By Kirk Petersen
A second Executive Council member has now declared her candidacy for president of the House of Deputies, and more candidates are in the wings.
The Rev. Devon Anderson, 55, a rector in the Diocese of Minnesota, announced her candidacy on Facebook May 20 and launched a campaign website.
“I have dreamed, prayed, and discerned about this ministry for a long time,” she wrote. “I believe I have the call, relationships, vision, and experience to help lead the church into its next great story.”
Anderson serves on the council’s committee on mission within the Episcopal Church, which is chaired by Julia Ayala Harris, who announced her candidacy more than two months ago.
Jane Cisluycis, also a member of the council, had floated the idea of running months ago, in a Facebook post she subsequently took down. She told TLC May 23 that she is still discerning whether to run.
Episcopal News Service reported that two online forums for candidates have been scheduled: on Saturday, June 4, and Monday, June 13, both beginning at 2 p.m. Eastern time. Candidates have until May 31 to declare their intent to take part in the forums. The only people eligible to run are those who registered confidentially by March 8 and agreed to a background check.
TLC caught up with Anderson while she was in Boston for her daughter’s college graduation. It also was the first weekend of her sabbatical from Trinity Episcopal Church of Excelsior, Minnesota, a western suburb of Minneapolis, where she has been rector since 2011.
“I’ve had two feet in two different places for most of my professional life in the church, whether it be as a lay person or a priest,” she said, in response to a question about her history of advocacy for social justice issues.
“I’ve always had one foot on the ground in parishes, with people, and that is all about faith formation and walking with people and building disciples. So that’s the grounding, nothing is possible without that,” she said.
“I have found myself in places where those social justice issues could unite people. So I think about the time I worked in global poverty and the [United Nations] Millennium Development Goals. In many ways, that was a huge unifier – social justice, saving souls, kind of everything combined,” she said. She took a break from parish ministry from 2007 to 2011 “to train and mobilize diocesan leadership teams for effective projects addressing extreme global poverty,” according to her resume.
TLC asked Anderson if she wanted to talk any trash about her opponent in the election.
“No! Never! I love Julia,” Anderson said. “She’s a really good person, she’s really smart, she has mad skills, and I would never say anything bad about her, in private or in public.”
OK, to put it another way, why does Anderson think she would be better for the job than Harris?
“I don’t know if it’s better, just different,” she said. “It’s who’s called. To me, it’s about Jesus … it shouldn’t look like a United States Senate campaign. This is the church, and we’ve got really critically important things to do, and problems to solve, and ministry to engage, and to me it’s about call.” Don’t look for negative ads or opposition research in this election.
Anderson’s reference to the United States Senate refers to her work before ordination, when she was a legislative assistant in the office of Senator Carl Levin, a Democrat from Michigan. When asked to compare that experience to her legislative experience on the Executive Council, she said, “There’s definitely a lot of transferrable skills.”
Speaking of Levin, she said “His deepest personal friendships were with lawmakers from across the aisle. It was about relationships back then. Real relationships, courtesy and respect for each other. I think it’s the same with our governance,… it’s an unruly, big organization, and there’s a lot of moving parts and different values and perceptions. What gets us through is our capacity to be in significant relationship with each other.”
Anderson is the daughter of former President of the House of Deputies Bonnie Anderson — a fact not mentioned on the younger woman’s website. “My ministry has really been kind of charting my own path in the church. So I’ve been really careful about that,” she said. “There weren’t a lot of dinners talking about what was happening in the blah blah committee,” she said with a laugh. Bonnie Anderson, a lay person, held the job from 2006 to 2012.
Aside from committee membership, Devon Anderson has something else in common with Julia Harris: They both contracted COVID at the Executive Council’s April meeting in Puerto Rico, where eight people were infected among about 60 in attendance. Regarding the efforts under way to restructure the upcoming General Convention from eight days to four, Anderson said, “Whatever decision is made, I feel good about the process, and how the presiding officers are navigating that.”
For 70 years, the presidency of the House of Deputies has alternated between lay and clerical deputies. Contrary to what many think, there is no canonical reason why it must alternate. However, the president and vice president must be from different orders. After the House of Deputies elects a president in July, only candidates from the other order will be eligible for vice president. The incumbent, the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, is a priest, and Harris is a lay person.
The last time the office did not alternate between orders was 1952, when the Rev. Theodore Wedel was elected to succeed the Very Rev. Claude Willard Sprouse. Sprouse, tragically, died on the day he was reelected to a second term. The House of Deputies, being still in session, elected Wedel — so one could argue that it didn’t break the pattern, as a priest was elected to fill the unexpired term of a priest.
But look back from there and the pattern quickly falls apart altogether. Sprouse’s predecessor, Owen Roberts, was the first lay president of the House of Deputies. (Roberts was elected in 1946, the year after he retired as an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court, which gave him some gravitas.) Before Roberts, the presidency was held by 14 white male priests. In 1976, sociology professor Charles Lawrence became the first, and thus far only, Black person to hold the office.
Jennings is the first PHoD to be compensated for serving in the position — and she served for six years as a volunteer before General Convention authorized compensation for the demanding job in 2018.
The PHoD compensation is set each year by the Executive Council. Jennings currently makes $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 the church, even though she ranks behind only the presiding bishop at the church center.