October 24, 2013

In Need of a Ministry of Presence

When a new CEO joins a corporation that has been in trouble, people expect the new leader to hit the ground running and to work very hard until some sense of normality is restored to the organization. It would certainly be considered improper for the new CEO to spend much of his time on other than corporate business.

It became clear in the pre-convention information meetings held last week that not all Pittsburgh Episcopalians are convinced that their new bishop, Dorsey McConnell, has exhibited the kind of dedication expected of him in his first year in office. In particular, Bishop McConnell appears to have been out of Pittsburgh for more than three months.

Of course, a new bishop cannot avoid being away from his or her see. Bishops are expected to attend semiannual House of Bishops meetings. They are also expected to undergo training in how to be a bishop. Bishop McConnell has been to House of Bishops meetings and the so-called Baby Bishops School. He has also been out of the diocese for other events that might be seen as  reasonable professional activities. He visited General Seminary to receive an honorary degree, for example. He is also afforded a one-month vacation, which is typical for Episcopal bishops.

Bishop McConnell has been out the diocese for personal reasons—for a graduation and a wedding, for instance. It is difficult to know how much away time has been devoted to such events, as little of the bishop’s calendar has been made public. I don’t think anyone outside the diocesan office has been keeping track of such absences, but people have often been told that the bishop is away from the diocese for one reason or another.

One might be inclined to excuse absences of a day or so here and there, but, as the days add up, it would not seem unreasonable to request that vacation days be used for personal trips.

Then there is the matter of the bishop’s 10-day sojourn in Uganda. Including travel, I believe that the total time away from Pittsburgh for the Uganda trip was more like two weeks.

Even before McConnell was elected Bishop of Pittsburgh, he was serving as president of the Board of Directors of Pilgrim Africa. The Pilgrim Africa Web site describes the organization this way:
Pilgrim Africa was founded in 2001 as an indigenous Christian response to the plight of more than 1.5 million refugees living in IDP camps in the war torn regions of Northern Uganda. Today, Pilgrim has grown to be an international organization with catalytic regional and national interventions in Public Health and Education.
Pilgrim Africa logo
I’m not sure I understand just what all this foundation-speak means, but I have no reason to think that Pilgrim Africa is anything other than a fine Christian charity doing the Lord’s work  in East Africa. That said, the cash-strapped Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh can ill afford either to pay for Bishop McConnell’s travel to Uganda or to allow him to do so on the diocese’s time, rather than as part of his one-month vacation.

To gentle suggestions that the Pilgrim Africa pilgrimage may have been an unfair imposition on the diocese, Bishop McConnell noted that the search committee that brought him to Pittsburgh knew about his work with Pilgrim Africa. Perhaps, but he did not say—presumably because it is not true—that he had negotiated travel funds and time off to work on behalf of the organization on whose board he heads. Certainly, deputies to the 2012 convention that approved the 2013 budget did not know that the bishop was going to take time off to work for Pilgrim Africa, and the budget did not suggest that the diocese would be paying for such a trip. (Lack of transparency in the diocesan budget is a topic for another day.)

From the viewpoint of the diocese, there are three problems with Bishop McConnell’s elective travels. The most obvious difficulty, of course, is money. The 2013 budget benefited from some one-time income that we knew would not be available in  2014. Indeed, the 2014 budget involves draconian cuts that raise concerns about the ability of the diocese to perform even its most basic functions. The diocese cannot afford to underwrite activities of the bishop unrelated to his job. Whatever the virtues of Pilgrim Africa, it is a personal ministry of Dorsey McConnell, and it was presumptuous to assume that his ministries automatically become those of the diocese. Additionally, it is difficult to cut the bishop slack on his personal travels in light of the drastic salary cuts in the 2014 budget, which are unaccompanied by even a symbolic cut in his own salary.

Second, the bishop is needed in the diocese. All too often, when clergy or laypeople have wanted to see or communicate with him, he has been unavailable. That, in many instances, his absences were unavoidable, is all the more reason for him to be present in the diocese whenever possible. The bishop’s being away from the office has had a negative effect on its operation. The diocese has been getting along with a pitifully small staff, and, in the absence of a Director of Administration—McConnell’s reluctance to hire an office manager is perplexing and counterproductive—tasks and decisions that should be made by a Director of Administration have been delayed awaiting action by the bishop.

Finally, activities like the Uganda trip trigger bad memories. Former bishop Robert Duncan spent much of his time away from Pittsburgh in the opaque process of engineering “realignment.” Henry Scriven had to be hired as an assisting bishop largely because our diocesan was seldom around.

No one suspects Bishop McConnell of plotting another schism in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, but it is particularly unfortunate that the bishop has such close ties to Uganda. Duncan’s schismatic designs were supported by then Archbishop of Uganda Henry Luke Orombi. Orombi spoke at a diocesan convention, for example, and assumed oversight of schismatic Episcopal parishes (though not in Pittsburgh, where that was unnecessary). Nor is it comforting that the bishop visited the Rev. Canon Dr. John Senyonyi of Uganda Christian University. Duncan had close ties to Uganda Christian University. Several figures involved in North American “realignment” have been associated with the Church of the Province of Uganda or with Uganda Christian University (e.g., Orombi, Alison Barfoot, and Stephen Noll). Senyonyi gave an address to GAFCON II just three days ago. His brand of Christianity makes some of us in this diocese uncomfortable, and the association with GAFCON, which has been supportive of Duncan’s Anglican Church in North America, makes us very uncomfortable.

As for this last concern, I grant that I may seem a bit paranoid, but a little paranoia should be understandable. As I said earlier, I do not believe that Bishop McConnell is a threat to The Episcopal Church. I do, however, worry that his orientation may be uncomfortably evangelical. When the episcopal candidates were having their walkabout, for instance, McConnell seemed most guarded about his theological views (as opposed, for example, to Ruth Woodliff-Stanley, who was very forthright about who she was). I believe that many in this diocese do not really know what our bishop thinks and feels in his heart of hearts or just how committed he might be to a truly diverse diocese. It has, of course, been Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics who have led the “realignment.” His report to convention is not thoroughly reassuring. His “Missional Communities” strategic goal is easy to buy into, but I would like to see “A Public Gospel” be about helping God’s people in need, and not simply about “bring[ing] the proclamation of God’s mercy and hope in Jesus Christ out of our churches and into the public square,” however desirable that might be. As for “Leadership Formation,” I want to know more about what the bishop means by “formation and empowerment.”

In the end, I want our bishop to be more careful about what buttons he pushes and to not make unwarranted assumptions about what will be readily accepted by Pittsburgh Episcopalians. That may be a lot to ask, but it comes with the territory.

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