June 26, 2019
By Jim Naughton
When Bishop Jeffrey Lee announced in February that he would be retiring next August, he set in motion a long and complex process during which there is abundant opportunity for uncertainty. But diocesan leaders and Bishop Todd Ousley of the Episcopal Church’s Office of Pastoral Development are committed to keeping anxiety at a minimum during what could be an opportunity for spiritual growth.
“It can be an exciting time where we get this rare opportunity to consider what it means to be a diocese, the way we are implicated in each other, the way that our life in congregations—from the North Shore to Peoria—is shared,” said the Rev. Eric Biddy, rector of St. Christopher’s Church in Oak Park, who is chair of the Standing Committee. “That’s not always obvious, and this is a real chance to reflect on that spiritually.”
In early April, the Standing Committee, which oversees the upcoming search, election and transition, chose the Rev. Kim Jackson of the Diocese of Atlanta as its search consultant, but the work of caring pastorally for everyone involved began even before Lee’s announcement.
“One of first things we do is look at the bishop and spouse, if there is one, and remind both staff and elected leadership that the bishop and spouse have already begun a significant transition that will only accelerate, and that is a tender time in their lives because there has been a devotion to a particular ministry and a particular place that for the bishop requires an identification with the place that is really deep,” Ousley said. “They are anticipating a very significant loss, and a grieving process is going on.
“The same is also true with the staff,” he added. “They also experience the unsettledness that comes knowing the head of the organization is going to be changing.”
The Rev. Anne B. Jolly, rector of St. Gregory’s Church in Deerfield and a member of the Standing Committee, said the group is committed to “being there pastorally for the staff.”
“The boss they have loved is on his way out, but not leaving yet,” she said. “They have no idea who the new person will be. I hope the diocese will be aware of the position they are in.”
Ousley said the church cautions bishops-elect against “practices of the past” such as “cleaning house and bringing in your own staff, at least as a first step.” Instead, he recommends the period immediately following a bishop’s ordination be “a time of listening and observation and prayerful reflection” on the part of the bishop in regard to the staff.
Life for members of the Standing Committee also changes as they assume additional responsibilities.
“Of course we want to go about things the right way with the maximum transparency that we can manage,” Biddy said. “I think we’re blessed that we face challenges more than crises, and we have a pretty solid base of trust between the bishop and bishop’s staff and congregations for the most part. Hopefully that will address any agenda-driven motives in the bishop’s search because I don’t think many people will be looking to right terrible wrongs.”
Ousley said choosing the search committee, a step that the Standing Committee completed in late May, is a pivotal part of the process.
“The first thing I warn about is that there are going to be people who are immediately jockeying to be on the search committee,” he said. “Sometimes these are people who come with a very personal and focused agenda, and those go on the list of people not to appoint.
“What you want to do is identify people who are known for their capacity to discern, to be without agenda and to be collaborative team players. Then you start looking at issues of diversity across the whole spectrum.”
Ousley said he hopes that search committee members will follow Lee’s lead in recognizing that the diocese extends well beyond the Chicago metropolitan area.
“The other thing I hope they will consider is that we are in a particular moment when the church appears to be embracing, in a fairly wholehearted way, new visions of what a bishop looks like,” he said. “Our desire for more diversity in the House of Bishops seems to be gaining some traction in the church. Chicago needs to be mindful of that and live into its own embrace of diversity.”
Rory Smith, a member of the Standing Committee and a parishioner at St. Thomas’s Church in Chicago, was co-chair of the search committee that nominated Lee and seven other candidates for the election in 2007. “One thing that stood out for us was we received a commission from the Standing Committee to conduct an anti-racist search and to carry forth those principles,” he said. “Part of that included everyone on the search committee taking some anti-racism training together, which we realized was an opportunity to bond and to coalesce around issues of equity, fairness, how we wanted to interact with each other, and the cultural biases we wanted to avoid.
“We found that those kinds of guiding principles helped us in ascertaining whether or not the potential candidates held the same view about what our diocese could continue to strive toward.”
The Standing Committee is determined to “let the Holy Spirit do her work,” Jolly said. “We understand that our role requires us to hold our preferences at bay. We are praying that people will be willing to let go any of the assumptions they have about who the bishop needs to be, or what the bishop needs to do— that we resist the temptation to push our agenda or need to the front of the pile.
“Our God is a God of surprises and creativity. For us to expect that God is going to do exactly what any one of us or any group wants to do is kind of crazy.”
Photos credits: Bishop Lee by Charlie Simokaitis; staff meeting and Todd Ousley by Vincent Johnson; Search & Nomination Committee courtesy of the Standing Committee