Task Force on the Episcopacy Considers Elections, Canons, Diversity

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President Jennings with bishops who served as deputies before their election. photo credit: Mary Frances Schjonberg

Like the insurance agent on television commercials who “knows a thing or two” because he’s “seen a thing two,” Lynn Schmissrauter, former deputy from the Diocese of East Tennessee, knows a few things about bishop elections. She’s been a consultant to bishop search committees for the past two decades.

Schmissrauter is ready to retire, but agreed to finish her church career by serving on the Task Force on the Episcopacy established by Resolution D004 of the 2015 General Convention. “What does the church in 2017 need in bishops?” Schmissrauter said. “We need to pay very, very careful attention to how we elect our leaders. As long as we have bishops, we need to make sure we’re electing the right people.”

The resolution, introduced by the legislative committee on Formation and Education for Ministry, was precipitated in part by the case of former bishop Heather Cook.

Cook, elected as bishop suffragan of the Diocese of Maryland in 2014, killed bicyclist Thomas Palermo while driving drunk later that year. In 2015, she was sentenced to seven years in prison. Although diocesan officials and the search committee knew that Cook had been arrested for drunk driving in 2010, they did not disclose the incident to the electing convention.

“There is a confluence of issues influencing our work,” says the Very Rev. Gary Hall, a retired dean of Washington National Cathedral who serves on the task force’s canonical issues sub-committee. “Heather Cook and the lack of disclosure to the electing body is one. Another is figuring out what we need to do to make sure that we don’t have a pattern of bishop elections with diverse slates, but not diverse results. And the third is clarifying to whom the bishop formation process is accountable.”

Bishop Ian Douglas of Connecticut, a four-time deputy before his election as bishop in 2009, chairs the task force. “Everyone who’s on this task force is committed to the Episcopal Church being episcopally led and synodically governed,” he says. “We’re asking how we can support bishops to be the best leaders they can be.”

The canons, say both Douglas and Hall, are at the heart of the task force’s work. “What do they say and where do they conflict with current practice? We have some extracanonical practices out there,” Douglas says, referring to the appointment of assisting bishops, which are not included in the church’s canons, and the election of bishops over age 72, the mandatory retirement age, to serve as bishops provisional. “We’d like clarity around canonical boundaries, and also to understand how the canons can encourage bishops to be healthy, whole and collaborative leaders in the new church and world.”

“We need to enforce the existing canons or change the canons,” Hall says. The task force may propose legislative resolutions to General Convention, canonical changes, or administrative guidance on how dioceses can conform to the canons, he says. “We might think about proposing models that don’t exist now, and there might be things happening that aren’t kosher according to the canons, but that General Convention might proactively want to make possible.”

Schmissrauter chairs the task force’s working group on best practices in episcopal elections. Everyone in her group and on the task force at large agrees that bishops should be elected, she says, but also that diocesan electing procedures should probably be more closely aligned across the church. “We want to get in front of problems and provide best practices to dioceses,” she says.

Those practices include asking candidates for the episcopacy to complete more rigorous background checks. “Human beings are involved in this, and human beings are sometimes going to lie,” Schmissrauter says. “We’d like to see dioceses use the behavioral questionnaire that was used in the most recent presiding bishop election, and we want to beef up the standards for background and reference checks.”

The group is also hoping to secure adequate funding to ensure that the search consultants who guide bishop searches benefit from up-to-date training. Currently the Office of Pastoral Development, led by a bishop who reports to the presiding bishop, coordinates the consultants. Bishop Clayton Matthews has held the position since 1998; in April, it was announced that Bishop Todd Ousley, currently bishop of Eastern Michigan, will assume the job in July when Matthews retires.

“There’s some training and recruiting,” Schmissrauter says, “but over the years, that work has sometimes been well-funded, but more recently poorly funded. It’s so important to have adequate funding to make sure that the quality of consulting is high and that consultants can share their own experiences and best practices regularly with each other.”

Once bishops are elected, they take part in an education and formation program run by the College for Bishops, which has shaped the church’s understanding of the role of bishops in the last two decades, Hall says. The college, originally developed at General Theological Seminary in 1993, became a separate 501(c)3 in 2010, and receives funding from the General Convention budget and from private sources. Its board includes fourteen male bishops, two bishops’ wives, one of whom is a priest, and three laymen.

“In my working lifetime, bishops have become much more disconnected from clergy and laypeople,” says Hall, who was ordained to the priesthood in 1977. He sees broadening oversight of the College for Bishops as an important step in reversing that trend.

“Our baptismal ecclesiology sees episcopal authority as derived in the context of presbyteral and lay authority,” Hall says. “From the beginning, bishops’ authority has always been complemented by that of other orders. Our economy of the baptized community—the balance of episcopal authority vs. clergy and lay authority—has gotten out of balance, and we’re trying to rebalance it.”

“It’s a good group and we’re working hard,” Douglas says. “We’re realistic—there are no conspiracy theories.”

Part of that realism, says Douglas, is managing the expectations of the wider church about what can be accomplished in one triennium. “We might not be able to fix it all,” he says, “but let’s be smart and see what we can take a run at that might be politically feasible. We want to fix big issues and set up processes that will help us work on this into the future.”

In March, the task force’s work on diversity, which was directed by Resolution D004, became the subject of fierce social media debate after Bishop Dan Martins of Springfield blogged about it following the House of Bishops spring meeting. At that meeting, Douglas and three other bishops on the task force—Bishops Don Johnson, Michael Milliken, and Sean Rowe—reported on the group’s discussion about developing a professional development and mentoring program for clergy discerning a call to episcopal ministry.

“This development is scary, and it should be nipped ferociously in the bud,” Martins wrote.

While much of the online conversation centered on the fear that current bishops were trying to restrict the pool of potential future bishops, the proposal, says task force member Alexandra Killewald, intends just the opposite.

The idea under consideration, she says, is based on research about the kinds of structures that can help facilitate better representation of women and people of color in leadership. Killewald, who chairs the task force’s working group on diversity, is professor of sociology at Harvard University and junior warden at Christ Episcopal Church in Waltham, Massachusetts.

Research indicates that when women and men look at the same job advertisements to see if they’re qualified, women hold themselves to a higher standard than do men, she says. A professional development and mentoring program would be “a way to say to women and people of color, hey, let’s just try this out, and see how it goes.

“If you can choose to participate in this program,” Killewald says, “it would provide an entry point that gives folks a way to get experience and to explore a career calling and questions about being a bishop more generally” before discerning a call to a particular diocese.

Effective mentoring programs involve people from all demographic groups as mentors and participants, she says. In particular, successful mentoring programs connect women and people of color to white people, especially men, to whom they might not otherwise have access. “When we take a largely white male group of mentors into a mentoring program, those men form new impressions and make new relationships,” she says. The result is more diverse social networks and leaders who know a more diverse pool of qualified candidates.

The motivation for seeking diversity in the House of Bishops is both practical and justice-oriented, Killewald says. “Sometimes when we talk about diversity, we think that the goal is that the bishops should match the church’s demographics. But the motivation for diversity is not just about representation. There is research that suggests that diverse groups make better decisions, and that’s independent from how many people in the church have a particular attribute.

“It’s not about how many women bishops or bishops of color is enough. We don’t know what number is enough, but we’re pretty sure that it’s more than we have now, and the fact that people are missing is a function of discrimination—some in the church, and some in the broader social systems that keep some people from even walking through doors of Episcopal Church.”

The Task Force on the Episcopacy plans four more meetings, including one three-day face-to-face meeting before finalizing its report to General Convention in December.