The Rev. Dr. Elaine Ellis Thomas



The Rev. Dr. Elaine Ellis Thomas is rector of All Saints, Hoboken, in the Diocese of Newark, NJ. A passionate preacher and follower of Jesus, and with skill in organization management, conflict mediation, and global reconciliation ministries, she is excited about leading the Church into the future to which God invites us.

Elaine served at St. Paul’s Memorial Church in Charlottesville, Virginia and was an organizing figure in the clergy response to the white supremacist events in the summer of 2017. She attended Berkeley Divinity School at Yale and was ordained in the Diocese of Central Pennsylvania, prior to which she was the director of Human Resources for Episcopal Community Services in Philadelphia, managing roughly half of the $10-million budget and serving as a member of the strategic leadership team. She was also an accomplished organist and choirmaster.

As a public theologian, Elaine convenes the Hoboken Clergy Coalition, is chaplain of the Hoboken Fire Department, and a member of the boards of the Hoboken Shelter and the Jubilee Center. She recently completed her term as president of the Standing Committee, attended the 80th General Convention in Baltimore, and was a member of the Presiding Officers’ Working Group on Truth-Telling, Reckoning, and Healing.

She and Tim, a leadership consultant, have been married for almost 24 years. Her daughter Rachel lives in the Philadelphia suburbs, and Seth, her son, died by suicide in 2009. She and Tim share the rectory with their Great Pyrenees, Ella, and 19-year old cat, Cocoa, and both enjoy baseball, traveling, and going on adventures together.


Our bishop nominees have produced videos to introduce themselves to us in advance of our September meet-and-greet sessions

Essay Questions

As part of the application process, each nominee was asked to respond to a set of four questions.

How have you navigated a changing church in a changing world to enhance congregational vitality?

Nothing could have prepared any of us to navigate a global pandemic. Looking back to that Friday in the middle of March three years ago when our bishop instructed us to cease public worship that very Sunday, we naively assumed we would be back together in time for Holy Week. We did not return to our building on a permanent basis for almost two years.

The challenge of pivoting to online church was actually the easy part. As a congregation with mostly young families and two-income households, All Saints families were scrambling to set up work and school capacities from their own homes. My very part-time staff were not equipped to create an online Church, so that responsibility fell to me. Increasing our streaming capabilities, purchasing a new camera and sound system, and learning how to edit digital film to create pre-recorded services were the immediate concerns.

The longer-term issue was how to create a community from little boxes on a screen or those invisible viewers/participants sitting in their pajamas at home. For us, the key to holding together as a congregation came in finding ever more creative ways of communicating. We created digital content for our children and families and hand-delivered seasonal materials for home learning, worship, and prayer. Daily YouTube messages (later weekly) allowed people to see and hear some comforting or informational message from me so that they could feel connected in some way. Bible studies and book studies conducted on Zoom broadened our reach so that we had new people taking part from across the U.S. and Canada. Zoom Trivia Nights gave an opportunity for fellowship as did Zoom coffee hour on Sunday mornings. Wednesday Evening Prayer went online, and we launched Monday Sung Compline, as well. And during the glorious summer months, we were blessed to have outdoor space to hold services which became something of an evangelism tool as the curious passerby or dog-walker sat down to join us.

None of this is unique to All Saints. Hundreds of congregations found new ways to hold things together. I am grateful for all that we learned about the many ways we can be “church” even when we can’t be together inside on Sundays.

These learnings are transferrable to many other challenges facing us, as well. This year’s parochial reports are just now in process, and I don’t imagine that they will demonstrate a change in the steady decline in membership and income across the Episcopal Church. But what those reports don’t show us is how adaptive we have actually become in the past three years, and this adaptability means that we are finding creative and new ways of being together, attracting those who have been disaffected with the institutional church, and challenging ourselves not to be trapped within the mentality of “we’ve never done it that way before.”

Perhaps the most intractable challenges we currently face are two-fold: fear of change and the inevitable conflict that comes with a polarized society. While it would take far more than 1,000 words to address either of these, I will say this: communication is the key in both.

I have read about and studied and implemented organizational change in many contexts, and the most necessary element from leadership is communication and more communication. This is where what we have learned during the pandemic will prove invaluable, using every tool at our disposal, and creating those tools when they are not, to ensure that everyone has the information they need. At the diocesan level, every person has a role to play, from the bishop to the receptionist, in communicating consistent messaging concerning change and anything else that is for the good of the diocese.

The conflicts that arise principally outside the doors of our congregations inevitably make their way inside. We can learn a lot about how to address church conflict by recognizing that churches have been in conflict from the beginning, otherwise Paul would not have had to write so many letters! We cannot ignore the conflict in our midst, and we surely will not resolve it if we do not talk about it. As people of faith, we speak the truth in love. We strive to love God by loving our neighbor, even when we disagree with them or don’t even like them very much. We also must recognize that sometimes conflict leads to separation, and there are ways of doing so without being destructive.

Congregational vitality requires an openness to change, holding firm to the faith that is our inheritance, while opening our hearts and minds to the world around us, as it is, not how we wish it to be. We will not be going back to the way it was before the pandemic, but we have learned that the building is not the only place to be Church, that there are people hungry for spiritual nurture when we find creative ways of reaching them. Of all the things we have learned over the past three years, courage and adaptability in worship and in how we communicate the Good News will likely serve us best moving into the future. I am excited to see what’s next for us.

Describe a situation in which you needed to create a sense of shared interests and community among individuals or groups who felt disconnected from one another. What is the role of the bishop in bringing a diocese together, and what gifts do you bring to the ministry of connection?

From the time the Rev. Dr. Alvin Edwards of Mt. Zion First African Baptist Church in Charlottesville sent out a call to clergy in the area to come together for conversation following the June 2015 murder of nine Black people at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, dialogue on race and white supremacy was never far from the center of my work. However, there were struggles in that first year of what became the Charlottesville Clergy Collective (CCC), because some of the women felt that their voices were being minimized in a group dominated by men, and some of the Black clergy wanted little to do with the whites who had for so long opposed or ignored them. In the post-Brown vs. the Board of Education period of massive resistance that saw whites-only schools in Charlottesville closed by the governor of Virginia rather than integrate, white churches, including one of the Episcopal churches in town, began offering classes for white students only. The painful history of white supremacy, including lynching, the erection of monuments, eugenics, and the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan early in the 20th century led to difficult conversations between the handful of clergy who refused to back away from the table. I was one of them.

When a torch-lit rally shocked Charlottesville on Mother’s Day weekend in 2017, with marchers chanting Nazi slogans and white supremacist ideologies, the CCC had been working through these challenges and building relationships for almost two years. As the unofficial communications person for the group, I wrote a strongly worded denunciation that the CCC presented to the press even as we learned the permits had been granted for the Ku Klux Klan to hold a rally in July, followed quickly by the news that a so-called Unite the Right rally had also received a permit for August.

These events galvanized the CCC. Whereas our monthly breakfast meetings were usually attended by fewer than one dozen clergy, we regularly saw three times that number at the now-weekly meetings being held as we prepared to respond. Some of the younger clergy, frustrated at the conflict-averse nature of the CCC’s planned counterprotests, started a new group, Congregate C’ville, of which I was also a founding member. As the connector between these two groups, I viewed my role to be an encourager of a multi-faceted approach to confronting what was looming that summer. Much as there was dissension during the Civil Rights Movement about tactics and non-violence, a similar dynamic seemed to play out in Charlottesville.

The events of that summer have been endlessly covered by news media and others. The consensus among the clergy and other local activist organizations was that the KKK demonstration on July 8, which ended in tear gas being used against counter-protesters, was a prelude to something much more volatile and dangerous the following month. The lack of police response to prevent or interrupt the tiki-torch parade on August 11 only served to embolden and encourage the violence that transpired the next day. And there were so many calls for us to just stay away. Stay home. Don’t give Unite the Right the attention they so craved.

I often felt like the bridge between the various factions, all of them jockeying for position, with dissenting opinions about tactics and leadership and who got to be a part of it all. Returning home one long, hot day after seemingly endless meetings and planning conversations, as I poured out my worries for my colleagues and friends and my frustrations at trying to hold it all together, my loyalties and commitment to the cause questioned, my husband pointed out that the problem with being a bridge-builder is that people can get to you from both sides. And in that moment, I knew that I was exactly where I needed to be, because that bridge needed to be built.

In many ways, the role of a bishop is like that. There are always competing voices and ideas that draw on the attention and budget and time of a diocesan leader and pleasing everyone is impossible. What is possible is to be a bridge between those competing voices, finding areas of commonality, and starting there to fulfill our purpose as followers of Jesus. In the past few years, those competing voices have grown more strident as the political landscape became more polarized, and that conflict found its way into our congregations, causing disruption in community, in finances, and often leading to clergy burnout.

It is a hard time to be a priest in the Church. Between a global pandemic, sharp declines in membership and dollars, and the emotional and spiritual upheavals of our time, clergy need a bishop who listens and encourages, provides resources as they are available, and acts as a bridge when parish and community conflict grow worrisome.

My ministry is all about relationship-building, outward facing into the community as well as inward facing with my staff and congregation. It is the only way to have the strength to confront the challenges that face us. It is also the only way to enjoy the abundant blessings we have received. We do not live to ourselves, as St. Paul wrote, but to the Lord, and we are a community of faith, the body of Christ, knit together.

What is your theology of money? Tell us a story of exercising your leadership to move an institution into a more Jesus-centered, mission-oriented relationship with money.

The median income in Hoboken, New Jersey, is double the national figure. More than 80% of residents have at least one college degree, and the average home value is over three-quarters of a million dollars. There is a lot of money here, but no one wants to talk about it!

When I came to All Saints at the beginning of February five years ago, the annual giving campaign was just getting underway. I found this rather an odd time of year for that but quickly learned that this was a long-standing tradition so that people would know how much their bonuses were from the previous year and could figure out how much of that they would be willing to give to the church.

In my very first vestry meeting, I shared my intention with them to hold a second annual giving campaign the next fall in order to prepare a budget for the following year. Amidst complaints that it would mean two campaigns in one year, I assembled a Stewardship Committee and began to talk about money – our relationship with it, how we use it, and most importantly, how much of it we give, as individuals and as a congregation.

My theology of money is that all that I have comes from God. How can I not joyfully return to God a portion of that out of gratitude? I also believe that generosity is the path to fulfillment and joy. In fact, study after study demonstrates that generosity is actually good for us. And in my experience, even during those lean years when I was so poor that I would scrimp on meals for myself so that I could buy ice cream for the kids in the weekend, I never lacked for anything. I continued to give, I was part of a community of givers who would invite me to a meal or tell me that had made too much soup so why didn’t I take some home because they had no more room in their freezer (which was not actually so). Generosity is contagious. It starts with money and then it becomes about how we spend our time, and what other gifts we have for service, including making soup for a single mother who could hardly afford to feed her family.

I preach about money a lot. It was a frequent topic for Jesus, so it comes up fairly regularly in the lectionary. Jesus knew that money is a trap. If we want to grip tightly to what we have, then our hands are not open to receive what Jesus has to offer. In addition to hearing about it from me, my congregation hears about money and generosity from those who sit among them in church. They listen to personal stories of giving even during the lean times, of the difference giving has made in their own lives when they were on the receiving end, and the difference they have seen their money make in the world around them.

It has taken time, consistent messaging year-round, and telling the story of what we are about and why we are here through our understanding of scripture and the teachings of the Church, but we have seen significant change at All Saints in our relationship with money. While our attendance is not quite where it was pre-COVID, in my five years, dollars pledged have increased by 64% while the average pledge has gone up 136%. We still have a way to go, but what a journey it has been to go from giving of our excess (annual bonuses) to making promises in faith that God’s abundance is meant to be shared so that all people have enough.

In many ways, our region reflects the social inequalities (e.g., gender, education, health, housing, and race/ethnicity) that afflict our country as a whole. Please discuss ways in which you have had experience dealing with and supporting multicultural populations. What do you see as a bishop’s role in addressing and healing these disparities?

Shortly after moving to Hoboken in 2018, I decided to deepen my understanding of my vocation by pursuing a doctoral degree at Drew Theological School at nearby Drew University. The cohort that was beginning in a timeline that suited my schedule was entitled “Prophetic Fire and Pastoral Identity in a Fluid Culture.” Little did I know how fluid our culture was about to become in the spring of 2020, but the program was designed to help prepare clergy leaders to navigate the rapidly changing environment in which all faith communities exist.

One of the early papers in this program required us to focus on the context in which we carried out our ministry. In my case, that is the Mile Square City of Hoboken, situated on the Hudson River directly across from the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. My parish was formed by combining three small and struggling congregations, all founded in the 19th century to serve the already disparate cultural population of Hoboken. As I delved into the time that All Saints was established in 1983, I began to uncover the story of the arson era between 1978 and 1982 as gentrification swept through Hoboken. Nobody was ever held accountable for these fires that killed 56 residents, most of them children and one as young as one month old. All of the victims were immigrants – Puerto Rican and British Guyanese.

The final project for my doctorate focused on this era with an eye to the long-term impact of gentrification here and the Church’s role in healing the trauma and lingering mistrust between the poor and the rich, immigrants and those whose families have been here for generations. Although the fires stopped in the early 1980s, gentrification continued and still continues to displace working class people here. The median home price is more than $775,000, and what is deemed “affordable” is far from it for many people who have called Hoboken home for decades.

It is in this context that, most recently, I have been engaged as an advocate for fair and affordable housing. Serving on the board of directors for the Hoboken Shelter (established in 1982 in part to provide emergency shelter to those displaced by the fires and sale of apartment buildings to developers), our goal is to quickly move people from the street into housing with supportive case management services, but there is almost nowhere in Hoboken that we are able to permanently house our guests. The homes that we do find are sometimes miles from Hoboken, meaning that the newly housed are some distance from jobs, from community-based services, and from the neighborhoods they once called home.

Cities are impoverished when ethnic and cultural diversity is lost because of rising home prices. We are currently in the midst of a revision of rent control ordinances, and it takes consistent pressure to assure that developers actually set aside the required number of affordable units for each new apartment building.

Of course, this is more than about housing. 38% of school-aged children in Hoboken attend one of the six private schools in this city that is just over one square mile. There are three charter schools and five public schools. The racial disparity between the public and private schools is stark and telling, and the lack of investment in the high school, in particular, leads to negative outcomes for students who attend. I am glad to say that there is a trend for more families of means to invest their energies in the public schools for their children, and their advocacy for excellence is leading to improvements in educational infrastructure and rising performance.

Across the country, health outcomes during the pandemic were much worse for poor people of color than other populations. The same is true in Hoboken. Many work in service jobs where exposure to the virus was unavoidable, while taking public transportation increased the likelihood of infection. Access to medical interventions was not assured, and the mandate to quarantine often meant loss of income, further exacerbating the impact of COVID-19 on those least able to withstand the costs to health and livelihood.

Hoboken is really a microcosm of the rest of the country. The Church’s role is clear, to assure that the voiceless are heard, that those without influence have access to adequate housing, jobs, education, and healthcare. A bishop’s role in this is to lead the church into actively caring for its neighbors, in promoting policies that assure human flourishing, and to advocate for those who suffer most when hard times come. No one should have to choose between food and medicine, between caring for a sick child and losing a job.

If we are Christ’s hands and feet in this world, we must love as Christ loved us. Pope Francis was precisely right when he said that we pray for the poor and then we feed them; that’s how prayer works. During the examination portion of a bishop’s ordination, the bishop-elect is asked “Will you boldly proclaim and interpret the Gospel of Christ, enlightening the minds and stirring up the conscience of your people?” (BCP 518). This is one way a bishop is to encourage all the baptized to live out their calling as people of God, to stir up their conscience to seek and serve Christ in all people.