Reflections on living the good life by the Rev. Dr. George Clifford
Friday, June 5, 2015
For whom will the Episcopal Church elect its next Presiding Bishop?
For whom will The
Episcopal Church (TEC) elect its next Presiding Bishop (PB)?
In one respect, the
answer to that question is obvious. TEC elects its PB as its primate, i.e., we
elect the Presiding Bishop to serve us – Episcopalians, Episcopal
congregations, and our denomination – as our leader.
Given that answer,
the choice of a PB seems of diminishing significance. TEC’s membership,
influence, and resources have declined substantially; TEC appears unlikely to
regain great influence. To the extent that Christendom ever existed in the US,
it is now permanently gone. Like the mainline Protestant tradition of which it
is a part, TEC is experiencing a long-term decline.
Appointment of a
chief operating officer and moves to restructure the denomination further
underscore the relative unimportance of who is chosen to be the next PB – if we
expect our primate’s main constituency to be the TEC. Working with a chief
operating officer can allow the PB considerable latitude to engage in other
ministries or missions. Concomitantly, simplifying denominational structures
should reduce overhead and maintenance demands on senior management. In sum,
TEC does not need a PB who perceives her/his ministry as that of an internally
focused chief executive.
next PB might focus her/his tenure on being TEC’schief cheerleader,
seeking to energize TEC leaders, members, and structures for mission. This role
also presumes a PB elected who focuses primarily on TEC.
conception of the PB’s role aschief
theoretically attractive, organizationally inescapable, and practically
limited. TEC’s most important resources are its leaders and people. Achief cheerleaderenergizing and mobilizing those
resources for missions could prove exciting and potentially transformative. A
PB has multiple opportunities, many of them obligatory, to bechief
cheerleader. These include officiating at the consecration of new
bishops, chairing the House of Bishops, visiting dioceses, etc.
TEC does have a connectional polity, today’s congregations and dioceses enjoy
considerable autonomy. Opportunities for repeatedly and consistently
communicating a vision to all of our members, congregations, clergy, and dioceses
are limited, perhaps non-existent. Five thousand, mostly small, congregations
spread across more than 0ne hundred dioceses limit the PB’s ability to be
present simultaneously to all Episcopalians. In other words, a PB who
concentrates her/his ministry aschief
transforming TEC will have his/her effectiveness constricted by inherent
of the presiding bishop’s role as internally focused (e.g.,chief theologian)
run into self-limiting difficulties for reasons similar to those inherent in
envisioning the presiding bishop aschief
TEC by most
measures is today a healthier, more stable organization than it was nine years
ago. Consequently, electing another internally focused PB will probably achieve
diminishing gains. Furthermore, and almost without exception, internally
focused organizations die. Internally focused churches not only die but have
also substituted self-preservation for gospel-based kenosis.
What if in electing
its presiding bishop, TEC changed its paradigm and did something different?
What if TEC, instead of electing its presiding bishop primarily for what she/he
can accomplish or bring to the denomination, elected its next presiding bishop
for his/her potential ministry to non-members?
The next presiding
bishop might function aschief
missionary, an icon of Christ to a broken and hurting world, a
symbol of hope in the midst of despair, a window through which God’s love might
shine into a secular world. Conceptualizing the PB’s role aschief missionaryextends the current emphasis on
turning TEC into a mission organization.
presiding bishop aschief
from internally focused descriptions of the presiding bishop’s role in three
critical ways. First,chief missionaryclearly prioritizes the presiding
bishop’s ministry and time. Reaching out to others should take priority over
internal, organizational matters. Allow the chief operating officer and others
to manage ongoing affairs. Personally perform only canonically required tasks
or tasks in which the PB will have a farther reaching, more powerful voice than
would a substitute. More so than any other TEC leader, achief missionaryPB has the potential public stature
and platform to speak effectively on the national and international stages.
Second,chief missionarypresumes that the rest of TEC –
leaders, members, clergy, dioceses, congregations – join, to some degree, in
the missionary enterprise. A presiding bishop with an unrelenting focus aschief missionaryhas more transformative potential
through leading by example, following Jesus’ in seeking the lost, than does
nine years of cheerleading, theological reflection, or competent management
combined. Current organizational restructuring has prepared the way for
electing achief missionaryPB.
Third,chief missionaryincarnates Jesus. He came not for the
ninety-nine in the flock, but the one who was lost (of course, in twenty-first
century North America, perhaps the flock consists of fifty, or even twenty, and
fifty or perhaps even eighty are lost). TEC must stop waiting for the thirsty,
hungry, and sick to enter our buildings in search of help; instead, we must,
like the paralytic’s friends who tore open the roof, tear down barriers and
bring the gift of life to the dying. For such a time as this, we need a PB who
will be ourchief missionary.