Monday, February 27, 2006

Qualities to seek when electing a bishop

One of the major items on my agenda during the last year has been the work of the Episcopate Committee of the Diocese of Tennessee. The result is that I have given a lot of thought to the qualities that make a good bishop. We are now getting down to the wire in the process with the walkabouts by the candidates and now moving toward the convention to elect two weeks on Saturday.

Perhaps it is because I grew up in a system where the people on the ground did not elect their bishops that I have always had a certain misgiving about electing our leaders for it has a tendency to politicize and trivialize. I just pray that the Holy Spirit will providentially guide the process, but in too many instances I do not think we are listening to him.

The problem is that we go about choosing bishops like we select candidates for elected office -- or the college Homecoming Queen! It is more about how a certain individual "came over" than who they are, what they said, what they believe, and how they would lead the diocese in the years ahead -- ten, fifteen, twenty years.

This process should be more like the preliminaries leading up to a marriage than selecting someone to represent me in the state assembly or Congress. Anyone who takes marriage halfway seriously does not rush thoughtlessly into it. This is one of the reasons why the process is so totally inadequate when we get the nominees to meeting the diocese, because who would choose a future spouse on the basis of how he/she performed in front of a roomful of people in 25-30 minutes?

Here are some things that I believe Christians need to be asking as they choose their leaders.

1. It is now so much how this individual "came over" in a short exposure to the people, but whether this person's record is of someone who not only is able to lead, but is able to lead through perillous waters is difficult times. What has been their record as a pastor, evangelist, missionary, leader? Whatever the future configuration of the church, these years ahead are going to be extraordinarily difficult, and will require a leader who is firm but flexible when it comes to guiding a group of congregations through rough seas.

2. We need to be asking whether any of these individuals understand what is going on in the culture, where the culture is leading us, and what the impact will be upon the churches. The 21st Century is profoundly different in almost every way from the 20th, and the church that does not understand this is in deep trouble. If we are looking for someone who will try to maintain the institution in its present form then we are already digging the grave into which most of just about any diocese will very quickly be dropped.

3. Choosing a bishop is a theological act, so we want to know what a person believes, what their relationship to God is through Jesus Christ, whether they are able to be the chief missionary of the diocese. When you are part of a church like ours that tends to defer to the culture rather than Scriptures and Christian tradition in shaping its values, this is a major, major set of questions that need to be asked. Failing to do so is like leaping at the possibility of marrying the Homecoming Queen only to find that there are no compatabilities beneath the mutual physical attraction.

4. Furthermore, we need to be asking if this individual has a vision for the future. Vision is a key component to leadership for as Scripture says without a vision the people perish. We have been prone in the church to elect managers, administrators, compromises in the past, and the result is that we have not had the kind of leadership that will take us to the places where God might want us to go.

5. While a person's charm, wit, and social abilities are important, they ought not to be at the top of the list. Some of the greatest bishops in history would not have been the life and soul of the cocktail party -- indeed, a good number of those who do have such skills have been disasters.

6. While managerial and administrative skills ought not at the top of the list, it helps if someone knows themselves well enough that in leading they are able to guide an entity forward and fill the gaps in their own skill mix. Since the 1960s we have tended to elect people who have claim better administrative skills than they posses, and then who define the episcopate in terms of management and not in terms of leading the People of God where God wants them to go.

7. A bishop should be someone with staying power. The stress of the office is so great these days that I have watched some really good people either disintegrate as human beings or, in order to protect their inner selves, take the course of least resistance. A bishop is someone who is involved in the leadership of a spiritual conflict, and therefore needs to be spiritually, physically, emotionally, up to the task.

8. Good bishops are people of prayer and study of the Word. They are individuals who keep themselves spiritually alert and fresh. They lead from grace that is centered on Jesus Christ, and not out of ego, personal gratification, or in pursuit of any specific political agenda.

9. Good bishops have an inner humility. This is a spiritual grace that tends to get overlooked in our push-and-shove age. This humility allows them to be honest to God and honest with themselves. A terrific place to start when thinking about who might be a bishop for a diocese is Paul's teaching in 1 Timothy 3.1ff., also the vows that a priest makes in the historic Books of Common Prayer (1662 and 1928).

10. A good bishop is someone who knows how to listen to and take good advice and wise counsel from godly priests and laity.

A lot more can be said, but these are just some of the qualifications that we need to be looking for in those who are called to lead us, and we need to deliberately set the bar high. I expect those who lead to reflect Christ's grace transparently -- this should be so of priests and certainly of bishops. Many of our problems in the past two generations have resulted from setting the bar too low.

During 37 years of ordained ministry I have serve in five dioceses in two countries, and under twelve bishops. In addition, I have traveled the Anglican world and seen bishops at work in Africa, Latin America, Europe, and the Pacific at work. I have many friends who are bishops all over the Anglican world. Bishops who love the office are not impressive, neither do they usually make the kind of leaders that the church needs. The purple passion ought to be a flag to us that a person is not called to this particular ministry.

Postmodernity is not a time when being adept with the skills needed yesterday is going to cut much ice. The episcopate today is more like that of the First, Second, and Third Centuries than that of the 19th and 20th Centuries. If we are looking for bishops who would have made great diocesans in around 1950 then we are condemning these leaders to a life of hell, and creating circumstances in the church that will be very difficult to unravel.

The sort of bishop that a diocese needs today is someone for whom Christ is their all in all, someone who would keep on doing the job whether they were being paid for it or not, someone who is determined that the Gospel is not about the church as an institution, but about the Kingdom of God.


salc said...

so I wonder why we couldn't just cast lots for our next Bishop :)

Richard Kew said...

From the name given I am assuming that this is Sally... If so, perhaps, there is more biblical precedent that there is for electing! I have puzzled for years over what might be the best method for choosing leaders in the church, and apart from those who obviously have the Spirit's anointing and, as it were, under divine providence choose themselves, all approaches are flawed -- as is the democratic process.

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