Analysis by Kirk Petersen
March 8 was the deadline for prospective candidates to declare their interest in running to be the next president of the House of Deputies of the Episcopal Church. Two prominent members of the Executive Council have said they submitted their applications, and there are other potential candidates as well.
Julia Ayala Harris, 41, formally announced her candidacy with a letter to deputies on her personal website. She was elected to Executive Council in 2015, and since 2020 has chaired the Committee on Mission Within the Episcopal Church, one of the council’s four standing committees.
Jane Cisluycis, 57, chairs the Governance and Operations committee, and told TLC that she had floated the possibility of running several months ago in a Facebook post, which she later took down. “I’ve put my name in” as a potential candidate, she said, while she continues a discernment process to determine whether to run.
The Rev. Canon Michael Barlowe, who as executive officer of the General Convention is responsible for administering the election, said he was not aware of anyone else who had publicly acknowledged applying. He said other potential candidates had filed before the deadline, but declined to say how many.
The next president of the House of Deputies will be elected July 11, the fifth legislative day of the 80th General Convention in Baltimore. Three days later, the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, who is 71, will bang the gavel for the final time as PHoD, and hand the gavel to her successor. Jennings is term-limited after serving for three triennia, plus a pandemic year. The term of office does not expire on a date certain, but rather at the close of the General Convention, which was originally scheduled for 2021.
Harris is a full-time graduate student at the University of Oklahoma, seeking a doctorate in political science to add to the master’s of public administration she received from the same university. She has worked in nonprofit administration for two decades, and lists on her website long volunteer experience at the parish, diocesan, and churchwide levels, and beyond in the Anglican Communion. (She once joked that “I work to support my Episcopal habit.”) Among other things, she served on the Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church (TREC), which in 2014 made sweeping recommendations for changing the governance of the church, none of which have been implemented.
Her announcement mentions in passing that she is a first-generation Mexican American. Elsewhere on her website is a post from 2018, at the height of the #metoo movement, in which she describes giving birth at the age of 15 to a child she gave up for adoption, then not being taken seriously in reporting a sexual assault in college because she was not a virgin. She relates three separate episodes over the years in which she says white men in leadership positions in the Episcopal Church were explicitly racist or sexist in their interactions with her.
When asked whether she thought this background would affect her candidacy or her potential experience in office, she said those considerations were part of her discernment process.
She told TLC she believes “the church is ready to start to see a different type of leadership, and that we need candidates who are willing to put themselves forward to show that we are leaders in the church and we’re ready to do this.”
When she realized that, “That’s when I really started feeling called to put my name forward,” she said. “For me, a calling has everything to do with God saying, ‘I invite you into this,’ and it’s not about you, but it’s about the church, and it’s about God’s mission.”
As of now she is the only publicly declared candidate, and it remains to be seen whether there will be a first-mover advantage, or disadvantage. There are no meaningful norms or conventions for the campaign, as the last time a new PHoD was elected was a decade ago. This election will take place in a completely different social media environment, and many of the voting deputies will not have participated in Jennings’s first election.
Cisluycis was offered an opportunity to advocate for her own potential candidacy, and said she was not ready to do so. She is canon to the ordinary for operations in the Diocese of Northern Michigan, and has worked for the diocese since 1996.
Don’t expect to see negative campaign ads or opposition research between the two women, who by all accounts are close friends. Cisluycis said she had taken down her early Facebook post because she felt uncomfortable being the only person talking about a potential candidacy. “I’m glad that Julia’s in, she’s good people” and well-qualified for the role, Cisluycis said.
The other two committee chairs on the Executive Council will not be candidates. The Rev. Mally Lloyd, who heads the finance committee, said she could not be a deputy because she no longer lives in Massachusetts, where she is canonically resident. And the chair of the Committee on Mission Beyond the Episcopal Church, the Rt. Rev. Dabney Smith, is not eligible to lead or serve in the House of Deputies because he is Bishop of Southwest Florida.
The March 8 application deadline was established late last year so that background checks can be conducted before names are formally placed in nomination at General Convention. “When I ran for president, the nursery attendant at my husband’s parish was vetted more carefully than I was,” Jennings said.
The duties of the PHoD extend far beyond banging the gavel at General Conventions. The incumbent is the second-ranking officer of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society (DFMS), the name given 201 years ago to the New York corporate entity that runs the business of the Episcopal Church. The individual is empowered to sign contracts and checks on behalf of DFMS, and also serves as vice president of the Executive Council, essentially the church’s board of directors.
Major announcements typically are made over the signatures of both the presiding bishop, currently the Most Rev. Michael B. Curry, and the PHoD.
It’s more than a full-time job, and yet was uncompensated until 2018, when General Convention passed a resolution establishing “director and officer fees” for the PHoD, in lieu of a formal salary. The provision was a compromise that persuaded the House of Bishops to compensate the head of the other side of the leadership, after voting down proposals three times over two decades.
Jennings, who served most of her tenure without compensation, is currently paid $223,166 annually as an “independent contractor,” meaning she does not get the benefits package enjoyed by employees. (As a rule of thumb, the value of a benefits package is often about a third of the annual salary.) It’s a substantial income, but even setting aside the lack of benefits, in nominal dollars Jennings is the lowest-paid of the seven top officers of DFMS.
But it’s a large enough income to support an active Episcopal habit.