“We Want to Get It Right”: An Update on the Bishop Transition

In the Episcopal Church today, what used to be considered “normal” bishop transitions are becoming decidedly less common, as dioceses decide to take the kind of extended interim between diocesan bishops in which the Diocese of Southern Ohio now finds itself.

Typically, when a diocesan bishop in the Episcopal Church decides it is time to retire, she informs the Standing Committee of the diocese and then calls for the election of her successor. Usually this takes place about 18 months or more in advance of the bishop’s retirement date, giving the Standing Committee ample time to choose a search committee and a transition committee, present the search committee’s slate of nominees to the diocese, and plan for an electing convention, chaired by the retiring bishop. A transition committee, also chosen by the Standing Committee, ensures that the new bishop is welcomed, and a new season of ministry begins.

Sometimes, departing bishops choose a variation of this theme by calling for the election of a bishop coadjutor—a bishop who will become bishop diocesan no longer than three years after her ordination and consecration. This is the option that the bishops in the neighboring Dioceses of West Virginia and Ohio have recently chosen.

But in recent years, many bishop transitions have not unfolded in the normal fashion. In the Diocese of Chicago, Bishop Jeffrey Lee first called for the election of his successor in February 2019, but once the pandemic began, both his retirement and the bishop election were postponed until December 2020. And then in June 2021, just weeks before her scheduled ordination and consecration, the bishop-elect, the Rev. Paula Clark, suffered a medical emergency, and a year later, Chicago is still without a diocesan bishop. Many other dioceses—including Virginia, Milwaukee, Eau Claire, West Missouri, Rochester, Eastern and Western Michigan and, for a time, Lexington—have elected to choose provisional bishops, or bishops who terms are otherwise time-limited, while continuing to discern their futures.

The diocese’s unusual transition began in September 2020, when Bishop Tom Breidenthal, who had served as diocesan bishop for more than thirteen years, announced that he would retire just two months later in order to attend to his health after a debilitating illness. A month later, he wrote to the people of the diocese again to say while being treated for the infection that had precipitated his retirement, it had become clear that he had, in his words, “a problem with alcohol.”

Upon Breidenthal’s retirement, the Standing Committee assumed ecclesiastical authority in the diocese, in keeping with the canons of the Episcopal Church. The Standing Committee initially appointed Bishop Ken Price, a former bishop suffragan of the diocese, to do the pastoral, liturgical and administrative work of a bishop for a period of six months.

“We have heard from some people who believe that our diocese is healthy and ready to proceed quickly with a search for our next bishop,” the Standing Committee wrote to the people of the diocese on December 1, 2020. “We have heard from others who believe we have issues that require attention and time to address. We have chosen to have a short time of reflection and assessment of our diocesan ministry and life over the next few months.”

Based on the results of a survey conducted by Holy Cow Consulting at the beginning of 2021, the Standing Committee decided to extend the period before a bishop search will begin. The survey, says Standing Committee member Barry Feist, a member of Holy Trinity, Kenwood, revealed the diocese to be “low energy and low satisfaction.”

“Would you really want to bring someone into that environment?” he said. “Deep down, we thought it wasn’t the right time to move forward, and then the data confirmed it.”

The climate of dissatisfaction and disconnection was not just due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Holy Cow told the Standing Committee. “There are issues of trust and a lack of connection to a diocesan vision,” the committee wrote to the diocese a year ago, on March 30, 2021. “That’s the bad news, as it were. The good news is that we are confident we can address these issues and move to a place of greater health and vitality.”

To Canon Scott Gunn, Standing Committee president, the Holy Cow survey helped make clear that a lack of trust limits the diocese’s ability to address many of its challenges, including systemic racism, lack of transparency, and a system shaped in part by its leader’s struggle with addiction. “I think that one way to think about all of these issues is that we want to work for a church in which everyone can flourish as the people of God. We want people to be able to be who they are and be supported in their struggles without applying labels based on race, sexual orientation or other differences,” he said. “Trust is the fundamental issue.”

To better address the issues of mistrust and disengagement, the Standing Committee decided that it needed outside help. First, it made the decision to call a bishop from outside the diocese to serve as bishop provisional, and second, it enlisted Bishop Chilton Knudsen, retired bishop of Maine, to consult with it about issues of addiction.

“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 [Bishop Breidenthal] 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,” they wrote.

“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,” they wrote. “But it is something real and present, and we have a responsibility to understand it and take steps towards healing and corporate health.”

To Feist, the diocese’s lack of energy is, at least in part, related to the lack of transparency that can result when a leader struggles with addiction. “When you look at the survey data to see what’s hiding in the weeds, looking under the hood a little bit at what we need in a bishop, it’s the ability to cultivate trust through transparency and follow-through.”

Knudsen, who is herself in recovery from addiction, urged the Standing Committee not to move forward too rapidly with its search for a new bishop. And when Bishop Wayne Smith, retired bishop of Missouri, was elected as provisional bishop in July 2021, he committed to addressing issues of addiction as a central part of his two-year ministry.

Since he assumed office in August 2021, he has taken up that work with alacrity. To date, Bishop Smith has organized meetings of the diocese’s governing bodies with Bishop Jake Owensby of Western Louisiana, author of “Looking for God in Messy Places;” hosted a March clergy conference on addiction and its effect on faith communities with Jan Brown of the SpiritWorks Foundation; and overseen the development of a whistleblower protection policy for the diocesan staff handbook that will ensure employees can report issues of addiction without fear of retribution.

“Bishop Breidenthal has been open and helpful in this process,” Bishop Smith said. “His willingness to speak publicly about his struggle with alcohol use disorder and his continued love and affection for the people of the diocese make it possible for us to be honest with one another about the effects that addiction has had on the diocese and its leadership structures.”

“The addiction work is essential: some people have said that it was beating him [Breidenthal] when he was down, or that there were no consequences,” Lissa Barker of St. Patrick’s, Dublin, who was elected to the Standing Committee in November, said. “But it is really important for us to be acutely aware of the effects of alcoholism on the diocesan system. We can’t change what happened then. What we can do is recognize where we need to go. And that is why some of that addiction work is so very important. It’s not about pointing fingers or about blame, it’s a recognition of our response and how we move forward.”

To James Allsop, a member of the Standing Committee from St. Simon of Cyrene, Cincinnati, weak institutional systems and geographical division have also exacerbated disconnection and mistrust in the diocese.

“People outside of Cincinnati feel that power resides in Cincy and that decision-making is not transparent,” he said. “Systems aren’t very strong. One of the things we have to try to do as a Standing Committee and as a diocese is develop systems to support the new bishop. In my opinion, just dropping a new bishop into the system we have now is not going to grow the diocese.”

Like Gunn, he thinks that some of the diocese’s significant issues result from systemic racism. “While people acknowledge that there is racism, the diocese has not developed effective strategies to address it,” Allsop said.

Although work to address both systemic racism and the effects of addiction is underway, in March, the Standing Committee determined that levels of trust—an issue identified by Holy Cow survey in 2021—may still be low. To gather more data, members of the diocese are being asked to complete a survey before April 26 and to participate in conversations that the Standing Committee plans to hold during Eastertide.

“If people trust the leaders—Standing Committee, staff, provisional bishop, and soon the search committee—enough to proceed, we can continue to work on the important related issues while the search committee does its work,” the Standing Committee wrote on March 29. “If establishing sufficient trust is impeding our progress, then we must work on that issue before we begin to appoint members of the search committee.”

“Understand that we want to do this in a deliberate manner—not too quickly, not too slowly,” Allsop said. “We want to get it right, we want input. The search committee will be the mechanism for the next stage of work.”

Take the Standing Committee’s survey until April 26.