By Kirk Petersen
The Executive Council has delayed confirmation of the next chief operating officer of the Episcopal Church over concerns that insufficient attention was paid to considering a diverse pool of candidates. It was the council’s most aggressive challenge in recent memory to a decision made by the presiding officers of the church.
In the public portion of an online meeting December 13, a succession of council members questioned the selection process on diversity grounds, before declining to take action in executive session. The candidate was not publicly identified, although council members knew the person’s identity. The council will reconsider the matter at a date to be determined, which may postpone the intended January 3 starting date for the new chief operating officer.
“I’m concerned because when I see the background and the education, et cetera, of that person, it just seems like a lot of people would have the same kind of background,” said Sandra Montes, a Hispanic lay member from the Diocese of Texas.
The council heard a description of the search process from George Conway, the president of Independent Educational Services, which among other things conducts executive searches. He said more than 30 candidates were considered before credentials for nine of them were submitted to Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry and President of the House of Deputies Julia Ayala Harris. Of the nine, two were women and two were people of color, Conway said. Two finalists were then interviewed by the senior canons and department heads of the church.
Curry and Ayala Harris, by virtue of the elected offices they hold, serve also as the chair and vice chair of the Executive Council. In answering a question about the selection process, Curry said “at the end of the day, the chair and vice chair make the decision,” subject to approval of the Executive Council. Left unspoken was the fact that the chair is a Black man, and the vice chair is a Hispanic woman.
“One of the conditions for application was to be in good standing in the membership in the Episcopal Church,” Conway said — a statement that immediately drew criticism.
“Others within the wider world can potentially be COOs of this organization, and learn about the Episcopal Church, if they’re not already Episcopalians,” said Annette Buchanan, a Black lay member from the Diocese of New Jersey. “For the decision to be made that this is only an Episcopal position, I think is at this point, short sighted.”
Conway replied that there had been inquiries from people outside the church, and if he had found a candidate who he thought was ideal for the position, he would have passed that name along. “But that was not the case. We have plenty of strong candidates who are affiliated with the church.”
Other council members objected to the absence of a search committee for the position, and questioned whether the search was sufficiently broad. Of the seven members who raised concerns, six were Black or Hispanic. The one white questioner was the Rev. Devon Anderson, Diocese of Minnesota, who spoke in support of her colleagues. “In a high-profile job like this, I think it’s important to have that transparency,” she said, especially in light of the recent racial audit. In early 2021, the church released a report based on a three-year study that found “nine dominant patterns of systemic racism” in the church.
When a candidate is eventually approved, the individual will succeed the Rev. Deacon Geoffrey Smith, who is retiring at year-end after six years on the job. As chief operating officer, Smith has overseen “the day-to-day operation and management of human resources, information technology, communication, buildings and facilities, as well as real estate acquisitions,” the church said in announcing his retirement. His salary for 2022 is $241,985.
Photo credits: Montes, Conway, and Buchanan, screen shots from livestream; Smith, ENS