By Sarah Condon
At some point in the last year I received a very kind email asking me to put my name in for bishop. Someone I did not know had nominated me. It was flattering and terrifying. I have been ordained for about 30 minutes (or since 2013). I have never been a rector. I have never handled major conflict in a leadership role. And I do not like hats. So, I emailed back with a polite No, thank you, and I believed that would be the end of it.
Moments later, I received an email back that said, “Well, let us know if you think of anyone.”
And I thought, “That’s what I say when I need to hire a magician for my kid’s birthday party.”
That is not how we pray for the Holy Spirit to call bishops.
In the months that followed there has been some big news about the all-women slates we have seen for bishops’ elections. And I am beginning to wonder if my nomination had less to do with my skill set and more to do with my ovaries.
We would be foolish to not acknowledge that these slates are a response to the cultural moment. In the wake of #MeToo and the Roman Catholic Church’s sexual misconduct cases, it makes a whole lot of sense to want women to be in charge. Men have run the joint for over a millennium — obviously.
Women’s leadership brings tremendous value to the table. Generally speaking, we are more collaborative, better able to think outside the box, and proven to be better listeners. These are certainly wonderful qualities to have in a bishop.
And as a clergywoman, I find it encouraging to see women taking the lead. I am a priest and the wife of a priest. In our household, when we talk with our young children about our role as pastors to the church community, we always mention that our bishops are pastors to us and to our family. I love seeing women in this profoundly important role.
Yet these slates for the episcopate and the collective excitement about them make me nervous. I am worried that these women are the next project intended to fix the Church. It feels as though the expectations are nearly messianic. And no matter how adept our unique giftedness is, we are not the Risen Lord.
I grow nervous when people are overly excited about women in ministry. I am here to do the work of the gospel, not to be the church’s latest project. I am here to pastor people, not to be Jesus. And when I see a line of all-women candidates I begin to wonder if the collective church has decided that lady bishops are a good way to fix everything.
Spoiler Alert: We will not fix everything, especially because these women are not inheriting a well-oiled machine. In fact, the church is being handed to women’s leadership at its absolute worst. Our national attendance numbers are staggeringly bleak, and our clergy are desperate for solid episcopal leadership. We would be remiss not to admit that this all feels a bit like “Let’s let the girls try their hand at it.”
Women often do our best when given the worst. For better or worse, this is how women tend to come into leadership positions. We are typically trailblazers on paths that have been neglected or misused. That is most certainly the case right now, and I do believe that the Lord makes a way out of no way. I am hopeful for my sisters newly called into this tremendous responsibility.
In the wake of TLC’s article on recent slates, there was an outcry that this was not even a thing we should be talking about. People commented that we should be used to women bishops by now and that this should not really even be news. This is the devil prowling like a lion.
The worst thing we could do right now is to say that we should not be talking about these slates. There is a major tendency in progressive circles to proclaim everything new as normal. And the new things (or people in this case) suffer. Not to talk about it and to shame one another for having uncomfortable conversations is very dangerous for our church and for the very women we want to raise up.
We must continue to do the prayerful and difficult work of raising up candidates for episcopacy. I celebrate my sisters being called into the role of bishop. But I do so with fear and trepidation for them. I pray the same prayer for them that I pray for myself and for all of those I know and love in ministry, but for these women, I pray it a little harder.
I pray that they can remember they belong to Jesus, who has completed the redeeming work that we could never accomplish ourselves. And perhaps most important, in the midst of all of the fever-pitch fanfare and crushing brokenness that comes with leading a diocese, I pray that the church can remember that too.