Fun Facts of Lent, Day Forty: How Bishops Are Made

Every diocese will be a bit different, but I’d like to give you a basic idea of the process used to get a bishop in the Episcopal Church (based on my memory of the last time we got a new one).

It starts with a Search Committee. This committee goes out and finds a number of good candidates. These candidates would be priests who have felt the call to the episcopate, and may have already stood for election in other dioceses. There are pretty clear pros and cons when looking at priests from both within the electing diocese and from other dioceses. A local priest would already be familiar with the region and its needs. A newcomer would bring a fresh perspective and wouldn’t be beholden to existing relationships. The committee would also be looking for a diversity of candidates, choosing people that represent more than one gender, race, etc.

The search process is often rather secretive, mostly to keep gossip in check and prevent people from getting their hopes up. Once the candidates are announced, the diocese may choose a number of ways to get the word out about the nominees. The last time we had an election, all the candidates went on a “walkabout” through the diocese. Several congregations hosted days where the nominees came, spoke, and answered questions from whoever showed up to ask them.

While bishops are elected officials, politicking is understandably frowned upon. It still happens of course (sometimes people do it on your behalf whether you want them to or not), but in general people in the church are supposed to “stand for election” rather than “run for office.” So walkabouts and the like are necessary if the people are to learn about the potential bishops.

Finally, a special convention is called to vote. The diocese already meets for convention once a year, and the lay representatives at conventions come from every congregation in the diocese. All active clergy attend as well. Depending on your diocese’s canons, you may have others brought in to represent special interest groups, such as a Youth Presence. I honestly don’t remember how I ended up with a vote at the special election, but I have to think it was as one of these special representatives.

Our election was at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle, and included a good deal of prayer before the vote. Because there tend to be six or seven candidates, there is never a clear winner on the first ballot. However frontrunners will quickly emerge, and after the second or third ballot the candidates with the fewest votes voluntarily drop out of the race. Eventually the number of options is small enough that one person receives a majority.

In the church we say that people enter positions of power “God willing and the people consenting.” While the bishop is democratically elected in practice, in spirit they are made by God. It’s God that calls someone to be a bishop, God that brings them to the diocese where their skills are needed, and God that moves the voters to decide. When you are sitting in the cathedral with your ballot in hand, you have to let the Holy Spirit guide your thoughts. You have to let go of who you like and what you want, let go of your assumptions and prejudices, and let your heart lead you to the right name.

Does it always work that way? Of course not. People are petty and foolish and really great at ignoring the Holy Spirit. But we try. And hopefully enough of us are doing it to get the correct person in office. I can’t remember how many ballots we went through last time, but it was at least four. It was a hard day. A couple of the candidates were from our own diocese, and it was difficult to see them drop out of the race. But in the end we had our bishop, and it certainly seems like we made a good choice.

For the very interesting and way sillier rules about making a Presiding Bishop (the highest office in the Episcopal Church), I invite you to check out my post from last summer when I blogged the General Convention of the Episcopal Church.