Bishop Transition: Where are we, and where are we going?

A report from the Standing Committee

We, the Standing Committee of the Diocese of Southern Ohio, wanted to give you a sense of where we are and the work we are doing. As followers of Jesus Christ, all our work is rooted in the Way of Love. We seek to model the graciousness, the truth-telling, the healing and the kingdom-focused teaching of Jesus Christ. This diocese is resilient and faithful, with many vital ministries and a bright future ahead of us. The Committee feels this keenly and believes the work we are doing in between diocesan bishops is about putting this already-vibrant diocese into a position of greater health and self-understanding. We believe that when God brings our next bishop into our lives, we will be ready to start an exciting next chapter in our shared life.

At the end of last summer, we were notified of Bishop Tom Breidenthal’s hospitalization and, like you, we prayed for his return to health and hoped for the best. As you well know, Bishop Breidenthal decided during his recovery to resign from his position as Diocesan Bishop and focus on his health and his family.

In normal circumstances, bishops typically give notice of their intention to resign 18 months or more before they complete their work. This leaves ample time for the diocese to prepare for an orderly succession.

Because Bishop Breidenthal rightly wanted to prioritize his health, he needed to step down with little notice. While it was clearly the right decision for him, it meant that diocesan staff and committees had less time to prepare for an orderly transition.

Immediately upon Bishop Breidenthal’s resignation, the Standing Committee became the Ecclesiastical Authority of the diocese. This meant that we assumed the mantle of leadership, collectively exercising most of the authority of a bishop. Fortunately, we had good support from the Presiding Bishop’s office in Bishop Todd Ousley, who is the pastor to bishops and shepherd of dioceses in transition. We were also blessed by a faithful staff and the work of our local bishops, especially Bishop Ken Price.

We realized that we needed to focus on two goals. First, we sought to stabilize the life and ministry of the diocese. Second, we wanted to assess the health of our diocese and our readiness to enter fully into the search process for our next diocesan bishop.

To this end, we took some very specific short-term actions:

1) We signed Bishop Ken Price to a six-month contract as Assisting Bishop and delegated many episcopal duties to him. During these months, we wanted to focus on understanding the needs of our diocese now. We are profoundly grateful to Bishop Price for stepping into a challenging position with little notice and for lovingly and faithfully serving.

2) We directed the Rev. Canon John Johannsen as Canon to the Ordinary to act as Chief of Staff for the diocesan staff – something he’d been effectually doing during Bishop Breidenthal’s illness and recuperation.

These decisions were made to maintain stability in daily operations so that we as a Committee could focus on getting a sense of the next steps. We also took other steps in our transition work.

  • We conducted one-on-one interviews with any staff who wanted to speak with Larry Hayes, the President of the Standing Committee.
  • We selected a Transition & Search Consultant, in consultation with the Presiding Bishop’s office and Bishop Ousley. Anne Schmidt, from Dallas, TX, is an experienced search consultant, and she has effectively advised us in our work. 
  • We enlisted a consulting firm to get a professional perspective of the spirit and morale of the diocese. Holy Cow Consulting helped us offer the landscape survey of our diocese, and their president, Emily Swanson, gave us a report of the findings of the survey. You can find a summary of the findings on the bishop transition page of the diocesan website. (Look for the bishop’s miter icon on the home page!) 

We want to take a step back and say something specific for which we are grateful to Bishop Breidenthal: his disclosure about his struggles with alcohol addiction and abuse were a gift to this diocese. While discussing these things openly has made some within our diocesan family uncomfortable, we felt the need to follow Bishop Breidenthal’s lead. In his decision to make this issue public, Bishop Breidenthal was acknowledging that it had an effect on his episcopacy. This challenge does not diminish our love and gratitude for his episcopacy.

Bishop Breidenthal sought throughout his time in Southern Ohio to create an atmosphere of fidelity to God, empowerment of all members of the Church, and honest repentance and accountability – as seen particularly in his passionate embrace of the work of Becoming Beloved Community. We knew we needed to do some work to understand what effect his addiction had on our diocese as a family system – not by way of throwing him under any sort of metaphorical bus – but as a way of honoring his transparency and living into our duty to care for the diocese as it actually is, and not just some idealized version of it.

We do not believe Bishop Breidenthal’s alcoholism was the defining reality of his episcopacy, nor do we believe it is the defining reality of this diocese. But it is something real and present, and we have a responsibility to understand it and take steps towards healing and corporate health. We honor his legacy by living into our responsibility and making sure the diocese is fully prepared to work with his successor.

To this end, we sought help in understanding how addiction affects the church, so we enlisted Bishop Chilton Knudsen. Bishop Knudsen served as Bishop of Maine and since retirement has served in leadership capacities in several dioceses, including our neighbors in the Diocese of Lexington. She currently serves as Assisting Bishop in the Diocese of Washington (DC). Bishop Knudsen has had several decades of recovery from alcohol addiction under her belt, has written several books on how addiction affects church systems and has experience in working with dioceses and parishes in recovery.

Bishop Knudsen has urged us not to move into the search for our next bishop too quickly, but to take the time to understand how our diocesan system works and where it can be improved.

The survey clearly told us that our diocese is not ready to proceed immediately with the search for our next bishop. Morale is low, and there is a lack of trust and a perceived lack of transparency from leaders. On the other hand, our diocese also showed some strengths, especially in support of congregational development.

We are working now to continue learning about our diocese and its health. The survey offered one important set of data, but we need to gather more data. To that end, we are taking several steps right now:

  • We have brought in a consultant, a pastoral counselor, who will interview all current members of diocesan staff to understand what effects Bishop Breidenthal’s alcoholism might have had on staff. We are also using these interviews to understand the health of the staff work culture. Each interview is completely confidential, and the consultant will only give us a summary report of her findings from listening to staff.
  • During Eastertide, the Standing Committee is contacting all active clergy for a quick conversation, checking to see how our clergy are doing during a challenging time of pandemic and diocesan transition.
  • We are working with Anne Schmidt and Bishop Knudsen to set up a specific set of benchmarks of health that indicate we are ready to move forward with a proper search for our next diocesan bishop. This will allow us to know when we are ready to proceed with a search and clarify the work we need to do to be ready to welcome our next diocesan bishop and carry out the ministry that Jesus Christ has commissioned us to do.
  • We are in the process of selecting, in a spirit of holy discernment, the bishop who will work with the diocese for the remainder of our transition period.

Let us take another step back here and say a word about the decision to seek an “outside” bishop to lead our diocese at this time. We are grateful to Bishop Price. He is a man with a servant’s heart who has loved this diocese for decades and served it well. Our decision is not a negative judgment on the work Bishop Price has done.

The simple truth is, we initially enlisted Bishop Price for six months with the explicit intent of using those six months to discern what was needed for Southern Ohio in this transition time. It was, of course, possible that we could’ve made the decision to ask Bishop Price to stay on for the entirety of the interim, but we became convinced of the need for outside leadership.

Words cannot do justice to the work Bishop Ken has done and currently is doing in the Diocese of Southern Ohio. He is a gift, and his work blesses us all. His perspective and advice will be invaluable to whoever steps into the role of interim bishop after him. We very much hope Bishop Price continues to be a pastoral presence in our diocese for years to come.

Why did we see the need for outside leadership? For one thing, every single one of our consultants told us that an outside person could help us ask the questions that we need to ask more readily than someone who has been serving in our diocese. This is similar to the reason that congregations bring in interim rectors to offer a fresh perspective and to help the church get to know itself better.

Even if consultants had not suggested this, we felt that it was important to have outside leadership. At some point in the future, we will be opening our search for our next diocesan bishop. The kind of leaders who we are hoping will participate in our discernment process are the kind of leaders who will want to know that this diocese has taken every possible step to achieve health.

By the time you read this, the Standing Committee will have had an all-day retreat. At that retreat, we hope to set out benchmarks for health and a rough timeline for the rest of our interim period. We will be preparing to call an interim bishop to guide us through this time. We will share that information with you as soon as we have it.

It is quite possible we will need to call for a special diocesan convention to ask the convention to approve our interim bishop as our provisional bishop. What does this mean? A provisional bishop has the same authority as a diocesan bishop but serves for a limited time until the next diocesan bishop is elected. When there is a diocesan or provisional bishop, they are the Ecclesiastical Authority in a diocese. This is different from an assisting bishop, who serves in a diocese at the request of either a diocesan or provisional bishop or, as you have seen more recently, the Standing Committee acting as Ecclesiastical Authority.

As always, we ask for your prayers, for your patience, and for your feedback. We know we will get some things right and some things wrong. We expect you will hold us accountable, and we are grateful for the opportunity to partner with you in the work God has given us to do. Please do not hesitate to email the Standing Committee at standingcommittee@diosohio. org with questions, suggestions, or comments.

We recognize that our diocese has many challenges right now. But more than those challenges, we also see the abundance of all that God has given us with faithful leaders, vibrant ministries, and material resources. We believe that our diocese has the potential to make many disciples, to reach people with the hope and the promise of Jesus Christ. We believe our diocese can grow in ministry, in health, and in numbers. We believe our best days are ahead.

Your Standing Committee

Mr. Larry Hayes, president
The Rev. Phil DeVaul, vice-president
Dr. James Allsop
The Rev. Dr. Ellen Cook
Mr. Barry Feist
The Rev. Canon Scott Gunn, secretary. 

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