By Daniel Martins
I haven’t assembled data to back this up, but it surely feels that there is a rising and nearly cresting wave of diocesan bishops in the Episcopal Church who have, within the last year or so, announced their retirement or resignation and called for the election of a successor. This means that several dozen priests across the church — doubtless a number expressed in triple digits — are busy answering essay questions, recording videos, making plans to attend discernment retreats, and preparing to answer questions at walkabout events. And in the affected dioceses, clergy and lay delegates are in discernment, reading essays and making notes, watching videos and forming impressions, talking with their colleagues, all in an effort to decide how they will vote at the electing convention.
I am long past being a rookie bishop, but not yet, I hope, grizzled and wizened to the point of acerbic cynicism. So, from this putative sweet spot of seven-plus years of experience not yet singed by burnout, I offer these observations for the benefit of electors and candidates trying to discern their possible vocation to the episcopate. They are predicated on the assumption that, inside several priests in the church at this moment, there is a future bishop waiting to be discovered and liberated to act according to that vocation, just as within some blocks of marble or wood, an artistic masterpiece lies waiting to be discovered and liberated by the right tools in the hands of a skilled sculptor. What are some of the characteristics that might help identify a bishop in the making? What might the lay and clergy electors of a diocese in transition look for as they prepare to vote?
A bishop enjoys seeing the whole board. This is a metaphor derived from chess, of course. A chess master doesn’t play reactively, making a move simply based on what the opponent has just done, but habitually sees the larger picture, planning strategically, several moves in advance. The job of a parish priest is to devote primary attention to one or two local communities of faith, and then, secondarily, to diocesan and larger church concerns. Many who have a splendid aptitude for such work, and are effective pastors and leaders in that context, lack a keen interest in operating as a matter of course in this larger platform, thinking strategically with multiple balls in play. Some, however, can do so, and love doing so. Bishops should be elected from this latter group.
A bishop knows that part of the job is to be a conservative. I believe there is room in the Church — indeed, a need in the Church — for theologians and leaders who test limits and push boundaries, who challenge the people of God not to allow themselves to become calcified in their words and deeds, to be open to considering non-traditional ways of understanding and articulating the truth of God. We are healthier because of such Christians in our midst. But they ought not be bishops.
The vocabulary that describes the ministry of the episcopate features language like guard and defend and care for. A bishop is a steward of the apostolic deposit of faith, mediated by two millennia of collective Christian experience. To borrow from another religious tradition, a bishop is the yin in dialogue with the yang of the boundary-pushers. A bishop is a prophet, not in the sense of breaking new ground, but of calling the people back to the rock from which they were hewn. That is a consuming task; there isn’t time for speculative theology on top of it.
A bishop is an effective preacher and teacher. At the heart of episcopal ministry is breaking open the riches of the gospel to a gathered eucharistic community every Lord’s Day. And as a teacher, the bishop is an exemplar in the diocese, setting the standard for other teachers to follow. In this case, demonstrated skill and success in certain aspects of parish ministry is a likely indicator of future success in the episcopate. Information about such success is not overly difficult to collect by those guiding the search, and by those who will vote.
A bishop knows when to be decisive and when to take time. “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em; know when to fold ’em.” The life of a bishop is one that constantly calls for decisions, some small and some large, some trivial and some momentous. Involved with each of those decisions are stakeholders who have vested interests, or at least opinions, about which way the decision should go. There is often pressure, whether real or imagined. Some decisions do need to be made with urgent speed. Others may feel urgent, but actually are not. A bishop is one who has cultivated the ability to discern which ones are truly pressing and which ones will turn out better if they’re left to marinate in thought and prayer for a while.
A bishop can exercise authority without being authoritarian. A bishop’s authority is far-reaching, broader even, when accounting for scale, than that of a rector at the parish level. With great authority comes great power, and with great power comes great potential for abuse. There are mechanisms for holding a bishop accountable for abusing power, but they are unwieldy, time-consuming, and expensive. There is truth in the aphorism, “When you’re in the driver’s seat, drive.” And a bishop diocesan is certainly in the driver’s seat. But even while driving with purpose and holy intention, it is possible to drive safely, courteously, and respectfully, and not aggressively or recklessly.
A bishop is a good listener: to God and to the voice of the people. The bishop is listener in chief. And listening is most effective when it happens in stereo, with one ear attuned to the voice of the Holy Spirit and one ear attuned to the voice of the clergy and faithful in the diocese. The greatest leaders in salvation history — Abraham, Joseph, Moses, David, Peter, and Paul — were resolute in articulating and acting on what they knew God had called them to say and do. They were in the driver’s seat, and they drove. They made decisions, sometimes quickly and sometimes with deliberation. But they never became disconnected from the people whom they were called to lead. Sometimes the way to catch the wave of God’s activity is to pay attention to what’s going on and realize that sometimes God acts from the ground up.
A bishop has a high pain threshold. Students of the art of leadership have observed that an effective leader has a high tolerance for pain, both one’s own pain and the pain of others. If you have a high tolerance for others’ pain and a low tolerance for your own, you’ll be a tyrant. If you have a low tolerance for others’ pain and a high tolerance for your own, you’ll be a doormat. Having a low tolerance for anyone’s pain is a recipe for total leadership collapse. Being able to tolerate a substantial amount of pain in oneself, and to be patient through the loud complaints of others when they feel like their interests are being harmed, has the greatest potential to yield the sort of adaptive change that most dioceses need.
A bishop is able to cast a compelling vision. The gospel is about what leadership wonks call a “preferred future.” John the Seer of Revelation paints such an attractive picture of the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, with the new Jerusalem coming down from Heaven like a bride adorned for her bridegroom, that the attentive reader is driven to cry, “Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!” The vision cast by a bishop may not be quite so apocalyptic in scale, but it is meet and right for it to be of the same general shape. It’s one thing to goad people toward whatever you think they ought to be doing, but how can they be inspired toward cross-shaped behavior without a vivid narrative image of what it all leads to? A bishop talks about the prize on which the people are bidden to fix their eyes.
This is, of course, not an exhaustive list. You may be able to think of worthwhile additions. And I’m taking a risk by not including criteria like “knowing the Lord” or “a person of prayer.” I do believe those things are vital — so vital, in fact, that they deserve the privilege of simply being presumed. So I presume them. That now being said, I can safely say that electors could do worse than to screen candidates through these criteria.
Great article. This is a keeper.