Last spring, the diocese asked the Rev. Dr. Alvin C. Johnson of the Episcopal Moment consulting firm to conduct a “listening process” as the 17-year episcopacy of Bishop Paul Marshall came to an end. In a letter to the diocese in July, the Standing Committee described the process as an opportunity for people “to share their stories, ideas and concerns so that together the clergy and laity of the diocese can shape a hopeful future in which all are empowered to participate in God’s mission.”
As part of the process, Johnson conducted some 50 individual interviews either in person or on the telephone, including conversations with every member of the Standing Committee and the diocesan staff. He also facilitated 12 group conversations that were attended by some 75 people at locations throughout the diocese.
This is the text of his report, which was reviewed by Bishop Sean Rowe and the Standing Committee at their regular monthly meeting on February 24:
Episcopal Moment was invited by the Standing Committee and Provisional Bishop Sean Rowe into the Diocese of Bethlehem to undertake a listening process. The purpose of the process was to listen to the people within the framework of the recent episcopacy of the Rt. Rev. Paul Marshall. The people of the diocese used many words to describe this time: painful, unfocused, conflictual, wounding, stagnant, progressive, transformative, sad, despairing, hopeless, hopeful and futile. While there were periods of growth, change and excellent ministry, these were generally overshadowed by confusing responses from Diocesan House, a sense of lack of support, the progressive distancing of the bishop, a culture of mistrust, and little to no freedom of expression.
Approximately 125 people were interviewed by the Rev. Dr. Alvin C. Johnson, of Episcopal Moment between early May 2014 and early February of 2015. Each person was asked five questions: Tell me about the Diocese of Bethlehem; specifically, what challenges do you face right now? Where do you see the Holy Spirit at work in the Diocese? If you could change anything, what would you change? What is most important for you to say and for me as the listener and consultant to hear? Anything else you believe it would be good for me to know? The information that follows reflects a summary of the thoughts, feelings and reflections of those interviewed.
First, the people of the diocese yearn for wholeness again; second, the people wish to be restored and within that desire for inner restoration is the desire for restoration of their public image; third, in terms of yearning, there are many clergy and laity who reported being wounded and desire healing. The feedback suggests that the nature of the wounds seem to stem from a system that treated people as less than the people they are; did so with a marked inconsistency; and with little regard for clarity of communication.
There is a profound desire and need for healing on every level of diocesan life; individuals, congregations, diocesan structures and the diocesan community as a whole. Fear was/is present. There was measurable fear in many clergy and laity about repercussions if they spoke their minds or challenged Bishop Marshall. Also noted: people were afraid to go to the staff of Diocesan House for fear of being seen as incompetent and judged accordingly. Those interviewed noted a pattern of sarcasm; a lack of pastoral care; apparent mistrust and non-responsiveness; poor communication and follow through; a sense that congregations existed for Diocesan House and not the opposite; and positive connections with congregations that were not visible.
With Bishop Marshall’s departure there is a desire for a retooling of the Diocesan House Staff including the following repeatedly recommended changes: review current staff; move diocesan staff off of current functioning diocesan committees like standing committee, council and trustees; and cultivate a real presence of diocesan staff including the bishop in congregations on a regular, planned basis. There is a deep desire for healing in this institutional relationship between the diocese, congregations and congregational leadership because the relationships are broken. This includes the relationships among the diocesan staff and the Standing Committee, Diocesan Council and the Trustees.
Contributing to the fear are the changes taking place in congregational demographics. The Diocese of Bethlehem is characterized by several congregations in decline and/or distress in terms of numbers of people, financial strength and viability, and a spirit of creativity. They are demographically comprised of aging members. Many congregations are encumbered by large buildings that are difficult not only to maintain, but to fill with people. Further laments include lack of youth, part time clergy, poorly equipped clergy, cliques and families ensconced in congregations for decades holding on to power and waiting for people to rush back through the doors again, and lack of connection among members of the diocese. There is measured fear of life and sustainability, combined with isolation, all in an uncertain economic climate.
Together with fear was the experience of mistrust stemming from broken trust. The principle reasons noted for mistrust were a lack of transparency and an apparent unwillingness for open dialogue between Bishop Marshall, his staff, and others. This behavior led members of the diocese to thoughts of being cast adrift, living with no vision, and poor connections with and between congregations. As one interviewee noted, “The glue that held the diocese together was eroded and people felt/feel less connected.”
The feelings of mistrust with relationships are undergirded by the divide between the northern and southern parts of the diocese. From interviewees: people in the north are “very angry” and “isolated” in regards to ministry from the diocese to them. Further, there is the experience of the north “looking down their noses at the south” but also thinking in the north that, “the south needs to get over themselves”.
One further component that contributes to mistrust in the culture is the lack of public policies and procedures. The laity are on the point with this critique. They hope for structures and policies to be established in a transparent manner involving diocesan-wide input where appropriate and agreed to by all parties. They also want the policies that are developed to be followed. More, there is a genuine and general consensus to establish values, be clear about them, and to put the processes and procedures noted above in place so that everyone is operating on a level playing field. These new cultural values should include transparency, honesty, respect and trust.
Finally the fear and mistrust in the culture was enabled by ineffective communication. When transparency was mentioned together with a “cult of secrecy,” it was difficult at times to know what was happening in the diocese. Specifically, and due to fear and mistrust, many interviewees questioned how the information from the listening sessions would be processed; thought that some report to all members of the diocese needs to be forthcoming; and expressed concern that the information would not be openly shared.
Right now, the culture of the diocese is such that evidence of the presence and work of the Holy Spirit is difficult to see. The Spirit is present in the resilience of the people. From the perspective of the laity, there was a deep sense that the people are remaining faithful, caring and trying hard. Also emanating from the laity is a compassionate love of Bishop Paul. The Spirit is at work in other ways; fallow time; a time for wounded clergy to heal; a time for some necessary pruning; and a time for new visions. The Holy Spirit is at work in the calling of Sean Rowe as provisional bishop; the work in Sudan; acceptance of gay people and clergy; diocesan youth work; and embracing the needs to become financially viable and accountable; i.e. – the audit.
Bishop Paul Marshall’s tenure began well. His emphasis on clergy bible studies and the renewal ministries were seen as positive. Early staff choices seemed to mesh well with expectations and he initially developed a team of colleagues that proved effective. He was known for being very visible in the diocese and out in the field. What changed that perspective and plan is unclear. His hiring practices took on an air of being somewhat arbitrary and impulsive. There apparently were no checks and balances put in place and responsibility for the day-to day-operations of the diocese fell to senior staff. During the last seven plus years, Bishop Marshall became increasingly reclusive and his actions began to be seen as dismissive and judgmental. There are other views of his time. People sympathetic to the bishop believe that he was overwhelmed and not supported well by his staff; as one person noted, “he is a true and faithful Christian whose own difficulties got in the way.” There is also significant confusion concerning the narrative of why he left. Several disjointed stories are currently told, none of which seem to grasp what happened. It seems that no one really knows the true story or wishes to share it.
A listening process is designed to open the door to deeper listening to the hearts and minds of God’s people. Inevitably such an experience leads not only to more questions, but also to the grace to learn to live with unanswered questions. What’s next is the interpretation the people of the diocese place upon these words. Going forward three things are important: an opportunity for healing, actions that can restore the fullness of the people of the Diocese of Bethlehem (new culture, new vision), and transparent leadership.
The Rev. Dr. Alvin C. Johnson
Episcopal Moment, LLC