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In a recent letter sent to the diocese of Virginia, Bishop Shannon Johnston provided additional information on his recent announcement that he will be asking the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center to help address internal issues at Mayo House, diocesan headquarters; as well as his intent to retire sooner rather than later. The bad news, though, is that the announcement makes clear that issues at the diocese will not be resolved under Johnston.

The problem arises from the bishop’s efforts to frame the issue. In his letter, he states that the diocese is not involved in moral or legal scandal, and that the diocese is “right on target” with its programs and ministry.

So let’s parse these issues.

Apropos the issue of moral challenges, we’re dealing with a diocese that is so clueless that it has said, in writing, that it has no issue with shunning and other non-sexual clergy abuse. Whoa! That’s serious stuff. Shunning can be profoundly traumatic to victims, and +Johnston is okay with it? That right there speaks volumes to his leadership and his moral compass.

Nor is this his only disciplinary screw-up. The diocese thoroughly bollixed its handling of a clergy disciplinary case in Northern VA, resulting in lasting trauma to the parish in question. Meanwhile, while I am not at liberty to share the specifics, there are other, very serious allegations swirling around +Shannon and Title IV; these involve third parties entirely unrelated to me.

Even the aborted decision to call a bishop suffragen implicates moral issues. Is it ethical to waste the time, money and resources of all parties, only to suddenly announce that you’re not ready to make a decision? Didn’t +Shannon himself say that he’s been considering retirement for many months? If he was already headed down this path, why did he not hold off on this decision from the get-go? The reality is that the bishop’s decision in this matter is both ethically thin and suggests that +Shannon has been blundering along, clueless until now, unaware that he’s got an issue right under his nose.

Now, let’s focus on conflict and change management. One thing is very clear, and that is that things are a hot mess at Mayo House. Yet bishop Shannon wades in, probably without any sort of independent, professional assessment in front of him, and proclaims that the diocese is “right on target,” that it’s doing things right, etc. But if conflict is out of control within Mayo House, that in itself tells you that this simply is not accurate. It’s the whole notion of a healthy mind in a healthy body. If Mayo House is unhealthy, so is the diocese, for a healthy diocese will work towards health in all its component parts. In fact, leaders set the tone and direction in any organization, and the fact that Bishop Shannon is just now figuring out he’s got a problem is, itself, a problem. That also tells me that Bishop Shannon is adept at shutting down feedback loops that would otherwise help him keep a finger on the pulse of the organization. This conclusion is buttressed by the fact that he’s already using his role to try to limit the perceived scope of the problems, versus being an active listener. Far better to send around a survey to the diocese, designed by outside, independent consultants, that asks the questions, “How are we doing? How can we improve?” I promise all involved that, if the diocese takes that approach, it will discover that things are not okay, and on multiple levels.

In short, this is a phase at which Bishop Shannon should tell folks at the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center, “I am open to any and all feedback, and commit to hearing it without concluding that such feedback is intended to cause harm. Retaliation for providing feedback will not be tolerated.”

In addition, the diocese would be well advised to establish normative behaviors at all levels, much like the excellent normative behaviors document produced by the diocese of Souther Virginia. Among the behaviors that should be expected:

  • All persons are treated with respect at all times, including in conversations about them that do not include them. My own experience is that +Shannon turns a blind eye to a shockingly negative level of discourse involving current and former members of the diocese, including me. (For example, I received a letter from the Rev. Caroline Parkinson that was shocking and appalling in its disparaging language and content. The fact +Shannon was copied on it tells me that diocesan clergy at all levels think this sort of thing is okay.)
  • Persons providing feedback are to be assumed to come from a place of good intent.
  • Clergy are held to the highest ethical and behavioral standards, and there will be consequences when this does not occur. In short, acccountability needs to be normative.
  • Feedback is welcomed and encouraged, even if it is unpleasant.
  • Providing feedback or criticism is safe and won’t result in retaliation.
  • Conflict will be addressed promptly and effectively.
As things stand, +Shannon has personally signed off on situations in which clergy retaliate when they are criticized. That tells me that the bishop suffers from some very serious leadership gaps.

In short, some of the issues I have seen in the diocese are so deep-rooted that it undoubtedly is best if +Shannon retires sooner rather than later. Even his recent letter to the diocese tells me that +Shannon is both a big part of the problem and unlikely to be capable of fully resolving the problems now facing the diocese. The only way he will be able to prove me wrong is by taking a radically different approach to things than what he has shown to date, and his recent letter makes clear that he’s already headed down a very different path.

See the full text of the letter below.

Bishop Shannon’s Update to the Diocesan Family
June 14, 2018
Dear Diocesan Family,
I am writing to you to follow up on the letter you received from me recently announcing the end of our search for a second bishop suffragan. Because of pressing circumstances that required immediate action for the sake of the candidates who were advancing in the process, coupled with the fact that some facts were not in place at the time, I was not in the position to offer much detail. Now that the Standing Committee has been briefed, and having a better take on our situation, I hope to provide some clarification since I am quite aware that there are many questions, not to mention much speculation and concern.
Please know that I, too, uphold transparency as a virtue. However, as every leader knows, there are times when full transparency is simply not feasible — and can also be irresponsible or even unkind. This is one of those times. I will not be able to answer every question, nor am I at liberty to do so. I know that this is frustrating, but here we are.
What I can say is this: We are NOT in the midst of any kind of impropriety or malfeasance, whether legal or moral. Moreover, our entire staff remains at work with dedication, purpose, and integrity, and remains fully committed, both personally and professionally. The ministries of the diocese are all right on target and still set a standard. I thank you for the many expressions of support and trust that we have received, and I am confident that we have the resources, the means, and the willingness to address the issues that have been raised.
Those issues are all about internal matters — administrative structure, workplace culture and relationships. Yes, the issues are serious, but we are not facing anything that can’t be made right again. As Bishop, I am utterly committed to that work.
Of course, the other matter I raised in my first letter is that for many months now I have been considering the options for my retirement. I can now tell you that for personal reasons I shall resign and retire earlier than I had planned (which is another reason not to elect a second suffragan at this time). I have not yet determined precisely when that will be, but I am looking toward the summer of next year, 2019. As there is much for Ellen and me to consider and learn about retiring, we are still in the stage of giving this a lot of thought, and I expect to be able to send you a fully detailed notice by the end of this month.
The bottom line is that our Diocese of Virginia remains a first-rate example of a fine Church in which to worship and serve. This is no less true now than it has ever been. We are the Body of Christ. Keep the faith!
Faithfully yours,
The Rt. Rev. Shannon S. Johnston
XIII Bishop of Virginia