Reflections on the Search for a Bishop Diocesan

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DioVA Bishop Search is a Mess

The search for a bishop diocesan is under way, and the diocese has released its online profile, located here. The effort, though well-intentioned, is headed in a bad direction, and you may quote me on that.

Leaving aside several typos in the online profile, there is a cornucopia of the usual themes: Old hymns (in this case, Amazing Grace), LGBTQIA inclusion, and ending structural racism. In other words, lots of happy-clappy Jesus-babble.

To be fair, the profile does — and should — make an effort to be positive. And it does include reference to some recurring themes in the diocese, including lack of trust in leadership, lack of transparency, an inability of the diocese to support parishes in transition or crisis, and its ineffectual handling on issues of inclusion.

But it also skates over the transition period, referring to it as “intentional interim” time. Myriad studies, including a seminal work by the Alban Institute, have shown that the role of an interim — be it an interim rector or bishop — is to heal conflict, make peace with the past, and prepare for the future. When this does not occur, the incoming clergy person is not set up for success, but rather for failure.

Moreover, candidates for bishop who have the change management expertise to successfully lead the diocese know this, and they are going to steer clear absent clear evidence of a successful interim period.

In that regard, Bishop Goff and her inner circle have made efforts, often behind the scenes, to clean up the worst of the mess that is DioVA. For the first time in many years, the diocese actually knows what its assets are, and has identified whether they are restricted or unrestricted in nature. There have been positive changes in governance, including canonical amendments to support virtual meetings, provisions for open meetings, and a “covenental giving” program — albeit a largely illusory one.

But other than negotiating a ceasefire with the Trustees of the Funds (an ugly example of Episcopal internecine warfare at its finest), there’s been next to no effort to address the appalling level of conflict within the diocese, often caused directly or indirectly by the diocese itself.

In that regard, the sins of the diocese often are more those of omission, versus commission. The profile touches on that, albeit obliquely, with its references to limited resources and the amount of time the bishop spends hanging out at the House of Bishops. That underscores the propensity of the Episcopal Church towards endless transactional activity, versus outcomes. In that regard, it’s the old adage in business: Don’t confuse being busy with results.

Meanwhile, the situation is akin to sending Susan Goff (referred to as Susan Goof in some circles) into the midst of a wildfire with a squirt gun. Too little, too late, and with seemingly little sense of just how dire the situation is.

Covenental Giving

While we’re on the topic of illusory solutions to the problems facing the diocese, let me come right out and say it:

The new covenental giving program. which garners positive language in the profile, is just plain stupid.

The result of a task force led by that intelligent but feckless master of Jesus-babble, Sven VanBaars, the plan calls on parishes to commit to giving 10 percent of revenue to the diocese. That’s well, great and good, but it starts from a false premise. That premise is that parishes didn’t understand what should be counted as “ordinary income” under the old model.

That’s a load of bullcrud. Parishes understood perfectly well what ordinary income was, and this is a classic case of the Trumpista words-don’t-mean-what-words-mean game.

The real issue is that most parishes see absolutely nothing come from the diocese’s $5 million annual budget except for a buffoon in silly clothes who wanders around the church once a year, sipping tea and murmuring, “That’s interesting. Tell me more.”

Thus, facing declining membership and finances, parishes are pulling the traditional TEC trick of the via media, which is saying that you’re complying, while quietly doing whatever the hell you want behind the scenes.

Under the VanBaars regime, parishes that don’t live up to their so-called covenantal obligation get to appear before an component of the executive board and explain their reasons for requesting a waiver.

But there’s no enforcement mechanism to haul a recalcitrant parish before the Court of Star Chamber and toss the sorry lot into the Tower of Richmond (conveniently located adjacent to Mayo House), so it doesn’t accomplish much.

Moreover, it will incentivize the usual parish trick of trying to treat ECW, flower guild, altar guild, music funds and other “specialty funds” as off-budget and thus not ordinary income. Thus, it likely will encourage bad governance, versus good governance, at the parish level, all while doing little to bolster diocesan finances.

In other words, the money will come when people trust the diocese, see it as open and caring, and see that something meaningful comes from its $5 million annual budget. It will not come as the result of any canonical process or enactments.

Transparency

While we’re on the topics of transparency and good governance, several reference points offer insight.

These include the refusal of the diocese at the recent diocesan convention to publish contact information for its elected officials. In what other so-called democracy do all email communications with leaders get filtered through the palace? As I’ve posted before, that’s like putting the Trump White House in charge of forwarding messages to Congress. Not bloody likely to work unless the intended recipient is a Trumpista, and the cluelessness of delegates became painfully clear when they prattled on about getting emails they don’t like.

That’s called engagement, folks. You may not always enjoy it, but it has to happen if the church is to survive.

Same for the narrative and line-item budgets, which are anything but transparent. Transparency means real line items, not a blended budget based on programmatic allocations. Indeed, the current diocesan budget is the poster child for opacity.

Members have a right to know, for example:

  • What the bishops individually earn.
  • Details of +Shannon’s exit deal package.
  • Details of diocesan resources, including investments.
  • The results of the last audit, including recommendations and the engagement letter. (The fact that the diocese didn’t even know what assets it owns suggests serious breakdowns in internal controls—breakdowns that appear to have existed for years. How the hell can you have a successful audit when you don’t even know what’s included in the audit?)

Laity also have the right to know general details of clergy discipline and other issues that effect them. And for the record, they have the right to expect the diocese to honor its canons, and the right to expect that clergy will not be permitted to engage unseemly conduct,  including but not limited to retaliation for contacting the diocese. (Yeah, that would be perjuring priest Bob Malm.)

Let me be clear: If the diocese can’t live with these concepts, long accepted as foundational in both for- and non-profit organizations, then it just needs to go away. Liquidate, sell off the assets, give the cash to those in need and call it a day. Been there, done it, have the t-shirt and scars to prove it.

The Missing Mea Culpa

It is in the area of trust and transparency that we find the biggest gap in the diocesan profile, in the form of a lack of candor and truthtelling.

Yes, there’s the predictable chatter about structural racism, some references to lack of trust, and the need to engage younger people, and the triumphalism of support for the LGBTQ community, but those are painfully predictable and largely virtue signaling.

What is truly lacking is calling a spade a spade, which is that the previous search for a bishop transitional collapsed and was an utter debacle.

It collapsed not due to the stated reason, which is that no one wanted to move to Virginia for three years, but rather because folks in the clubby House of Bishops know that the diocese is a s***-show. In other words, no one wants to deal with it, and the fact that the diocese continues to spin off staff at an alarming velocity suggests things are still a hot mess in Mayo House.

In that regard, we see the usual Episcopal tendency towards equivocation.

Not only is the diocese a stinking hot mess, but it has largely wasted the years of Goff’s interim status. Indeed, when she became the ecclesiastical authority, Goff went on one of the ever-popular “listening session” tours, promising to work towards health and healing. True to form, nothing came of it, and I don’t buy the notion that the pandemic was the cause. It’s called virtual, kids.

And before the Malmites and other ding-a-lings start with the whole, “he’s disgruntled” routine, let me remind folks that there are myriad areas of high conflict within the diocese, including at St. Thomas’ in McLean; Church of the Incarnation, in Mineral; a church I choose not to name in Arlington, and several others.

In that regard, several of these are areas where the diocese has shot itself in the foot.

For example, the situation at St. Thomas’ was handled abysmally, including:

  • Lying to the congregation.
  • Not providing the pastoral response required by canons.
  • Not caring for parish staff.
  • Failing to provide appropriate information and more.

Best of all was the fuster cluck when then-canon to the ordinary, Pat Wingo, showed up one Sunday without warning to announce that the rector had been suspended and folks were not to communicate with him. That is a world-class example of how not to handle this situation, and worst-practices in every way. The result was lasting trauma and anger, and rightly so. Nor was Shannon Johnston’s subsequent apology worth anything — the whole don’t-get-involved routine has been repeated myriad times, indicating that his “apology” was just another instance of cheap grace and a faulty theology of reconciliation.

And while the diocese talks about healing, it should be noted that only a few weeks ago it rejected my offer of third-party mediation in my long-running dispute with it. Just in time for Advent.

So this is a case of “by their fruits you shall know them.” In fact, the phrases “white-washed tombs” and “den of vipers” come to mind. And I would urge anyone considering becoming involved in the hot mess that is the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia to use Jesus’ standard in evaluating the place before making a commitment of time and energy.

In fact, this is a diocese that routinely ignores its own canons, so why should anyone trust it?

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is that while no one expects the diocese to be made perfect before a new bishop comes in, there needs to be — to use the church-babble phrase — “an intentional” interim period.

As things stand, the current interim period is best described as reactionary and accidental.

In that regard, it’s the equivalent of the CFIT (controlled flight into terrain) alarm in a Boeing. First the klaxon blares, then we hear a terse automated female voice directing, “Danger. Pull up immediately. Danger. Pull up immediately.”

If that doesn’t result in the cockpit crew taking drastic action, the black box recordings will typically reveal several more rounds of the strident CFIT warnings. Then, there’s usually brief profanity, followed by a horrendous din, then silence.

To carry through on that metaphor, the diocesan profile understates the current situation. This is not, as it says, a mere “inflection point.”

This is a do-or-die moment where the diocese must get it right, and fast. It cannot afford to fail.

The klaxon is blaring, and we face the prospect of the jumbo jet that is the diocese flying blindly into the side of the mountain.

And if that happens, it will be because the diocese simply couldn’t learn to change. More specifically, it couldn’t learn to act with integrity.