastor and wholesome example for the entire flock of Christ.

With your fellow bishops you will share in the leadership of the Church throughout the world. Your heritage is the faith of patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs, and those of every generation who have looked to God in hope. Your joy will be to follow him who came, not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.

National and diocesan canons provide specific guidance on how bishops are to fulfill many of those responsibilities, e.g., the canons specify processes by which individuals transition from aspirant to ordination and the process for disciplining clergy. The Book of Common Prayer also provides guidance for bishops (liturgies for ordination, confirmation, etc.).


As TEC faces seemingly inexorable decline, some of our thinking and traditions about episcopacy merit reconsideration. Each bishop has considerable discretion in shaping her/his episcopacy. As with any group of Christian individuals, this latitude sometimes results in exciting and innovative faithfulness and other times becomes a vehicle for expressing aspects of personality, thought, or practice not fully transformed by Christ. Additionally, many of our ideas about episcopacy are encrustations uncritically continued from earlier eras.


Scraping away obvious “barnacles” is a good starting point for reformation:

  • Antiquated forms of greeting such as “Your Grace” or kissing an episcopal ring harken back to an era in which bishops constituted the ecclesiastical equivalent of feudal lords. The hierarchy, authoritarianism, and elitism implicit in that model are surely foreign to Christ’s ethic of human equality and mutual love. Episcopacy, like the diaconate and priesthood, connotes a functional role, not a qualitative spiritual distinction. Thankfully, these forms of greetings have become more common in memory than practice.
  • TEC bishops, unlike some Church of England diocesan bishops, do not live in palaces. Compensation packages, however, sometimes echo the tradition of bishops living in style, with bishops’ pay and perks frequently exceeding the compensation of all or the vast preponderance of diocesan clergy. Bishops deserve to earn a decent living wage. Compensation in excess of a decent living wage raises questions about both a bishop’s promise to follow Jesus’ example and wise use of TEC’s increasingly limited funds.


These are just two of the barnacles encrusting our episcopacy. Ironically, these barnacles often enhance a bishop’s prestige among Christians in general and clergy in particular, thereby inappropriately distancing the bishop from people.


Some ambitious ecclesiastical Darwinian alpha (fe)males seek to dominate their tribe, a grouping defined in TEC by diocese rather than physical kinship. No longer do ambitious bishops wage actual war. Instead, the contest for dominance is a disguised “blood” sport that leaves in its all too familiar wake wounded, resentful clergy and crippled congregations.


Thankfully, some bishops work to reform the episcopate, trying to make it more faithful and relevant in the twenty-first century. They…

  • Model trustworthy, gift affirming ministry that respects the dignity, worth, and ministry of each priest/pastor, deacon, and lay person
  • Focus their and our attention on the big questions and ignore the little stuff (what the Lutherans call adiaphora)
  • Support diocesan clergy through pastoral care, listening, assisting each cleric in finding a call that matches that individual’s gifts and abilities, etc.
  • Minimize administrative overhead (time and money) that has remained constant or even grown while TEC is shrinking and instead maximize ministry and mission (aka good stewardship)
  • Hold all persons within the diocese appropriately accountable for growing in Christian virtue and adhering to legal and moral behavioral standards
  • With the diocese, set specific goals and metrics (e.g., frequency and purpose of parochial visits, number of new church plants, number of church closures, number of donors/pledgers, size of the average gift, increases in average Sunday attendance, etc.) and then periodically assess progress through mutual ministry reviews with their diocese (e.g., diocesan council or standing committee)
  • Stop playing defense on sexual misconduct issues, hiding behind Church Insurance Group requirements; take the offense by implementing and consistently enforcing appropriately tough standards that embody respect for the dignity and worth of all people
  • Strive to exercise power and authority in a Christlike manner, i.e., a truly life-giving way characterized by justice, mercy, and steadfast love.


Concern over the number of dioceses currently seeking new bishops and a possible shortage of quality candidates to fill those vacancies (cf. David Paulsen, “Bishop turnover puts dioceses in transition mode, fuels talk of ‘unprecedented’ challenge,” Episcopal News Service, Dec. 6, 2018) seems unwarranted. From among our five thousand plus active priests, TEC can surely find twenty or even one hundred gifted, qualified candidates to fill episcopal vacancies.


Simply filling the vacancies, however, begs the more basic questions of systemic change. For example:

  • How many dioceses does TEC really need? TEC increasingly resembles the top-heavy US Navy, which now has more admirals than at the height of WW2 but fewer than one seventh as many ships. Indeed, today’s Navy has more than two admirals per ship. TEC for most of fifty years has lost membership and congregations without a commensurate shrinking in the number of dioceses. In smaller dioceses, should a bishop also serve as dean/rector/vicar of a congregation? Should small dioceses consolidate or share bishops? Are there other options? Can bishops function equally well with smaller staffs? How can a diocese more extensively utilize modern communication and office tools to reduce administrative overhead? TEC generally appears mired in nineteenth and twentieth century administrative practices. Too few bishops, empowered by the Holy Spirit, prudentially and courageously recommend bold answers to these questions.
  • Is assured life tenure (at least until age 72) the optimal pattern for episcopal ministry or an anachronistic legacy of bishops being feudal lords? Would another pattern (e.g., provisions for leaves of absence or serving for x number of years, as does the Presiding Bishop) better support TEC’s ministry while concurrently improving care for bishops with mental health, relational, or spiritual difficulties? Would Jesus condone an episcopal structure that implicitly prioritizes a bishop’s tenure over diocesan well-being? What would Jesus say about a structure that lacks a protocol for removing a bishop from office whose personal difficulties prevent the bishop from performing his/her duties but who has declined offers of appropriate assistance or refused to take a leave of absence as part of returning to health?


Good leadership can frequently save a sinking ship. The church is the ark of our salvation. Sadly, that ark gives every sign of sinking. Let’s scrape off the barnacles and fix systemic problems. Then, instead of engaging in passive aggressive resistance to a bishop’s leadership, the rest of us should collaborate with him/her to improve his/her episcopate. With God’s help, we can repair the ark of our salvation by adapting the shape and practice of episcopal ministry to the needs, possibilities, and realities of twenty-first century life. The time has come for our bishops and episcopacy to shed the vestiges of feudalism and to become truly the servants of the servants of God.



George Clifford served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years, has an MBA, taught ethics and the philosophy of religion, and now serves as priest associate at the Parish of St Clement in Honolulu. He mentors clergy, consults with parishes, and blogs at Ethical Musings.


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John Rabb

There is room for changes in the episcopate. It is now 20+ tears since my ordination and consrecation and much has, in fact, changed. I see in far too “profiles” a lot of “blue sky” whereas what is needed is effective care for churches, clergy and lay persons. We are not “CEOs,” but servant leaders. Nuts and bolts are in fact doing what the Gospel demands, and yet we far too – not limited to the episcopacy – give permission to avoid, delegate or pass off critical matters. How you preach, lead liturgy, handle process in all matters and do so prayerfully matters. Yet far too often we give permission to spend time on matters not related to the day to day work of ministry. Also I have become too weary of these three plus hours services which do look far too much like “coronations.” Bishops are not, as many may think, even the best compensated clergy in their own dioceses. Before we speak to such matters, do the homework! The discussion is worthy one.

Kurt Hill

Something else we should consider: The earliest bishops in the American Episcopal Church were also generally rectors of one of the Great Churches in their diocese, which served as the pro-cathedral for regional Episcopalians. They were not full-time administrators in specialized churches, but rather had hands-on duties of a pastoral nature as one of their main functions in a parish setting . All of the bureaucracy of the diocese was kept at a minimum. Perhaps rather than eliminating or consolidating the smallest dioceses we could go back to this older model of functioning (at least to the extent that it is practical).

Kurt Hill
Brooklyn, NY

Deborah Meister

I agree with almost everything in here, particularly the call to examine diocesan consolidation, which, like parish consolidation in populous areas, is long overdue. I would add that reexamination of the Episcopal role should include the fact that its original emphasis on teaching the faithful and on modeling holiness of life have too often been squeezed out by administrative tasks, often performed according to corporate rather than Scriptural norms.

However, while I agree that some compensation packages are out of line, I find it “interesting” that the call to reconsider compensation, like the call to adopt part-time clergy, often comes just as more women are walking in the door….

Brian Freese

Let me add to the conversation. I’ve experienced discernment, and I can say to you — after ten years of fervent service to my parish — that being selected for Holy Orders is all about the network. There’s nothing involving the Holy Spirit or living into the Gospel. It’s all about “being visible to the bishop and reflecting his priorities in your lay ministry.” I thought it was all about serving others in the name of Christ Jesus, and reflecting the face of Christ Jesus to everyone you encounter? I think apolostolic succession is nothing more synonym for “good ole’ boy network.”

B. D. Howes


I’m sorry to hear about your struggles. An unfullfilled call to priesthood is a heavy burden; however, do not be unappreciative of history and the struggles of the Apostles. Why would it be any different now?

I think by now you’ve noticed that your post has not been well received. Perhaps you may conclude we don’t care. I assure you nothing could be further from the truth.

You shared little about your discernment and I can think of many reasons why. That you do not share, does not reflect poorly on you. To be true, I think restraint is proper.

However, if your calling is strong, you will not give up. I know that’s easy for me to say but I want to encourage you to press on.

But let me add one final thought. You may be called but the Episcopal Church may not be a good fit for you.

I have nothing better to do than defend the Church I was born into but, if I were you, I’d ask myself where do I fit, and turn in that direction

Grace and peace,

B. D.

Clark Lemons

The tradition of bishops is the sine qua non of TEC. But Like other denominations and organizations, TEC should have the optimal, sustainable number of leaders. If a parish is too poor to support multiple priests, it reduces the number of paid priests or any priest at all in some cases, which is sad of course.

If there are too many bishops, for priests and parishes served, TEC should reduce the number of bishops by combining dioceses. I’ve never seen anyone in an Episcopal church kiss a bishop’s ring or call her/him “your Grace,” but if that happened in honor of the office itself, I wouldn’t object. That’s not the point of courses. Stewardship of resources and recruiting the best possible bishops is.

If I knew more about what bishops are paid, I might have more to say. Thanks for your challenging suggestions.

Mike Harding

Clark, generally 130k plus benefits upward.

Prof Christopher Seitz

I’d say increasingly the sine qua non of TEC is General Convention.

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