The Inside Story on Bishop Searches

Todd Ousley | Seminary of the Southwest

Bishop searches have come in concentrated batches lately, prompting some questions: Are there more searches than usual? Is the pool of candidates more limited than it has been in the past? Why have some slates been reduced before election, and why did the Diocese of Nevada cancel its search outright? TLC correspondent Kirk Petersen talked with the Rt. Rev. Todd Ousley, Bishop for the Office of Pastoral Development, to learn more. This interview has been lightly edited for brevity, grammar, and narrative flow.

There are about 20 or 21 bishop searches going on now, right?

If I’m doing the counting, I’m going to give you a higher number than that, because I know about searches that have not begun but which are imminent. We’ve got about 23 or 24 that are in process, some in the pre-announcement stage. I also work with elections that have already happened, but the consecration of the bishop has not happened yet, so you start looking at 26 or 27. That’s over a two to two-plus year period of time. I’m aware of some where the consecration of the bishop will go into 2021.

If we looked at it in a calendar year, roughly 10 to 12 bishops will be consecrated.

I’ve heard any number of people say, “We have so many bishop searches going on.” Is there some way to quantify whether this is an unusually large number?

According to data from the research arm of the Church Pension Group, the average tenure for a bishop is 8.5 years. There are 10-ish suffragan bishops, who are elected, and you’ve got 110 dioceses, convocations, and mission areas, so there are about 120 bishops in that pool. If you divide that by 8.5, somewhere around 10 or 12 elections during any 12-month period is reasonable. So those who are saying there are an unprecedented number of elections going on are jumping to conclusions.

Let me say a little about why I think people are reaching that conclusion. When I was elected 12 years ago, dioceses were still producing printed profiles that you mailed out to people. You maybe made 300 of them. So it was a more limited pool that was even aware that an election was going on.

Today, we’ve got it on Facebook, we’ve got dedicated webpages, it’s a link on the diocesan webpage, it’s sent out to the House of Bishops and House of Deputies Listserv, it can appear on various online banners advertising it, and those of us who are most plugged into it are also sending links by email to people we think ought to be reading it to discern whether they’ve got a call to be the bishop of X diocese. There’s just a much greater awareness.

Also, I think there’s been a certain compression recently. Rather than those 10 or 12 being spread out evenly, one a month, we had had three elections and one decision about moving into a provisional bishop arrangement two Saturdays ago. That kind of cluster creates an impression that there’s more of it going on than is the norm.

People also have said that with all these elections going on, it has reduced the pool of potential nominees. There’s an assumption in that: that every diocese is the same. I was the Bishop of Eastern Michigan, which is a small diocese. It is financially under-resourced by some standards, lots of rural, blue-collar people, lots of lower educational attainment. That is not the Diocese of Chicago, or New York, or Washington, D.C., or Los Angeles. It’s a very different place.

Somebody who is attracted to San Diego likes 75-degree weather year-round. Somebody who’s attracted to Eastern Michigan and has done their homework really likes that there are four seasons, and each asserts itself quite boldly.

I’m glad you brought up San Diego, because they recently announced a one-person slate. That is San Diego, it’s not Podunk. How is it that a diocese like that only comes up with one candidate?

They had a rich and deep pool of persons to consider. They came to the point of being almost ready to announce their nominees, and determined, based on some last-minute information, that for two of the persons it was not in the diocese’s best interest, or in those priests’ best interests, to go forward with the nomination.

They had to decide whether to start over, because there’s just one person, or they could determine that they had done thorough vetting, felt confident about the one person who had made it through to that final stage, and name her as sole nominee from the search and nominating committee process, and then recognize that in all dioceses there is another way that a person gets onto the ballot, through the petition process.

We’re used to seeing around three or four come from the search and nominating process, and there may or may not be someone through the petition process. San Diego’s going to have petition nominees, so they’re going to end up with the normative number on the slate come election day.

The petition process is the church’s contemporary way to handle nominations from the floor responsibly. In the old days, back before we did more comprehensive background checks — criminal, behavioral, employment, and financial background checks — you could arrive at the day of convention and someone could get nominated, and there had been no vetting. People would say, well, we’ve known this person for years. Well, it doesn’t mean we truly know them.

In the petition process, there is a résumé that gives us some sense of who the person is, and then background checks are done that deal with those criminal, employment, and financial aspects, so that we can find out if there’s a challenge in this person’s background that would mean they’ve either behaved in a way that or they’ve got some particular personal or financial challenges that would mean that they don’t really qualify as a bishop nominee at this time. What they will not have as a petition nominee is an opportunity to go through a more thorough discernment process with a group of people in the diocese — either a search and nominating committee, or a discernment retreat, which is a standard part of recommended practices in dioceses now.

We have good history in the church of the petition process being a way to enhance the election process, and also to be a corrective. Let’s use San Diego as an example. They’ve got one person right now who’s come through the search and nominating committee process. And that’s insufficient as far as a diocese and as the church as a whole understands it. So they need to correct that somehow, and the petition process enables that.

There also can be in a diocese a real sense that there ought to be somebody who is from the diocese, or who has a particular gift or experience that’s important for the diocese. And if that kind of person has not come through the search and nominating committee process, then the petition process is a way to provide that alternative.

The current Bishop of Los Angeles was a petition nominee. His predecessor was a petition nominee. The current Bishop of New York was a petition nominee. By all measures they seem to be doing a marvelous job. I also might be slightly biased — I was a petition nominee and was elected as bishop. I didn’t think I was going to be, I thought I was serving a purpose because I was the only internal candidate. And lo and behold I was elected. The Holy Spirit moves in strange and mysterious ways that surprise us.

I’m in the Diocese of Newark, and we love our new bishop, Carlye Hughes.

Yes, she’s marvelous, isn’t she?

She’s great. I happened to be one of the deputies to the special convention that elected her. The consensus among the people I talked to was, we can’t go wrong — any one of these three could be a great bishop.

You had a marvelous slate, absolutely marvelous. I’m thinking about the slates that I have seen over the last year and a half that I’ve been in this role. Each slate’s been unique, but I think each diocese has had real choices, where you could make a clear argument for any one of the nominees as someone who’s going to be a marvelous bishop for the diocese. It just kind of depends on what are you looking for at this moment in time, and what’s your experience been before, and how a person is perceived in the walkabouts and their written materials and video materials, that resonates and speaks to the people in the diocese. That’s how the Holy Spirit works.

In Nevada, they postponed the election after naming a slate of candidates. Is that an unusual thing?

That is an unusual thing. I want to acknowledge that one of the people nominated in the diocese is my brother [the Rev. Lance Ousley of the Diocese of Olympia]. I think it’s fair to say that after receiving the nominations, the Standing Committee received additional information, that was not available to the nominating committee at the time of their decision, that called into question the suitability of one of the nominees.

That resulted in taking a step back and asking other questions about the process that they used. As best I could tell, they didn’t feel like they were going to be able to defend the process. And that while it was hurtful to the nominees, they felt like the diocese was best served by taking a pause and reassessing. I wasn’t in the room, so I can’t say whether they made the right decision for the diocese or not. What I can say is that’s the decision they made, and we’re going to support them in taking a time out and then restarting that process sometime in 2019. That is certainly way outside the norm for that to happen.

You can look at two recent processes. The Diocese of Colorado had three nominees, they found out some information about one of those nominees and determined to remove him from the slate, so they ended up with two people on the ballot when the election happened. In San Diego, they were moving forward with additional names, but determined at the end that given other information they received, that they could only name one. Nevada decided to cancel the election. Those are all defensible responses, and those are decisions for the Standing Committee to make; and for me and the office of the Presiding Bishop to support them in the decisions they make and as they move forward.

Does your office work to recruit people as potential bishops?

That’s something that each diocese does. We provide them assistance through our consultants about best practices for executing the search and nominating process, the election and the transition. And that includes guidance to them and learning from them.

One of the key learnings is that simply developing a set of materials that says this is who we are and what we’re looking for, then sitting back and waiting for people to come is not going to cut it. You’ve got to get out there and invite people, challenge people, look for both the expected and unexpected potential nominee. It’s an active and intense process, and the dioceses that really have a rich pool of potential nominees are the ones who are doing that work. That’s certainly the way also to increase the pool of women, and persons of color, and persons across sexual orientation that are part of the overall discernment.

There have been a number of times when two dioceses have ended up sharing a bishop, or one has been a provisional bishop in a neighboring diocese. Is that a long-standing tradition?

No, that’s a more recent phenomenon, and certainly the sharing of a bishop provisional, rather than a bishop provisional who has no other responsibilities, that’s a more recent innovation and experiment for us, that we’ve found quite successful. I think we’ll see more of it in the future. Because the church is in the midst of examining its structures — and recognizing that in many cases the structures or the boundaries that we have in place were perfectly appropriate in the 19th century, but they don’t translate so well into the 21st. Or, you may have a diocese where circumstances have changed, that they were once a vibrant part of the economic landscape of this country, and now they have economic challenges.

And there’s the schism, too.

Well yeah, sure, there’s that. But in most cases where we’re looking at a provisional who’s serving in two different places, it’s two dioceses that are thinking creatively, not responding to schism.

Do you think we’re going to end up having some of these dioceses merge altogether?

I think merger is one of the possibilities. I think you can look at what is happening in Northwest Pennsylvania and Western New York, what is happening now in Eastern Michigan and Western Michigan, and those are both instances where the dioceses are continuing to value and affirm their separate corporate identity, but recognize that they can achieve certain synergies by sharing resources — sharing a bishop, or perhaps sharing Christian formation or youth ministry, camping ministries, canon to the ordinary, communications structures.

In many cases, what it means is that when a diocese is economically challenged, it can put its resources together with another diocese, maintain its own integrity as a diocese, but share support and staffing resources that are life-giving for both dioceses. That could lead to merger, it could lead to continued joint operations that become increasingly more closely aligned, or which kind of ebb and flow, depending on what the ministry opportunities and mission possibilities are as the years go by.

It’s kind of a time of creative expectancy. We don’t have to wed ourselves to one particular way, we can try something on for size, and if it works it works, and if it doesn’t, we can say well, we gave it a nice shot, let’s try something else.

The Diocese of Quincy was reabsorbed into the Diocese of Chicago, after having left it, and that was a part of the schism. But Quincy was such a small diocese to begin with.

There’s some question, I think in lots of people’s minds as we look back on it, was Quincy ever viable? Maybe not. It certainly had not been viable by most measures for many years, without using excess resources in certain aspects of diocesan life. So being absorbed back into Chicago as the Peoria Deanery has given new life to the church in that area, and it has enhanced the life of the Diocese of Chicago. It’s been a win-win for everyone.

There are 16 dioceses in the United States that each have a lower average Sunday attendance than St. Martin’s Church in Houston. And those same 16 dioceses collectively are smaller than the Diocese of Texas. It seems like some of these dioceses should not be there.

I think that’s a good place to start the conversation, and then to go to the next level, and explore why that diocese exists, what’s its particular missional call, what other kinds of relationships or alignments could it develop that would be more life-giving.

Let me use the state of Michigan, for example. From a practical standpoint in the 19th century, when there was no bridge between the lower and upper peninsula, it made sense for the Diocese of Michigan to spin off Northern Michigan. And then just because of travel and challenges and population growth, it made sense in the 19th century to split the lower peninsula down the middle of the state, and have Western Michigan and the Diocese of Michigan.

Then in 1994 at General Convention in Indianapolis, the Diocese of Eastern Michigan was created. That was in large part because of a long-term perceived focus at headquarters in Detroit around issues to which the northern part of the diocese was disconnected. So a new diocese was created. Another way of looking at that is, in large part what is today the Diocese of Michigan has been shaped by racial issues, social justice issues, particularly social justice issues around lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons, and had the largest concentration of what we affectionately refer to in Michigan as “management.”

The headquarters for the Big Three automakers and all their executives, they were in Detroit and the suburbs. The workers were still in Detroit and the suburbs, but as you got into the northern part, Saginaw and Flint, that’s where the blue-collar workers were. So you had a divide based on labor and management. I was bishop of the labor diocese. The economy in the eastern side of the state was based on the automotive industry.

The western side of the state is the furniture industry, high-tech, former lumber industry, and expensive, exclusive tourism. So what you’ve got in the lower peninsula is three different cultures. Geographically it makes no sense for there to be three dioceses. Culturally, it’s a huge challenge to bring the three together into one diocese.

Look at the state of Wisconsin. The Diocese of Milwaukee is the mother diocese. Fond du Lac and Eau Claire have different cultures, and there are churchmanship differences. From the pure numbers, financial, membership, and attendance standpoint, they ought to be one diocese.

The very small dioceses, it doesn’t seem like there’s any way they can be financially sustainable. At some point you’re small enough, how do you cover the bishop’s salary?

And when you get to the point when you can’t cover the bishop’s salary, it’s a different question than the sustainability question when you say, gosh, we have to move to a half-time youth, young adult, camp and conference center director, where all three roles are rolled into one. When you can’t afford a bishop and you’re an Episcopal diocese, that’s an existential question.

I’m impishly tempted here to say, now let’s talk about the provinces, should they exist?

That’s another conversation for another day.

All right, we’ll leave it at that.


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