By Kirk Petersen
She was offered a basketball scholarship to Auburn University, but turned it down to go to a tiny Mississippi college.
She was admitted to law school, but turned it down to enter the discernment process for priesthood.
Having served nearly nine years as canon to the ordinary in the Diocese of Louisiana, she had an opportunity for a promotion when her boss announced his plan to retire. This time she did not turn it down, and on May 14, the Rev. Shannon Rogers Duckworth was elected the 12th Bishop of Louisiana.
Assuming she receives the necessary consents from half of all diocesan Standing Committees and bishops with jurisdiction, she will be consecrated November 19 at Christ Church Cathedral in New Orleans, succeeding the Rt. Rev. Morris King Thompson, Jr., who is retiring in October after serving since 2010.
As Bishop of Louisiana, Duckworth told TLC she intends to build on the priorities articulated for the whole Episcopal Church by Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry: racial reconciliation, creation care, and evangelism.
“We have a commission of racial healing that has done some really really good work, but they’re ready to dig deeper,” she said, and to engage with the commission on ministry for clergy formation, and with vestries in clergy search processes.
“Living in Southern Louisiana, we are hit almost yearly by major hurricanes, and so creation care is an imperative for us that affects the livelihoods of many of our congregants,” she said.
“And then with evangelism,” she added, “I think we have to be creative, I think we have to be collaborative, I think we have to be nimble.” She described a meeting in December with bishops and canons from Province IV, focusing on emergent models of church, including bivocational ministry, diaconal ministry, and training for lay people. “Traditional models of church do not account for the majority of the clergy,” she said.
Duckworth is a cradle Episcopalian who grew up in Mississippi with a love of athletics.
“I was offered a walk-on basketball scholarship to Auburn University, and much to my father’s tremendous dismay I turned it down, and went to a small private liberal arts college. He never quite understood that, but was very supportive of me, obviously,” she said. She graduated from Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi — which, with 900 total undergraduates, is less of a sports powerhouse than Auburn. (At all of five-foot-seven, she probably was not destined for the pros.)
In her senior year, “I thought I was going to law school, I was accepted to law school [at the University of Mississippi], the whole nine yards, and about two weeks before graduation had this Emmaus moment, epiphany moment, whatever it might be, and realized that what I really wanted to do was be a priest,” Duckworth said. “So I went and talked to my rector and to my bishop, and got a job at Millsaps and got a place to live, and then told my parents that I wasn’t going to law school.”
Aside from a year working in the Millsaps admissions office, her entire career has been in ministry. She graduated from General Theological Seminary in 2001, and for the next dozen years served in four churches in Mississippi. Bishop Thompson hired her as canon to the ordinary in Louisiana in 2013. The New Orleans-based Diocese of Louisiana shares the state with the Diocese of Western Louisiana.
Unlike most new bishops, Duckworth will start her episcopacy with a wealth of knowledge about the diocese and its people. “Canon to the ordinary” is a faintly archaic term that could be translated as “chief of staff to the bishop.” Not every diocese has a canon to the ordinary, but where the title exists it denotes the most senior member of a bishop’s staff, aside from any assisting or suffragan bishops.
“I’ve done 27 [clergy] searches in nine years,” she said, working with more than half the congregations in the diocese during one of the most consequential passages of a church’s life. She doubtless knows all of the clergy and many of the lay people who voted in the election.
Bishop elections typically feature a slate of three to five candidates, and nearly always include priests from outside the diocese. But aside from Duckworth, this election had only one other candidate, the Rev. Frederick DuMontier Devall IV, who since ordination in 1996 has spent his career serving at three churches in the Diocese of Louisiana. He is currently rector at St. Martin’s Church in Metairie, the eighth-largest of 46 churches in the diocese.
On paper it seems like a mismatch, and indeed, Duckworth won by wide margins on the first ballot, 81-47 in the lay order and 46-23 in the clergy order. (Another way to look at it is that Devall attracted nearly a third of the vote despite the daunting advantages of the other candidate.)
Duckworth becomes the third person since 2019 elected bishop on the first ballot while serving as canon to the ordinary in the same diocese:
- The Rt. Rev. Frank Logue was elected Bishop of Georgia on the first ballot from a field of five in November 2019.
- The Rt. Rev. Kathryn “Kai” Ryan was elected suffragan bishop for the western region of the Diocese of Texas, on the first ballot from a field of three in February 2019.
TLC asked Bishop Todd Ousley, who oversees all bishop elections as Bishop of the Office of Pastoral Development, for other examples of canons to the ordinary running for bishop in the same diocese, and learned that it does not always result in a first-ballot victory:
- The Rt. Rev. Susan Goff was elected suffragan bishop of the Diocese of Virginia in 2012, from a field of six on the fourth ballot.
- In the Diocese of Northern California in 2019, the Rev. Canon Andrea McMillin was outpolled on the third ballot in a field of five, by the now-Rt. Rev. Megan M. Traquair. McMillin is now a priest in the Diocese of Olympia.
- In the Diocese of Colorado in 2018, then-Rev. Canon Ruth Woodliff-Stanley fell short on the fourth ballot in a head-to-head matchup with a candidate from outside the diocese, the now-Bishop of Colorado Kimberly “Kym” Lucas. Three years later, Woodliff-Stanley was elected to the position she now holds, Bishop of South Carolina.
Bishop-elect Duckworth praised her erstwhile fellow candidate, saying Devall “was extraordinarily gracious to me on Saturday, waited for me after we both heard the news … to congratulate me before we went back into the cathedral,” then sat in the first row during her acceptance remarks. “We’ve known each other and been colleagues and friends before I even came to Louisiana,” she said, and she looks forward to continuing to work with him.
Duckworth was joined at the podium during her remarks by her husband James Duckworth, whom she married last year, and by her sons from a previous marriage, Nicholas, 20, and Tucker, 15. She said as far as her husband knows, he is not related to Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois.
The bishop-elect still loves basketball, and plays pickup games in her driveway with her family.
When asked for concluding thoughts, Duckworth told TLC, “I think the Episcopal Church has a particular voice of unity in a time, right now, when we’re so divided on so many things. … I think that in this sometimes-broken world, and as we continue to find our way through COVID, and our clergy are exhausted, and our congregants are exhausted, we have a message. … We can’t all be in our silos. It’s the time to find ways to draw on each other, not further separate ourselves.”