[Episcopal News Service] Calling a new bishop isn’t a simple task under normal conditions. Add a global pandemic to the timetable, and most Episcopal dioceses have had no choice but to adjust or freeze even their best-laid plans for leadership transitions.
“We didn’t want to stop the timeline if we could possibly do it,” said the Rev. Linda Anderson, who co-chairs the Diocese of Wyoming committee that is reviewing candidates to replace Bishop John Smylie, who is retiring in early 2021. The search committee had scheduled a retreat last week with the semifinalists, and “there were some panicky moments when we thought, this can’t possibly happen,” Anderson told Episcopal News Service.
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the committee’s retreat proceeded mostly as planned – not in person, but as a two-day online video conference. For now, the Diocese of Wyoming remains on track to announce its slate of nominees this month in anticipation of an election at the diocesan convention in September.
That may be the best scenario any diocese can hope for this year.
With 17 domestic dioceses now in various stages of transition – from the sitting bishop’s initial retirement announcement to the incoming bishop’s pending consecration – all have had to shift gears to some degree. The typical process of discernment, applications, face-to-face interviews, elections and consecrations has been thwarted by governors’ stay-at-home orders, travel restrictions and social-distancing precautions intended to slow the coronavirus’ spread.
Chicago Bishop Jeffrey Lee and Pittsburgh Bishop Dorsey McConnell each announced they would postpone their retirements to help their dioceses navigate the developing crisis. Other dioceses, including Milwaukee, South Carolina and Springfield, have put their searches on hold for now in response to the pandemic.
Five dioceses have consecrations pending: Georgia, Oklahoma, Minnesota, Missouri and Alabama. Oklahoma’s and Missouri’s had been scheduled for April but were delayed. Now, the five dioceses have ceremonies scheduled from end of May to the end of June. All are being scaled down nearly to the minimum number of participants to reduce risk of transmitting infections. Backup plans are in place, in case the chosen consecrating bishops can’t make it.
The Diocese of Oklahoma had been planning for about 4,000 people to gather April 18 in the Oklahoma City University field house for the consecration of the Rev. Poulson Reed as bishop coadjutor, a transitional role that puts him in line to take over when Oklahoma Bishop Ed Konieczny retires at the end of the year.
Instead, only about 10 people are now expected to participate May 30 in the service, to be held at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Oklahoma City. “The consecrating bishops will be sitting six feet apart,” Konieczny said in an interview with ENS. Before and after the ceremonial laying of hands on the new bishop, everyone will engage in a round of hand-washing.
Consecrations typically are attended by more than enough bishops to meet the three-bishop minimum, but this ceremony requires contingency plans. Konieczny said he has at least two bishops on call if needed. Konieczny is scheduled to be one of the consecrators, along with Bishop Peter Eaton of the Diocese of Southeast Florida.
Presiding Bishop Michael Curry was to serve as Reed’s chief consecrator, but the church issued a scheduling update on May 5 that indicated Arkansas Bishop Larry Benfield, president of The Episcopal Church’s Province VII, has been assigned to take Curry’s place.
A news release specified that Georgia Bishop Scott Benhase will be chief consecrator on May 30 in Savannah for the consecration of Bishop-elect Frank Logue, and in Minnesota, Bishop Brian Prior will be chief consecrator on June 6 when the Very Rev. Craig Loya is consecrated as Prior’s successor.
Retiring bishops commonly serve as consecrators for their successors. In most cases, the presiding bishop is chief consecrator, though Episcopal Church Canons say that role can be delegated to other bishops as necessary.
“In the midst of this COVID-19 pandemic, we are now at one of those threshold moments when important and significant decisions must be made on all levels of our global community for the good and the well-being of the entire human family,” Curry said in the news release announcing the updates. “Federal, state, and local authorities continue to issue new guidelines on travel and in-person gatherings. I ask your prayers for the church, our suffering world and all dioceses awaiting consecration of their next bishop.”
The release also repeated The Episcopal Church’s earlier recommendations for consecration planning, including smaller venues, limited in-person attendance, no social events and expanded livestream options.
If not for the pandemic, the Diocese of Georgia would have planned for about 1,500 people at Logue’s consecration. As of late last week, the diocese still hadn’t finalized a location, though attendance will be limited: three consecrating bishops, two priests, two laypersons, a registrar, and the bishop elect.
Add a person to run the livestream, and that’s 10 people, Logue said in a phone interview. With Georgia starting to ease its stay-at-home guidelines, Logue’s consecration might grow to about 20 people, while still emphasizing social distancing.
“If it’s for safety, I want us to be safe,” Logue told ENS. As Georgia’s canon to the ordinary, he sees a silver lining in the way that the whole diocese will be able to participate virtually on Facebook and YouTube. “In a way, you’ll sort of see more people than you might have otherwise,” he said. “There is something really quite wonderful about it.”
Standing committees across the church, meanwhile, have been forced to make tough decisions about how to proceed with their bishop searches.
Oregon is the only diocese that is looking ahead to an election after announcing a slate of nominees. The diocese announced April 7 that it would delay the election from June 27 to Aug. 29, and nominees will be invited to meet in person with members of the diocese Aug. 9-14.
“Our hope is that there will be a window of opportunity from a health and safety perspective, allowing us to meet our candidates and for them to come to know Oregon,” the Standing Committee said.
The Diocese of Iowa, on the other hand, isn’t scheduled to elect a new bishop to take over for retiring Bishop Alan Scarfe until May 2021. Iowa’s Bishop Search and Nominating Committee formed recently, and though it had to shift its in-person listening sessions to online conferences, the process hasn’t slowed down so far, according to the Rev. Meg Wagner, missioner for communications.
In the Diocese of Pittsburgh, McConnell announced April 16 that he would postpone his retirement until September 2021, allowing for the Standing Committee to delay election of his successor. It is now scheduled for a special convention in April 2021.
“Extending my tenure by a few months will allow some continuity of pastoral care as we all try to get back on our feet once the worst has past,” McConnell said in his announcement.
Lee, the Chicago bishop, expressed similar motivations for delaying his retirement.
“I want to ensure stable leadership in the diocese, particularly in this initial part of the crisis,” Lee told ENS. He added that he is reluctant to specify new dates for the transition process, given the prevailing uncertainty while COVID-19 cases continue to rise.
The Diocese of Chicago initially had planned an election on June 20 at a special convention. It may be able to reschedule the election to take place at the diocesan convention in November, though even plans for that large gathering are now tentative at best.
“I’m dubious that any of us are going to be able to gather 700 together in a hotel ballroom,” Lee said.
For other dioceses, this crisis has threatened to dramatically alter the course of their searches. In the Diocese of Milwaukee, which encompasses the southern third of Wisconsin, the Standing Committee announced that COVID-19 will not change Bishop Steven Miller’s plans to retire at the end of 2020, but the diocese is abandoning its former timeline for electing Miller’s permanent replacement.
Instead, Milwaukee is working with Bishop Todd Ousley, who leads The Episcopal Church’s Office of Pastoral Development, on a more gradual plan that will carry the diocese through the next several years. With Ousley’s help, the diocese hopes to appoint an assistant bishop for a year, with the expectation that the bishop would be elected bishop provisional for an additional three years.
The extra time “will allow us to look at some of the issues in our diocesan life that need attention: who we are as a people, what are we looking for in our next bishop, and our own faith, gifts and passion as a diocesan community,” the Standing Committee said in its April 29 announcement. “And along with examining our life as a diocese, we feel that this time will offer us the space to explore an intentional dialogue with our neighboring Wisconsin dioceses.”
The Diocese of South Carolina, which covers the southeast half of the state along the Atlantic coast, has been led since 2012 by provisional bishops, most recently Bishop Skip Adams, who retired in December 2019. The diocese had hoped to elect a new bishop at its convention in November 2020, but on April 22 it announced a “pause” in the search.
“Our primary reason for making this decision was to safeguard the integrity of the discernment process for possible candidates, the Search Committee, and the diocese,” the Rev. Caleb Lee, president of the Standing Committee, said in a letter to the diocese. Amid the uncertainty caused by the pandemic, he was unable to say when a new date could be set for electing a bishop.
Despite the upheaval in leadership transition processes, diocesan leaders have emphasized reasons for hope.
“We have great people in this diocese; people who have endured much and yet still rise to unprecedented challenges with grace and unbelievable faithfulness,” the South Carolina Standing Committee president said in his letter to the diocese.
Logue has been encouraged by how dioceses and congregations are using livestreams to reach worshipping communities. He has participated virtually in the ordinations of priests and deacons, which have continued during the pandemic with small gatherings. And the Rev. J. Sierra Reyes, the Colorado priest Logue asked to preach at his consecration, is recording her sermon for a video that will be played during the service.
Even before the pandemic, Wyoming’s search committee had been meeting by Zoom to save time and money – “In Wyoming, we have long distances” – so it was natural to move the in-person retreat to an online one, said Anderson, the co-chair and a priest at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Worland, Wyoming.
On April 28, the committee members and four semifinalists began the retreat in the evening with a dinner by video conference. For the next two days, the candidates rotated through various activities with committee members, and each candidate was required to lead one virtual prayer service. The retreat concluded with a “leaderless activity” in which the candidates for bishop were given a hypothetical scenario and asked to discuss it with each other while the search committee listened.
“It worked for us,” Anderson said. “Of course, not as wonderful as it would have been in person, but it was better than I even had hoped.”
– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Episcopal News Service obtained the following information about how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting bishop searches through emails and interviews with diocesan leaders, as well as from dioceses’ online updates about their processes. Some plans likely will change further as the pandemic progresses.
Who: With Georgia Bishop Scott Benhase retiring, the Rev. Frank Logue, the diocese’s canon to the ordinary, was elected Nov. 16 to succeed him.
Status/timeline: The diocese is proceeding with the consecration on its originally scheduled date, May 30.
The COVID-19 effect: The consecration service will be limited to 10 to 20 people, instead of the 1,500 to 2,000 initially expected, at a church in Savannah. The service will be livestreamed on Facebook and YouTube. The Rev. J. Sierra Reyes, a priest in Colorado, will record a video of her sermon to be played during the service.
Who: Oklahoma Bishop Ed Konieczny is retiring at the end of this year. The Rev. Poulson Reed was elected Dec. 14 to be the diocese’s next bishop.
Status/timeline: Reed was to be consecrated as bishop coadjutor on April 18, but the service has been delayed to May 30.
The COVID-19 effect: In addition to the delay, the location was moved from Oklahoma City University’s field house to St. Paul’s Cathedral in Oklahoma City, with only about 10 people expected to attend. Previously, the diocese was planning for 4,000. The service will be livestreamed, and a larger celebration is expected in November at the diocese’s convention.
Who: Minnesota Bishop Brian Prior is preparing to hand the reins of the diocese to the Very Rev. Craig Loya, who was elected on Jan. 25.
Status and timeline: Loya’s consecration date, June 6, has not changed.
The COVID-19 effect: In-person attendance at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Minneapolis likely will be limited to 15 people, based on public health guidelines, though a livestream is planned. Prior will serve as the chief consecrator. A larger celebration will be planned for a later date.
Who: Missouri Bishop Wayne Smith is retiring, and the Rev. Deon Johnson was elected Nov. 23 as Smith’s successor.
Status and timeline: Johnson’s consecration is now scheduled for June 13, instead of April 25 as was originally planned.
The COVID-19 effect: The diocese is preparing for two scenarios: one in which 50 people will be allowed to attend and one with only 10 people. Either way, it will be livestreamed and participants will follow physical distancing and sanitation precautions. The co-consecrating bishops will travel by car, and other bishops are ready to make the trip if necessary.
Who: The Rev. Glenda Curry was elected bishop coadjutor on Jan. 18 and will lead the diocese after Alabama Bishop Kee Sloan retires at the end of 2020.
Status and timeline: Curry’s consecration date, June 27, has not changed.
The COVID-19 effect: While the diocese is revising its plans because public health guidelines have limited the number of people who can attend in person, all are invited to watch live on Alabama’s Facebook page. An in-person celebration is expected when Curry is installed as diocesan bishop on Jan. 9, 2021.
Who: Chicago Bishop Jeffrey Lee announced in February 2019 that he planned to retire in August 2020, and he called for the election of his successor.
Status and timeline: Lee said he will postpone his retirement because of the pandemic, pushing back the timeline for the election.
The COVID-19 effect: The Standing Committee said it would like to reschedule the election for the diocesan convention in November, though those plans are tentative.
Who: Oregon Bishop Michael Hanley announced in May 2019 his plans to retire in January 2021.
Status and timeline: The diocese announced a slate of four candidates for bishop in March 2020, but a month later, it delayed the election from June 27 to Aug 29.
The COVID-19 effect: According to an April 7 update, the diocese has rescheduled face-to-face meetings with the nominees to Aug. 9-14. A further update is expected soon.
Who: In April 2019, Wyoming Bishop John Smylie announced he is retiring in early 2021.
Status and timeline: So far, the pandemic has not delayed the diocese’s plans to elect a new bishop at the diocesan convention this September, with a consecration expected in February 2021.
The COVID-19 effect: A late-April retreat with four semifinalists was held by the video conference software Zoom rather than in person. After nominees are announced, the diocese still hopes to hold face-to-face meetings in person, though it is considering the possibility of virtual meetings with the nominees.
Diocese: West Virginia
Who: In October 2019, West Virginia Bishop Mike Klusmeyer called for the election of a bishop coadjutor, though he didn’t set a date for his retirement.
Status and timeline: Under the initial timeline, a coadjutor was to be consecrated in June 2021. That timeline hasn’t changed under the pandemic, though a new date may be required.
The COVID-19 effect: The outbreak “has forced us to pause in our process and discern safe and creative ways to move forward,” said John Valentine, president of the Standing Committee. The committee continues to meet online, and it has formed a Search and Nominating Committee.
Who: Pittsburgh Bishop Dorsey McConnell announced in December 2019 that he planned to retire in spring 2021.
Status and timeline: Last month, McConnell postponed his retirement as his diocese responded to the pandemic. Election of his successor now is scheduled for April 2021, in time for him to retire in September 2021.
The COVID-19 effect: The new timeline “may allow some clergy, who sense a call to be the next bishop but are reluctant to leave their parishes so soon after this crisis, to be more willing to be considered given a bit more time for everyone to heal,” McConnell said.
Who: Iowa Bishop Alan Scarfe announced in October 2019 he plans to retire in September 2021.
Status and timeline: Election of Scarfe’s successor isn’t scheduled until May 2021, and the pandemic has not yet affected that timeline.
The COVID-19 effect: The Bishop Search and Nominating Committee recently formed. It switched its in-person meetings to Zoom calls, and it is looking for new ways to receive input from members of the diocese as it develops a bishop profile for the search.
Who: In October 2019, Utah Bishop Scott Hayashi announced his intention to retire.
Status and timeline: Hayashi’s initial announcement suggested an election in April 2021 and a consecration of the new bishop that October. The Standing Committee recently decided to delay the search process by 60-90 days.
The COVID-19 effect: Because of that delay, the Nominating Committee is expected to release a profile for the bishop search in September.
Who: Milwaukee Bishop Steven Miller announced in August 2019 that he planned to retire in November 2020.
Status and timeline: On April 29, Miller issued a letter to the diocese saying he still plans to step down by the end of 2020, but an election of his permanent successor has been shelved for now.
The COVID-19 effect: The Standing Committee issued a companion letter to the diocese explaining that it plans to find an assistant bishop to “hit the ground running” after Miller retires. After a year, that bishop could be elected as provisional bishop for three years, until the diocese is ready to complete the full bishop search process.
Who: Nevada has been without a diocesan bishop since Bishop Dan Edwards retired at the end of 2018. The diocese selected Bishop Jim Waggoner as assisting bishop in the interim.
Status and timeline: A search committee had recommended a slate of nominees in 2018, but the Standing Committee decided to start over and develop a new crop of candidates. In February 2020, the diocese announced that the work of a new search committee was underway.
Diocese: North Dakota
Who: The diocese has been without a bishop since the retirement of Bishop Michael Smith in May 2019.
Status and timeline: The diocese had launched a discernment process to chart its path forward, and that process was gaining momentum when the pandemic hit.
The COVID-19 effect: Much of the discernment process has involved soliciting and reviewing input from Episcopalians, and those efforts have proceeded despite the pandemic. After releasing a “common themes” document in April, the Diocesan Discernment Task Force is collecting follow-up information through an online survey. A meeting is scheduled for June.
Diocese: South Carolina
Who: Bishop Skip Adams, who served South Carolina as a provisional bishop, retired in December 2019.
Status and timeline: The Standing Committee announced a “pause” in its search on April 22, casting doubt on a timeline that called for electing a new bishop at the diocese’s November 2020 convention.
The COVID-19 effect: “The good news,” according to the Rev. Caleb Lee, president of the Standing Committee, is that the search committee is “at a point in the process where a pause can be easily managed.” When the Standing Committee decides to move forward again, it should be able to go right into receiving nominations.
Who: Springfield Bishop Daniel Martins announced in October 2019 he plans to retire in 2021.
Status and timeline: In his announcement, Martins called for the election of his successor, to be consecrated in June 2021, though that date now is up in the air.
The COVID-19 effect: The Standing Committee decided “to put the process on hold indefinitely,” Martins told ENS by email.