March 3, 2012

Diocesan Leadership Day

The quarterly Leadership Day for the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh was held today at Calvary Church. The group gathered was larger than usual because all convention deputies were invited. This was because determining questions to be put to episcopal candidates was on the agenda. (See “Diocese Announces Candidates.)

We began with Morning Prayer in the church. It was the Feast of John and Charles Wesley today, so we read the collect for the Wesleys and sang Charles’s “Love divine, all loves excelling” (#657). We also sang “Rise up, ye saints of God!” (#551) and “The Church’s one foundation” (#525). Lest anyone miss the point, the third verse of the latter, which includes the phrase “by schisms rent asunder,” was called to the group’s attention after the service.

The service incorporated four up-to-the-minute prayers:
A Prayer for the Discernment and Election of a Bishop
Almighty God, we, the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, affirm now, as always before, that You are our Almighty Lord and Savior. We humbly confess that we all have engaged, in some manner, in practices that divided rather than preserved the unity of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh. We are grateful that in Your mercy, You continue to sustain us and to keep us whole as we grapple with the consequences of our fractured state. We are grateful that in our vulnerable state, You called Bishop David Jones, Bishop Robert Johnson, and Bishop Ken Price to shepherd us. And we are deeply grateful that You have filled us with your Spirit of hope that the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh will indeed emerge vibrant and united in Christ. We ask that You prepare our hearts, minds, and souls as we collectively entrust one another with the task of discerning Your call for the Eighth Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

A Prayer for the Nomination Committee
Almighty and ever-living God, source of all wisdom and understanding, we thank you for all your blessings and particularly for the work of our Nomination Committee. Particularly we acknowledge with gratefulness the way they went about the task of choosing fit persons for us to consider for the next Bishop for this Diocese. We believe that in all things they sought first your honor and glory and then with wisdom, courage and grace prepared the slate now presented to us. Let us now prayerfully receive these names and seek God’s will for us as we embark upon the upcoming election. Amen.

A Prayer for the Transition Committee
Almighty God, the giver of all good gifts: Give your grace to the members of the Transition Committee that, in their ministry of care to the Bishop, the Bishop Elect, and the people of this Diocese, they may faithfully serve before you to the glory of your Name and for the benefit of your holy Church; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

A Prayer for the Election of a Bishop
Almighty God, giver of every good gift: Look graciously on your Church, and so guide the minds of those who shall choose a bishop for this Diocese that we may receive a faithful pastor, who will care for your people and equip us for our ministries; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
After Morning prayer, everyone returned to the parish hall for presentations by the chair of the Nominating Committee—sometimes referred to as the Nomination Committee (see above)—the Judge of Elections, the president of the Standing Committee, and the chair of the Transition Committee.

Lunchtime discussions at Leadership Day
Lunchtime discussions at Leadership Day

A few interesting facts emerged from these presentations (hardly any correspondence in the search process used paper; more people than is usual were considered as candidates; the committee did not know who nominated whom; there was no decision not to consider internal candidates). Both judge of elections Jon Delano and Standing Committee president George Werner announced that they would not publicly support a particular candidate.

The most notable presentation was by the chair of the Transition Committee, Nano Chalfant-Walker. Her committee is responsible for the upcoming walkabouts, and a major objective of the day was to collect possible questions to be asked of the episcopal candidates. At each of the four walkabout sessions, the five candidates will, in a plenary session, answer each of the same three—I think that is the right number—questions. I had assumed that there would be a general discussion of what the questions should be. Instead, people were given Post-It Notes on which they could write questions and post them on poster board with the labels “Administration,” “Call,” “Theology,” Pastoral Care,” “Diocesan Health,” “Formation,” “Mission,” and “Other.” (I don’t think I missed any topics, but I don’t guarantee it.) More about this later.

Chalfant-Walker explained that, as participants arrive for each walkabout, they will be assigned a breakout room and can submit one written question. They have some opportunity to talk to the candidates during a half-hour reception. After the plenary session, participants will retire to their assigned breakout rooms and, one-by-one, they will be visited by the candidates, who will answer as many questions as possible from queries submitted by those assigned to that particular room.

There was a sense among many participants that the format of the walkabouts was being too severely controlled. It does not provide opportunity to ask follow-up questions or questions specific to one candidate, prevents people from learning as much about the candidates as they would if all questions were answered in plenary session, has the potential to require the candidates to answer similar questions before different groups, and does not give the candidates the opportunity to react to one another. The committee seems to have an obsession with “fairness,” which is resulting in a process that is stultifying and dysfunctional.

On the positive side, a video recording is to be made of the first plenary session and posted on the Web.  Since there is no interaction with the audience in this session, however, and the same scene is to be repeated at each walkabout session, could not the time be put to better use at the following walkabouts?

In any case, the Transition Committee now has the unenviable task of reducing the 90 or so questions that were posted to three. This is a transparently impossible task, since even taking one question from each of the committee’s own categories would yield too many questions.

It was telling, I thought, that the “Theology” board attracted the most questions. Both the candidates and the Nominating Committee seemed to have shied away from making or encouraging theological statements, and, for better or worse, people are anxious about figuring out in what theological box each candidate belongs. Certain questions were predictable—asking about same-sex blessings, for example. Some questions from the right were worrisome in their implicit hostility. One question asked if the candidate believed in the Trinity, and another asked which parts of the Nicene Creed the candidate did not believe [my emphasis]. Clearly, the next bishop is going to have to work at getting us to accept and trust one another.

Questions for candidates
Questions for candidates (one of many topics)

The event continued with reports from the Chancellor—property negotiations are ongoing—and the chair of a strategic planning task force—activities are also ongoing. This was followed by announcements and dismissal.

The day was surely worthwhile, but I fear the walkabout sessions may prove unsatisfying and inadequate to give deputies a good feel for the candidates. I hope I’m wrong.


  1. Lionel, given the amount of time available for the walkabout sessions, I think that neither approach--the more regularized method proposed by the Transition Committee nor a more free-form approach--is likely to satisfy everyone. I understand the potential frustration of not being able to follow up on questions of interest, but on the other hand, the danger of a more free form approach is having the sessions get sidetracked by spending all the time on one or two issues of interest to particular individuals.

    I was quite encouraged by the description of the process followed by the Nominating Committee. It sounds as though they did an excellent and thorough job, and it gives me a good deal of confidence that all of the nominees they identified would be satisfactory choices.

    Bill Ghrist

  2. Thanks, Lionel. I had to leave when the meeting broke for lunch, so I missed the second part of the day.

    I think probably everybody feels the frustration of these limits. Though it's hard to imagine how a format could be developed that would allow each of our five nominees to become well-known to us in the context of all our individual and collective concerns--and especially in the context of a single evening.

    To me an opening plenary and then "fifteen minutes per room" sounds more like hazing than an opportunity for deeper-level discernment.

    And yet, again, it's hard to know what true alternatives there could have been.

    I'm sure the concern about fairness begins with the notion that each nominee would have more-or-less an equal amount of time, and a free-for-all of directed questions and follow-ups would probably end up with a disproportionality. And with the possibility and even probability that everyone in the room would be taken for an extended ride on the hobby-horses of one or two energetic hand-wavers at the free-for-all.

    In the first chapter of Acts the remaining eleven disciples determine to fill the place at the apostolic table that Judas had vacated by asking God to choose between two "nominees" whom they had identified as witnesses to the resurrection, between two whom they had known "from the beginning."

    NNECA (National Network of Episcopal Clergy Associations) sponsored a study a number of years ago about the election of bishops, and one of the interesting items I recall was that through the 19th century and the first half of the 20th the large majority of bishops elected in the Episcopal Church were elected in the diocese where they had been ordained priest and where they served most or all of their ministry, and that since the Second World War this has shifted, so that today the majority are elected in dioceses where they have never served.

    Whether we're getting a "better sort" of bishops now than we did before in the Episcopal Church is I suppose something that we'd have to discuss at length. Not that I hear anybody discussing it.

    No question though that most of the time these days we elect folks based on first impressions and what can be communicated in some pretty controlled environments--essays and "dog and pony shows" and telephone calls to references who might or might not have a good insight into the life and character of the nominee-- rather than on what we know ourselves personally through an extended time of observation and shared life and experience.

    I agree with Bill, above, that our process has probably worked about as well as it could have worked. We have four nominees who have been vetted carefully by a good committee and a fifth whom we have most of us known well as an exceptionally gifted parish priest and diocesan leader for many years. It's not exactly a crapshoot, and as Dean Werner indicated it's probable that any of these five "could be great bishops." Or not, of course. But that's probably something we won't know for a while.

    The key for us now would be to the greatest extent possible for us to pray that in and with the natural concerns all of will have to have a bishop whom we "like" and of course who agrees with us on all issues of concern both theologically and in terms of mission and ministry in the particular challenges of our diocesan setting, we will also find in ourselves a spirit of attentive openness to the possibility that God may speak a new word in our heart.

    Bruce Robison

  3. Bruce,

    I appreciate your contribution. It probably is not practical to try to redesign the dog-and-pony show here. Perhaps a certain amount of faith is called for.

    In times past, of course, transportation and communications (or the paucity thereof) encouraged selection of episcopal candidates from the local diocese. I am impressed that, in the 21st century, our committee could communicate with candidates around the world, could visit many of them, and could bring a number of them to Pittsburgh. Modern transportation and communications have greatly enlarged the candidate pool. It is difficult to believe this is not a good thing.

  4. Thanks, Lionel. I agree that a redesign of the visit of the nominees wouldn't be practical or necessarily even desirable.

    I think the transportation question probably did have a lot do with the shift. Up through even the middle of the last century, maybe through the 1970's or so, most clergy retired in the diocese in which they had been ordained, after a ministry of continuous service. That's rarer now, though actually Pittsburgh continues to be a place of greater stability and longevity of tenure. True of course outside the church as well. I believe this is the region of the country with one of the highest proportions of adults who live within five miles of their childhood homes.

    So anyway--I hope nothing that I said would indicate that I think the nominations committee didn't do a great job. I've known Dorsey McConnell for a number of years and I've met Stan Runnells several times over the years and have nothing but the very highest regard for them. I don't know and haven't met Michael Ambler or Ruth Woodliff-Stanley, but certainly their introductory written materials all show them to be as well people of substance and worthy nominees indeed. Scott Quinn of course has been a friend and trusted colleague for many years.

    My view is that each of these nominees should be reviewed prayerfully on his or her own merits and without "categorical" inclusion or exclusion. For example, I am inclined as a category to think that older clergy with more years of experience are to be generally preferred as bishops. Nonetheless, my friend and our neighbor +Sean Rowe is for me a living testimony that such generalizations must always be open for correction in individual circumstance.

    When we began to talk about our election here I stated pretty clearly that I thought we would do better to elect a local priest. Nonetheless, now that we have five flesh-and-blood-and-spirit people, all faithful in their own discernment, I'm praying over all five with I hope as open a mind as I can find . . . . I trust that's what we all will be doing in the weeks ahead.

    Bruce Robison


Anonymous comments are not allowed. All comments are moderated by the author. Gratuitous profanity, libelous statements, and commercial messages will be not be posted.