By Neva Rae Fox
The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted a shift to online walkabouts and voting in bishop’s elections.
The Rt. Rev. Todd Ousley, Bishop of the Office of Pastoral Development, sees online tools as a natural alternative during the pandemic.
“I think what we are seeing is an event that has disrupted our normal pattern,” he said, which resulted in “a lot of creativity and adaptive thinking. The entire church is experimenting.”
The pandemic “caused a reevaluation of essentials. It was a fight or a freeze kind of moment,” Ousley said. “The real positive is that we were forced to do something we would not have done, and we were forced to reevaluate and reaffirm what is essential. We can focus on that and not the extraneous.”
To date two dioceses have conducted bishop’s elections online: Chicago and Oregon. The next election is in South Carolina on May 1. That diocese is planning for in-person voting, but with “a contingency plan for a virtual online Convention, depending on Covid restrictions.”
Online presentations and elections posted challenges, Ousley said, citing the “discernment retreat; for that not to be in person was a challenge.” But it has worked, thanks to the dedication of dioceses, consultants, and candidates, and Ousley is enthusiastic that technology allowed for increased participation.
“We are in the midst of reshaping in our thinking what it means to be present,” Ousley said. “And we have the capacity to increase our presence.”
The Rt. Rev. Diana Akiyama, elected August 29 and scheduled for consecration on January 30, 2021, as the bishop of the Diocese of Oregon, experienced a midpoint change.
“The pandemic went into effect after the discernment retreat and before the walkabout,” she said. “It was very good to have been in-person with the search committee people before the pandemic changed everything about the process.”
Zoom was not an obstacle, but the electronics did present some difficulties. “My experience was less shaped by Zoom and more by the livestreamed Q&As,” Akiyama said. “Talking to a camera is very different than talking to a roomful of people who you can see, and who will smile or otherwise respond to what is being shared. Yet one of the advantages to Zoom or livestream is the opportunity to reach many more people than otherwise. … There was really no opportunity to ‘feel’ the people and to have a way to connect.”
Akiyama added: “I have met a lot of folk via Zoom, but in order to carry out an effective ministry one needs to be able to be in person with folk, to talk spontaneously, to make jokes (which is difficult on Zoom because of the way audio will not overlap) and to move from person to person in conversation.
“For me, the search process was ‘normal’ through the discernment retreat, and then the pandemic changed everything. So, while I can’t compare my experience doing this in the pandemic to one that is not affected by the pandemic, I can talk about learning to pivot, adapt, and take care of oneself in a very stressful time.”
Bishop-elect Paula Clark of the Diocese of Chicago, the other person who won an online election, could not be reached for comment. Her consecration has been postponed, tentatively until June, as she recovers from brain surgery.