4. The Bishop We Seek
In the BDNC’s extensive listening sessions, we considered what model of leadership might be needed as we faced into the headwinds of change. Would a Provisional Bishop be the best course to help us discern our future? But would that address our interest in drawing from the most diverse pool of candidates? Are we ready to consider sharing a bishop with another local diocese? But which one, and how do we navigate that? What about part-time or full-time? What could we afford? How in the world would a part-time bishop be able to do all that was on our “wish list”? Where was God when we needed her (or him) the most?!
We recognize that our next bishop needs to have an innovative spirit, out-of-the-box energy and, as one person so aptly termed it, a sense of holy scrappiness.
Ultimately, assimilating all we heard in our listening sessions, we took a leap of faith to continue with the model of a full-time settled bishop in the hopes that s/he would help us continue to discern and explore how God is speaking to us in the changes we anticipate. We don’t know what the finances will continue to look like down the road and what other creative structure of episcopacy might reveal itself in the future, but we know we are not done yet discerning what God is up to for The Episcopal Church in Vermont. It will take more time.
One different thing about our model of “full-time, settled bishop” is that we see this role functioning as a bishop-in-partnership with us.
One different thing about the model of “full-time, settled bishop” that is very clear to us, however, is that we see this role functioning as a bishop-in-partnership with us. While this concept is not a model on a national level, it is a prime example of how the people of Vermont prayerfully consider what is needed and how to get there. We might describe this as being the “Vermont way”—a type of creative leadership that has set Vermont apart in the national arena on several issues.
Continuing the legacy of Bishop Mary Adelia McLeod, under the guidance of Bishop Tom Ely, over the past 17 years we have reframed the implementation and accountability of leadership roles around fulfilling the promises expressed in our Baptismal Covenant. The size of our communities and the geography of the Green Mountains have shaped the ministry model in The Episcopal Church in Vermont as a common effort, with all members called to be ministers. We depend upon one another to sustain our communities and lead our congregations; sometimes this includes an ordained person, other times it does not.
Here is how we define, in part, what we mean by “bishop-in-partnership,” which is a next step following the legacies of both Bishop McLeod and Bishop Ely and that has the support of many laypeople and clergy here in Vermont. We acknowledge the time-honored role of Bishop in the ancient line of the apostles but we also advocate for a more contemporary adaptation to that position:
We seek a collaborative leader who can be inspirational and empower others;
One who is an experienced practitioner and advocate of mutual ministry, partnering alongside clergy and lay leadership.
One who is comfortable with a decision-making structure that is authoritative but collaborative and collegial where appropriate.
One who is skilled with being an active listener, curious and decisive, who can see the benefits of process but not at the expense of timely response to a critical need.
One who will know that we are all in the work of living out what it means to be God’s people in Vermont and in the world, and who will not try to do it alone—one who will delegate and share leadership.
We envision a model of leadership in our bishop that will continue to enhance and invigorate an understanding of how individuals and communities live out their baptismal promises.
We seek a bishop who will partner with Episcopalians in Vermont to recognize, affirm, and raise up mutual ministry models in our congregations and in our larger diocesan life, as all ministry springs from the common call of our baptism.
One who will travel the state in order to visit with our parishes to learn about their work and support the importance of that work within their communities and/or to encourage and challenge them to discern and address other community needs.
We seek a bishop who will build upon the work that has gone before but will look for new ways in which the Spirit is calling us.
One who will listen with and to us. Walk with us. Laugh with us.
This model, “bishop-in-partnership” is built, in part, on a priest-in-charge model that is recognized on a national level. Over the past years, Vermont has adapted that concept to one we call “priest-in-partnership” which allows a congregation and their clergy leader to have an expectation that they will review their life together at the end of an established period of time (usually three years) and make decisions about continuing that relationship into the future. While we are not suggesting any time-limited term of office for our next bishop, we want to pursue a regular review process to see how we are doing together as our ministries progress. This allows for mutual expression of successes and growing edges in order to make any necessary course corrections along the way of living into Jesus’ call together going forward.
In our sacred listening sessions across Vermont, we heard many qualities (summarized below) that would be desirable in our next bishop. While it might sound that everything is included except walking on water, we offer these to you, to give a sense of the caliber of person we seek.
We seek a bishop of spiritual depth with a strong moral center. We seek a bishop who loves Jesus and has a sustaining, replenishing life of prayer, and who embraces the ministry of all baptized people. We seek someone who is passionate about the Episcopal faith – someone who can fully be an ambassador for The Episcopal Church in Vermont. We seek a bishop who calls us to honor our tradition and listen for the voice of God speaking in new ways and who will help us to shape liturgy to celebrate both the familiar and the new expression.
We seek a bishop who can rejoice in the wild diversity of our invigorating seasons, unafraid of driving in the winter and in mud season (!), and someone who appreciates nature, the outdoors, healthy lifestyles, and the array of values within small communities
Pastorally Oriented Administrative Skills
We seek a bishop with a strong pastoral presence in relating to clergy, to congregations, to those considering a call to ordination, and to individual members of the church. We seek a bishop who will care for our priests and deacons, and be a cheerleader reminding us of our story and of our place in God’s story. We seek a bishop who will love this place and its people, who will represent the unconditional love of Jesus at home, in the House of Bishops, and in the world.
We seek a bishop who will walk the line between God’s dreams for us and our responsibilities to the places in our care, like Rock Point Commons and Mission Farm, and our other small parcels of property here and there. We want to live into God’s dream for us, but we recognize that sometimes we need a faithful catalyst to help us envision possibilities beyond where we are right now.
We seek a bishop who is skilled in conflict resolution and can be decisive when necessary, responding when urgent matters or crises arise, with prompt action and respectful communication.
While many cherish an open communion table and hold progressive views, this is not the case with all. We seek a bishop who is sensitive to the concerns of those who diverge from the generally-held views and works to ensure that these members do not become alienated or disaffected.
We seek a bishop who is a good administrator. This includes empowering other clergy and laity to do some of the work when possible, so the bishop can tend to pastoral and episcopal matters. Many demands and projects flow through the diocesan office. The bishop needs to partner with the office team to set clear priorities so workloads are balanced and spirits are buoyant.
We seek a bishop who will embrace Vermont – wealthy towns and poor towns alike, who will come to us, even in winter, and get to know us in our home parishes through mid-week and Sunday visitations. We also seek a bishop who will remind us to go forth from those parishes and be the people of God – the Jesus Movement – in our towns and workplaces, changed by what we have experienced in worship.
We seek a bishop who is a visionary – energetic and open to change.
Local Ministry Support Teams
We seek a bishop who has a heart for small congregations in rural communities, who could bring a working knowledge of local ministry support teams and mutual ministry. As used in several parishes, the Local Ministry Support Team (LMST) model of leadership features a team drawn from existing parishioners who share leadership of the parish, including ordained leadership. Before the team is formed and commissioned/ordained, the parish, after discerning this as the desired path, will have completed several preliminary steps designed to identify the ministry roles needed for its healthy functioning. Steps along the way include studying the concepts of total baptismal ministry, reviewing in depth the New Testament gifts of the Spirit and identifying in self and others which gifts appear to be present in the parish and which need to be developed, and seeing how the roles and the gifts match up locally. Anonymously, parishioners suggest names for fulfilling the roles, and a discernment committee then extends invitations to the identified ministers to join a covenant group, which is eventually formed into the LMST. The process typically takes several years. Further time is required for the individual(s) raised up for priest (and perhaps deacon) to undergo the formation required by the bishop and canons and the diocesan ordination discernment process. The normal expectation is that these ordinands will then fulfill their ministries in the local milieu that raised them up although, like any candidates for ordained ministry, they are ordained for the whole church.
We seek a bishop who can provide sound financial stewardship. Sustainability is an ongoing concern. At present, we are seeking a full-time bishop, and we hope to continue this model of leadership if sustainability is secure. In light of changing demographics and uncertain financial resources, we seek a bishop who can help us discern ways of being more cost effective (for example, merging portions of administrative work with a neighboring diocese). There will need to be sharp attention to creatively steward our limited financial resources. Experience in legacy giving (or enlisting those who have those skills) would be helpful, as this is an area of philanthropy we are seeking to nurture.
The Episcopal Church in Vermont has a long history of inclusivity, celebrating diversity and welcoming all of God’s children. Our current bishop, Thomas C. Ely, has been courageous and fearless in advocacy for social justice over the 17 years of his episcopacy which has included issues of dismantling racism, gun violence legislation activism, marriage equality, the poor people’s campaign, and a moral economy. A sign seen at the Women’s March said, “Look, the Episcopalians are here – this must be serious!” Bishop Ely’s legacy has been recognized locally and nationally, as well as in the House of Bishops.
We recognize that this expectation might leave a candidate feeling a bit intimidated. After all, it takes a bishop time to grow into the role of prophetic leadership with all the trappings that accrue to that over time. Perhaps it is more fair to acknowledge that it is our hope that this type of prophetic leadership will continue with our next bishop, for we seek one who will hold us to the promises of our Baptismal Covenant: seeking justice, respecting dignity, seeking and serving Christ in all people. One who will not only actively participate in civil society, at the Vermont State House and in our communities, but also encourage us to do so as well.
In closing, we seek a bishop who will abide with us – one who will take the call seriously but possess a sense of humor and proportion.
As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.