By Kirk Petersen
She grew up in Canada in a committedly secular household, and rebelled as a teenager by finding Jesus. She met her husband at the University of Toronto, and they both became priests in the Anglican Church of Canada. While they were visiting a friend in New York City, her husband got an interim job offer, and they both fell in love with the Episcopal Church.
Two decades later, the Rev. Sally French has been elected the 13th Bishop of New Jersey.
French, currently the canon for regional ministry and collaborative innovation in the Diocese of North Carolina, prevailed on the third ballot from a field of five on January 28. Assuming she receives the necessary consents from diocesan bishops and Standing Committees, she will be consecrated on June 24, succeeding the Rt. Rev. William H. “Chip” Stokes, who has served since 2013.
“I grew up in a home that did not value church attendance, but was culturally Anglican Communion oriented,” she told TLC. “When I got to university as an undergraduate, I found myself sort of wondering about the bigger picture,” so she started sampling churches, beginning with the Presbyterian church on campus. “After repeatedly asking other students where they went to church — which it turns out is not the most popular question — eventually, somebody dragged me to the Trinity College chapel,” also on the University of Toronto campus.
There she discovered “this profound sense of God’s presence,” she said. “I felt almost instantly like I had come home, and that I was somehow being invited into this community and fellowship.” She stayed for the coffee hour, and “by the end of the month, I think I was mostly running coffee hour.” That was an October Sunday, and she was baptized and confirmed at the next Easter Vigil.
She immersed herself in the chapel community. She had been headed toward an academic career in economic history, “which I was never really good at, anyway, if I’m perfectly honest,” she said. She realized she wanted to go to seminary instead. “One of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do was to tell my parents, not only that I was going to study this thing that they weren’t keen on me studying, but that, in fact, I was called to ordination.” They tried to steer her toward law school.
How do her parents feel about her becoming a bishop? “Surprisingly excited, overjoyed, and perhaps not entirely with a sense of what this might entail,” she said. “One thing that was always important for my parents was that they wanted me to grow up knowing I could do anything I wanted to do.”
She enrolled in the University of Toronto’s Trinity College seminary, where she met this fellow a year ahead of her named Clarke French. (She was Sally Johnson at the time.) “We were friends for many years before realizing that maybe God was calling us to a different kind of relationship. We both ended up in Edmonton in Western Canada. And we were married there.”
She was thinking about possibly doing some graduate work at General Theological Seminary in New York. She didn’t, but while they were visiting the city her husband was offered a job as interim rector of Christ Church, Staten Island. “We loved the Episcopal Church, we found that we were welcomed and there there were opportunities for connection and ministry that were just amazing,” she said. They were young and childless and living in New York City. “I really loved that season in New York. Our son was born in December 2005, at which point the subways became a whole lot less fun,” she said.
After a few years in upstate New York, the couple moved to North Carolina. Before joining the diocesan staff in 2020, she spent six years as associate rector at St. Philip’s Episcopal in Durham — one of the largest churches in the diocese, with more than 300 worshippers on an average pre-pandemic Sunday.
St. Philip’s, auspiciously, developed and still holds the copyright to Journey to Adulthood (J2A), a popular Episcopal youth-formation program. French was hired in 2014 in part to revise and update the program, which began in the 1990s and was missing key themes of interest to youth in the internet age. “There weren’t really any lessons on mission. There was nothing on care for creation. We didn’t have lessons on trauma or gun violence or anxiety, or how to engage with young people around the topics that are troubling today, social media, none of that had been on the horizon. And most importantly, there was no component of racial justice.”
She led the team that took on the project, and “what I discovered pretty quickly was that my real gift in this wasn’t the content piece,” she said. “My real gift was the strategy and structure and the visioning and the process.” The kind of skills a bishop needs to have.
“I thought it would take three years, and it ended up taking seven,” she said, as she juggled it with her day-to-day parish duties, finishing around the time she moved to the diocesan staff. The program is now available through Church Publishing Incorporated.
The Rev. Clarke French currently serves as rector of Church of the Holy Family in Chapel Hill, and TLC asked about his plans when she becomes bishop. “We’re figuring that out. We’re not worried about it in the slightest,” she said.
TLC impishly suggested that if he became a priest in the Diocese of New Jersey, she could remind him repeatedly of his ordination vow to obey his bishop. “Well, that might be handy for some things — somebody’s got to take out the garbage,” she said with a laugh. More seriously, she said one benefit of the Diocese of New Jersey is “it’s one of the few places in the Episcopal Church where my husband actually might be able to work and not be in my diocese.” Diocesan headquarters in Trenton is just a few blocks away from the Delaware River, with the Diocese of Pennsylvania on the other side. It’s a little over an hour’s drive to the closest parishes in the dioceses of Newark, Bethlehem, and Delaware.
“We’re not in any hurry. My daughter will be 13 in a few weeks, my son just turned 17. And we want to make sure that they get settled well, and that the move is done in a way that will allow everyone to flourish and allow me to serve and support the diocese without having to worry too much about the home front,” she said.
The other nominees were the Rev. Canon Dr. Dena Cleaver-Bartholomew, canon to the ordinary, Diocese of Rhode Island; the Very Rev. Troy Mendez, dean, Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Phoenix; the Rev. Janine Schenone, rector, Good Samaritan Episcopal Church, San Diego; and the Rev. Dr. Mauricio Jose Wilson, rector, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Oakland, California.